We met years back when I was still in shock from the end of my marriage. After, we routinely dined on deli sandwiches till life got in the way and we fell out of each other’s orbits for a time. He has a rabbinical quality that leaks out from the name tag on his shirt. During our talk, I kept thinking that this wave we all hear about on the news routinely crashes at the counter of the store he works at in West Hollywood, California. By the end of it… I wanted to sign up for a May Day parade somewhere.
I’ll begin in the middle as is recommended in all tales told, whether they be of heroes or fools:
“…People are learning, or relearning, what it is like to have something, and then not have something, and then everything turns on a dime and we ask ourselves, ‘is this worthy of a paper towel?'”
“And maybe that says something about the privilege we have to even have this knowledge. And now I see that I have these muscles that have never been fully atrophied. I have always seen myself as someone, you know, who appears to be a white man in a white man’s world, but always… with an outsider’s perspective because my people have been driven out of countries, multiple times, and this genetic memory of the veneer of civility is relatively thin, so…
…Only a few minutes into our chat and I knew this was going to be more about class than a single cell organism disrupting life on earth as we know it.
“But there’s a lot of push back (at large), which is understandable, because people don’t know how to process…”
“I want to say to the people who (are above) the yellow line (on the carpet of the store)… sadly, you are part of the herd, and you know… It is biological.”
“It seems to be knocking down a class line, but …”
This yellow line we now have delineated on the floor of our stores, marks more than the new normal; it can show us our own feelings about where we fit in society… my mind was already racing to keep up.
“Am I an optimist or pessimist? Who knows. Maybe… the receptacle of the liquid in the glass is inappropriately sized. I’m not a middle-ground-guy, but the two offers are not accurate…”
I somehow felt I was sitting at the feet of a part Rabbi/part zen master at a packaging facility somewhere in the back of an Amazon distribution Center.
“Working in the service industry these last few years… you know, I have been lucky, never to have to do that, till recently; no fault or effort of my own, but in the last few years… I’ve had the situation where I tried to get a joby-job and sort of came up empty because my credentials were as a car washer and a hardware store I worked at back in high school and for the last twenty five years I have been a creative person working in entertainment…”
“So I ended up having this good opportunity in a local business I had no background in, at a mail box store where we do a lot of shipping… a lot of Hollywood people, coming in and out, and, at first, I was afraid I would be recognized, you know by colleagues. The person and idea of myself – what I thought as being myself – was shattered; in a way I didn’t think possible. I lost a lot of weight – and I don’t have a lot of weight to lose, then I thought that, ‘being the guy with a shirt with my name on it’ was not the genuine me. And then, over time, after a hard time really, I came to the conclusion that I had nowhere else to turn; that I was still me and the only way to get through this was to continue to be me. It was corrosive to try and be something else.”
“Fortunately, I am in situation, you know, unlike some of my colleague who don’t have the cushion, that I can push back against the rules. It made me feel empowered, you know, so I can stand up for the little guy against the machine by calling up corporate and asking… if it is even legal that we can’t have hot water, and that rubbed off on some of my colleagues. Sometimes in a good a way / sometimes bad…”
“If someone is being difficult and playing the class card, I can assist. I feel like I’m doing my part, and though I do need the job, ( this perspective) sends the message that I somehow don’t. But when they (fellow employees) need that back up and they are being looked at in a certain way, I can naturally fill that role. I have the privilege to risk my job to improve our conditions, which may look like a luxury, but it comes down to psychological protection for myself.”
“I see how people who work in the service industry– who were not essential, who before, were beneath talking to, are now telling others to stand behind a yellow line… and that can challenge… I hate to say it, but mostly, predominately white men of a certain age bracket – a little older then Gen-X, not quite boomers- they don’t seem to want to play.”
Meaning stand behind the yellow line.
“I mean, no women, really, a few here and there… everyone else plays along relatively nicely. Being angry about being told to stand at or behind the yellow line, I mean… ‘who are you to tell me what to do…?’
“And now we live in the era of one-bad-Yelp-review or one timely review to corporate – and you can end up with one person ruining your job, or reputation, because you said something they did not want to hear.”
Saying something they didn’t want to hear.
“Or the tone was not, you know– just yesterday – a person came in who had goggles, gloves, and a mask and I asked her to step behind the line. She said, ‘I have the gloves and the mask.’ I say, ‘I don’t.”
“I’ve provided some to our guys and gals, either from donations, or what I found– because the owners of the store are up in their multi-million dollar home and they only text that I’m on my own. I’m glad to know I’m on my own, I can provide for myself and my colleagues, if I know I’m on my own. So, this woman says, ‘why are you yelling at me?’ And I said, ‘I’m not yelling, I’m just speaking to you without warmth.’
