Or: What I Learned from Working at Dunkin’ Donuts.
The view from the bottom is really quite spectacular, but those who have always lived there rarely see clearly. They’re not stupid –they know roughly where they are– but they’re trapped by so many tethers they find elusive, and they have no map for how to get out. The rest of us cannot see the truth about ourselves until we have dealt with the truth about them. I worked with them for two months. In immediate hindsight, here are six observations:
1: “Minimum Wage” really means that your employers would likely pay you less, but that they can’t legally get away with it.
This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “human resources.” Resources: like oil or coal. When people are paid only enough money to fund some small entertainments, or to pay their cell phone bill, then what does that say about the way that their employer values them? –as better coal, or as worse coal, but always as coal. This demotivates. One is sensitive to this, even if one is not aware of it.
It’s true that good help is hard to find; it’s also true that good help is impossible to retain or appropriately incentivize on what is approximately an $8.50/hr. minimum wage: employees become as disposable as the coffee filters, and care about their job as much.
Of course, these jobs are not designed as career jobs, and high turnover is expected, so a critical reader may waive this all away as so much whiny cavaliering. Employees are seen as deluded for trying to turn a temp gig into a permanent one.
Employers purchase the labor of the employee for what they think the job is worth, and, in theory, a prospective employee is supposed to be free to opt for another job. Unfortunately, (1) most of those who actually take such jobs don’t have any other options (in 1996, “four in ten [were] the sole bread winner of their family” and “[o]nly one in fourteen [were] teenage student[s] from famil[ies] with above-average earnings”), (2) even apart from the vulnerable and trapped poor, such jobs are how most middle- and lower-class children are initiated into the adult world, and if they haven’t already internalized their disposability, then to some degree they likely will.
2: Minimum-wage workers are assimilated to the machinery.
I wrote above, “employees become as disposable as the coffee filters”, but this is not all: employees become one more cog in the coffee-dispensing machinery. It’s in the nature of the service Dunkin’ Donuts provides: a quick cuppa coffee or fast food. Employees are merely disposable drive-through order-taking and food-prep machines at a fast-food chain. (They really are disposable.)
Yet as we know, no one is paid for being human, but for goods or services. Nonetheless, most retail transactions usually have at least a minimal amount of dual-focus on both the transaction and the humanity of the transactors, because, more or less, people appear in their work.
In such jobs as Dunkin’ Donuts, however, what is usually at least minimal is often not even liminal: ordinarily, the customer does not want to feel your personality, nor to relate to you as other than the gatekeeper for their swift product delivery (unless they’re interested in flirting, or are lonely, like late-night cab drivers). I resisted this as much as I could, finding little one-liners to insert into the mechanical flow, but that’s like planting a flower in a concrete jungle.
So one resists the way the job mutes one’s personhood, and quits (or is fired), or else one assimilates oneself to the machinery. In some ways, this is inevitable: if I care about excellence at my job, my mind bends to thinking about accurate and swift button-pushing and whatnot. Even in the breakroom this mechanicalization does not leave one alone: posters are everywhere that note changing standards. Even off the clock, you are a purchased product to recalibrate.
This last point might be dismissed as a jaundiced take on standardization, if there were not a horrible artificial dissonance between workers and their place of work. Workers are involved with their workplace — they clean it, stock it, take care of customers, cooperate and negotiate with their fellow employees, fix and work with the machinery. Involvement naturally leads to practices of care and a sense of investment, but the natural trend of this dynamic is arrested by the dynamics and constant reinforcement of being a purchased product oneself — purchased labor.
Take customer service: it is through secret shoppers that I was assessed on this. Any accolades that accrued to me for good secret-shopper reports are mediated artificially through mechanisms of employee assessment, mechanisms which reinforce my essential interchangeability and perennial audition. I could say similar things about the equipment and the facilities, &c. Impotence to address issues brings on numbness, and reinforces a sense of helplessness and a mood of not caring.
In the end, we have no vote for how the store is to be run, and are merely disposable in relation to it; we are not solicited for feedback; we are not co-owners. This further leads to a loss of the sense of one’s own personality, and value, and falsifies one’s actual involvements and personal investments in the store, the customers, and one’s fellow employees.
3: There is a kind of product integration that creates the demographic it aims at.
All of these are connected in a frightening way, and create a world:
The Boston Red Sox
Shaw’s / Star Market
Shows like American Idol
Dunkin’ Donuts pushes their product at Red Sox events, Red Sox players are used to advertise Dunkin’ Donuts’ products, and Dunkin’ Donuts caters to the Red Sox.
