A Working Stiff’s Manifesto, by Iain Levison: Chapter 1, Becoming an Associate (Part 1/2)

(Nick’s Notes: This series will mostly be containing my thoughts as I read this book. It’s not a book review (that will be at the end of it) but rather a chapter by chapter review, summary, analysis, etc.)

“A Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quit, Nine That Fired Me, and Three I Can’t Remember”

Becoming an Associate

The first section of this book starts off pretty great with Levison looking through newspapers and trying to find a job he can actually bear to do. His actual interests or abilities are never mentioned or even considered by himself. He can only begrudgingly look at the “two types of jobs” he can find which are either jobs he can’t do or jobs he doesn’t want to do. He gets lucky though and manages to find a job he both can’t do and doesn’t want to do!

But before we get to that job we are treated to Levison’s smartass remarks about who these phone girls are he has to call to get an interview who, if they were qualified for the job, probably wouldn’t be on call.

There are jobs that have “WILL TRAIN” on them, as in “COMPUTER PROGRAMMER, WILL TRAIN”. But the fine print is a bit more than Levison can take. It turns out to be a computer school (which costs $2,500) that will train him and eventually put him into data processing for $9 an hour. Levison wisely decides to move on.

Levison also makes a great point about overtime:

The problem is the guaranteed overtime. They are obviously understaffed and are trying to make it look like keeping me at work for fourteen hours a day will be doing me a favor. They’ll think because I answered this ad that I’m going to be enthusiastic about showing up on Sundays and holidays. “You wanted overtime,” they’ll crow, “isn’t that why you answered the ad?” I move down the page. (pp. 2-3)

And there is where he finds the job for him…fish cutter.

He has some experience with fishes and can talk his mouth off about it, it’s $12 an hour and by the time they realize he has no experience with cutting fish they’ll either have to train him or fire. And as Levison says, “firing me will have to involve admitting a mistake, so teaching me it will be.”.

Levison figures he can dazzle the interviewer with just some mention of salmon fishing in Alaska but then again as Levison points out most interviews are just about the interviewer saying what they want to say. And I’d add that even when they aren’t (and sometimes they may just be straight to business) they’re still the ones in charge of the conversation.

But go ahead, try and change the conversation from whatever their talking about to what you want. See how that goes.

When Levison gets to the interview it mostly revolves around good “presentation” (basically like any other job as he points out).

No questions about fish cutting are asked.

Levison informs us that he’s worked forty-two jobs in sex states in just the past ten years alone. He’s gotten fired from nine, quit thirty of them and line is blurry for the rest.

He’s like Tom Joad he tells us…except the difference would be that Joad could say he’s a farmworker and for Levison, he’s much more of an itinerant worker. That is to say, someone who goes from job to job just trying to get by, usually involving exhausting manual labor. I’ve done this myself, going from manual labor job to retail job and then back to unemployment and then back to retail and so on and so forth. All in the vain and desperate attempt that I can “give back” to society what it’s “given” to me.

And nothing better ever comes along for these sorts of people who decide to take these temporary jobs. They typically stay in the temp business until they either manage to find the time to develop a really useful skill (which, even then, in this economy is most likely undervalued or undersought) or get some sort of lucky break. Most of them probably depend on living with other people (as Levison does) or help from their family and friends. Maybe they do stuff on the side (like writing!) and hope that that somehow will get them through the week (let alone the month and heaven help them, the year).

But according to the authorities it’s not supposed to be like this.

We’re supposed to have “a house and a beautiful wife and a serviceable car and a fenced-in yard, and later a kid or two. Then I’d sit back and write the Great American Novel. (5)

Whether it’s the army, college, your parents or any other institution or authority figure the line is usually the same: work hard, keep at it for as long as you can and eventually you’ll get somewhere. You want to learn some practical skills with electronics? Go join the army and learn some (basic) foreign languages! Want to have a better chance of getting somewhere? Go to college!

