The Second Stratum

I have lately been concerned, nearly obsessed, with the homeless I see around me on the streets of San Diego.  Why?  Because it’s easy to empathize with them.  I am jobless at the moment and it is not easy to find work.  My writing doesn’t come near to supporting my dependents and I.  I can picture myself falling through the cracks and becoming destitute.  Not all those derelict individuals you see walking the streets, begging at street corners, sleeping in doorways or side-alleys are idiots or alcoholics or drug addicts.  Many are, sure.  But many have just become overwhelmed my economic misfortune.  Like a tourist in a coastal town who doesn’t see it coming, an economic tidal wave has surged in, scooped them up, and swept them out to sea.  Now they are floundering in water way over their heads, trying to keep afloat, trying to survive.

But now I have begun to ruminate about a different stratum of society.

Two days ago after an intensely strenuous morning during which I had been trying to take care of some important business for one of my sons, I decided to take a short nap.  I had just drifted off to sleep when my phone rang.  Thick-headed with drowsiness, the edges of my concentration fuzzy, I tried to make sense of what the man on the other end of the line was saying.  It turned out he was the manager of a certain national chain store and wanted to ask me if I was interested in a position he had open.  In the past few weeks, realizing my need for quick cash, I’d been throwing out job applications on the internet right and left, anyplace I could think of that might have an employment opportunities page on their website, hoping that something would get through.  And here it was; I had cast my line into the waters and I had a nibble.  I thanked him for calling, asked him a few questions about the job, but balked when he informed me of the hours and salary.  Basically, it was a part-time job at minimum wage, which is eight dollars an hour.

I knew that when I had uprooted from Greece and moved to the States I would have to start again, but I felt humiliated.  Not just because I am almost sixty, near the age when I should be retiring (though writers never retire; I speak here of day labor, which is anything else a writer does to pay bills) and I should be at the peak of an illustrious career, or in the twilight of one, not starting from such abject scratch; not just because I was making more than twice as much per hour as a teacher in Greece; not just because I’d be working mostly with young kids just starting out who would deem eight bucks an hour a reasonable wage.  No, what humiliated me was the fact that I was forced to take it seriously, to consider it at all.  It was so inadequate for my needs it was laughable – but I didn’t laugh.  The fact was, it was something – and something was better than nothing.  So far in my job search I had come up with zilch, zero, nada.  The schools wouldn’t touch me because I didn’t have a degree.  The internet companies wouldn’t touch me because I wasn’t fast enough at the keyboard.  Some other companies wouldn’t touch me because – hell, I don’t know, but they wouldn’t.  My sons had found jobs quick enough in the minimum wage customer service sector, but that’s all they were looking for and so they were happy.  I needed something more, something fulltime, something with a decent salary, something that would help me meet my multitudes of obligations.

But when I thought about it I went ahead to the interview.  All things considered, something is better than nothing.  I could always take this position if offered it, and keep looking for something better.

The manager was affable enough – courteous, friendly.  He was surprised, when he met me, that I had responded.  He said that most of the applicants he received were in their twenties, as I said, people just starting out and willing to get their foot in the door by starting at the bottom.  He apologized for the salary and the fact that it would be part time, and explained to me that the company saved money that way; by hiring workers at part time positions instead of fulltime they could avoid giving benefits.  I was already aware of this situation, but I had never had it explained to me by someone actually involved in the process.

Then I got to thinking about all the customer service personnel I see every day in supermarkets, pharmacies, office supply stores, cafes, restaurants, fast food joints, and a multitude of other occupations.  They too work for minimum wage.  They are caught in this company greed, this concern for the bottom line rather than for the workers who make it possible.  They cope with this injustice in various ways to balance their budgets, I’m sure; it’s possible many of them can’t find a balance and go deeper and deeper into debt.  But for the most part they do their best day after day, try to cope, keep up a cheery smile in front of the customers.  I think of one supermarket in particular, a place I go to frequently to pick up supplies.  They have all sorts of employees, and unlike most of the tech and office supply shops many of this supermarket’s staff are middle-aged or even elderly.  They look, some of them, on their last legs.  They should be home resting, kicking back and being served by others.  Instead they come in day after day and work the cash register, bag groceries, clean up messes, and always, despite everything, smile at the customers, wish them a good day.  They make an art form out of it, in fact.  I have watched some of them in awe, and wondered how they could keep up such a cheerful disposition in such working conditions.  True heroes, I tell you.  The big shots in the board rooms should be required to take off their fancy ties and expensive tailored suits and get down there and help out their employees from time to time.

Something is wrong here.  It’s exploitation, that’s what it is.  I’ll bet the company CEO makes more than eight bucks an hour.  Undoubtedly many multiples more.  Some of them probably make more than all their workers put together.

And I digress; I rant.  I have no solutions to these problems.  I am merely observing and reporting.

And this is all brought on by my own misfortune.  Although for the most part, I must admit, I do not consider myself unfortunate.  So it might be also for those I see working so hard for so little.  They might be so happy to have some work, any work, that they find it easy to look on the bright side, keep up the cheery face, and so on.

But the United States of America, land of the free, home of the brave, has these various strata of society below the glamour and the glitter.  Everyone here has been an aspiring millionaire, I think.  Nobody considered themselves a working person, at first.  For most a minimum wage job was a temporary condition on the way up.  That’s the American dream.  But a point is reached when you realize it’s too late, it’s not going to happen.  You’ve made too many mistakes; you’ve waited too long; you’ve missed too many opportunities.  Now you merely want to survive, and even survival itself isn’t a done deal.  You have to scrabble with a lot of others for a limited amount of crumbs.  The manager at the company where I applied for the minimum wage job told me, in fact, that he had many applicants and was conducting many interviews for the few positions he had open.  The power was in his hands, not mine.  There’s no guarantee that if all else fails you can even find a job shoveling shit.  You’d probably have to stand in line for an interview and produce a resume and references for that too.  They’d ask you if you had a degree in manure disposal, if any of your relatives were already standing in the cesspool, if you had any experience in putting on nose-clips properly.

Something’s wrong with this picture, and I’m not really sure what it is.  Maybe I haven’t been here long enough to figure it out.  But one thing is sure, one comparative point that is without doubt.  Here in the United States there might be twenty, or thirty, or maybe even fifty people competing for the shit-shoveling job.  In Greece, where we just came from, with the economic situation the way it is, they’d be lining up by the thousands.

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