People is one of the main media outlets through which celebrities (Red Sox players, radio stars, &c.) are able to secure and augment their status as Very Important People whose lives consumers should be very attentive to: it’s “Life, the movie/music video/TV show episode/news story.” If a person is not celebrated that person is not a celebrity, and he or she must be celebrated somewhere; this “where” is the tissue of media platforms (TV, radio, billboards, advertisements, magazines, internet “news”, &c.) that project images of these “celebrities” at that segment of people who have been primed to be consumers of celebrity.
Why is Shaw’s/Star Market significant? They’re tied to that demographic of shoppers which expects and accepts such product integration (celebrities are products, too). (Trader Joe’s would alienate a very large portion of their customers if they played Mix104.1, pushed People, and had strong Red Sox product integration.) In this magazine/radio/TV tag team, we are like beggarly servants who are allowed a brief glimpse into their masters’ Very Important World which we are not quite a part of, but which is celebrated as central, and which we can come close to. We are served up to this world as food for The Party, and we are trained to wish to be consumed by it as an Event that catches us up into itself, carries us, and takes us over. (People will deny this characterization bitterly: “No, I just enjoy it. I just do!” –note the “just”, as though their enjoyment were a brute fact that could not itself be explained.) How is one brought close to The Party? –by being at Dunkin’ Donuts, seeing images of one’s favorite athlete and hearing one’s favorite pop tune on the radio there, by being at the checkout line at Shaw’s/Star and seeing images of pop stars or Red Sox players, or by watching American Idol and subconsciously identifying with the contestants.
American Idol is one example of an “Event” –a media occurrence designed to dazzle you and order your life as a pinnacle moment (“The American Idol finals are on this weekend! –who are you going to vote for??”), displacing public real-world events, often aimed at getting you to buy a product one way or another– such an “Event” appears in People magazine (not The Economist, not The Atlantic, &c.), and the music produced by the winners is pushed onto the appropriate demographic of listeners through channels like Mix 104.1, who peddle the goods designed for this demographic to the outlets (such as Dunkin’ Donuts) where they know these people will be. You will not hear Chris Daughtry’s Battleships on NPR (Chris Daughtry, of American Idol fame, the drama of whose life one can find on the pages of several issues of People).
Who advertises on Mix 104.1? It’s telling: all of the outlets that are part of this integrated cluster, plus some others, satellite businesses who cater to the same demographic and supply the same kinds of boutique pleasures (concerts, water parks, laser hair removal), who wish to pay premium to plug into the networks that have a strong presence in the lives of the target demographic. (I wonder why there are Ford and Toyota ads on Mix 104.1, but no Lexus ads…)
Then there are secondary and tertiary platforms such as major gas station chains who feed on this integrated cluster: many gas stations in Boston have Dunkin’ Donuts in them, play Mix 104.1, and push People Magazine, &c.
What is terrifying about all of this is not so much that it aims at a demographic, but that it creates the demographic: there is a whole world, and a whole group of people, that is created by these things, by watching the game, being concerned with the players, going to Dunkin’ Donuts, watching these TV events, and talking about them and the pop celebrities and the celebrities’ lives at work and with friends; billboards on the highway and near main thoroughfares reinforce their supposed importance by presenting these figures and events as events; people are born to parents who live in this world, and so these children are raised within it. So many of my classmates are new parents, and post pictures of their infants and toddlers in Red Sox jerseys on Facebook. If Mix104.1, the Red Sox, People, spectacle TV such as American Idol, Star/Shaw’s and related venues and products disappeared tonight, there would be very little remaining world for these people: they would have to create a new one. They might create a similar integrated cluster, since they have been so deeply penetrated by the spirit of this one.
Of course, no one can get away with delaying The Party forever, which is why there is MixFest. (Some FAQ here –it’s free, of course, because The Party has to arrive for everyone or else it’s too elite to capture and dazzle; although, as with last year, you’ll need to listen carefully when they want you to in order to get your VIP passes– and tellingly, the main billed performer is an American Idol winner. Also: it’s sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts.) The Party. The Event. Dazzle ’em.
This is not a conspiracy theory. The desire for mastery, the technocratic mentality, simply underlies modernity, including sales, marketing, and focus groups, &c. The goal is to map out demographics as much as possible, to know them as well as a piano, so that one can predict outcomes — I hit this key, and the demographic reflexively sounds this note. Otherwise one is selling into a vortex of risk. Predictability, stability, regularity, mechanization.
