Downgraded

(Photo: Who’s heading home from work here, and who’s just starting their commute? Credit: Looper.)

When I first moved to the Windy City, way back in early 2003–eons ago in Internet time–I was soundly kicked down the economic ladder by fate. I moved midwest on the shaky strength of a job offer that shook apart just as I was arriving. Moving from New York as I did, any savings I might have had to cushion that blow had already been blown on other of life’s line items, like outrageous Gotham rent and food costs. Now here I was, with an urban planning masters degree, without an apartment, and with the sinking feeling I was about to return, albeit temporarily, to the crap jobs of my college days.

Temporary came to visit and settled in for two years. In short order I was lucky to find an apartment in Lake View, and a Hogtown friend got me a job as a commission sales associate selling high-end televisions in a low-brow home store.

In Schaumburg.

My cush 20-minute Brooklyn to Manhattan subway ride became a 90-minute transit odyssey into the retail armpit of the Chicago ‘burbs, to have the privilege of dressing in black, eschewing liquids and pee breaks for hours at a time, and running across a highway to grab lunch. What felt peculiar to me, a refugee from the white-collar world, was that my coworkers didn’t find any of this odd.

When three hours a day on the Blue Line and Pace finally became too much to bear, the Christmas rush was a bust, and none of my upladder interviews were panning out, I knew I had to find a way to earn a roof over my head a little closer to home. Thus began my year of ESL hell in Pilsen and Humboldt Park. I had all the qualifications I needed: a month-long, distance-learning “certificate” secured over the Internet, and air of erudition, and the drive of abject desperation to push me along.

My students were as eye-opening as the job requirements. Teaching English as a Second Language for low wages was one thing. I knew I had signed up for that. Being forced to clean classrooms, do administrative work, and attend Moonie-ish weekend “team-building” sabbaticals, all decidedly off the timeclock, were a shock (as I later learned from a teacher at one ESL school, since many employees were illegal, they were too afraid to protest their treatment).

It was hard for me to speak up, either. My students, mostly Mexican, mostly in their 20s, mostly displaying bright eyes but weary faces, would arrive in my evening classes after working 12-hour days in a local factory or restaurant. Or, worse, before they started their 12-hour evening shifts. If they could do that and sit in my class two hours every night to learn how to conjugate English, who was I to complain?

But a part-time ESL salary isn’t enough to pay the bills, even in Chicago (four years here from NYC and I still see this city as a bargain), so out with any free time whatsoever, and in with $8 an hour at a longstanding, highly dysfunctional hardware store in Lake View. If I didn’t have the impetus to keep seeking a degree-requiring job in Hogtown before (and I sure as hell did), my stay in tool land definitely made returning to Yuppiedom a do-or-die endeavor.

Why? Filth, for one thing, throughout the store, and in the fetid, sawdust-covered cubicle where we were required to take our 10-hour days’ 30-minute lunches. And for another, an absence of any perceived iota of respect from the nitwit, twenty-something manager charged by his owner-father with attempting to relate to the ever-changing sea of faces that would appear behind the register, useless degree in one hand, saber saw in the other, only to leave after an addition of the labor laws being violated by the place summed in their heads to a greater cost to bear than the paltry wage that they were earning.

A wage that the store thought was generous for that type of work. Eight dollars an hour for heavy lifting, assembly, cleaning on your hands on knees, breathing in potentially harmful dust and fumes without a legally required mask. And for being treated as somehow less than human because your income was measured in a single-digit wage.

Those days are long gone for me. But though I’m back in the urban-planning, white-collar, Internet-scribe middle class, I can’t forget what I went through. It was that experience tht drew me into working on 7 Days @ Minimum Wage. In all the debates about low wages and poor working conditions, you never hear much about the actual people who are forced to experience them. I wanted to help to change that.

7 Days @ Minimum Wage begins today. For the next week, the ACORN/AFLCIO-sponsored, Roseanne Barr-hosted video blog will tell the story of real people working at really low wages, in their own words. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of anger–but not much hope–expressed by the people we interviewed. Some of the stories are extraordinarily hard to watch.

You should watch them anyway. If for no other reason, than to remind yourself but for the vagaries of fate how close all of us really are to being in the same boat. And how much we all matter on the inside.

No matter how much our paycheck tells us we’re worth.

* * *

Watch the videos: sevendaysatminimumwage.org.

(Get notified about new posts: Facebook Updates | Email Updates | RSS Updates)

8 Comments

What do you think?