idleness is the devil's playground
so, my gig working at a produce stand is on hiatus while the farmers’ markets are being organized for the winter. in an attempt to alleviate the financial burden this imposed on me, i went to the barnes and noble bookstore at columbia university to see if i could get a temp job for january. i was hired immediately, and was slated to work full time for the month. however, there was one caveat: they could not reinstate me at the rate of pay i was receiving when i left 4 years ago.
i worked part time for this store for close to 3 years. when i started, i was paid $9 an hour. a crime, to be sure, for someone as over-educated and talented as me, but a job that i needed at the time (before i was hired full time as a communications associate at my church.) after a stellar performance—which included devising a system of shelving books that was OFFICIALLY ADOPTED AS THE STANDARD FOR ALL EMPLOYEES IN THE STORE—i was given a sparkling review which included a whopping 30-cent raise. so, when i left the store in 2007, i was making $9.30 an hour. again, not great money, but helpful in meeting my monthly expenses. (by the way, the system of shelving i devised didn’t stick: the other employees couldn’t figure out how to do it as efficiently as i did.)
so, back to the caveat: when i was “given my old job back,” i was informed of the decreased pay: they can only pay me $7.50 an hour—a mere 25 cents above minimum wage (because, apparently, barnes and noble was bought out by barnes and noble, inc., and all temporary new-hires are started at this pay rate. how a corporation becomes 2 corporations and then buys itself out is WAY beyond my level of market comprehension, other than to think that it is ultimately based on economic and political sham, but that is another story altogether.)
ANYWAY, i needed the money so i said “no problem.” and, i really meant it. i figured i could do this crappy job for one month, during which i will hopefully get another market job, or land a teaching gig for the semester. so, i show up for work the other day and one of the supervisors sets me up with a team of coworkers to prepare prepackaged boxed sets for one of the larger introductory columbia classes: think plato, ovid, adam smith, john locke, freud, etc.
as the supervisor was explaining which books needed to be put in these boxed sets, referencing a posted list of said books, one of my co-workers started reading the titles off the list. now, i am generally not a judgmental person. the fact that this co-worker couldn’t pronounce plato’s name, or couldn’t pronounce the words “decameron” or “metamorphosis” correctly didn’t ultimately bother me, as i realize there is a vast range of education/knowledge in the general populace. this person is not dumb. he is simply uneducated. it’s a bookstore. what did i expect? i can work with this, i said to myself.
that was, until the fire alarm went off.
all of the employees got our coats and went outside, where we had to stand around idle for about 30 minutes while the building was evacuated and the fire department ascertained what the problem was, if there was a fire. maybe it was drill. who knows. who cares.
i had genuinely shown up for work ready to bust my ass, as i have always done at ANY job. but this 30 minutes of idle time was too much for me to handle. for someone as educated as me, who has a REALLY overactive and underutilized brain, this 30 minutes was a death knell.
my conversation afterwards with the textbook manager went something like this:
“i am sorry. i thought i could do this job for $7.50 an hour, but i simply can’t. i have 2 bachelors and 2 masters degrees. part of my master’s thesis has been published in a journal of academic essays. i have taught at hunter college and the college of new rochelle. i have worked in 4 different bookstores, including part-time in THIS store for about 3 years. i devised a system of shelving books here that was officially adopted as the policy for all employees. i think it is unfair that i am paid the same as someone who doesn’t know who plato is and doesn’t seem to have a grasp of basic english. i understand there are rules, but i am the exception to the rule. is there anything that can be done? i can do this job if you guys can reinstate the rate of pay i had when i left. isn’t there any kind of exception that can be made?”
manager: “sorry. not really. we have to abide by the corporation’s policies, and as a temporary new-hire, we can only pay you $7.50 an hour.”
in the rest of the conversation, i basically articulated a well reasoned argument which i can sum up as such: THIS IS ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS.
i mean, i understand “how it works,” but, come on. really? this is so fraught with the fodder of the current national #OWS conversation that it allows me a chance to examine some problems that i’m sure would resonate with quite a few protesters.
problem #1: “the corporation just don’t care!”
those of you who have seen “fight club,” do you remember the scene about automobile accidents vs. out-of-court settlements vs. recalls? here is an abbreviated script (thanks to IMDB):
I'm a recall coordinator. My job is
to apply the formula. It's a story
A new car built by my company leaves
somewhere traveling at 60 miles per
hour. The rear differential locks up.
The car crashes and burns with
everyone trapped inside. Now: do we
initiate a recall?
Take the number of vehicles in the
field, (A), and multiply it by the
probable rate of failure, (B), then
multiply the result by the average
out-of-court settlement, (C). A
times B times C equals X...
If X is less than the cost of a
recall, we don't do one.
Are there a lot of these kinds of
Oh, you wouldn't believe.