4: In a capitalist system, preserving a product’s value effectively demands that unsold goods be wasted.
In the case of the particular store where I worked, we threw away two large trash barrels of bagels, pastries and doughnuts every night.
The owner formerly gave them away –to the owner’s credit– but then the owner was sued by a homeless woman who ate some of the donated product and claimed she fell sick from it. The woman won some obscene amount of money. So thus the donating stopped, because it became a liability. One of the owner’s relatives would sometimes come by, round up the throwaway food into bags, and give it to the poor. They hated it, too. What decent person wouldn’t? The kind of system we inhabit forces us all to this — but there are back doors of sorts, such as charitable donations. Thankfully, people can fill out 501c3 forms to work with these stores to have them donate their excess/throwaway produce to the poor; but that’s only a workaround created by the fundamental problem: in our economic system, the value of the product still requires that it not be for free, even when there is an overabundance. (But thank God for the workaround!) Still: the value of the product does demand waste.
As I grew physically ill from throwing out so much food every day, an acquaintance of mine told me a story about his visit to Guatemala City that threw the root of this problem into clear relief. There was a dump next to the City, he said, and thousands of people lived there, half of them under the age of twelve. As one would imagine, they were poor, and hungry. There was a McDonald’s next to the dump. The McDonald’s had a dumpster out back, with a razor-wire fence around it. Why was the razor-wire fence there? Because there were some kind people who would regularly buy huge bags of burgers to distribute to the children in the dump, and if there were no razor-wire fence, the children would eat the tossed food, and the need for the charitable purchases would effectively evaporate.
5: The culture has no idea what’s going on in some city high schools, what the fallout is, or how to address it.
I’ve met people who left teaching because they felt like it was a glorified babysitting gig, but this takes everything to a new level.
I work with nearly half a dozen kids who either go to the local high school, or dropped out of there recently. Many of these kids live in federal housing; nearly all are the children of South American immigrants, though they talk like they could be Bloods or Crips (this isn’t an affect: they can’t turn it off).
They consume media, rather than create it, so they don’t understand how it works even at the level of video cuts, let alone how it affects them more broadly. Some of them at work were watching this, and guffawing at it. They thought it was real. They were simply in the dark. The engineered elements of it were as opaque to them as those in America’s Got Talent are to the lower-middle class. I explained to them why it must be fake, how some of the cuts are impossible: they saw the truth as soon as I pointed it out. They needed a cheap release so badly, though, and they looked downcast. They are prime targets for exploitation on numerous levels; the kind of media they have been weaned on since childhood makes them ill-suited to the sustained work involved in becoming cultured and educated, and the available education becomes increasingly media-saturated. This is not an engineered result, but it does work in the self-interest of the media to have an uneducated and uncritical audience, just as the State’s ruling class is served by having an uneducated citizenry. The poor will always be more vulnerable here. Lacking a map of how to act, they settle for power fantasies.
I mentioned their accent. I’ve tried to encourage them to speak differently, for their own economic sakes, because this marks them as permanently lower class, and will affect their future employment, &c. It’s hard to get this into their heads. Media from the integrated cluster doesn’t help: to cite a pair of video/musical examples, artists and more artists are used as products in part to sell the lower class an accent and characteristic grammatical errors, even when they are clearly artificial and even more artificial. Yet when I tried to help them out of something that traps them in this rut, their ghetto accent became a kind of tribal badge for them, designed by someone else, but perpetuated because they not only consent to it, they identify with it. They speak that way because they know where they live, and must adapt to the engineered-but-established norm. None of those I encouraged had the energy needed for uprooting it. Why is this? –because their energies go into either Dunkin’ Donuts, or into their other activities.
Most of them have acquaintances who are into knife fights, or oxy or heroin, or robbery, or mugging. I get the impression that many of them were into some of this stuff in high school, and I worry that they are often tempted to dabble in it. There are plenty of playgrounds in the area without any illumination for them to mug or shoot up in. My co-workers are not of this sort (for the most part, I don’t think), which is why they have a stable job — Dunkin’ Donuts.
Some of them are that one-in-four Boston kid who dropped out of high school. Perhaps they’ll get their GED. Perhaps they will climb the ladder from retail job to retail job; perhaps they will do construction, or get into car repair, or move furniture; perhaps they will find something like the Post Office. This will be hard for them, because of the friends and habits that weigh them down. Even if they do, they will have a difficult time entirely escaping the orbit of wasted lives, because they live in, and have internalized, a sub-culture enchained to escapism and consumer pleasures — which the Mix 104.1 music and lifestyle pushed on the Dunkin’ Donuts radio glamorizes. At best, their escapisms will consist in video game addictions, but as one of my co-workers said to me, he lost interest in them when he discovered “more interesting things”.
