Thursday, 30 May 2013

But Someone's Gotta Do It...

Hello Friends.

It's been a bit of a tricky week, back at the ranch. I got a fun opportunity and some bad news, and none of it fit into my work schedule. In brief, the fun opportunity fell on a Tuesday when I was already scheduled to work at my job at the fancy clothes emporium. I called a coworker and pleaded my case for about five seconds before she said, "You need me to take a shift? No problem." The bad news fell on a Saturday when a family member wound up in the emergency room. I was at work when I got the news, then explained the situation to my boss for about five seconds before he said, "You need to go home? No problem." (Without divulging any private circumstances, rest assured that said family member is on the mend and not in dire straits and all is well).

I have great coworkers and a great boss, to be sure, but in truth, it really is the sort of job where, if a life event drops in out of the blue, getting rid of a shift really is "no problem." That's the advantage of having a job that might not be your ideal position, career-wise. It might not be as challenging or stimulating as a high-pressure 9-5 in an exciting field, but it's a relatively stress-free way to make your rent every month, and leaves you time to work on other things you're more passionate about.

That said, until I land some dream professional writing gig that pays well, is creatively satisfying, and somehow makes my penis bigger, I really hope any job changes are lateral moves. I may be folding sweaters in a retail store, but that feels worlds away from flipping burgers at a fast food chain. There is a hierarchy even among what Douglas Copeland calls, "the McJobs." I spend enough time fantasizing about the career I want, maybe it's time to be grateful for the jobs I don't have.

Dream: Have a job like the one I enjoy now, or better, for the rest of my working life.

Goal: Pretty achievable, you guys. I feel a little twinge when comparing notes with my contemporaries about our jobs. My high school peers are doctors and lawyers and business executives, I can see their eyes glaze over a little when I talk about the functional versatility of our new non-iron dress pants. So I don't think it's unreasonable to hope to stay, if not necessarily in clothing forever, in higher-end retail where I don't have to wear a uniform, hairnet, or button that says, "TRY OUR NEW CARAMEL FRIES."

Plan: Stay humble and grateful by listing all of the crappy jobs I could have, and speculating on just how awful they would be. Jobs like:

  • Concession guy at a movie theatre. I know I've talked about this before, but what a terrible job. Everybody's in a big hurry because nobody gets to a movie early. People just want popcorn and a pop. Those two things cost at least ten dollars, probably more. So the concession guys says, "Okay, small popcorn, small Sprite, that's eleven dollars." And even the most polite among us goes, "Eleven dollars! God in Heaven! What the fuck are you talking about?" Every customer must give them shit.
  • Morning cashier at Starbucks. Bless them. Next time you drop in for your morning coffee en route to your fancy office job, just take a look at your fellow man. "Yeah, I'll have a tall, non-fat, triple-foam soy latte with a half-shot of vanilla and can you make it quick? I'm in a hurry." Oh man, you know what I'd love to hear one of these baristas say in response. "Oh you're in a hurry? Maybe you shouldn't have stopped for coffee."
  • Bus driver. Can you imagine if your morning commute was your entire day? And instead of driving yourself, you drove a bunch of horrible people? And every few feet you had to stop to let more horrible people on?
  • Family restaurant server. Tips are great but children are the worst. I would rather fold a hundred sweaters than clean up the messes of three children under five years old.
  • Assembly line worker. How could one even understand the drudgery, the hopelessness, the day-in day-out boredom of working in a factory? Screwing caps on bottles or separating rotten apples from fresh ones or slapping labels on jars? Ostensibly, something they'd rather have a machine do but they have yet to perfect the technology? I read this story once about factory workers who intentionally screw something up on a product (put a label upside down, affix a widget to the right side instead of the left side, etc) because they wanted to make a difference. They wanted to know they existed and here was their proof. Also, don't look too far into how your iPhones are made. A great deal of what we know about factory conditions for Apple products in China was exaggerated and then debunked, but it is true that the factory has nets on all sides of it so that it is impossible for an employee to jump off the building to his death, which I gather was becoming a problem.
  • Dishwasher. Being a dishwasher was my first job and I did not last long. Never, ever again.
  • Cameraman for a porn film. I know the joke is that any red-blooded straight man dreams of being a photographer for Playboy or something, but can you imagine the technical precision, long hours, and incredible discomfort of being the guy who works the camera on a dirty movie? Awkwardly framing someone's genitals from a bunch of different angles for hours every day? You must come home to your spouse and scream, "If I see one more naked person today!" and then how are they going to feel? Lousy, right?
  • Cab driver. See bus driver but add about 200% more drunks.
  • Hot dog vendor. I don't notice these guys so much here in Edmonton, but in Toronto, purveyors of "street meat" could be found on every corner, rain or shine. They literally stand in that tiny box for hours on end, feeling a weird mixture of cold from the elements and extreme heat from standing over a barbecue for an entire shift. Plus, these stands stay open all night. How vulnerable they must be to drunken name-calling, theft, or worse. Also, I can't help but consider how the condiments hold up as they just sit there, unrefrigerated, day after day.

There are dozens more, but it's too depressing to think about. If I really knew what went into cleaning the mall I work at, or stocking the apples that I buy, I might never leave the house. The other thing about entry-level labour jobs like the ones I've described, the thing I'm uncomfortable admitting, is that privileged kids like me feel above it all. When I worked at a drugstore in the big city, I'd constantly get resumes from people who were lawyers in Turkey or doctors in Lebanon or mothers of six, wishing and hoping for the chance to stock shelves. I'm ashamed to report that eventually I stopped noticing how unfortunate this was, and instead focused on how much my little feet hurt, waaaah....

Maybe this is a little idealistic of me, but I really think everyone needs to work a low-paying service job at least once in their lives. Yes, they can be mind-numbing, spirit-crushing ass-aches, but all jobs can be like that to some degree. There's something to be said for appreciating just how hard everybody works so that we can live our lives taking no notice of them. I'm glad to be out of minimum wage, at least for now, and working a job that, while not perfect, is not something I dread clocking into every day. I know so many dedicated, passionate professionals who live to work, I hope we can all take some time waiting in line for our coffees to think about those who work to live.


  1. I've been a concession person at a movie theater! I can attest that it is not awesome. Aside from what you mentioned, the butter-flavor gets into your soul. I only worked there for a summer and I still (12+ years later) cannot stand the smell of buttered popcorn.

    1. Oh man, that butter flavour! I'd imagine that's like the smell that hits you when you walk into a movie theatre x 1000, and it just permeates. Bless your corn-shoveling.