Customer Service

Do nightmares end or do they just change shapes or go into remission?

A nightmare for me ended or at least went into remission about two weeks ago.  I went to work in a large downtown Manhattan investment bank’s technology area.  Actually I went back there because I was their employee for three and a half years in the middle 1990s.  I always regretted leaving–it was the best job I ever had–and I despaired of ever getting back. As the years went by I despaired of getting any job that paid more than a subsistence income.

But I did.

I don’t toss about the word "miracle" like I’m at Lourdes or Medjugorge, but this time it feels like the real thing. I was basically on the employment ropes for two years.  Through a combination of bad choices and the mendacity of others, I was in a series of wrong jobs. I was put in a state-sponsored training program I had no business attending, I was hospitalized, and then I spent the better part of 2007 working in retail and service occupations.  My final descent into Hell was six weeks working as a proofreader, a job I managed to destroy by blogging about it from here (home).  When someone traced me and "tattled" to my management, I was kicked out. It was not the worst thing that happened to me.  As indiscreet as it was, the company deserved it.

So I faded into another retail job.  And then by some twist of fate I came back to as near as it gets to a dream.  Real folding money for real work.

Now, hold on. That last sentence fragment is a blatant and deliberate lie, and if you don’t know why then you have the same problem I did. Until, that is, I worked in retail and service for a year.

What is real work? What is service?

When I say "working in service" I don’t mean Upstairs, Downstairs or attending the Starkey Institute in Denver to learn to be a butler or  manage a wealthy household.

I mean working in a call center for $12.00 an hour so that bored or frustrated people could phone in and call me a series of the vilest names you’ve ever heard. Granted, I was spared racial slurs because I’m white (ssshhh! don’t tell anyone!) but some of my African-American colleagues were not.  That is a service job.

A service job is selling food to people in a supermarket. Seven hours on my feet with a sharp knife in my hand for $7.50 an hour listening to people call the food shit, after which I got to get my hands into boiling water to clean dishes.  I was fulfilling the prophecy that someday I’d make some nice girl a good wife.

A service job is running a register in a drugstore. The managers and employees in that drugstore were good people who were locked into an industry where low wages were the norm.

What do they all have in common? Between $7.50 and $12.00 an hour.  Only one of the companies had health coverage.  Most low-paying service jobs throw you onto the State for some kind of indigent care, if it’s available.  If your car quits and you can’t afford to fix it, you take a bus or a train to work.  If there’s no bus you take a cab.  If there’s no cab you hitch rides or you walk.  Just make sure you get to work or your ass is grass.  It’s easy to fill jobs like that. Low-wage employees are fungible.

Repeat: I finally got to know what life inside the "service economy" looks like because I was part of it for most of a year.  I used to ignore it and then I became part of it. So I cannot ignore it anymore. Simple, isn’t it?

  • It’s the supermarket owned and managed by people who pretend to be great religious benefactors who deny someone time off to care for a sick spouse.
  • It’s a rapacious pirate like WalMart setting the tone for an entire industry and other parts of the retail industry with farcical wages and anti-union policies that involve intimidation, firing, and I’m not sure what else.
  • It’s other supermarkets and discount stores following WalMart’s lead by cutting back on wages and benefits because, after all, a bunch of "white trash" and ghettoistas take those jobs so why pay them anything worthwhile?
  • It’s phone companies and other retail establishments telling you "Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes." In other words, it’s someone listening in on the customer service agent at Eddie Bauer when you call to complain about a sweater. And if the agent isn’t rated highly enough through some randomly-chosen calls, he or she is fired.

I will never again look at customer service the same way.  I recently shredded a WalMart gift card because I will never again shop in a WalMart, KMart, or most other box stores that won’t offer even token medical coverage that a convict gets routinely during a stint in state prison.  Oh, I’ve shopped in those places, and I am somewhat ashamed to say so–because patronizing a WalMart or KMart vindicates the exploitive, slaveholder mentality of such places and allows them to justify their combined existences by saying "See, people do shop here, we’re just giving them what they want!"

Sure. Low prices. In the case of WalMart, for trash merchandise heaped on the back of shift workers who don’t get enough hours to qualify for health coverage, and who are locked down if they’re on the night crew. If they don’t like it they can leave (can’t they?) because you can hire anyone who just got out of rehab or County.

I feel extremely grateful to have seen life from both sides now. I know that I can go right back there. But for the moment I hope that I have absorbed the still-incomplete lessons from the worst two years of my life.

Forgiveness is one thing.  Forgetfulness is profound stupidity.

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