Unfortunately Levison took both forms of advice and ended up with $40,000 in debt for his troubles. Now when he and his roommate Cory get a call from debt collectors it isn’t for Cory who dropped out once he became disgusted with it. It’s for Levison.

Cory is himself trying to make it in the world by directing small films and we see a pretty good look at what that’s like through Levison’s eyes.

Loud. Lots of screaming and shrieking. No time for basic manners or respect.

And with all of the permits, parking tickets and other barriers to entry (not the least of which bribing the local homeless to stay out of shots) it’s a wonder films like is get made at all.

The most disturbing part of this is when Levison says:

Corey, the lighting guy, the actors, they’ve all given up. This crap film is to them what applying for a job a a fish counter is to me. But here, there is some unwritten rule that you can’t admit that you’ve given up. A very strict rule. Rule One: Whatever you do, never stop bullshitting yourself that you’re important. Rule One keeps a lot of people sane. (9)

Levison briefly discusses the strain that comes with the jobs he’s had:

I’d come home from jobs waiting tables or moving furniture and be too tired to write, and my lack of literary output had her convinced that my writing dreams was just a line that I’d used to pick her up in the first place. (10)

The her being Levison’s ex-girlfriend.

He lost her to the fable of Van Gogh doing all his work while being “broke” (all the while being starved, dealing with his mental illness and eventually dying in obscurity before claiming his name to fame) which has “ruined it for the rest of us”.

And he also lost her to work.

Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but hey, he never even had a chance to hang out with her because she had gone to lunch with one of her co-workers instead of seeing the film making.

So either way, work.

As the introduction process for this job continues Levison is introduced to his place of work: The Market (don’t know if this is the real name or some sort of snark against markets). He quickly discovers that the marketing of The Market as something that “conjures up images of farmers hawking their produce in a warehouse, with chickens squawking in the background and cornhusks and other vegetables debris litter around a sawdust floor…” couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything is meticulously researched, cut up in the store itself (behind counters and closed doors) and quite the mechanical process. It’s not exactly “home grown”.

But never mind all of the false advertising, the appearance of the employees is what matters!

And so one of the managers (Zoe) asks Levison if he has an “Oxford shirt” which, also, has nothing to do with his abilities of cutting dead fish and taking their guts out.

Levison conjectures that instead of this being some “essential” part of the organization it’s actually an excuse for the executives to abuse their power.

As he says,

Think about it. In what other possible situation can one person reasonably say to another that ultimate power comment, “You look like shit.” In the army I once saw a man forced to do push-ups because he had missed a tiny patch of skin when he was shaving, and we understood this was part of the abuse of trainings. We were expecting abuse and we got it. The working world is no different, except that the comments are phrased slightly differently, and are accompanied by a distant power-smile and a handshake. (12)

And here we should notice the obvious: Hierarchy is a problem no matter where it surfaces. Whether it’s in the workplace or in the military or somewhere else, hierarchy often causes abuse of power on the part of the people on top towards the people closer to the bottom. Levison himself is only scratching the surface of what the problems in the work world really is. And so far he’s only really touched on the basic aspects of it that most people are already familiar with. Still, it’s good to review the basics sometimes and remind ourselves just how awful work can be and why that is.

The rest of the part of this chapter is dedicated to Levison trying to read the propaganda and inside finds out about other store locations, a sixteen-page document entitled “Becoming an Associate” and doesn’t realize until three pages in that it’s talking about being an employee. There’s also a bunch of legalese, corporate jargon, fine print, rules about checks and insurance (with the insurance itself not being very helpful in the short-run but only painfully and marginally helpful in the long-run) and so on.

Eventually one of his coworkers comes in and tells him to just fill out the tax part of the pages and throw the rest of the way…or take it home, they quickly add.

At this point I think I’ll call it quits for the day. I’ve got a few other projects I want to concentrate and I’m about half-way through the chapter.

So tomorrow we shall finish chapter one!

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