The entrance to the place was clogged with sweating courtiers--not the sleek top-level ones but the dented, scarred, slightly too old and slightly too ugly ones who actually got everything done.

~ Neal Stephenson,
Quicksilver, p.168

"I just lost my best friend on Dead Man's Curve!"
"What's Dead Man's Curve?"
"It's an incredibly dangerous curve in the fake highway we built."
"Why would you build an incredibly dangerous curve in a FAKE highway?"

~ Upright Citizens' Brigade, the episode with the space dolphins

Authenticity is dangerous, elusive--necessary. Pundits cross verbal swords over what the "real America" is or isn't, hipsters chase an ever-receding horizon of cool, philosophers and theologians argue over the original intent of ancient texts, governments attempt to demonstrate the connections between their mechanisms of power and the will of the people they rule and, supposedly, represent. And very little of this, when I boil it down to its syrupy essence, has much to do with my life in practical terms.

I spent probably more than half my life in an attempt to win free of a deep-seated, irrational self-loathing. And just as, in this man's army, the reward for a job well done is another job, the success of that project cascaded into another project: self-respect.

Looking into how people put our personalities together has led me to observe some things about norms--the expectations and standards of behavior we use to judge the worth, the coolness, the desirability of various actions and behaviors. We also use norms to create and, unconsciously at least, rank the categories into which various types of persons may fall. A norm is, structurally, a collection of memes which we have invested with belief.

I've got some of the classic ivory-tower intellectual norms about blue-collar jobs. You could call it prejudice, naivete, or even something nicer if your norms lean in the same direction. Namely, deep in the bottom of my brain, I feel that people who work with their hands and the strength of their backs are in some weird way nobler and more connected to reality than people who sit at desks and crunch numbers or wrangle legalese.

Since most of my jobs have been the sitting-at-desks kind, I've experienced an interesting tension between pride in my work and shame that it's not "honest" labor. Now, however, I'm in a place where I don't just feel like an authentic, hardworking American laborer, I actually am one. I work (when I'm lucky) eight hours a day, on my feet, slicing meats and cheeses. I make salads, help customers find items, even make sandwiches or pizzas on occasion, and at the end of the night I take deli slicers apart and clean them, mop floors, and turn out the lights when I leave.

And I'm friggin' loving it. I actually do feel more connected to reality, and even if it's only an illusion created by my preconceptions, it's a useful illusion and I cultivate it. This teeny tiny job in this one grocery store is where the rubber meets the road. The whole corporate hierarchy of the company which owns "my" store, all the people who have desk jobs crunching numbers and wrangling legalese, exist so that I can have a side of beef or turkey or ham to slice up, tag, bag, hand to a customer and say, "Would you like some cheese with that?" Call me crazy, but I've been here almost three months now and it's still exhilarating.

The coolest part about it is really the human aspect. There's a camaraderie among people who work together with their hands that just doesn't exist in an office. We spend a shift together, or at least within eye contact of one another, performing the same mind-numbing and back-straining tasks, over and over, getting hassled by the same hilarious (in retrospect) customers, staring at the backs of the same item tags and watching to see when our trays and dishes need to be refilled. And when there's a lull in business, when it's time to mop up at the end of the day, when we're outside catching a cancer stick on break, we connect like real human beings. We swap war stories about crazy customers, talk about our kids/parents/significant others/roommates, and just generally bask in mutually earned respect.

Far from having my old norms dispelled by a rude shock of horrible reality, I find them confirmed and solidified. It matters that I can spend a shift pushing pizzas and squirming my whole torso in under the counter to scoop up precise weights of potato salads and still walk out the door smiling. It makes a difference in somebody's day that I gave them their turkey sliced to the thickness they wanted, got them a sample, and still found the energy to joke about the weather. If I want to be a bodhisattva when I grow up (even if that is just a collection of ideals I've assembled in my brain! or like a saint, but with more arms--both good!), then this is a step I absolutely could not have afforded to skip. This is freaking important.

Sure, I spend a lot of time worrying about money. That, too, is part of being a real authentic blue-collar American. At $8.20 an hour (per union contract for new hires--did I mention I'm in a union now? how cool is that?), the difference between 27 and 30 hours a week is the difference between not quite being able to pay my rent and being able to pay it and also buy bus fare and maybe some eggs, bread and beer. My manager is cool about it--she schedules me for the first seven hours of an eight-hour shift, so that if, at the end of the night, I find there's enough work to keep me there a bit longer, I can call in to the person-in-charge and get me an extra half-hour or so for the night. Gives me a chance to juice the clock from 27 hours up to 30 or so, in other words. Me being an awesome worker and high-energy customer service guru is the difference between getting that consideration and getting scheduled for the union-contract-minimum 16 hours per week--which would most definitely not be enough to pay for my rent, bus fare and food.

I work at a nexus in the maelstrom of commercial exchange, but subsist on a very narrow margin between the income I can produce and what I must consume in order to continue eating and living indoors. Every day is a balancing act. Sure, I could get the employee-discounted coffee for $0.83--but do I have that much in my bank account? Will I need it later for rent or bus fare? Or do I actually need to get it, to get a cash-back amount of less than $20 (the minimum ATM withdrawal) so that I can recharge my bus card in order to be able to get to work tomorrow?

It's kind of weird. I worry about this stuff every day, I run the numbers over and over in my head to reach the same sums, and then I take a step back into the philosophical, metagaming sphere which is my native realm. And I ask myself things like, "In what do you actually believe?" or "What gives you strength and keeps you going?" or "Whence comes your help?"


I am reformatting my personal definitions of all those things with every step I take, with every slice I push through with the strength of my arms, with every cent I spend. Authenticity, as I conceive it, is a thing you earn by living in spite of difficulty, through effort, by meeting challenges for which failure is not an option. It is the triumph of the spark in the ashes of the phoenix, the extra twenty minutes you put on the clock, the quarter you find in the gutter that makes bus fare home out of not quite enough. It is the difference between independent life and living under a bridge hoping for a handful of someone else's change. It is so very little, and in the final analysis, everything.


Amber E said...

You are awesome. :) I'm glad that you are happy

There is something very real and vital feeling about doing tangible work. It is satisfying, I think there is a natural desire to see results for our efforts and and satisfies a deep need.

“. . . it tastes well, the bread which you earn yourself.”

William Makepeace Thackeray

“The only way to enjoy anything in this life is to earn it first”

Ginger Rogers

When you are tired and sore after work and you have seem tangible results it feels like you have earned your money. For me at least that is the visceral experience. Even though of course you might be paid well for doing less tangible things that people value they do not carry the same emotional satisfaction.