Thursday, July 16, 2015

the lessons of asphalt fumes and hard work

They just redid the parking lots in my apartment complex...fresh layer of asphalt, new lines on the spaces. Constant repair on roads, sidewalk, and parking lots is one of the realities of living in the North that I didn't expect when I was getting ready to leave Florida. Our winters are very hard on the infrastructure, so everything is in a constant cycle of dis- and re-pair. Quite often, when I smell the tell-tale odor of asphalt, my mind can't help but thing of structural issues. This time, it's different. This time, every time I step outside, I'm reminded of high school and work.

While I spent the vast majority of my 16-28 years working at the pizza place (and yes, I still have dreams), my first job was actually working in construction during the summer before my junior year. My brother was in community college and got a summer job working at a pavement marking company--they painted lines on parking lots and roads, installed concrete parking bumpers, and so forth--and his boss asked him if he knew anyone who could use a job. Pretty soon, I was working with him.

My first introduction to the world of work was laboring over chemical fumes on freshly laid asphalt in the 100+ degree Florida summer. The work would be grueling even if not for the heat, but with the sun, it was nigh-unbearable. Add to that our boss. He was a really nice guy, but he was as amped up as anyone could imagine. He'd bring us coffee, for instance, but it was terrible convenience store coffee, and he wouldn't bring cream or sugar because it took too long. We got a half hour lunch break, but when he was with us, he would inhale his food in five minutes and spend the rest of the lunch rushing us so we could get back to work. And what could we do? Knowing that we needed the money and could be easily replaced, we complied.

As for the job as a whole, I was torn. There were things I did like about it, and (forgetting the boss/worker tendencies of all involved), I liked my coworkers. However, I hated feeling drained to the point of collapse each day, and I hated knowing that ultimately, I didn't really make a difference to the organization as I was so easily replaceable. And if there was anything the job taught me, it was that I did not want to do construction.

I learned a lot from each of my jobs. I worked for a temporary work service, and that taught me how easily workers can be seen and treated as disposable entities. I worked in several warehouses, and that taught me I could continue to physically operate while mentally checking out. My time in the pizza industry taught me many things: how to deal with coworkers, how the general public looks down on those who serve them (that is, when they see them at all), how to talk on the phone, how to multitask, and many more things. It did also reinforce the "disposable worker" element as well, because for my first few years, the company refused to hire plumbers to clean our grease trap and made the employees do it (which was highly illegal, particularly when they told us to throw the hazardous waste in the dumpsters).

For years, I wondered if the "disposable worker" thing was just me. I know that being treated as a replaceable machine cog helped facilitate my mistrust and hatred of authority figures and structures...but then again, I always have been a bit of a depressive. But several years ago, I started a day in class where I polled the students on their worst jobs and what they learned from them...and surprise, surprise, I found out that everyone knew in their guts that workers are almost always disposable. Two years ago, I started asking students who've worked register (at restaurants, retail, or grocery) how many customers actually looked at them in their eyes. The answer? Usually around 5%. This means that 19 out of 20 customers treat the person taking their money as beneath their notice.

A week or two ago, one of the 2016 presidential candidates said words to the effect that people just need to work more hours, and everything will be okay. My students certainly know better. Even the ones who are not hard workers know this, because they have been taught that workers and work are not particularly valued. I learned this throughout most of my jobs. Hell, one of the reasons I stayed at the pizza place so long was because, as I was in management, I honestly felt I was making some kind of impact on the company and my area...and one of the reasons I left was when I fully realized that I was as replaceable as anyone.

Workers are not the problem. I know that in my heart. I know that in every bit of work experience I have ever had. I know that from the tales my students tell. And I'm reminded of that every time I smell the asphalt fumes.

No comments: