Friday, March 16, 2012

Working Man Blues

It's not you. It's me(etings). Badaboom!
Today, I was spacing out during a work meeting. This happens a lot. I'm in a big room, something is being said. People are nodding. I'm nodding. People are taking notes. I'm drawing pictures of bugs dressed in suits drinking martinis and spouting Marxist catchphrases...

Oh, wait:. Hi there, coworker who has strayed onto this blog or has been directed here by yours truly. What I meant to say is: I love work meetings. I love them so much. They are my favorite. Sometimes, at the end of a long day when I'm sitting brain dead on the couch, all I can think is: "Gee, the only thing that could make this moment any better was if it was actually a work meeting!"

Unfortunately, just like winning the lotto and becoming an instant kabillionairre or having Matt Damon ring me up out of the blue to tell me how much he loves me, that kind of thing is just a fairy tale, for now. Until the magic of the internet makes it possible, I'll just have to settle for what I can get during the work week. Oh, wait, you're telling me that the magic of the internet has already made it possible to be at work all the time? But I digress...

So, I was spacing out at this work meeting, and I was thinking about cookies. I was thinking how I really wanted one, though I don't typically eat sweets, and inside my brain, it was something like a web-chat between two really stupid people:

sarahbrain1: Cookie?
sarahbrain2: No cookie.
sarahbrain1: Cookie?
sarahbrain2: No cookie.
sarahbrain1: I wish I had a cookie.
sarahbrain2: No, you don't.
sarahbrain1: Bacon?

Then, around me, everyone was closing their notebooks and hefting themselves out of their seats and heading out of the room to implement whatever new strategy we had discussed, and I looked at the clock and realized I had been stuck in a cookie loop for the better part of a half hour. And even though the information that had been shared wasn't immediately applicable to me, I felt guilty, really, genuinely guilty for not being a better worker, for not being more attentive, for not trying harder.

I'm from the Midwest, Michigan to be precise. I was born in the Rust Belt where work is as defining and important as religion, race or family. I had my first job when I was thirteen. I delivered weekly shoppers to local apartment complexes. Then I got into the game for real. I had a daily route with the Kalamazoo Gazette. After school, when other kids were out riding their bikes and getting in snowball fights and Sunday mornings when those same kids were sleeping, dreaming of Captain Crunch and pancake breakfasts, I was up bagging papers and loading them into my red wagon or sled depending on the season.

My hands were often black with ink, my face smudged with it like some poor chimney sweep. The work was hard, and people were always stiffing me, and it seemed like everyone I knew was going to the mall or the movies, and I couldn't because I had my route. Sometimes, my friends would help, and that was fun, and I'd give them a cut, which left me with about nothing. When I did have money, my mom was always "borrowing" or making me use it for regular stuff like lunches or school clothes. It sucked, but I sucked it up, because that's what working class kids do.

Hard work wasn't something our family talked about, and it wasn't something the families around us talked about. It was implied. Our mom worked as a cashier or waited tables for a career. From my earliest memory she was dressed in a uniform on the way to work or coming home from work. My dad, a Vietnam veteran, who worked for the State of Michigan, never missed a day. He got perfect attendance awards. Does that happen anymore? After my parents divorce, he would walk the five miles back and forth to work morning and night just to save extra money to spend on his kids.

Even though it seemed unfair, I decided to not complain. After all, there was someone down the street who had it worse, some kid whose dad had just lost his job at the GM plant or some other kid who didn't even have crappy parents or some kid in Ethiopia who would have gotten in a fist fight with me over the block of government cheese I turned my nose up at.

My world, coming up, was blue collar and working poor. I often hear the phrase, the American Dream, and I like to think sometimes about what that really meant, way back then to little Sarah, shivering her ass off and cursing God while waiting for the paper truck at 4am in a too thin coat and cheap, holey boots that let the slush seep in.

One thing I understood was that "hard work," as in labor, didn't necessarily pay off. It hadn't given our family a split level in a subdivision, an above ground pool and a visit from the Swan's truck every week. Hard work was exactly what it was: hard. When I bought my school lunch or played a game at the arcade in the mall, I equated each penny to time spent. I worked this many hours for this____ . It was a math equation I could do in my sleep. Any working class kid could, then and now, I'm sure.

Another thing I understood was work began and ended with possible tasks, so it felt kind of good. Work was its own reward, in a way, and it was separate from life. It occupied my body, not my mind. Even when I was working, I could go places. Work was the dream, and everything else was what the dream supported. No matter how poor I was or what I went without, I knew there would be a time after, a time when things were done, even if I worked overtime, and I did plenty.

Where am I going with this? Ahh, the work meeting and spacing out, right? I guess I was spacing out right there.

I think a lot of people would say that I typify the American Dream, raised working poor, I put myself through college and left the Rust Belt for the Golden State where the streets are paved with cheese (of the none government variety) and computer chips made of crushed iPads, where we all live in public with our webcams and Tweeting and status updates and our blogs where we write about our crappy childhoods disguised in some bigger rhetorical framework about our political identity and America.

