WTF America: The Squeaky Red Cog (Chapter 31)

Johnson! My Wax!

Working in the US provides some strange fringe benefits.

The squeaky red cog

 

It’s labor day in America. The day of discount mattresses. There are huge sales happening today, and I have become a man that now works these sales. Each day I’m toiling in the retail mines, loading dust covered merchandise into the carts bound for the surface. Once those carts reach the surface they are taken by myself, and others, and hammered and worked into deals. We’re not making the merchandise, I’m not working a sewing machine, I’m not spinning or harvesting cotton. I’m just a man putting clearance stickers on boxes of shoes.

Yes dear readers, after 5 years of unemployment back home, and around 18 months of self-employment as a wordsmith I have joined the regular working world. That world where you’re expected to be at a place, at a time, to do a thing, for 40 years until you die, and you get paid every few weeks a set amount. So that’s nice.

Because of something akin to an NDA I am unable to talk about the specifics of where I work and the practices therein. Also, because I’m not a dullard that wishes to lose his job, I’m not telling you where I work, or when I work, or who I work with. Any names referenced have been changed to protect the employed.

But it’s reasonable for me to say that I work in retail. Plenty of people work in retail, and there are many stores to facilitate this industry, and I imagine that most of them work pretty much the same – they hire people, those people put stickers on shoe boxes, those clearance shoes sell to people, and once those shoes are worn out the cycle repeats. I show up to a place, and I do a thing, and they pay me. Working in this way has been interesting.

A few times my father has suggested that depression is caused because people don’t work enough. What I think he means by that is that occupying the mind with a task, particularly when that task is work, provides a drive. I never knew I cared so much about selling shoes, folding t-shirts and making the economy run. I feel like a productive part of the economy for a change. Not that I wasn’t productive in Ireland – I wrote several books that never saw the light of day, I learned to weld, I made my own very bad furniture, I ran a Dungeons and Dragons game that propped up the local beer and grocery industries. Even as a dole jockey, you’re contributing – every penny you receive each week is more often than not spent by the time the next week went around. Poor people don’t suck money out of the economy, they circulate it. It moves from the hands of the government, to the hands of the poor, to the hands of the employed, to the hands of the other employed, and little bits of it along the way reach the government again. Chunks also reach the rich, but that’s a complaint for later.

People have this slavish attitude towards the economy. As if there is some Cthuloid being that hovers above us that must receive regular infusions of worker blood and cash lest it turn the sky black, remove all the air from the planet, and watch our cells burst from the sudden influx of solar radiation. The economy isn’t actually a thing. The movement of money is the economy, and that’s it. If money isn’t moving, then the economy is stagnant, and if it is moving, then the economy is growing. Each transaction provides movement to the economy, whether it’s building a new high rise or selling a box of shoes that have recently been put on clearance. This movement is vital if health of the economy is something that we give a shit about, and then we’re back to this slave of Cthuloid thing. The economy doesn’t demand, and it doesn’t allow. Everything the economy does, is actually things we do.

I found another little thing I love about America several years ago, and it’s called the Beige Book. Now this book is basically a bunch of yarns and speculations from various regular folks around the country about the direction that the economy is going. You ever hear farmers talking about the corncrake? Or someone noting that the barometric pressure has been low all march, meaning that the crops will be wet all summer? The Beige Book is full of that stuff. And that’s what’s important to note about the economy – our actions and prophecies often come true, not because the economy is an uncrackable cryptex, but because our actions are the ones that shape the future of the countries we live in.

And it’s been interesting to live inside this machine called capitalism. But I’ve always had these hardline socialist ideals, and communist thoughts that tell me wages and property are theft, and business is always bad. I shouldn’t be selling my bone and muscle, which hurt after 8 hours of work, for as low as I am selling them. I didn’t get the wage I asked for when I applied, but I got higher than minimum. Which isn’t saying much. I should be beating my ploughshare into a sword and attacking the establishment with it, waving my red flag of workers rebellion. But I keep not doing that.

I don’t necessarily fear losing the job, and since I’ve gotten it the collective income and prospects of myself and the wife have improved. Currently the job I hold in this workplace outside the home, this job that is tiring and often difficult, is the lowest paying job we have between us. So why do I keep it? Well there are a few reasons, chief among them the promise I made to myself that if ever I got a job, I would keep it for a minimum of one year, regardless of how much I liked it. Another reason I have yet to build a guillotine, is that I actually do like this job. My father was right – having a purpose in life can do a great deal for the individual. Even if this squeaky red cog of an individual has a suspicious opinion of large scale capitalism.

