Saturday, February 23, 2013

The new nameless, faceless me

At work today, as a never-ending stream of groceries flowed over the conveyor belt and through my scanner, and onto another conveyor belt to be ferried down to the bagger, I realized that I am literally a cog in a giant, impersonal, uncaring machine.

I always knew that, of course. Knew it intellectually. Knew it theoretically. But today, at work, I suddenly knew it in my gut, in my bones, in my feelings, in my heart. 

I am nothing but a cog in a machine, of no more importance than a bolt in an engine, a staple in a stapler, a piece of carpet in a giant condo. Nameless, faceless, impersonal, I am easily substitutable,  easily replaced, no more important in the grand scheme of things than a shopping cart or a roll of paper towels. 

As the groceries poured down the conveyor belt, it occurred to me that they were the end product of many other conveyor belts in all the many factories and distributions and warehouses they have traveled to get to my line. How many nameless, faceless hands had touched these products, had manufactured them, had labored over them in silence? How many miles had they traveled to wind up in Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis? 

Perhaps words aren't enough to explain the horror I felt. As a writer and journalist, I had been safe from this nameless, faceless world of the poorly paid worker. As the editor of a newspaper, I was not easily replaceable at a moment's notice. As the author of murder mystery novels, I was used to having a sense of identity and purpose and meaning. 

Now, in my old age, I am reduced to running your purchases through a scanner and telling you how much money you owe the nameless, faceless corporation that I represent.

A great weight despair and helplessness has settled over me. I fight it, of course. As an American, I was always taught -- and I always believed -- that if you were willing to work hard, you would get ahead. Now I see that's not always true. Now I see that so many people work very hard indeed, and barely tread water. They certainly never get ahead. How can they?

Regular customers are starting to use my name, having read it from my name badge. It annoys me, to be honest. These customers don't know me. We're not on a first name basis. I am a servant. I am paid to be polite. When you use my first name, I feel slightly patronized. You don't know me. When you look at me and read my name off my name badge, you are reminding me that I am not a person: I am a thing. An easily interchangeable thing. We have an entire raft of cashiers who can replace me at a moment's notice. You would not know the difference, You would not care. 

As a cog in the machine, I am expected to serve a purpose, and I do. I am standing at my register at all times. I am not allowed to chew gum, or drink water, or eat anything, or engage in personal conversations with my fellow employees. I cannot answer my phone if it rings. I cannot rest no matter how much my back or legs might be hurting. 

Every minute is accounted for. If I work a four-hour shift, I get precisely fifteen minutes to take a break -- and no more. Every other minute I am standing there, ready to go, running your purchases through my machine, serving, constantly in motion like a fan belt in an engine. I cannot stop. I cannot pause to use the bathroom. I cannot pause to get a drink. I'm being paid the mighty sum of $7.35 an hour, and the company wants its $7.35 worth. 

After I got off my shift today, I sat in my car for many minutes, smoking a cigarette, somewhat dazed. I am not used to be treated so impersonally. It feels brutal, harsh. I am not used to being a cog in a machine. I feel like I lose something of myself each time I work a shift. I come away feeling less than what I used to be, less of a person, less of an individual.

I sat in my car today and wondered what the future could hold. Am I to be yet one more American with a college degree and professional skills who is now "underemployed"? Am I stuck in the world of low-income workers who have no hope for the future? 

When the company puts $131 dollars in my bank account like it did this past week, which of those $131 dollars am I supposed to save for my retirement? What am I going to do about health care, which I don't have? What am I going to do if I get sick? What am I going to do if my brother kicks me out of his home and I have nowhere to live except my beat-up car?

How is it that so many millions of Americans have, like me, fallen into this abyss? At forty-nine years of age, am I expected to go back to college and get another degree? Do I need to leave Tupelo, Mississippi, and my family and friends, and seek my fortune elsewhere? 

I am a writer. That's what I do. That's what I know. There's not many jobs for writers. My dumb luck, I guess. 

