The other day I was at my desk at my internship. I love that job. (Yeah, I call it a job even though they’re not paying me. I do real and meaningful work there, and I enjoy it.) Over the cubicle wall, I overheard someone being talked through the installation of a standing desk.
“Ok, so you’re going to want to vary it up and see what feels good to you. Maybe an hour up, an hour down? Or like half hour up, half hour down. Whatever works for you. If you find that when you stand, you’re getting foot pain or lower back pain, we can get you a rubber relief mat.”
I was transported to another time, another place. I was picking up rubber relief mats in a kitchen covered in chicken grease to take them out back and hose them down. I was sweeping rubber mats clean at the end of the night, cursing their texture, exhausted. I was scuffing my shoes at the toe and the heel, standing on the outsides of my feet, trying to at least make the endless throb change places or tone in the bones of my feet.
“What’s a rubber relief mat?”
A rubber relief mat is the difference between standing on concrete for 8-18 hours a day, or standing on rubber. It’s not much, but the oldtimers told me it made the difference between an Epsom soak every couple of days and surgery down the road.
At my internship and at Cal, I’m surrounded by people who’ve never had to stand all day performing a repetitive task for a pittance. Office jobs come with some undreamed-of perks for those of us coming from food service/hospitality/retail. Let me share with you some of the best things about this job.
1. I have a chair. I read this article not too long ago about a guy who went through this in reverse— from a good desk job to the grinding indignity and exhaustion of retail. His first note was that you don’t sit. That was my experience as well. In previous jobs, sitting was often an invitation to a dressing-down, or formal discipline. At the internship where people don’t even know what relief mats are for, I sit.
2. I can go to the ladies room anytime I like. It’s a small, basic privilege, but I’ve been in jobs where I’ve lacked it. Responsible for a cash register or an exit, I’ve had to wait to be relieved. I’ve done the dance and I’ve bled through my pants waiting.
3. I can have a cup of tea or something to eat at my desk. Aside from a bottle of water, this is a serious no-no in most customer-facing retail jobs. It seems an incredible luxury not to have to hide a cup of coffee under my desk.
4. On the subject of what’s on my desk, I’d like to add my phone, my personal effects, and books that I’m carrying. Because it’s still novel to me that I don’t have to lock these up somewhere far away from me for the duration of my shift.
5. I don’t punch in, I don’t punch out. There’s a reasonable expectation of coming and going on time, but no one menaces me or writes me up over minutes lost the way they did in retail.
6. I’m not searched on my way out the door. Yes, that’s a real thing. Yes, it’s legal.
7. My boss gets frustrated and says “Fuck” when she feels like it. We don’t pretend like we’re a bunch of kids hiding from the adult managers with our naughty words. Swearing judiciously in the comfort of your own cubicle is the embodiment of white-collar privilege. Blue-collar workers swear under their breath, and seethe.
Class mobility is highly unlikely in this country. It’s even more unlikely in situations like mine. I was born poor and lived in poverty most of my life. Remember that day that Fox said you weren’t poor if you had a refrigerator? Well ha ha, you heartless miserly bastards. The year I spent fishing wet hot dogs out of a styrofoam cooler is my street cred. We were lights-off, stealing water from the neighbor’s spigot in the night, food stamp poor. Because of that, my first jobs were in food service, hospitality, and retail sales. By the time I had climbed up the ladder to retail sales (Lowe’s, Home Depot) I was incredibly grateful because they offered unthinkable benefits like a 401k plan and health insurance. (I could never afford that health insurance, but hey. It was there.)
Going to college is hard. It’s hard to figure out, if no one shows you how. It’s hard to wangle your way through financial aid, to put together deposit and first and last for a new apartment. It’s hard to buy a car when you’ve never done anything but pay cash for something that was already on its last good cylinder. This is all pretty obvious, right?
What nobody tells you is how hard it is to adjust to the culture. How to figure out what to wear to the office. How to tell your boss you’re going to go get lunch without sounding like you’re asking the warden for permission to leave the chain gang to piss. How to conceal your amazement at the water cooler, the coffee machine, the absence of anybody micromanaging your time for no other reason than to prove to you that you are not in charge here. How to conceal your amusement when someone has to explain that a rubber mat might make the choice to stand sometimes easier on your body.
I know it sounds insane, but the real class war is invisible. It’s the way these habits and expectations add up, they way they bend your spine and teach you to avoid eye contact. Diane di Prima said the only war is the war for the imagination. It’s so true that it’s scary. Remember those studies that showed how improving your posture changed an individual’s attitude and increased their chances of success? That’s my life. I’m pretending I belong, doing as the Romans do, and it’s working.*
When I heard my boss discussing the ergonomics of her work space, I remembered the life I used to have. But I stayed in my chair, in the life I have now, and I smiled. I drank my tea. I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
*I fully acknowledge that this works in part because of my unearned privilege, and I recognize that what’s working for me will not work for everyone.