Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day: An essay written in Gratitude for Crappy Jobs

I am NOT talking about jobs at McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC, or Sonic. Or, even Chili’s, Olive Garden or Ruby Tuesday. These businesses thrive because they serve the function of were employing college students, and up and comers from low income families. It is possible to make a career in these places but, most likely, it will be a career IN one of those places. The training does not transfer to the next level of the service market.

There are the Wal-Mart, Jiffy Lube, Sears, and JC Penney’s kind of jobs. These jobs also provide brand-name specific training that allows the worker to remain employed by that brand name until retirement, but they also provide training that can be carried across brand names. If a teen parent can manage a home and family, live on the salary of a 30-hour a week job in one of these service brand names, and go to college they may just be able to grasp the next rung up on the ladder of service market providers.

No, I am talking about nursing assistants, beer bar workers, exotic dancers, secretaries in very small companies, factory workers in off brand factories, house cleaners (not housekeepers), day labor in any form of construction work, waitresses, cooks, bus-persons or dishwashers in off brand establishments, entry-level county employees in any department, and any job with the words “group Home” in it. I have held many jobs in this category. They entailed working midnight or swing shifts, cleaning up other peoples’ poo, piss and puke, and allowing people I did not know to verbally abuse me. They often also include Quid Pro Quo situations most frequently known as sexual harassment, but are more often something as stupid as bringing donuts to the right person.

The crappy job market is always thriving because there will always be a layer of American citizens who need someone to help them with basic life skills and there will always be a layer of American citizens who do not want to attend college or are not expected to attend college, like teen parents. As a person who has worked many of these jobs, some simultaneously, I admire the stamina it takes to make them a lifetime career.

I call them crappy jobs because they often involve literal crap. Cleaning bathrooms, changing adult diapers, and wiping down walls in rooms that have held the feces of innumerable occupants. I also call them crappy jobs because they entail dealing with figurative crap. This is the Quid Pro Quo type of crap I have had to take from bosses and supervisors. Typically, figuratively crappy jobs do not involve literal crap, but not always.

Figuratively crappy jobs can do damage. They can be the death of a million small cuts. Each insult, curse word, bad attitude, and just plain ugly person who has to be treated as valuable (to someone) takes a tiny piece of humanity away from the noble worker; make no mistake, these are noble jobs. Really, what is more important to humanity: helping a housewife find dish towels on aisle nine or wiping poo off of someone’s behind because he cannot do it for himself?  However, those millions of small cuts scar, and scar over again. This scar tissue becomes “thick-skin. Thick skin is the only thing that protects the noble worker of a crappy job and allows her to keep the last shreds of her humanity.

Crappy jobs are often found in the newspaper under the heading of “job openings”. They should actually title that column “Somebody’s gotta do it.” “Somebody’s gotta do it” jobs are perfect jobs for teen parents. Why? Well, for me, they made me feel useful. Every day that I went to work there was someone having a worse day than I was. In some cases I was the one with the key to the door in my pocket and that was pretty much all that separated me from them. Moreover, these jobs are noble because someone has to do them

 Working crappy jobs prepared me for college. I was told that as a teen parent I was not suitable for college and especially for the degree I wanted. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I wanted to cut open brains and find out why they worked in so many different ways in so many different people. But, having gotten pregnant at 15, I was deemed by the society of decent people (whoever they are) as unfit for college and certainly undeserving of such a lofty goal. It took 14 years to develop the thick skin I needed to defy society and go to college full-time. Over those 14 years I had taken a class here and there. Work a midnight shift, come home get the kid up, fed and off to school, sleep until 2:30 pick him up from the bus or school (depending on where we lived) cook dinner, and then sneak off to take a class before I went to work at 11PM and then do it all over again. 

The thick skin I acquired also helped me to fend off cutting words and slit-eyed glare of my college "colleagues” as they often and loudly praised my brave attempt to make myself a “better person.” This left-handed compliment was meant to remind me that I really did not belong in college. I was meant to be a noble worker for life, as my son would be after me. Fortunately, I had so much humanity sucked out of me by those crappy jobs that I figured, “what have I got to lose”? At worst if I just kept my head down and my mouth shut I might be able to squeeze out a college degree that would allow me to get a crappy job with more hours and better pay.

I started my degree work at Riverside Community College and was one of the first students in a pilot program to transferCommunity College students directly into a four-year university. So I went to the University of California, Riverside directly from a two-year college. This is a common practice today but in the late 1980's it was something close to sacrilege. I have written about the Community College faculty member who encouraged me, Dr. David Baker. I actually had the opportunity to thank him just before I finished my Doctoral degree. I told him that his words gave me the push I needed to continue college after I had that 2-year degree. Otherwise, I would have taken another crappy job with just a few more hours and a little bit better pay.

Popular use of the word “noble” in American English means a person or an action that displays characteristics that are honorable and to be emulated. And yet, those of us who work crappy jobs are primarily considered one rung up on the social ladder from those we serve. With nobility comes humility, which so many of us understand as humiliation. With humiliation comes shame, and before you know it we are participating in our own self-directed cycle of not participating in mainstream culture, not earning a living wage, becoming thick-skinned, uncaring and feeling humiliated by the lives we live, instead of recognizing our nobility for doing them. I also want to suggest that you can choose to do something different. 

What I learned in college is that I worked crappy jobs until the day I decided I did not have to (and not to end a sentence in a preposition like I just did). I learned that the one decision that got me pregnant was just one decision in a lifetime of decisions. If you are working at a crappy job as you read this, I hope you will take a moment to acknowledge the nobility of the work you are doing, and consider the possibility that you can choose not to do it.

 In the meantime, if no one else says this to you today, let me thank you for your noble labor in the service of America’s citizens.