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

A new logo! Courtesy of my friend Outcide Cat!

A new logo!
Courtesy of my friend Outcide Catt!

Levison is starting to unload the truck when he figures out that he was most likely hired because he is over six feet all and is able to lift things fairly easily. Or maybe it’s because the company is/was desperate. Or maybe it’s because they needed a more obedient worker. The fact that Levison keeps going back and forth between reasons as we go along shows how many (bad) reasons the company could have wanted. None of these reasons could mean anything good for Levison of course.

Nonetheless Levison finished up with unloading and puts some crates away in a freezer. He meets Ippolito who is the junior manager and who in trying to get a raise was rebuffed by someone Levison had been working with earlier. So Ippolito is a bit upset, understandably. So at first it’s a bit tense between Levison and him but they end up working through it and Ippolito shows Levison some of the ropes of cutting the fish.

The big moment is when Levison makes another realization:

A light goes on as I suddenly realize the situation. Ippolito knows damned well Alaskan fish and Atlantic fish are pretty much the same. He’s not a bad guy, I figure. He knows I can’t do the job, bu I imagine they’ve been working him to death the last few weeks, especially if he was teamed with Workaholic John, and he just wants some time off. He’s willing to work with me just to keep me here. After all, I’m polite and I have a good haircut. And if I turn out to be a complete fuck-up, hell, he didn’t hire me, John did.

And so I’m in. (pp. 17-18)

This reveals an interesting dynamic. Because while Levison is certainly disposable and will most likely mean he is a big target for abuse from management. But at the same time if management is desperate enough they may not treat him too poorly. And they may want to keep him around (even if just barely) so they don’t have to re-teach someone else. I sort of had this mixed relationship with Kohl’s when I worked there.

They were a very down-in-the-dumps store and really needed dedicated people. Of course wasn’t a dedicated worker but they needed workers to the extent that I could just be able to sift by in most cases. Sure, I got yelled at or was handled grouchily by management at times for my “slow progress” but I was never fired or given much flack for it besides short and semi-harsh conversations. I’m not sure if Kohl’s could afford it, especially as I stuck around longer and longer.

Though I eventually left, they never seemed to be interested in firing or “asking” me to resign, regardless of my various slacking activities. I’m not saying I had much bargaining power and if I did it’s only in spite of Kohl’s power and mostly because they weren’t very good at managing their own property and system.

So I took advantage accordingly.

The next part of Levison’s story is all-too-familiar to me. It’s more lamenting of the way things go: Ippolito has been working there two years so far and Levison is fresh off the boat and hardly cares about the job. Guess who gets the higher wage? Ippolito is dedicated, hard-working, knows he is getting screwed but still gives an effort. While Levison is just drifting by, using this opportunity to write happens to be more Anglo-Saxon and has a nicer haircut. Guess who gets the higher wage?

Of course companies have explicit policies about hiring discrimination practices. But that doesn’t stop them from discriminating when you are in there. And as Levison has mentioned before, good luck reporting it to their main office in the Middle of Goddamn Nowhere. It’ll be so filled with paperwork that as Levison points out it’ll just be easier to quit.

So Ippolito could be pissed and he’d probably have some right to. But this wouldn’t do him much good. As it stands Levison is (mostly) incompetent at the job compared to Ippolito and has no real ambition or intention of being as good or even better. If Ippolito gave him a hard time it may make Levison leave and who knows who will replace him? Maybe someone who does have the ambition where Levison doesn’t.

Here we can see how disposable these workers are to upper management.

And to further show it we are “treated” to some dialogues between Zoe and Levison.

It starts off with a conversation between these two about chocolate he bought and given he has read and studied the Market policies and knows them by heart he has his receipt in hand should he be accused of stealing. But a nice pen he was given by a regular customer has no receipt and suddenly Levison has been reduced to scum in Zoe’s eyes. She seemingly mis-directs Levison when he is trying to handle things on his own and then doesn’t bother to help him when it seems obvious that he could use some more physical help. Of course Zoe blames this all on Levison and claims that now he can’t be there by himself.