“She didn’t want to pay for something that cost a dollar and change, and with the store’s sales contracting, every bit helps – she stormed out to her eighty grand car and got the money and came back – the next woman was playing by the rules and I extended the courtesy and didn’t charge her for the same, you know…”
So this is what happens when society breaks down. It begins here.
“I happen to be at a Whole Foods with my wife where I saw a customer, from the store. It was kinda like seeing a teacher when you were a kid out and about, but no… she looked at me with a look of ‘you shouldn’t be here because you can’t afford this’ and she said to me, ‘it’s so strange seeing you here, like you are in the wrong place.’
“My instincts were unprepared, I said, ‘well maybe you’re in the wrong place.’ And the next time I saw her, there was no warmth in our interactions- I can see she felt guilty.”
“But when this is all said and done, and the world is safe again, there will be many hard -working service people, who went above and beyond to protect their clients and colleagues, that’ll be fired. The powers that be will be reminded of their lack of compassion, or service- and that’s okay, because you have to go above and beyond and do the right thing… I have had protective equipment gifted to me- by customers – the person who witnessed that act, not the one who gave it to us – can’t stand to look at me now- because it was something they were not doing, or didn’t do.”
“Those people who rose above and did the relative heroic thing will be let go. Someone who said to me, ‘the fact that you are here so I can return my thing to Amazon and get my refund cause I’m out of work,’ they won’t be the ones to do it, but some people, others, feel smaller in that presence of regular people doing extraordinary things. And under normal circumstances, see that exchange as someone being taken advantage of by the system, and have to complain, or…”
Bring down the axe with a Yelp review. “I’ll give you five stars” was what I remembered as a Lyft driver with upwards of seven or eight thousand rides. When the tables turn and essential workers are differentiated from non-essential, the question of class and power comes into further focus.
“We have an example of a guy in the presidency who has failed upwards – someone who is inherently so-called better and above reality, with the sort of hubris of being born on third base, who says home plate is only ninety feet away, right? And that’s combined with unexpressed guilt of having what they have, and wondering how they got it, and a fear of losing it ’cause they don’t know how they acquired it, nor how they would reacquire it – there’s a deep-seated fear of people losing things they don’t know how they acquired…. in this top heavy moment of time.”
“The richer are more afraid of being poor, naturally. ’cause the rich don’t know how to be poor, and will do anything to protect what they have, because they don’t know the path of how they got there. I was at a friend’s pool who had worked hard and acquired it, and all this stuff, and said to myself when I looked around, ‘what would I do to keep this?’ Anything. So I started to get it, but…”
“To get a society to pivot in this moment (almost, or especially against their will) is too much to ask…”
“Being able to change a mindset, or a country’s trajectory because of a tragedy, or… take World War Two; the last few years there have been a lot of these, uh… reality shows where, you know, they find old jalopies and cars and they turn out to be worth a fortune.”
“Now, at the time of the war, those people didn’t ration, or donate rubber or the steel because they had a 1928 car made of iron that didn’t work and, you know, it wasn’t turn into a bomber. And now we have the show. But were these people, were they savvy, or greedy, or rugged individualists? My mother pulled a little red wagon to collect rubber and steel and turn into the local distribution center, and be a part of the community to fight a larger evil so we can live in peace.”
“And now we are being assaulted, by the outside, by misinformation, overly informed without… uh, filter… no one knows what to believe. This is the logical end of a forty year assault on truth and anti-intellectualism, right? But how do you focus a social upheaval, which is happening right now, in a positive way when the census community is less than it has even been?”
Behind a yellow line. Becoming more and more visible each day…
“Listen, it’s been about seventy-plus-years, the span of one life time, since the death of empires and the beginning of the break up of colonialism and a world that was remade by those sacrifices and — the length of a human life time– and now… now, we are facing the same kind of change! Where order is being dismantled or crumbling and a new order is … maybe if we can have this virus economy help us pivot…”
There was that word again. Pivot.
“…Then it could be the moment where the change happens; and maybe we won’t need a hot war. I’m far from a religious person, but there’s a biblical thing, called the Jubilee. Where the crosses are laid to rest, and debts are laid to rest, and pruning happens so spring can occur. And this could be that moment. I’ve seen the direction of this, in a person to person level.”
At the counter of the local mail box store, mind you. Heaven truly does spread upon earth and man does not see it.
“We as humans, we have more than enough to do. Okay, robots or AI are taking your job, you say? No, it is relieving you of the job. So you can do another thing. The tractor didn’t kill the horse, it made the horse an animal again, and not a machine. We didn’t cull all the horses when the tractor was invented – so workers still are people and we need them, more then ever, to be people.”
