Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
who’d assured us that they’d take care of the water.
    What we hadn’t realized was that the landlord’s version of “taking care of it” was having the guys run a Shop-Vac for awhile and then set up some box fans. This was to take care of a flood that was feet deep. The water soaked into the concrete walls so thoroughly that when we stopped in a few days later, you could see the mold growing to above your head.
    We didn’t have enough money to pay for both the motel and our rent. We called the landlord to get a new apartment, maybe one that wasn’t toxic, and were told that the apartment was fine now that it was dry. We called the health department and the press, neither of whom cared much. The health department guy, in all fairness, happened to not be in charge of this particular issue and couldn’t tell me who was. But he agreed that we definitely shouldn’t live there, especially not with a baby.
    The result? The landlord sued for eviction because we weren’t paying the rent on our flooded apartment. Cue the movie violins. Something as simple as a summer storm can mean disaster. So I learned to simply expect that if things felt like they were going rather too well, something would come along to knock me back into reality.
    Gruff attitudes are rife among people with low-wage jobs. And it’s no wonder, really, considering the lives we lead. Yet many of our employers actually seem to think it’s reasonable to require unfeigned good cheer in their employees, and this I don’t get. It doesn’t make sense to hire people at wages that guarantee they’ll be desperate and then be disappointed when they’re not always capable of pretending otherwise. Look, I don’t like walking into a gas station or fast-food joint or box store and dealing with a bunch of sullen idiots either. Butpeople don’t seem to stop to wonder why we’re uniformly so pissed off and unhelpful. I think you’ll find that the happier employees are in general, the happier they are at work. It isn’t rocket science. My guess is that, like me, a huge number of poor people are depressed. Anger is one of the few emotions that can penetrate depression. It’s strong enough to punch through the haze, so a whole lot of people like me hold on to our anger. We cherish it. The alternative, at least for me, is a sort of dreary nothing. Anger and depression make for a cute couple, right?
    —
    Regardless of our mood, we’re never fully checked into work because our brains are taken up with at least one and sometimes all of the following: 1) calculating how much we’ll make if we stay an extra hour, 2) worrying we’ll be sent home early because it’s slow and theorizing how much we will therefore lose, 3) placing bets on whether we will be allowed to leave in time to make it to our other job or pick up our kids. Meanwhile, we spend massive amounts of energy holding down the urge to punch something after the last customer called us an idiot. People don’t have any compunction about insulting service workers, but it’s amazing how quickly they’ll complain about your attitude if you’re not sufficiently good-natured about it.
    Our jobs are as much emotional labor as they are physical. What they are not, what they are never allowed to be, is mentally engaging. So we’re trying to zombie out to survive. We’renot allowed to deviate from policy even if the policy is kind of stupid and counterproductive. Nobody is interested in our thoughts, opinions, or the contributions we might be able to make—they want robots.
    Our survival mechanisms are the things that annoy the customers most. Next time you see someone being “sullen” or “rude,” try being nice to them. It’s likely you’ll be the first person to do so in hours. Alternatively, ask them an intelligent question. I used to come alive when someone legitimately wanted to know what I’d recommend. I knew everything about my products, having stared at all the boxes while I restocked them,

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