She’ll inform Ippolito and after scanning his Oxford shirt that he recently got off of his first paycheck asks,

“Is that an Oxford?”

So far I have come to the conclusion that (so far) this is reading like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (which I recommend!) except with a bit more wit and sass to it.

Not that that’s a bad thing, after all, Nickel and Dimed is another great book on the problems of work in America…

Which gives me an idea for a future review…

In the next small section we’re treated to more interactions between Zoe and Levison which involve her bothering him even when someone is watching the stand and he is on his smoking break. Screaming at both him and the other butcher to fill the ice cub tanks ten minutes before closing and not caring that the process itself will take up those last ten minutes.

The other Butcher, Rocker, at this point, just doesn’t care about the job anymore.

As Levison says,

He doesn’t say “have a nice day” enough and never wears an Oxford.”

Oh, and Rocker steals stuff.

So that’s pretty awesome.

What’s even better?

Levison is gonna learn too.

And so the stealing begins and goddammit is it awesome to read:

Before long, Corey and I are eating sixteen-dollar-a-pound sea bass and salmon like it’s a bad of Doritos. We have langostinos in cream sauce, lobster tails on a bed of saffron rice, Pacific Maryland scallops, a gigantic seafood extravaganza served on a nightly basis. … Every tie Zoe makes a comment to me that I deem to be less than positive, more things go down the pants. (23)

And whether he gets caught or he doesn’t Ippolito starts taking more and more of Levison’s positions and seems always frustrated with him. Levison conjectures (not unreasonably I think) that Zoe is complaining about him to Ippolito and Ippolito can only take it out on him. So there is yelling and huffing and eventually Levison is being paid $12 an hour to mostly stare into space.

John eventually informs Levison that he found another guy who will cut for $8 and is ready to work. John says it’s nothing personal and when he checks Levison’s duffel bag before he leaves (and finds that it’s empty) he determines that Levison was “always an honest guy”.

Upon which Levison shakes his hand circles the block and, “load[s] up on can openers, fish and chocolate.” It really is a beautiful thing to see him get away with. Especially after the way that Zoe treated him.

Corey isn’t so impressed with the can-openers but damn if I’m not.

After deciding that it’s back to the classifieds he intercepts a call for Corey after he leaves to be a waiter at someone’s house.

It goes about as well as you’d expect.

Levison (pretending to be Corey who left an ad in the paper) gets to wait outside in the dark while it’s cold and open wine and beer bottles for the people who wait inside. He’s next to this guy named Tony who is the son of the host’s neighbor and who also gets put to work. Tony eventually gets hammered on bourbon mixed with coke and Levison manages to cut himself on something and get blood in the wine or on the wine cups.

Luckily for Levison he gets out before anyone can really notice the blood and before Tony’s drunk excursion goes horribly awry.

But hey, at least the bow-tie he bought, the cummerbund he bought, the trains he took to Scarsdale and back from it as well as the cab to the house made sure he only made a two-dollar profit margin on the whole thing

So that was the first chapter and…I like it!

It’s definitely a book in the Nickel and Dimed spirit as I’ve already mentioned. But Levison so far is more after mockery and humor than after bare-bones statistics or some sort of social justice cause (not that there’s anything wrong with that, just two different styles). Where as Ehrenreich is mostly going for a dry and sort of sad story, Levison can see a lot of humor in the sadness that Nickel and Dimed didn’t seem to touch on as I remember it.

Again though these are two different styles and I don’t think Levison took much from Ehrenreich given that her book came out only a year before Levison’s. But the similarities to me at least are fairly uncanny.

So far this book has been (fortunately or not) very relatable but also very bare-bones. Perhaps the best and worst part so far is that Levison isn’t really drawing any conclusions from any of this. He just seems to be mocking things and then moving on as fast as he can. And while I don’t have anything against it (and enjoy it more often than not) it does leave a bit of an unfinished feeling to this book so far.

Because if the culture we are in has these sorts of jobs then what else can we say besides mockery? Mockery is great but it can only spur and inspire so much before it just becomes predictable and stale.

Hopefully Levison won’t fall victim to that as we go along.

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