People being people.
“I see people coming to the store – about a thousand fresh faces a week – most of them are sending something to a loved one, or returning something to Amazon they don’t want. And I’m seeing a trend of what I’m calling… sports shopping; where you buy something with no intention of keeping it.”
“It’s a cycle – it seems like people, who do or do not have the money, see a thing on Amazon, they say, tell me, ‘I was drinking,’ you know a lot of self-effacing transparency, they admit to me.. it makes me think – this is sports shopping.
I ask him to define it as he sees it.
“The joy of the hunt, the act of paying it, the anticipation of the thing being delivered– by someone you think is less than, being willing to reject it, give it someone else who is also beneath you, demand a receipt, implying we think you are going to steal it – and the need to tell a story about why you bought it in the first place and so on, repeat.”
“Consumers who are not actually consuming! They know they can return it, with no cost to them, this hunt acquisition rejection – again and again. The dopamine must be flowing. In a cycle. But at some point, it is going to reach an apex. The other day someone came in with all the hazmat gear, who is returning what could not have been more than a .99 cent lama plastic key chain, probably made by a child in a fourth world country, and demanded a receipt.”
“It doesn’t even go back to Amazon, mind you, but to a wholesale reseller who buys it in order to repackage it and… ’cause it is not worth it for a big company to process it… but this someone, who claims to be for the environment, I’m sure, shows up in a Tesla to return a ninety–nine cent plastic lama that will end up being broken down by a child who is taking apart a TV looking for lead to recycle. That is a sickness… that little plastic lama will not fill the need you are trying to fill.”
“And not being able to tell them, ‘I see what you are doing,’ I mean, most people, my colleagues, aren’t even seeing this ’cause they are just trying to get home that night; asking themselves, ‘will I get the bus, will I miss it, can I afford an Uber home, and meanwhile the Uber driver is same situation as they are… they don’t even get the privilege to think like this … ”
“There is evidence of delivery drivers spitting on packages – and I’m not surprised, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t somewhere someone who treated them… if you are treated poorly by customers, there will come a time when (those same people) are given more power, or more free reign, and there’s a little pay back. That is inevitable.”
“I don’t know how bad it is, the spitting on packages, and look, truckers, grocers, and hospital workers have always been heroes- I see people who acted like bigger winners who’s cars were all leased and their persona is all built on a thing that was not real… and now they are asking if we are hiring. Our persona is being challenged. And the higher up you go…
The bigger they come, the harder they fall…
“There will be no sympathy, soon… when someone sees themselves as less of themselves when they lose those zeroes in that account, it will be hardest on them.”
“The fear of the virus is almost a luxury. ‘Lets binge watch every TV show. And the regular people will slough it out for us and we can come out from our bunker and then everyone will recognize our privilege again … but the truth is there is no life line, for any of us. And the guy who wants to return the snorkel the other day comes in and I say, ‘we are here to return essential things and that isn’t essential,’ but he doesn’t see that way. ”
“I see that being the big hindrance to progress. That it all comes down to… we are not all in it together. That there are winners and losers, and the losers are not to be respected. Not really. And we are all supposed to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and all boats rise– but what if you don’t have a boat? Then if you don’t have a boat, you drown…?”
“If you turn on the news it just echoes this… sadly, among people who have very little- is that… they feel that people who have more know better. It’s like Tevye in Fiddler who says, ‘If I were a rich man…’ One of the best parts is that all the learned men would come, like Solomon the Wise, and it would not matter if I was right or wrong, because when you are rich, they think you really know.”
These are all lessons to be had by obeying the yellow lines.
“But we need to be more savvy, I remember my dad, who was a smart guy, saying to me when I was a kid – I used to love that commercial for Ginsu Knives, you know, where you’d see this guy cut through everything, anything, even a can, and my dad would say, look at the arm, son, the arm, not the knife. And if you looked at the arm, you’d see the guy was circus big, he was huge and he was pressing down, he could cut through that can with anything- we need to look where they don’t want us to look. And I get it, there was escapism during the Great depression, then Vietnam happened and we all wanted realism ’cause we knew it was the arm not the knife that cut through the can , and now, what are we aspiring to … the world needs more plumbers than ever because people are flushing shit down that isn’t toilet paper – and maybe maybe maybe what we are witnessing (in this age of COVID 19) is the death rattle of whatever we have had the last forty or fifty years, and something is right around the corner, something real good, and in seventy or eighty years we will have to do it all over again…”
I felt like I had just attended Finnegan’s Wake where the corpse shot up and recited Homer. And in the end I just wanted to laugh and take a nap.