Most of them come either from broken homes, or from homes where the parents are either (1) just barely functional/literate/able to speak English, or (2) illegal. As a result of the second option, the parents are often not at home, because they work 80+ hours a week to make ends meet, so they’re not able to monitor their children’s growth. When they are with them, they indulge in the pleasures that the radio stations and magazines –which have been forced upon them by their employers– celebrate. They frequently do so in ways well beyond their means, such as trips to Disney World.
The lower-class population shows the largest population growth. These problems fester, and will likely grow, but the middle class doesn’t notice. After all, they don’t want the personalities of the people serving them coffee to show up in the transaction, and they’ve got too many texts to read about the MixFest concert coming up.
6: The illegal immigrant population is shockingly vulnerable.
Regarding these parents, the illegals: they are in a rough spot.
They pay taxes, because they need fake papers to work here, but they do not enjoy the basic securities that citizens have. One person I know received an anonymous call, in Spanish, while this person was at work: some people claimed that they had this individual’s brother (also in the US, also an illegal), and that they would kill him in 24 hours if the brother’s family did not put up $5k ransom money in something like 18 hours. They are exposed to crimes that they cannot report –rape, theft, fraud, violence– because reporting them will mean risking deportation, and deportation means that they will make less money in six months at a teacher’s salary back home than they do here in two weeks at minimum wage.
It’s not only poverty they risk upon return home, either: that’s not always what they’re here to escape. The criminal justice system in their home countries is often surprisingly broken. I mentioned the family who received a ransom threat: it’s not the first time they’ve been on the receiving end of violence. One of them, who does have renewable 2-year working papers, lost a brother-in-law back in her home country: a group of men got him drunk, and then robbed and killed him. The police drummed out the identity of one of the murderers, and put him in jail…for five years. Five years. The murderer swore that when he got out, he and his friends would kill the other five brothers. (This is a nation we pour money into, but you won’t find a national conversation about how we should spend our money there.) The victim’s family could not get paperwork to leave the country, so they entered the US illegally. Some of them now have working papers. They have had children here; their children are citizens. They are afraid for their parents left behind in the home country, and especially for the brothers left behind.
The relationships of these illegals are often very narrow. They’re too busy to make friends. They are not part of a network of other illegals: they are isolated and alone, and show no awareness of how to find free things to do with their children. The prospect of, say, moving from apartment to apartment is traumatic, because they have no social networks: even at Church (they are all Catholic), there is no coffee hour (assuming they have time to get to the Mass! –which they usually don’t), so they develop no bonds with other local Catholics who might be interested in helping them for free.
No coffee hour. No fraternity of laypeople to bring these families decent meals and connect them with local libraries and museums and parks or affordable baby-sitting services. No one to hear their frustrations and offer support. No one to say the Divine Hours with them, or the Rosary. Nearly all of these illegals are pious third-world Catholics, which means that they have no patience for the progressive liberal ideology or the neoconservative ideology that are battling it out for the future of American Catholic culture. Unfortunately, American Catholics are either too busy fighting this ideological war, or indulging in some kind of entertainment or escapism, whether the Mix 104.1 variety or another: their attention is elsewhere, and they don’t help their brethren who are suffering only miles, or yards, away. As a result, many of these parents and their children are being assimilated to the mediocritizing elements in this pop culture at best, are falling into criminal trends at worst (a group of these teens –they thought they were anonymous, but I could make out who they were– threatened to “cut me” at 10 P.M. one night in the children’s playground next to my house when I told them politely that they weren’t allowed to be there after dark), or else –and this is more frequent for the parents– living behind a wall of busyness at work.
Talking to a friend recently who has worked in politics for a decade, it appears that there is a big push to grant amnesty to those illegals who are already here, while clearing up immigration laws and strictly enforcing them. Some States have already done this, he said, but the problem is that the Federal government is the one who issues Social Security numbers. Given how polarized political discourse is on this, it is hard to see a quick and humane solution coming out of a common discourse, even though we need both the discourse and the solution.
The To-Do List
I have things I do to help these people, and things that I plan to do to alleviate these situations in some small way. I cannot do this alone: reader, I beg you to act, somehow, and help. We can start with knowledge, love, and tears.