Notes from Outside the Boat
Brother Christopher Carr’s series of posts about his time spent slogging through the stagnant American job market recently drew to a happy conclusion, having exemplified why I believe a literary agent would do well to trawl this site for projects: I would love to read that series expanded to a memoir.
In order to wrap things up, Christopher talked about some of the things he learned while “working several low-paying jobs for which I was staggeringly overqualified just to get by.” I cannot hope to compare to his post or series for quality of insights, but as I have worked a few low-paying jobs for which I am overqualified in the last year, I figured I will share the few things I have learned.
1. Being inside the boat is entirely different from being outside the boat.
Not only in terms of perspective on work, but our experience of the world is greatly shaped by either having, or often not having, a base measure of economic security and satisfaction in what we do. This is perhaps obvious, but it becomes glaringly so when you interact with people from different backgrounds and situations on a regular basis; even things like body language and sense of humor are reflective.
2. Poverty and irresponsibility often look the same.
I’m long overdue for an eye exam. When booking, my optometrist’s assistant asked me how I could have allowed so much time to pass in the same tone of voice my parents used to take when asking why I waited until the night before a test to study. In response, I asked how much an eye exam costs. When I see internet sites mocking strangers for driving cars that survive only by the grace of Bondo or wearing unflattering thrift store clothes to Wal-Mart, I wonder if the posters have ever had to choose between paying rent or eating enough calories.
3. You must squeeze the lemon until the pip squeaks.
I now do a very good impression of my working class parents and Depression era grandparents, asking friends: “Why would you buy new clothes when you can find good ones at thrift stores?” “Why would you get Netflix when you can rent movies from the library?” “Why would you ever eat food in a restaurant? Do you know what the markup is?” I’m unable to make even the smallest purchase without first checking my conscience, and usually with a pang of regret. The positive side of my skinflintery is I have no debts and enough savings to last several months.
4. You simply must be a grinder.
A “grinder” in car salesman slang is a customer who wants to get a car for the absolute lowest price they can and will negotiate until they do so; a very tough sell. You must be gimlet-eyed with not only car salesmen and mechanics, but salesmen, hiring agencies, banks, landlords, employers especially, and anyone else who might have a motive to siphon money from you. They will. It’s a game that you must learn to play well especially if your income level is low. O friend, there are no friends!
5. A nervous breakdown is a luxury.
If you must have a nervous breakdown, you need to schedule the time off with HR and find someone to work your shifts. Otherwise, let’s save it for serious bodily injuries, thanks. It’s not so much that mental illnesses are class-based as their manifestations are shaped by what opportunities one has to do anything. In general, I’ve found that the rich have neuroses and the poor have addictions.
6. Anti-consumerism is a luxury too.
When most of your days are “Buy Nothing Days”, it is hard to be impressed by those who have decided to “no longer let advertising rule their lives”. Besides, if you’re outside the boat, there are times in which the right trivial and shallow consumer purchase can save your life or sanity.
7. Credentialism is out of control.
At least it is in Canada, where one cannot pick their nose without the proper nose-picker certification. It reminds me a bit of France, where every possible occupation requires belonging to a
cartel professional guild of one sort or another. Ever notice how many novels are written by people who attended the same MFA programs? How many journalists went to the same schools? I’ve heard tell of retail chains where one needs a four year degree to be a manager, receptionist jobs that require Microsoft certification to authorize the applicant to use Office like the rest of us, waitress jobs requiring Smart Serve certification, etc. etc. In many cases, new certifications override experience and longtime workers have to take courses and get certified to do what they’ve been doing for years. Sure, you can do the job in practice, but can you do it in theory? One can only imagine how this has warped the labor pool.
8. Most people really are lazy.
Sloth is a timeless vice among members of our species and common enough in mammals that our vice might just be in seeing it as a sin. Yet grunt jobs seem to both intensify the problem by their very tediousness while attracting the sort of people who intend to do very little for several hours a day. This is why teamwork is such a slice of hell: if you’re the poor soul who works hard, you have to contend with people who see you as a thing to be overcome. (Lazy should be read here as a measure of both physical and mental effort.)
9. Most dreams die through no fault of their owners.
Many, many people work tirelessly and relentlessly in pursuit of their dreams never to see them come to fruition. Life happens regardless.
10. There is no intrinsic value to hard work.
I remember a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a Victorian era church food line in which the Priest would make each patron move a pile of bricks, pointlessly, from one corner of the yard to another, in order to learn the value of hard work. We are devoted to the idea that grueling, unrewarding labor has some intrinsic reward, but this is wishful thinking. As often as it “builds character,” it breaks the spirit and breeds cynicism, damages the body, and deprives society of people who could contribute more to society in sequestering them in the pool of those who will do what the rest of us won’t. Many of those poor sould would respond, “Well, you have to pay the rent somehow.” Certainly true, but those who romanticize backbreaking work are usually those who have never had to do it in order to pay the rent.
11. Instances of luck are our thin reeds.
And yet, for all of this, sometimes employers call back, an idea comes to fruition, or we meet someone who makes our heart go clickety-clack. Not often, but luck’s rareness raises its caliber.
Note: The featured image is from the great Paul Schrader film Blue Collar (1978).