I'm not hefting papers onto someone's porch or making someone a sandwich or walking someone's dog or cleaning a toilet. I'm eating fresh, organic greens every day and hanging out at the farmers market on the weekend where people wear overhauls, not for their utility, but as a fashion statement, and they carry baskets (Yes, handmade wicker baskets probably crafted in some studio in Marin by someone with an artist's statement) full of locally grown fruits and vegetables, because baskets connote something more meaningful than your average canvas bag. Everyone here is beautiful, especially the vendors at the farmers market who just look windswept and healthy and happy like a tourist commercial. I can't help but stare at them, which is probably disconcerting, but I don't care. I could catch flies in my mouth, it's open so wide in surprise half the time.

I have a white collar job, at a desk, at the kind of office building I used to clean up after people at when I was in school. The interesting thing is, it's not easy, not like I thought it would be when I was out in the snow and sleet walking some upper crusty's French Poodle. It's just as hard to sit and think and write and create every day, as it is to labor physically. In a lot of ways, it's harder. It's a work that doesn't end, and that's why I find myself spacing out at the strangest times, feeling the strangest kind of Midwestern guilt, wondering where the dream ends and begins.

The other day, I was at my favorite cafe having lunch, I left my table for a moment to grab a coffee to go from the barista behind the counter, and when I came back, I began to bus my dirty dishes. A customer, who had just come in, started asking me questions about the menu, and I was really confused.

She said, "Oh, I thought you worked here. You just look like you belong here."

The first feeling I had was bliss. I wanted to tell her I did work there. Odd, maybe. The worker inside of me, she hasn't gone anywhere. Other people recognize her. That's where I'm going with this whole thing, I think. There's something so essential to my identity, my place here, in this world, in this country that's wrapped up in being a worker, a hard worker, a laborer.

Hard work, in many ways, makes me American, makes me feel like I have some ownership, some stake, like I earned my place. I mean, that's how my family earned its place. That's where a poor / working class person's voice comes from, not from wealth but a sense of "I earn my keepedness." Moving from one "working" class to another is not easy, and I wonder about others who have done it.

Do they feel guilty? Do they feel they've lost a part of their personal identity? Do they feel like it's compromised their political or national identity? I'd like to know.

Preach it, Merle 


  1. I never feel like I've lost that part of my identity...never. I feel it rear it's guilt inducing head whenever I see something I "want" but do not "need," or when I opt to eat out rather than make something cheaper at home, or when I (god forbid) turn down a shift on my second or third part-time job. I cannot describe the physical response I feel to turning down a job, it's like being asked to be slapped in the face...I'm waiting for the blow, bracing myself for the moment I regret this.
    For example, despite working over 40 hours this week as a teacher (Yeah, people, teachers are SOOO lucky, we're only in the classroom for 15 hours a isn't like we're say, working another 35 at home, right?). I jumped at the chance to pick up another 12 hours of my part-time job. Why? Well, to be honest, I couldn't join you on this trip if I didn't. Every extra hour I work is an extra bit of time towards my trip, an extra gallon of gas. I pass out in bed with the idea of earned miles (1 hour of grading is 1/4 of a tank of gas which will take us that many miles further on our journey) lighting up my dreams with happy.
    Like you I started working as soon as I could. I'm part of a family that owns a business, so at age 5 I was adorably passing out flyers, and at age 8 I could write up an invoice. I got my own first job on my fifteenth birthday...I worked 25 hours a week for $4/hr as a bagger at a grocery store. And every fifteen minutes I worked I thought, ONE DOLLAR, ONE DOLLAR, ONE DOLLAR. And like you I paid for as much of my college education as I could, walking away with far fewer student loans than most people I know. Alas, they still haunt me.

    I know that feeling. And I don't think it's a bad thing. Yes, we have the working man's blues, but I'd rather have that than be the reverse...someone who expects things, someone who doesn't understand the effort that goes into everything we do as humans. That tomato we buy at the farmer's market, someone grew that, someone worked their ass off to get it to us, and some of US worked our asses off to afford it. A one dollar tomato is 15 minutes of work for 15 year old me. I remember that, I keep it in mind. A 20 dollar jacket? Well, that's a lot more work, so I have to be certain that it is worth the investment. It sounds silly, it sounds cheap (because I am pretty stingy), but it's the way I've learned to think. I wish other people would learn to think that way too.

    America: do you really need that?

    1. That damn jacket. Anyway, I don't know how I feel about "the other side." There's also a kind of fearlessness in people who didn't have to worry so much growing up, a fearlessness that breeds ingenuity and adventure. I just wish everyone had that feeling without cost.

  2. As I read this excellent piece, I couldn't help thinking of Michael Moore in Flint, Michigan. Even the tone at times. I was the first generation in my family to go to college, and I'm still proud of having earned my way through, of having started work (ironing, cleaning, babysitting) at age 11. For me, moving from one working class to another seems to just have been a natural segue, not really a change. I worked damn hard as a toilet cleaner, as an operating room technician, as a bus driver, and as a teacher. I can't even seem to completely retire, although I'm getting there. And now I'm working hard as a writer. You're right, it may be harder, because I'm always pouring psychic energy into it.
    BTW, I thought you were thinking about cookies as in Java script, etc. I totally thought you were thinking about work!

    1. Thanks, Anna! That means a lot to me. I still remember seeing "Roger & Me" at the Crossroads UA when it came out in 1989 or 1990. It had a profound effect on me, since it was the world I lived in. I always admired Michael Moore's voice and vision.

      Ha, ha about the cookies. I was just thinking of plain old tasty chocolate chip ones!


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