Americans like to pride themselves on their "exceptionalism."And we are indeed exceptional. We're the richest country in the world, and yet we have homeless people on our streets, and millions of nameless, faceless working poor barely getting by so that stockholders and CEOs can wallow in unimaginable wealth. We have millions of kids who are "food insecure." We have politicians who mock the poor, who dismiss them as takers, who sneer at their bitterness and anger and call it "the politics of envy."  We have prominent Christian leaders who care more about zygotes than actual human beings, who have firmly aligned themselves with our heartless form of survival-of-the-fittest capitalism.

Billions of dollars are spent on war - but we can't raise the minimum wage.

Billions of dollars are wasted on subsidies for the oil industry - but we can't raise minimum wage.  

Billions of dollars wind up in the hands of folks like the Walton family, owners of Walmart - but we can't raise minimum wage.

From Occupy Democrats
We have a political party that can't seem to lick the boots of the job creators enough and who have passed legislation over the past thirty years that have left the wealthy a whole lot wealthier than they used to be, and the poor a whole lot poorer. This same political party tells us we can't raise minimum wage even as it wonders why it lost the presidential election so badly. 

We are exceptional, all right. In any other country in the civilized world, there would be riots in the streets. Only Americans would allow themselves to be trampled in this fashion, and we only do so because the wealthy elites have poured millions of dollars into advertising campaigns to convince us that the system is just and fair and more than we deserve. We are like dogs happy for the scraps thrown from the table.

I don't think much about the future now, because there is no future for me, and there's no future for the millions like me stuck in dead-end, low-wage jobs. 

If America were truly exceptional, it would find a way to do better than this. 


  1. I just spent a couple of hours reading every single one of your posts - good thing you've only been doing this a couple of months! I came here from a facebook link. I was totally mesmerized. You're the most talented poor person I've seen. I think this is a fantastic story you're sharing, and I will be closely following along. I also intend to share as much as I can. BTW, I really like happy endings, so I hope you can arrange one.

  2. Even dogs have a name and get a pat on the head every now and again. Workers don't even get that as you've said.

    I feel some of that same despair now that I am disabled. I've always prided myself on being the breadwinner of the family and of being one of the most valuable employees at my job. Now I can't be either of those. What's left for me? Nothing but the scorn of the more well-off who assume that everyone who is on disability is just faking for a check.

    There's little I can do for people in your position, Nick, but I do what I can. I get to know them as well as my shopping habits allow. I am patient with them and kind to them. I always leave a tip where appropriate. And no matter what else, I really listen to them when they have something to say. They ARE people. You ARE a person. You matter.

  3. A bit reminiscent of "Nickel and Dimed", but that was just an experiment in which the author was voluntarily taking these bottom-of-the-food chain jobs in order to write about the experience. Truly horrifying and depressing. Just as "a conservative is a liberal who just go mugged", over the last few years I have seen a bit of the opposite: "a liberal is a 55-year-old conservative who has been on unemployment for a year and a half". Hope you find something more suitable and less soul-crushing, but it might require leaving your home town.

  4. Yes, it does remind me of "Nickel and Dimed" and now "The American Way of Eating." I'd like to get my Ole Miss students (writing with a business theme) to read this. They all think the world is their oyster and they'll graduate, get their dream job, and live happily ever after.

  5. A human being is more than the place they live. More than an American, more than a Southerner. More than which ever system he/she works or lives in. Each of us exists and survives within any number of frames (or games); and our role within that frame (game) may be elevated ...or any point in time. Your identity and worth and capacities are not created or limited by the frame/game (thank heavens....just think how much poorer the World would be if "cogs" limited themselves to contributing what the manual says "cogs" are allowed to contribute. Yes, you're a cog -- we are all cogs if you widen the lens and look at it from a distance. We are all so much more if you tighten the focus and expand your mind. Thanks for the post.

    1. The loss of hope screams out. Dispair is in the air.
      As the American economy changes effecting more of us than anything our generation has experienced, it becomes clear it's more difficult
      to have had and loose a better way of life, than to never had at all. One doesn't miss what one has never known. To dwell in one's misery will keep you there. Discomfort is to arouse discontent and stimulate creativity to force change. Change your thoughts, change your world. Time for action!