Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'This one time, I had a real-person job'

Sadie at Jezebel comes down hard on Caitlin Kelly's NYT piece about working in retail on the side while trying to make it as a freelance writer. Having read both the article and the post, I'm still wondering what the complaint is, other than the broader point that it's totally unfair that Person A's articulate-enough whining gets into the Times, while Person B's does not, even though Person B has superior authoritah on the very same subject. It strikes me as just as unfair that Person B gets to rant on Jezebel, whereas Person P over here rants for assorted friends and family members, as well as a pseudonym named Petey. But such is life.

Sadie writes, of Kelly, "if she wants a medal, she's not getting it." I did not see where in the article the request for a metaphorical medal appeared, but the Jezebel commenters get really into it, as they do whenever a situation merits (or seems like it might merit) either a 'bish plz' or use of the word 'whambulance.' In other words, accusing someone else of whining, while whining yourself, is totally awesome. Because calling someone else "privileged" is proof beyond any doubt whatsoever that you are in fact typing your comment from a sub-basement studio in a Brooklyn neighborhood the trust-fund hipsters haven't heard of yet, but will soon so as to give you something new to complain about.

So, long story short, everyone commenting at Jezebel is more hardcore than everyone else, or than this one NYT writer, or who knows, but every commenter there worked this real-person job this one time and it was way harder than what the NYT writer is dealing with. How the pyramid-building and so forth allows time for keeping up with the Jezebel comments remains one of life's great mysteries.

If having once held a less-than-fulfilling job made one a good person, as goes the myth, not only would all working-class people be Mother Teresa (yet, strangely, nasty people exist at all income levels), but not-good people would be hard to come by indeed. Aside from Rothschild-level elites and those who head straight into leadership positions in the family business, everyone, even members of the much-hated college-educated upper-middle classes, will sooner or later find himself with work less well-paid and stimulating than, I don't know, brushing Queen Elizabeth's corgis. The reason a post about 'I once had this job' garners a gazillion comments it that we all once had a job like this or that, and it's human nature to think your own story matters. (Am I, P of WWPD, the exception? Take a guess.)

So. This comment is ground we've seen before:

"I'm pretty sure we'd have a much kinder society (and I might get benefits!) if people had to support themselves in the service industry for a year."

OK, slight problem: if those who don't need to work work all the same, so as to have some independence from their parents, or so as to avoid being that guy who's never had a real job, that leaves fewer jobs for those who need money, not 'character'. If you think it sucks to deal with someone who spent all her weekends shopping while you were folding the clothes, would you prefer losing a potential retail job to someone who only took the job so as to buy even more designer jeans than is already the case?

Ultimately, even if 'builds character' is a legitimate reason to take a job, if that's why you signed up, no one's offering, especially not in this economy. For the college-educated or college-bound, Jezebel-approved real-person work is often harder to snag than snooty-sounding low-paid work for which a degree/veneer of snootiness is required. This is why I found Paul Gowder's bafflement at lawyers who choose low-paid legal work over similarly low-paid service-industry work altogether baffling--no one would hire someone with a legal degree, or someone who took the J.D. off his resume but still seems like someone with a legal degree, to work as a waiter, because if it's your restaurant, you want someone a) who will stick around at the job, and b) who won't act as though the job is beneath him. Just as stores, restaurants, and other locales known for employing teens often refuse to hire young people still living at home who only seek pocket money, and who will leave once Swarthmore or Oberlin starts come the fall, these same places will not want to hire lawyers going through a screw-the-Man midlife crisis. Unless you can act that well, or really do need the GAP as much as you claim, good luck out there.


Paul Gowder said...

I'd say that I find your bafflement about my bafflement baffling,* but I actually don't: it's a common conception, but, I think, a mistaken one. I speak from a little bit of personal experience here: back when I was practicing a law, I got totally sick of things for a while, up and quit my job and got in my car and went to New Orleans, where I had little trouble getting paid to do a variety of highly non-legal (and only slightly illegal) middleman type things in the music industry and also working for my lodging at a youth hostel. Nobody said "you have a law degree from Harvard? Screw you, dilettante." Though they perhaps would have been more rational to do so. Then again, that was a particularly transitory community that I inserted myself into. But still.

