Writers get their hands dirty, run away weeping

If you make the decision to tough life out as a working writer, it’s pretty much a given that at some point or other, you’ll have to supplement your income. And that means part-time jobs, thankless jobs, mindless jobs, labor-intensive jobs. But you take your lumps, because hey, it’s all just fodder for your future novel/memoir.

Yours truly has worked her fair share of side gigs–waitress, office assistant, PR rep, lab study participant, etc.–for the sake of some extra income. And I’m planning to dive into the exciting world of food service again, very soon.

But apparently–and I’m totally stoked about this–there’s a universe out there where professional writers don’t have to do any jobs but writing. They’ve never had to lift a finger in their lives to do anything more strenuous than clack away on their laptops.

And if they do, well–well gosh, it’s just quaint, isn’t it?

Take it from this New York Times piece by Caitlin Kelly, a freelance writer who decided to pick up a part-time job (part-time as in once a freakin’ week) working as a salesperson at a clothing boutique–for funsies!

Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. . .

The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.

Congratulations, Caitlin. You just discovered that there are other people in the universe! People who aren’t journalists. And have crazy things like diversity and no college degrees. OMG!

And believe you me, her buds were seriously worried for her:

When friends, family members and colleagues learned of my new job, some were puzzled, some supportive. Many wondered: Wouldn’t I be bored? Could I handle it?

And OMG you guyzz, it’s like really really hard:

The hardest part? It’s not scraping gum and food off the floor or standing for five straight hours. It’s not refolding clothing so many times the skin on my hands cracks from dehydration.

It’s some customers’ stunning sense of entitlement, even contempt, for those — i.e., us — they feel certain are their inferiors. Expecting good service is fair. Treating hourly wage workers like personal servants is not. When you wear a plastic name badge, few bother to read it.

We, too, are intelligent and proud of our skills; many of us are college educated. Some of us travel often and widely, speaking foreign languages fluently.

And those non-college-educated types, of course, have neither intelligence or pride. But don’t worry. At least some of the customers are her people, so they can speak together in her native tongue of privilegedwhitechickese:

I love sharing my expertise and experiences. When customers tell me they’re going to Fiji, Kenya, the Grand Canyon or Cuzco, Peru, I can offer first-hand advice from my own trips there. I know what they need to stay warm, dry and comfortable on the ski slope, boat deck, hiking or bike trail.

I’m sorry, but since when in history have writers never had experience outside of their journalistic/intellectual enclaves? Did these people get a free ride through college and then transition seamlessly into high-paying writing jobs? Did they never in their life have to deal with a sudden layoff?

I would chalk up Kelly’s smingingly condescending op-ed as an isolated incident were it not for another article that appeared in the Boston Globe around the same time. In it, Globe staffer Geoff Edgers works as a UPS deliveryman for one day, in what he calls a “labor experiment.” And as with Kelly’s experience, it was super hard:

Picking up part-time work can be psychologically jarring. I’ve spent the last 16 years doing one thing professionally – writing. That may seem complicated to some, cushy to others. But it’s what I know.

I don’t know how to be a UPS helper. I realized that when Bailey handed me the scanning device I need to carry around for each delivery. It charts my progress, collects signatures, and lets my managers back in Watertown know I’m actually working.

The newness of everything created a strange feeling of insecurity. I wondered how quickly I’d get up to speed or whether I’d slow Bailey down.

After applying moisturizer to his delicate hands, Edgers dived back into the fray, working behind the counter at a local burger joint. And these are where the real bourgeois barbs begin to backhandedly fly (wow I did not mean to use all that alliteration just now):

Working the register also felt strange. I was a cashier at Stop & Shop as a teenager, but I was too young to grasp or care about the master-servant mentality of customer service. Here, I felt uncomfortable. I knew what these Harvard kids were thinking: I’m studying searches and seizures with Lawrence Tribe and this dude is pressing a button to add cheese to my burger.

Even still, after a couple hours I started to feel like part of the b. good family. Mike, another worker, shook my hand, told me I was doing OK, and even freed me for lunch, when I would never have asked. Nobody questioned why I was working there or where I’d come from. Apparently, in this economy, they understood why a seemingly fast-thinking, clean-cut adult might want to sign on for a $9 an hour burger job. Probably for the same reason they were there: the paycheck.

Not like those slow-thinking, unwashed ruffians that generally sink so low. Poor guy, he’s all scared his Harvard buddies won’t recognize him as part of their club. Aw, buddy. You got it rough.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the whole second-job upswing is highly coverage-worthy, but how about getting someone to write it up who actually is struggling, and who actually has two jobs? Not Kelly, who works retail a grand total of once a week and approaches her coworkers like archeological specimens, or Edgers, who’s playing blue-collar dressup.

I have no doubt in my mind that in the whole wide world of writers, these two are in the minority. To call them out of touch is an understatement. No wonder the ol’ Grey Lady (I mean print journalism, not the Ravenclaw ghost) is gasping for breath.

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