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An Apartheid of Dollars

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Posted on Apr 25, 2014

Photo by XXX

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Erika Eichelberger’s introduction here.

There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside,  including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations,  that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.

At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance.  Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy,  and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way—toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.

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Old World/New World

The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we’ll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I’d show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”

Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don’t have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.

You also don’t know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don’t pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a we’re-all-in-it, what’re-ya-gonna-do look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.

Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.

Basic Training

It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.

You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you’re paid to follow the rules. Don’t forget who’s the boss. (It’s never you.) It all becomes who you are.

Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn’t know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

Patient Zero in the New Economy

One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn’t always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he’d been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn’t shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.

Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.


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