(Do people really seem like someone with a legal degree? I guess it's possible -- I can certainly pick out law/business asshole types in a crowd... or at least, I think I can, but it's not like I've asked to verify, and I have more exposure to the sort for obvious reasons. Can others?)

Then again, if one is the sort of person-with-a-JD who actually *thinks* waiting tables is beneath him (and more beneath him than ten dollar an hour legal work! presumably, the people getting hired for that work think it's beneath them too), then one is already fucked, because one is an asshole with an ego that will keep him/her from making do in a bad economy.

*Is Noam Chomsky in the house? Buffalo buffalo &c, eat your heart out.

Phoebe said...

Not everyone looking to an alternative to stuffy desk job is willing to go the illegal or semi-legal route, let alone legal-but-sketchy activities. Your anecdote, I'm afraid, seems more like evidence that you, an individual who happened to be a lawyer, are hardcore or adventurous, than that lawyers who want to wait tables or work in retail have an easy time doing so.

"Do people really seem like someone with a legal degree?"

People seem of a particular class, and education impacts which one. I don't think those outside a given field can spot those of each particular field a mile away--I couldn't tell a lawyer from an accountant from a businessman, but I could guess that none of these people are trimming flowers at the local deli. If employers can spot and turn away high schools student living at home with their parents before going to college (that was my Summer '01), I doubt if they'd have endless amounts of trouble differentiating between lawyers and waiters when looking to hire waiters... unless this one particular lawyer put himself through college and law school while waiting tables, and thus already has experience/references, not to mention the demeanor of someone who considers restaurant work a non-event, rather than 'hi, I'm here to screw the Man, until I get bored in three weeks and return to Him'.

Paul Gowder said...

Hmm... I think you're right that we can definitely pick out class-seemingness, but, apart from age, I'd probably be hard-pressed to pick out, say, a Stanford or NYU undergrad (restaurant-hireable) from a recent law school graduate -- at least, one with sufficient self-awareness to not wear a suit and talk about paradigms to the restaurant interview.

Phoebe said...

"a Stanford or NYU undergrad (restaurant-hireable)"

How do you figure? I remember hearing that waitressing jobs in Hyde Park, at least, were almost impossible for college students (again, a group thought to be rich/to think themselves above scut work) to snag, and went the predictable, if ultimately useful, route of shelving books at the campus library. I am now a call-number whiz.

Paul Gowder said...

Huh. Maybe it's geographic. Around here, many of the baristas are students, and barista is roughly equivalent to waitstaff (I don't actually know about the waitstaff, because I'm too poor to eat at places with table service that often...). Not Stanford students, probably because they're too rich/busy playing ten sports/etc., but other undergrads. (And the Stanford students could probably pass for some other school with a change of sweatshirt...)

Matt said...

How much does the corgi-brushing job pay, and do you think it will still be open in August? As things stand I might need a job then.

Weirdly enough, there is often a strange distinction made between being a barista (especially at a would-be hip coffee shop)and other essentially fast-food or wait-staff type job. College kids can get the former more easily than the latter. Maybe it fits w/ the needs/desires/images of the people going to these places better. Ability to get these jobs also depends heavily on the type of school one is at, I think. It seems to me that working-class universities have students that can get these jobs more easily than fancy-pants universities, and that this is not always unreasonable for places doing the hiring.

Phoebe said...

Matt's right about the barista-other food service divide. Also, even if as a grad student you're too poor to eat out much, you're probably still eating out from time to time (pizza, falafel, lentil soup... at least I eat out in this manner) and someone is serving you the food. How often is that someone a middle-class or wealthier college student?

Paul Gowder said...

I have a profoundly skewed sample: the two places that account for 80% of my food budget are the lentil soup & falafel place (where the employees are about half family members of the owners and half recent immigrants) and the extreme hipster coffeeshop (where the employees are almost all college students, and one cannot walk in the door without being judged by at least five people).

Will have to contemplate the barista/other food service divide thing more. It does tend to undermine my previous beliefs...