"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Do You Like Your Job?

A recent article in the New York Times (9.6.14) by Paul O’Keefe states the obvious – if you like your job you will do well at it. Maybe for a select few, but not all I thought as I watched the checkout woman at my local Kroger’s move my milk, eggs, kohlrabi, pasta, and Mr. Clean along the belt towards the scanner, clock the items, and bag them. 

She looked up at the long line of impatient customers behind me.  It was Saturday morning, everyone was doing their shopping, and all had someplace else to get to. “Raquel, what is this?”, she asked the clerk in the next aisle, holding up my kohlrabi.

“I have no idea, honey”, the clerk replied. Now, my checker must have been sorely tempted to clock the kohlrabi in as cabbage or turnips, but called for the store manager, looked down at her nails, and ignored the hisses and grunts from the bitching shoppers in line.  LaShonda Harris had recently had her nails done by her sister-in-law in Aberdeen who worked at a nail and pedicure shop on Rt. 45.  She was never charged for her nails because she took care of her sister-in-law’s kids on Saturday when she was working the day-shift at the plant on the prairie.  LaShonda’s brother worked the night shift and slept all day, so the kids were left alone and needed someone to look after them. 

Celine did great nails, LaShonda thought as she looked at her own which were long, tapered, and bright red with sparkly moons and suns on the tips.  She liked the way the light caught the gold glitter when she counted out change, and how elegant her hands looked when she bagged groceries. 

The kids she took care of were a bad lot, but no worse than any others who lived in East Columbus not far from the railroad depot and the tracks that carried coal from the mines in Alabama south to Mobile.  The trains whistled all night long because towns up and down the line were too poor to build overpasses, and the trains blew their warnings five minutes before each grade crossing.  A good thing too, because kids coming home from school had to cross those tracks, and were so used to the big diesels and the twenty minute waits for the hundred-car freights to pass, that they darted out right in front of them but not before they threw rocks at the engineer’s cab.

LaShonda’s sister cleaned houses in Southside and LaShonda dropped her off on the way to work.  Her sister had to wait until the end of the Kroger shift to finish to get a ride home. She had no car or driver’s license.  For that matter she had no proof of citizenship whatsoever.  Her grandmother told her that she was born on April 14, 1972 but her mother had long ago packed up and left LaShonda and her two other children, and hadn’t been heard of for years. 

“I could get picked up and sent to Guantanamo”, she said. “I ain’t got no proof where I live, where I work, or worse of all who I am.”

None of these women liked their work.  They didn’t get any satisfaction bagging frozen wings, buttermilk, and grits; painting designs on nails; cleaning toilets; or logging inventory at the Walmart warehouse.  The customers at Kroger’s were mainly white people who ignored her (black folk shopped at the much cheaper Piggly Wiggly just over the Alabama line). Mrs. Prentice, the woman whose house LaShonda’s sister cleaned, was nice enough, but barked at her if she missed one of the cat’s hairballs which always got stuck on the antique carpets after she had vacuumed them, or if she didn’t leave the bathroom spotless or not smelling strongly enough of disinfectant.  She had worked for that white lady for five years and the lady never asked her once about her children, her faith, or her wayward husband.

Night-shift or day-shift work at the plant was hard and monotonous; and the few employees on the assembly line who had not been replaced by robots were driven as hard as slaves by overseers, floor managers you had to beg to take a bathroom break.  Mississippi is an open-shop state, and the Machinists’ Union which had the back of both black and white in the 80s had long ago been chased out of the county by politicians eager to attract new business. 

The plant met minimum OSHA standards, but the factory was still airless, windowless, and as hot as a forge in the summer.  No one liked their work, enjoyed the camaraderie of their co-workers, or took pride in their achievements (“Sector 5 had NO industrial accidents this month. Way to go, Sector 5!”). It was tough, thankless, modestly-paid work.  Everyone there was thankful to have a job at all given that black unemployment in the country was near 50 percent and white not much better.


Laura, the waitress at Al’s BBQ not far out of town on the road to Eupora, said she ‘had it pretty good’.  She and her two boys lived with her parents, she had two jobs – waitressing and doing hair – and although she had no health insurance or social security, she and her kids had never gotten sick.  She was paid off the clock, spent every dime on food and clothes, but never complained.  She didn’t like her work and was so tired after a long day at both jobs that she often fell into bed without dinner. 

She ‘had it pretty good’ because she had a house that didn’t leak, there were always a few extra dollars for McDonald’s with the kids on the weekends, and she had a boss who was demanding but understanding.  He was red dirt cracker who had done time, grew up in a tin roof shack just across the line in Meridian, managed to buy an old smoker and squat on a piece of land that nobody wanted, and built a successful small business.  He couldn’t pay Laura more than minimum wage even though she was worth a lot more.  He admired her pluck and hard work because she was a lot like him and hoped that she would stay on as his business expanded.

