Not that long ago or far away, I worked in a bookstore. It was good work. Intellectually stimulating in spots. Physically demanding in others. Emotionally satisfying most of all. It was good to help people to books. Help them find the books that would entertain or educate. Good to work around other people that felt as strongly about books as I did.
I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started working there, but by the third year I knew I had found my niché. The thing that makes my heart sing, you know?
What it didn’t do is pay the bills. Not even as I climbed the ladder into management did it do that.
During most of my tenure as a bookseller I shared living spaces with anywhere from 2-6 other people. Sharing bills is how you get by at minimum wage. None of my roommates had children, so we all sort of stayed above water. Barely. A few didn’t.
The homes were somewhat revolving doors of changing circumstances.
This is the kind of lifestyle that we are led to expect of our college years from the generation that has come before us, but for most of us, we were in our late 20’s and early 30’s. One of my roommates worked in the IT industry and brought home an above average salary of anywhere from 60-80k a year. Utility bills were made out in his good credit name. The rest of us were minimum wage service industry, with a few pink collar specializers floating in and out with their “good money” of 30-40k a year.
I was one of the lucky ones. The very few. In a store that employed 30 or 40 people I was one of around 6 that broke 20,000 a year in wages. Gross income. Pre-taxes. This is what climbing the ladder of management means. If I went much higher I would be salaried, and that would mean all my overtime would suddenly be gone. I would work the same grueling overtime hours, but without the perks in my paycheck. A small nod of a few extra thousand would be added to my salary, but the overtime generally meant a lot more. So I didn’t fight that hard to climb higher. My elevated position meant I was granted overtime far more often than those beneath me.
This is a sweet spot in the retail and service industry that’s rarely understood outside of it. Shift managers, assistant managers, supervisors, team leaders – all different titles that generally mean: I can’t afford to make less money, and I can’t afford to make “more.”
Again, I was one of the lucky ones. I was surrounded by coworkers who did not get by.
During my time working with books I had coworkers who lived without gas for years because no one in their house had the credit to connect that utility, nor the money to pay the extra that gas companies ask for if you don’t have it. They took cold showers in the Winter, and used space heaters well into Spring. I had coworkers who squatted in abandoned houses without water at all. I had coworkers who had teeth rotting out of their head because dental insurance was just one extra too many after paying for groceries. I had coworkers, so many, who worked 2 and even 3 jobs trying to hobble together enough to pay for a simple life. Coworkers with no cars in a city that had very limited mass transit. Coworkers who worked only for the insurance because they were cancer survivors, and insurance companies would no longer take them and their preexisting conditions. Everyone skipped meals there. Everyone.
The vast majority of those who I worked with were not teenagers. They were not bored spouses filling up their empty hours. The few teenagers I did work with were not making pocket money. They too were just trying to pay their bills. Heck, some of the people I worked with were well degreed people. Teachers, engineers and lawyers who had left their professions when times got tough. Service and retail was what could be found. So we worked shoulder to shoulder. A goodly portion of my coworkers had children to feed and clothe.
The public perception of what it means to be poor is somehow “other,” but 57% of families in the US are below the poverty line, and having lived there I can tell you: poverty is everywhere.
The cheapest new car starts at $17k. Most new cars are closer to $30k. That’s more than or almost a year’s salary for most people. For most of the US a new car is stratospherically impossible, a bizarre castle in the sky that is referred to but never seen.
I’ll tell you, the new dream of this coming generation isn’t home ownership. From their homes with roommates or the basements of their parent’s home where they still live? Simply buying a new car is the new dream. “Someday I’ll buy a car that isn’t already broken. That I don’t have to spend a quarter of every paycheck to keep running.” That’s what Lennie and George would be talking about in our brave new economy instead of their far off dreams of a small farm to own and live off of.
During one of the regular “charity drives” that our chain of bookstores had wherein customers would buy books off our shelves to donate to children who are in need (a self serving charity if there ever was one, but one that did indeed get books into the hands of children who had never had a book of their own outside of a library) I had a customer look at me in her multi-thousand dollar coat, clutching her hundreds of dollar purse and tell me of course she wouldn’t buy a book to donate to local children in need. There were no local children in need here. No one was in need in her community.
She honestly believed it. It was all she knew. She was not mean spirited, she just could not see what was beyond the doors of her own house.
People don’t walk around telling you that they are in poverty. Even when we are, we rarely say it. We make do and get by. We skip meals, and juggle bills. We don’t go to the doctor or the dentist. We share homes and stretch our dollars.
We are decimated by furnaces and cars that need repair. School loans that automatically deduct our money. Accidents and illnesses that chip away the foundations we stand on.
No one is in need in our communities. We all are.
If you don’t see that, you Paul Ryan’s of the world? It’s because you have closed the door on the rest of us.