The Answer Guy Online

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Thursday, October 17, 2002

Allison had some interesting things to say about class consciousness the other day.

I too hail from blue collar roots and I’m somewhat different from my peers in subtle ways that perhaps most people don’t pick up on. It’s influenced my political thinking to this day – I have a lot more sympathy to organized labor than most people at Dartmouth, GW Law, or most folks I run into nowadays. But it’s more cultural than anything else.

But what I really wanted to rant about before I went to sleep was this:

Too many kids in this country in general and the Washington area in particular grow up without ever having to work a low-level job. I worked a few such jobs and wasn’t especially suited to most of them (I was a good pizza delivery guy since I learned the labyrinthine streets of the towns around Worcester cold.) As a society, our young people are by and large being told that menial work is beneath many of us, that vacations in Italy, tennis camp, and maybe a cushy office internship with Daddy’s law firm are entitlements.

Now more and more these sorts of jobs are what fresh-off-the-boat immigrants or the poorest of the poor or ex-convicts do. Especially in the Washington area. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have immigrants or anything. But I do wonder if we’re moving towards a newly stratified society, I can’t imagine that’s a good thing.

Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society. At some level we know that’s not true. Our national obsession with race is sort of a proxy, and an imprecise one at that, for discussions of class.

Am I longing for the days when even kids from well-off families often worked at the soda shop or the supermarket because, as old folks are inclined to say, menial work “builds character?” Not really. I’m still not even sure what that means. I’ve always told myself I would never forget what it’s like to be a kid. I may be getting old, but I haven’t forgotten yet. I still can’t say “it builds character” with a straight face. I’ll know I’m really old when I can say that without drenching it in irony.

What crappy work does do for someone, I think, is provide someone, even someone headed for the Ivy League, with a perspective on life. There are people who have to support themselves and help support their families bagging groceries, washing cars, flipping burgers, and digging ditches. If you’ve had to wait on rude people at a restaurant, it’s less likely you’re going be the kind of customer wait staff can’t stand to serve. If you’ve had to deal with impatient customers in a supermarket checkout, you’re probably not going to be like that when you’re out shopping.

If you’re never had these sorts of experiences, if you’ve always been the customer, if you’ve always “had it your way,” so to speak, it’s far easier not to think about the human beings who are making chump change taking abuse from obnoxious people. And so you’re rude to them more often. I’m sure this has something to do with the decline in civility many perceive in public society.

I may call myself the Answer Guy. I wish I had an answer for this one.

Good night, readers.


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