Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Workin' for a Livin'

It's just before 2am on a summer night and we shamble toward the entrance like a zombie horde. We mumble greetings to each other as we wait for the manager on duty to unlock the door and let us in. I've been unloading trucks at a major retailer, adding to what I like to call my "summer employment portfolio."

It's a world in which we're keenly aware of time. We're keenly aware of the fact that it's two in the morning, and most of us can tell you exactly how much sleep we got last night, a subject that lurks in much of our small talk.

We're also keenly aware of how many hours we've worked that week, because overtime is against company policy, even for crew leaders. This gets tricky on Saturday, which happens to be not only the end of the pay period but one of our busiest days.

It means that many of the strongest workers, who naturally end up working more hours, can't stay for the whole shift on Saturday because they're up against the 40-hour limit. Others "save hours" so they can help out. Either way, the attention to time is pervasive.

And we're aware of the time on each shift. We're usually scheduled for six hours, and if we're going to work more than that we have to take a half-hour unpaid lunch (another strictly followed policy), which leads to a kind of shorthand: "Can you take a lunch today?" means you're being asked to stay over, whereas "Let's break for lunch" over the PA means they expect the whole crew to stay over.

But you don't have to take a lunch, and if you don't, they can't make you stay. Otherwise, the manager on duty is in violation of policy -- which means, in the logic of corporate America, that you're the one in trouble. I'm not positive, but I suspect that you can't be forced to work past your scheduled time according to union regulations anyway.

The third possibility, "Let's go to break," indicates the whole crew is going on a fifteen-minute paid break, which means they're expecting the truck to be put away before the six hours are up and no one will have to take a lunch. Here, too, I think the union says you don't have to go home early, but nearly everyone does. There's an ebb and flow to how long the shifts run, and most people just roll with it.

It's not all like this. My other job, as a soft drink merchandiser, is a lot more fun. I actually like it. I'm relatively autonomous; I clock in and out on a phone they provide, and each night I have a route of four or five stores where I'll stock the shelves with whatever we've got in backstock. I also build displays and process orders.

No, I didn't build this, but it's awesome.
Being in and out of the same stores, I've gotten to know some of the managers and employees, as well as the other merchandisers. It's like a secret underground society of grunts on the front lines of American consumerism.

Even among vendors of competing products there's an easy camaraderie. We talk a little smack, but at this level there's far more commiseration than competition.

There's something I like about this world. It keeps me in shape, for one thing, but it's also pleasantly concrete: I'm not mindlessly pushing widgets through a chute, but I'm not trapped inside my head, either.

That's the Good Job. At the Bad Job, once the 2am shifts get going, I stop taking lunches so that I don't get held past the six hours. Sleep is too precious. The Good Job goes until nine or ten at night, sometimes later. I get home, grab a bite to eat, visit with Dawn for a bit, then take a nap.

At 1:15 I get up, go to the Bad Job, put in my six hours, take a nap, and get ready to head to the Good Job. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm sleeping six or even seven hours in a given 24-hour period, but never all at once. I'm keenly aware of the time.

I don't make it more than a couple of weeks at this pace. I can't take the lack of sleep. It's like all I think about is when I'll sleep next and how much I might get. I'm not doing either job as well as I want to. I swear I can feel cognition slipping away. One day I call in sick and never go back.

There is no shame in falling before a greater enemy.

I needed to quit anyway, because it was time to start course prep. Compared to the horror stories we hear about adjunct faculty (the preferred nomenclature is "fixed-term"), I'm doing pretty well: I'm full time. I have benefits. I have a two-year contract. I get to teach some interesting classes. I've never felt treated like a second-class citizen.

There are some distinct advantages, too. I don't have to attend faculty meetings. Granted, this is because I don't get a vote, but let's accentuate the positive. I don't have to advise students or sit on committees. Any publishing I might do looks good, especially since I teach writing, but it doesn't need to meet the criteria for tenure.

I say all of that to put these next observations in perspective, and to make it as clear as I can: I'm not disgruntled. I like the university where I teach and I love the colleagues and students I get to work with. I feel, in general, pretty lucky.

But my base salary is still less than what I made 15 years ago as a music minister with a bachelor's degree. Anything I publish might look good, but with a 4/4 load (four classes each semester), I don't have time to write anything. I still haven't submitted a proposal for turning my dissertation into a book (there's a publisher mildly interested) and I owe a colleague a book review for a journal he edits. I'm spending time I should be grading papers revising this blog post (which I can't really put on my CV).

Again -- I want to make this very, very, clear -- I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm not on government assistance, partially because I teach extra courses (here and elsewhere) and I get summer jobs. I feel so good about being able to get them, in fact, about being able to make ends meet, that I forget to be scandalized by the fact that I need them in the first place.

It might just be some kind of neoliberal Stockholm Syndrome, but I like to work. I like, well, being useful. I like doing things. I like the feeling of having done a good job. In some ways, I feel like it speaks to my work ethic. I'm freakishly cheerful about work, and I'm reliable. I get things done.

I'm the quintessential cog in the machine, working to support a lifestyle of consumer distractions from work. My hard work is rewarded with goods and services that I pay for by working, things that someone provides me as part of their work, for which they reward themselves with goods and services paid for with the money they get from working.

The work I do in retail involves making sure people have access to the products they use to console themselves for (or distract themselves from) the daily grind of productivity, and the work I do as an educator involves helping students get the degree they need to join that daily grind.

Part of me feels like I should be affronted or outraged, but I'm not. Neither do I feel things are as they should be and that I deserve what I've got (good or bad). It just is. I applaud efforts at reform but I'm not holding my breath for a glorious revolution.

Truth is, I'm happy. I do my work and enjoy my downtime. My wife and I are consumers, like everyone else, but we're not big accumulators. We're not interested in surrounding ourselves with things -- apartment living makes this impractical anyway -- so much as we want to collect experiences, like trying a new pub or tubing down the river or just curling up to watch Netflix.

Maybe that's just respite from a world gone slightly mad but it's our respite, and being together makes it worth it. What should the world be like? At this point, I've given up trying to answer that question. I'm not that smart. All I know is that I've got a workday ahead of me, which I'll enjoy for the most part, but not nearly as much as coming home at the end of it.