Earlier on the Artist Cafe Utica Facebook page, I recommended the memoir “On the Clock,” by Emily Guendelsberger. A longtime journalist, Guendelsberger tells the story of going undercover, taking three separate low-wage jobs after enjoying many years in writing positions with much more prestige, better pay, and more comfortable working conditions. Her goal was to discuss the impact these jobs, as experienced today, have on the people who work them. The tone and content was similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” from 2001.
Going undercover as these writers did has always been a professional goal of mine. Last year, I gave it a shot. My “shot” didn’t even hit the paper the target was printed on, never mind the bullseye. I failed spectacularly at my experiment.
I began by applying to as close to one hundred jobs as I could, and things got off to a strong start. The first place that called me was a retail establishment in a town in the area. I’ll call it “Retail Place” for the purpose of this article. The manager of Retail Place told me they needed someone to help the department manager in the area that handled books with arranging the shelves and making customer recommendations, and they thought I would be perfect for the job. I accepted, on the condition that I not be asked to cashier beyond a quick jump on the registers to help out the real cashiers when they got a stream of people all at once or a difficult customer that held up a line. I’m not physically able to stand in one place for extended periods of time due to some lifelong issues with the muscles in my left leg and foot.
But I would help this person out, work as a floor sales associate for a while, and write about what really happens when artists work to supplement their income with a semi-related day job that requires a lot of customer service in 2019. I would write about the changes that took place since I actually did supplement my writing income with a retail job a few years ago, offer up some engaging stories about nightmare customers to let my fellow artists know they weren’t alone, and offer some fresh tips and tricks for managing that type of supplemental income as an artist.
Once I worked there for a few days, it became abundantly clear that the store manager had not hired me to help out the department manager as a floor associate. He had hired me as an excuse to fire the department manager, and just assumed I would want to take their job full time. When I let them know that I was not available to work at Retail Place full time, and would only fill in until they hired a full-time department manager, they began calling me off the floor, leaving the department empty, and making me cashier on a regular basis. When they finally did hire someone who actually wanted to manage the department, they informed me that I was not in the department anymore, but was head cashier. I walked out that day.
I let myself get caught up in the job, and forgot I was secretly a writer. I would get genuinely upset at being pulled out of my department rather than calmly making a note of it for a future article. When the cashier that was training me scolded me like a child for calling another cashier for a long line that sort of drifted away before I could cancel the call, I took it personally instead of reminding myself to let my readers know that despite all the “self-esteem” and “positivity” we hear about these days, they still think it’s okay to make people feel like incompentent losers in retail. The way I behaved, you would have thought I’d decided to give up teaching writing by day to manage this store’s department that held books after all.
Job experiment number two does not require an invented name or the details of where it’s located removed. It was the Utica Applebee’s. I took a job as a hostess, hoping to add a food service section to my article. They were great to work for. The person they had training me was clear, polite, and respectful. He treated me like an intelligent person who just hadn’t worked at Applebee’s before, rather than like someone too dense to work anywhere. It was the late evening shifts after working my real day job and working on my writing that did me in. That left leg and foot issue that prevents me from standing behind a cash register for long periods of time also causes a lot of pain, and therefore, fatigue. I have two other issues that cause fatigue as well, and simply could not stay on my feet until 11 p.m, even if I did get to move around. Looking back, I should have blocked out the later times on the schedule and just taken shorter hours. I might even still be there if I had thought to do that when I had the chance, though “Everyone was respectful and relaxed but efficient, the place was clean, and the customers were laid back” written out every day for a year was about all I would have had to write about it. Restaurant work does not always bring the most steady pay. If they don’t have enough customers, they cut staff at a moment’s notice. But if you’re looking for a way to supplement your income or raise money for a project, apply at the Utica Applebee’s.
The third phase of my failed quest to write the updated, article answer to “Nickel and Dimed” was a tutoring job. It was someplace that is in the school-tutoring center-community center range, located in a town in the area, and a standalone business, not a program run by a nonprofit. I’ll refer to it as “Tutoring Center” for the purpose of this article.
Once again, my lack of confidence in myself as an artist/writer killed the experiment. The work was about what you would expect. Most of the students were forced to be there by their school, their parents, or both, and put more energy into avoiding work and letting me know I was a fool for trying to get them to improve it than they put into getting better grades and learning more. A few genuinely wanted to learn, and enhance their transcripts, and appreciated the help. I loved it at first. I loved it so much, I even toyed with the idea of making it a second real, permanent day job for a while, and applying for a higher position. I got all wrapped up in the place, taking the reluctant students’ lack of interest personally, beaming with pride when I got to teach something resembling an actual lesson. And I completely forgot I was there for a writing project.
The end came when the other person who held my job title, a man in his early twenties who had not even earned his first degree yet, had no relevant job experience, and no idea how to teach or tutor in writing, was offered work doing outreach and promotion for the school on his word that he was a budding entepreneur and businessman alone, while my actual graduate degree, writing career, and teaching experience got me informed that I could handle a bit of the work this other guy was now too good to do…with no additional pay for me. That’s a pretty clear sign it’s time to exit any job you do not depend on to pay rent and eat, no matter why you’re there.
I may try similar experiments in the future, but next time, I will make sure I remember why I’m there, so I can have something to show for it besides three extra W-2s to add to my taxes.