So, originally I was going to write this post about beer.
However, that changed when I was driving home last week.
Many people had gathered to protest for a living wage for service industry workers. I wasn’t mad that my commute was slightly disrupted, although I’m sure many people were. Instead, I just kinda thought “right on!” and went about the end of my day.
After I got home, I started thinking about the people I saw. The scene reminded me of one of my favorite Sherman Alexie tweets, and that’s saying something because he’s pretty great on Twitter.
In case you managed to miss the large embedded tweet, it says “If you think working fast food is easy then you’re a privileged asshole who’s never worked fast food.”
Now, I’m not necessarily interested in a half-cocked Internet argument. But…
This tweet is a response to people who think that working in retail or food service somehow isn’t a real job. Never mind that, in my experience, the people who say things like that haven’t stood on their feet for nine hours in a long time, if ever.
They also love to invoke the familiar, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. They think service industry jobs are simply a stepping stone. It’s a first job, a job for teenagers. For these people, the American Dream is very real. They’ve succeeded (in part due to a number of unacknowledged privileges), so everyone should be able to succeed! That’s exactly why they can’t comprehend the fact that some people can do everything right and still not land on their feet.
Oh, and let’s not forget one of the biggest financial meltdowns in our country’s history.
Anyway, let’s get back to my point. I think everyone should have to work a horrible, low-wage job at some point.
I never worked in fast food, but I have worked a number of terrible retail jobs. The worst was probably when I worked at a Sam’s Club. I was a cart attendant, which is a nice way of saying “lowest rung on the corporate ladder.”
My duties included collecting carts and pushing them back to the entrance for customers, helping customers load their cars and cleaning up the parking lot. The first task took up most of my time: Pushing an endless amount of metal across a scorching hot asphalt parking lot.
I was like a millenial Sisyphus only with the added indignity of a garish red vest. I’m almost certain it’s a lesser ring of hell. If it’s not, I just gave the devil a pretty good idea.
I haven’t even mentioned the best part. When I worked a closing shift, I had to go around the store’s enormous parking lot and collect the carts people were too lazy to put back in their designated areas.
Do you know how much extra time and energy is wasted cleaning up after selfish customers? Roughly speaking, a goddamn lot. If you’re person who does this, by the way, you’re horrible and heartless.
I also worked at a photography company that did individual and team pictures for youth sports. I would frequently drive all over Chicagoland only to be yelled at by soccer moms because they didn’t read our materials and were unprepared to make a payment on picture day. I also worked at an Old Navy, folding clothes and bothering people while they shopped (per store policy).
The last retail job I worked was at a university bookstore in the clothing department. The day before every home football game, virtually the entire store was 25 percent off. You know what college students love more than charging t-shirts and sweatshirts to their parents? Charging t-shirts and sweatshirts to their parents when they’re a quarter off.
They would absolutely demolish the table of t-shirts I was tasked with keeping folded. My attempts to keep the table (or tables) in order were futile and, ultimately, kind of depressing.
While I didn’t really enjoy busting my ass to make $7 an hour, I enjoy the perspective it gave me.
I always make an effort to be polite to servers and bartenders. I always put my shopping cart back. I always refold shirts that I’ve picked up. I always go back and put something in its place if I decide I don’t want it later. These aren’t difficult tasks. Everyone is capable of doing these things, but some don’t. And that’s not okay.
Frankly, I think it comes down to entitlement and lack of empathy. Working those low-paying nightmares taught me not to view a person as “less than” because he or she happens to be bringing me my food or bagging my groceries.
That’s where entitlement comes into play. Some people, whether it’s a conscious decision or not, think they’re entitled to treat a minimum wage worker as they please.
To them, somehow, it seems perfectly reasonable to berate a fast food employee in front of co-workers and customers because they received an incorrect order or threaten a drug store cashier because a few coupons won’t ring up correctly. Those examples aren’t hypothetical, by the way. I saw both of those things happen, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t speak up on behalf of the employees.
That’s what happens when you view someone’s employment as embarrassing or invalid or expendable. Not only do you devalue their work, but you devalue them as a person. Suddenly, it becomes easy to treat these people in ways you would never treat someone you consider your peer.
I have to think the world would be a more compassionate, kind place if everyone knew what it was like to work a frustrating, thankless job.
At least, I hope.