... Which... car company do you work
A major one.
in paying slightly better than minimum wage, the barnes and noble corporation (or barnes and noble, inc., or barnes and noble college division, who the hell knows???) is “applying the formula” to the number of students, number of books sold, and chances that those books are the incorrect books. they are basically saying: we don’t really care if all of our customers get the correct books they need for classes. that is to say, if EVERY student got the incorrect books, then there is no way this store could stay in business, right? (at least one would hope this is the case!)
how this spells out, i don’t know. i’m sure the store makes a killing on general merchandise that students throw in the shopping basket with their textbooks: 3-ring binders, loose leaf paper, bluebooks, pens, pencils, calculators, clocks, dorm refrigerators, sheets and towels, sweatshirts, doormats, shot glasses and stuffed animals with the school logo, etc; and, ultimately, if your professors order their books from this store, then you HAVE to buy them there, so eventually, the store will get your money anyway! (with exceptions, of course. you might find your books online, but then you might be waiting for several weeks and will fall behind in the class reading. of course, those students who stocked up on beer mugs and shot glasses probably don’t care, but some students actually want to do the reading!)
these 2 examples (fight club and the columbia bookstore) illustrate a very simple yet very important fact: CORPORATIONS DONT CARE! THEY JUST WANT YOUR MONEY!
think about insurance. when is the last time you heard a conversation go like this:
person 1: our house caught on fire.
person 2: that’s terrible!
person 1: oh, it’s okay! we called the insurance company, and they immediately sent someone out to assess the damages and we had a huge settlement check by the end of the week! they were so understanding and compassionate, and everything was covered!
person 2: well, of course you did! that’s what insurance companies do! they really just want to help us in our most stated times of crisis! thank god they are so caring and compassionate!
person 3 (me): NOT!
problem #2: unnecessary bottle-necking
considering the number of uneducated (or under-educated) employees hired by the store—who are basically given a 5-minute crash course by the managers and then set loose to help students find books for the semester—well, you can probably guess that there are quite a few students who will walk out of the store withOUT their correct books. (of course, mind you, this is an IVY LEAGUE INSTITUTION populated with QUITE a few folks who ostensibly got into the school on something OTHER than intelligence (daddy's coattails?), so maybe it serves them right, if they can’t figure out how a simple bookstore works. i was actually quite surprised at the level of downright cluelessness i encountered when working there several years ago.)
i pointed out to my manager that EVERY student who is handed an incorrect textbook will crowd not only the front of the store, seeking a refund or exchange, but also the back of the store, seeking the correct textbooks. (to give you an idea of the bottle-necking this causes, there are currently close to 28,000 students at columbia; and keep in mind that new york businesses and residences are not as spacious as other parts of the country.) wouldn’t it make everyone’s life SO much easier if we just made sure students got the correct books in the first place? maybe someone needs to devise a new formula: the amount of pay required to correct mistakes, versus the $1.80 more per hour that they could have paid someone like ME to help keep those mistakes to a minimum.
this also would cut down on the amount of angry phoning/tweeting/facebook ranting that will ensue, which will give the store a bad reputation—and this is not good marketing. you’ve heard this story before. you probably were one of those people at one time! you and your friends all had similar gripes: “that place is f***ed up! they can’t ever get it right!” (of course, this applies not only to whatever college bookstore you shopped in, but also the college administration, the phone company, your internet provider, that pizza company your ordered from, your insurer, the library, the post office, etc., get the picture?)
problem #3: the general manager of the entire store is absolutely powerless (a woman, in this particular situation, so at least barnes and noble is willing to put women in managerial positions; oh, no wait... i forgot: as women demographically tend to make less than men doing the exact same job, maybe this is just another way for B&N to save a few bucks!) anyway, her hands are tied. she is constrained by the corporate rules. she couldn’t pay me my original rate of pay if she wanted to!
so, she is hired to run the store as smoothly as possible. and then has every possible obstacle thrown in her way by the parent company? does she stand a chance of losing her job if enough students filed complaints about the store? possibly so. and that would be an egregious crime, as far as i’m concerned.
have you ever been on one end of a phone conversation, trying to have some problem fixed, only to be told “sorry, the computer won’t allow me to do that," or "i just don't have the power to do that"? well, i have. in fact, it feels like i’ve heard that many times. i think we've probably all had this experience throughout our lives. it's called "bureaucratic nightmare."
this *thing* we have created has, simply put, grown too big for its britches. that sound you hear? that's the tearing of the national fabric. might get ugly.
but don’t fret for me. while i was outside during that 30-minute fire alarm thinking WAY too much, i also pulled out my phone and did some number crunching on the calculator. the prognosis: after taxes, that job really isn’t worth my time. i can make as much money playing and singing in the subway.
if you want to come throw a dollar (or two) in my mandolin case, i’ll be somewhere near one of the 42nd street stations.