I've started working for peanuts operating a cash register at a large sporting goods store which will never be mentioned by name here - I don't think that it is always appropriate to blog about work, especially when work is a soul-sucking enterprise. We'll have to see how that demand on my time impacts my writing here. In the meantime, before I have to go pay my dues to the Man again, here is a thought about the "new" economy:
Most new jobs created in the current economic climate are low wage jobs. In most of these jobs, employees are treated as fiscal liabilities; that is, as overhead and potential overhead, in need of reduction. They are treated with suspicion by management, seen as thieves or potential thieves, always looking to steal time, money and/or merchandise. They are treated with derision by those they serve, who thank God that they are not like these poor souls who have to slave away in a dead-end, low-pay job.
My first day on the job, many a person treated me like a complete idiot. Not only am I stuck here - an indication of my abilities and my worth - but I'm not any good at it! Surely any idiot, save for this poor, inept soul, can operate a cash register! I spent most of the day wanting to shout out my intellectual credentials, to somehow prove myself to those who see me as little more than a pathetic slave. It was a dehumanizing experience.
Worse still is the myth - nay, lie - that a college degree is a ticket out of low wage work. It shocked me that I couldn't get a better job than this when I decided to re-enter the work force after leaving professional ministry. But it shocked me even more to find that I am not nearly the only person at my work with a college degree. Each of us were a little stunned to find, in this "recovery," that we can't do better than peanuts per hour to work a demeaning and dehumanizing job.
Not, of course, that retail has to be that way. Just that retail, in this environment, is that way. At least mass retail, which follows Wal-Mart's corporate example with varying degrees of success. With, of course, success being determined by the difference between gross revenue and overhead. With, of course, me being seen as overhead, rather than an asset.
In a truly existentially disorienting moment, I ran into one of my co-workers on break, only to realize that he used to be in my Youth Group. He had always seen me as a quasi-mystical creature, someone so intuned with the will and nature of God that I operated on almost another plane. A different category of being. Now I'm just another person in the company uniform, designed to remove as much individuality, creativity, and free will as possible. Talk about being taken down a couple of notches in someone's eyes.
Of course, I always said that I hated how ministry in general and youth ministry in particular too often devolved into a cult of personality. But being at the head of such an accidental cult - even when it comes with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" - strokes the ego. And my ego had long been in need of stroking. There is a great deal less ego stroking in retail work, where no one notices you unless you make a mistake. Where the whole goal is to minimize the extent to which you can be seen as a liability.
I should start back to school in January, working slowly toward a career in academia, which I'm sure will come with its own challenges and disappointments. In the meantime, I've been dreaming about getting one of my papers tattooed to my forehead, just so that the people who stare at my suddenly blank face will know that I am more than just my function in the store.
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