It’s somewhat fulfilling, this job. I work in a specialist department, and I’m the most competent member of that department, and as such I’m afforded a lot of agency. I set my own targets, I undertake my own projects, and when consulting with managers on my plan of action, I’ve been told more than once that I don’t need to consult them – I know what I’m doing, so just have at it. My suggestions are listened to, my coworkers aren’t idiots, the customers aren’t insufferable shits. Many of the things I’ve been told about working retail have not come true. I like this job.

Don’t get me wrong. Woodie Guthrie’s songs still sing in my heart when I’m on the floor. The spirit of worker revolution burns within me while I work. I’d sing sea shanties and chain-gang songs while I worked if my tempo wasn’t fucked up by the piped in Taylor Swift and other pop music that soothes the patrons and employees all day. There are still thing that I don’t like about the job.

Credit cards are one of them. There are targets and benchmarks to hit vis-a-vis credit cards, something which is brought up frequently by management. The training for this job focused more on credit cards than it did on pretty much anything else. We’re reminded at all times to be selling credit cards, in addition to merchandise. And I’ve gotten a few applications, some resulting in people receiving the credit card. But reading through the booklet we provide the customer, I wouldn’t apply for one. So why should I continue to offer them?

Well, firstly because that’s my job. I didn’t plan on becoming a banker, I didn’t consider it my destiny to sell credit cards, but it’s part of the job, and when something is part of the job you do it. There are times I wish to climb on the counter, and turn people off the credit card simply by reading the terms and conditions aloud at length. But that isn’t part of the job, so I don’t.

The reason I continue to mention it to customers, is that people actually want credit cards. People love credit cards, especially in America. The ability to get it right now is a strong draw for a lot of people. Who am I to step into the path of financial decisions that I believe are bad? Maybe they’re not bad at all, maybe I’m just a red hearted commie that disagrees with the system of credit. As far as I’ve seen so far, you never get between an American and their decision.

The decision to own a gun, the decision to eat something with trans fat in it, the decision to drink too much, smoke cigarettes, or the decision to sell cigarettes. People get completely bent out of shape when you dare suggest that there’s something they shouldn’t be doing. Even if that includes harming their credit, getting a high interest rate, or doing something that benefits a corporation a lot more than it benefits you.

No matter what I’ve done to apply the grease of understanding, I remain a squeaky red cog in this big machine that they call American capitalism. And it’s a hell of a thing to see from the inside. I’ve heard many Americans say that everyone should work retail during the holiday season, which is fast approaching. They believe it would bring kindness between consumers and workers. People would understand each other more, and be more conscientious shoppers if they understood what happens after they’ve left 13 pairs of identical jeans in the fitting rooms. In fact, I hear this from customers all the time, customers that used to work in retail. Many have warned me about customer entitlement, but I haven’t encountered it yet, at least not at the point of sale. Customers return things to racks, they put things on hangers, they put shoe boxes back in the shelves. They often do this wrongly, but bless their hanes cotton socks for trying to be helpful.

As much as I desire to form a union, or call a strike, or demand pay raises, or better coffee in the breakroom, those are not things I plan to do in the immediate future. Retail here has a high employee turnover rate. People fade in and fade out, and the turnover seems to be so frequent that someone is always leaving, and new hires are always coming in. Within a few weeks of working at my place of employ they were sending me brand new employees with the intent of them getting up to speed as quickly as I did.

I take a lot of pride in my job. Just as my pa takes in his. It has tested what kind of man I am. Whenever I feel the desire to slack off, I am reminded that I don’t do that. I work harder when I feel the desire to slack off, to prove my dedication. I don’t do it to prove anything to management, I do it for myself. I’ve discovered benefits like discipline, a positive attitude, flexibility, time management, collaboration, and motivation. These things were not impossible to discover on my own, working from home, but work is a pressure environment where you need to show results. The benefits of this job, for me, extend far beyond the reasonably low pay of the paycheck that comes in every few weeks.

But is pride in one’s self a good enough reward for working for a wage below that which you desire? And that’s the rub, that gives rise to the squeak. That’s the rub that sees me in favor of a $10-$15 minimum wage. Or even such an outlandish idea as a maximum wage – every paycheck in a company is indexed to the lowest earning member of staff. If the boss wants a raise, we all get a raise.

But these ideas have a hard time finding sympathy in this country. The bootstrappers, and the righteous knights of capitalism will ride in on brass bulls and tell you that minimum wage is supposed to be a child’s wage that lets them buy candy as they go to a college they can’t afford. So on the cog squeaks, still part of this big, ceaseless machine. I’m integral, but I’m replaceable. The machine can suffer only so many squeaky cogs before they have to shut it down. But if you replace them quickly enough, you never have to shut it down at all.

If this post has been too much of a downer for you, please view the picture of professional Johnson Wax provided above.

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