Mar 12, 2010

The Workin' Man

The call came every night. Every night between 3 and 4, or sometimes as late as 5, the manager would get on the loudspeaker system at Wal Mart and all the night workers would have to go out into the parking lot and corral the carts. We'd all stop whatever we were doing and meet up in a bunch by the doors, looking out to see if the night was wet, or cold, snowing or clear.

There were two opinions about the carts, about going out into the night: For some it was a pain, a chore, and they wondered aloud and with a whine what they were being punished for; for others it was an excuse to go outside. You got, for a moment, to leave the flickering lights the big box store and the rows and rows of shelves to stock, and go out into the night and look up at the sky, even if it was spitting ice in your face.

When I think about it, though, these were the same two opinions the night crew had about everything.

Half of them complained and bitched, acted as if and felt as if there were there because they lost. This was the half that didn't show up on time if they didn't have to, didn't want to work, left early if they could or slept in a back room or sometimes snuck out for a smoke of something. This was the half that got yelled at for a low box count and always had a manager mad at them, both they and the managers seeming to enjoy the snippy bitterness of an ongoing fight. This was the half that was lazy and unreliable, shiftless, and irresponsible. The worst thing was to have to work with someone for 7 hours while they griped and fucked off and found ways to fight with a manager.

The other half were hard workers. They were glad and had what gets called "a good work ethic." They were grateful for the opportunity, and thought the extra 50 cents for graveyard shift, having the job at all, or going outside or getting an extra row of shelves or an extra hour of work was better. Better than what was always a question of personal, particular history. But better. Though of course this meant that being glad, being grateful, was only an expression of desperation, an appreciation for a little relief from the way that life was brutal. So they showed up and tried to do the work they were given to do, but sometimes still the brutality would come down, the reprieve would end, and the night worker would panic for a night or two, manic in trying to find a way out, a way to pay a medical bill or keep a house, and there was angry then, impatience with the bullshit, more swearing and saying "bullshit, all of this is bullshit," the worker having lost that sense of zen, and then he or she would suddenly be calm as the crush came.

A lot of times we talk about the Workin' Man. We talk about the working class, or Labor and Alienated Labor, and always it's ennobled in our theories. And maybe it is, okay, in an abstract way, but in my experience that's not what it feels like. In my experience the real world we talk about in college and in theory isn't somewhere where anyone wants or should want to go. The real world feels rigged, like you already lost and don't know why and have to keep playing. The people there are shiftless or desperate, all them thinking they're better than this and right about it too. But no one there is noble and the market doesn't feel free. The consumer who also always works at nights at Wal Mart doesn't have any actual choice, and can't afford to buy organic and local at the farmer's market, and the hike in the minimum wage doesn't effect anybody who got the 25 cent raise after 6 weeks probation, and you're still broke, even though it's supposed to be a victory for the people who work in this state. It doesn't feel noble, or particularly proud or American, or like talking about alienation is really going to help.

But, "look," the store manager told me when I left for Georgia, "no one wants work at Wal Mart when they grow up, but sometimes it's just reality."