Friday, June 09, 2006


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Every so often the Social Security office sends out earnings statements to freak me out. I just got one in the mail, and opened it more from idle curiosity than anything else. My taxed earnings began in 1976, making this the 30th anniversary of my official labor life. In 1976 I was 14, and it looks like I made 13 dollars. In 1977 it went up to 188, then 393, then 912. The year Reagan was elected I went to college, and made 1,587 dollars--summer earnings at minimum wage at the counter of a general store in the tiny town in New Hampshire where I grew up. It stayed the same throughout college, then doubled when I got a TA in grad school, doubled again the next year, and almost reached 10 grand in 1986.

It drops off for a couple years after that, as I delivered pizzas, took the GRE over and over, and worked in group homes for developmentally disabled adults. In 1990, my first year as a TA in a new PhD program, it broke 10,000 dollars, then jumped again when I got a fellowship in 1991, hitting an all time high of 13,205. It wouldn't be so high again until 1995, when I defended my dissertation and took a two year women's studies instructorship at 25K.

Twenty-five thousand dollars seemed like an incredible amount of money to me then. It seems pretty nice now, but when you are a graduate student, anything double digit seems impossibly luxurious. I jumped into the 30s with my first job, then low 40s with my second, and that was it. One year, 2004, I actually broke 50K with summer teaching, the most money I'd ever made. I have had ten years--one third of my labor life--where I have made more than thirteen thousand dollars a year. This year won't be one of them.

The bar graph is dropping again, but there's something oddly comforting about looking at your life as earnings data. The numbers are so much more honest than the everyday cultural message we get on television, in the movies, in advertising that our REAL lives are our leisure hours, as if the time we work isn't real and doesn't matter. As if we don't live it.

But work is the most lived time there is. An hourly job can be like being trapped in a sick body. You don't float free of it; it encases you and drags you down into the interminable minutes and seconds of the present. After you're done, when you feel better, you can't remember it much until you're in it again. I remember watching the clock, opening my paycheck and wishing it was more. I still do that, but I don't have to watch the clock anymore, or punch in, or deliver chicken parmesan sandwiches to scary frat houses at midnight only to get exact change in payment. I may not have a career, but I have mobility that I could only dream about then. I can freelance, I can adjunct, I can land piecemeal professional jobs at part-time hours that pay more than full-time minimum wages. I think about all the families trying to support three, four, five people on that much money or less, working those hourly jobs, sometimes holding several at a time.

I remember my first job washing dishes in a restaurant on weekends, in 1977. Part of the hazing of new dishwashers, called "maggots" by the line cooks, involved playing Bowl-A-Rama with big pots down the length of the kitchen floor, with my feet as the bowling pins. I was supposed to hop around good-naturedly to avoid them, smiling, never showing how upset I was. I remember the filthy floors, the smell of soapy steam from the big dishwashing machines, the potato peeler machine, the french fry cutter, the fryolater full of hot grease. I remember bussing tables, dishes clinking in the dull gray plastic trays, my hands smeared with grease of other people's food. I remember taking cigarette breaks just to have a place in my head that was mine. I remember watching with agony as the clock hands crawled up the side of the wall, impossibly slow.

My first day was hell, but I came back for a second. At the end of the shift I mopped the kitchen floors while the line cooks went out front to smoke, finished for the night. I remember throwing bleach and soap on the smeared, filthy tiles and moving the mop in a curving motion across the muddy suds. I remember the pleasure I felt as the gleaming white floor emerged underneath--a pleasure I still take in a clean floor. At the end of the shift I went out front, and the supervisor gave me a beer out of the group sixpack. We all sat there and smoked before going home, sharing the cameraderie of working people. Tired, with the smell of the grill in our hair, we savored the end of the day with our feet up on chairs, and the good taste of cold beer in our throats.


BlondebutBright said...

What a great post. It's nice how something as mundane as an earnings statement can spark a whirlwind of memories.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I am really glad I didn't get one of those statement - as there would probably be a slip inside saying: "your pension includes this nice cardboard box for sleeping outside in your old age".

I did a summer of washing in a kitchen - washing dishes, gutting chickens and peeling potatoes - kinda put me off the food industry for life.

thanks for your post - it was nice to go a walking down memory lane.