Al didn’t like his work either, didn’t like the long hours over the hot smoker, the fat fryers in the hot kitchen, or cleaning up until near midnight every day.  He liked the fact that he lived in a house and not a backwoods shack, that he was no longer fighting for his life on C Block, and that he was lucky enough to have a wife who stuck by him.  He had kept the wolf a few more feet from the door than his childhood buddies most of whom were dead or still at Adams.

“Choose a major you like”, a close friend told his children after sophomore year at prestigious Ivy League universities.  “If you like what you study, you will do well; and employers will be so impressed with a Summa Cum Laude from Princeton that they will never get to the Art History part of your resume”.  He was right of course, and his advice, corroborated by the research cited in the O’Keefe, helped his children do well, enjoy their studies, and move on to graduate school and fulfilling jobs.

His children, now young adults love their work.  The boy works for an internationally-renowned architect, and was able to avoid the usual years of scutwork and unrewarded labor in the vineyards of The Great Man because of his talent, enthusiasm, and hard work.  The boy loved architecture.  He loved the forward and creative designs of Hadid, Koolhaas, and Gehry.  He admired the engineering that underlay the stunning spans of Calatrava.

His daughter entered the world of high fashion and like her brother made her way quickly through the ranks of Seventh Avenue because of her innate sense of design, her tough business acumen, and natural social skills.

Privilege is an easy way to explain the difference between LaShonda Harris and Bradley Moore.   Bradley had the advantage of exclusive private schools, attentive and intelligent parents, the luxury of summer camp and fast-track internships.  LaShonda had only a trail of dysfunctional families, poverty, and discrimination.  Yet this does a disservice to Bradley and his sister.  They worked just as hard as LaShonda, if not harder.  An M.Arch required 18-hour days and weekends.  An associate to Rem Koolhaas works as many hours with even less recognition.

Yet LaShonda and tens of millions of Americans like her slog away at meaningless, spiritless, unrewarding, and low-paying jobs because they have to.  Parking lot attendants, waitresses, garbage men, dishwashers, cashiers, and personal care aides work long hours for nothing.

An aged relative of my cousin had recently been moved to a nursing home – the last stop for the demented and physically crippled who would all leave there on a stretcher.  One might assume that personal care aides like their work.  After all they are providing care and support to the most vulnerable and helpless of the community, women desperate for some straw of hope or at least kindness.  What could be more rewarding?

The reality, of course, is quite different.  The demented are demanding, insulting, and abusive.  They wake up in the middle of the night screaming for relief from their nightmares and twisted imaginings.  The shit their clothes, wet their beds, throw their food, and pull their hair.  These are not the wise old folk of legend.  Gentle grandmothers, kindly grandfathers.  They may have been, but they have become addled victims of disease and bad genes.  They have become screaming harridans.  No, personal care aides do not like their work.

Mr. O’Keefe cites his own research to prove his hypothesis:

In our research, we asked a group of undergraduates to work on word puzzles. Before they began, we had them tell us how exciting and enjoyable they thought the task would be. Then they read a statement that framed the task as either personally valuable or of neutral value.

Those who read the first statement, and who also thought the task would be enjoyable, solved the most problems. Moreover, their work didn’t flag, meaning they did not perform best simply because their interest made them want to work on it longer, thereby causing them to solve more problems. Instead, their engagement was more efficient. In other words, they were “in the zone.”

MyPlan.com, a career advice website has published a list of the worst-paying jobs in America. Most of them are familiar, and we all have been served burgers by low-wage workers, had our homes cleaned by them, or had our suits pressed by them.   A quick look at the top 50 is a glimpse into deadening repetition; slogging, dirty work; danger, and mind-numbing boredom.

One of the worst jobs is manicurist, the job that Celine, LaShonda’s sister-in-law does.  There is no step up for her.  One does not parlay nails into fashion or architecture; and the best that Celine can hope for is a job with a better tips. 

I try to imagine Celine, LaShonda, Laura Bettis, or Big Al taking this test; and of course I cannot.  They have for so long lived a life of penury and hardship that they cannot even imagine a world in which jobs are fun. What would Mr. O’Keefe give Celine as test questions?  What possible jobs could he imagine for her that would be within her reach and might be fun?

I and most of my well-heeled, Ivy League-educated, upper middle class friends have had a great ride in our work as lawyers, economists, investment bankers, architects, and doctors.  We have chosen our professions and our jobs.  Even in particularly lean times we could pick and choose.   The Harvard Red Book, a publication which records the reflections of recent graduates every five years, is the Bible of privilege and advantage.  These talented young people change their jobs and career tracks without hesitation.  They follow their instincts, interests, and talents.  They will always like their jobs.  It takes no academic research to demonstrate that liking and performing go together for this crowd.

Fast-food workers, Walmart greeters, and personal care aides are a different story altogether.  They don’t work for fun.  They work to make ends meet.

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