Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Government cheese

One of the more depressing jobs I’ve ever had was working in a customer service department in a large quasi-governmental entity in Chicago. The women who worked in the department (all of whom were considered part-time temporary employees, and as such were poorly paid and not eligible for any benefits), would, in the course of their duties, stab at various keypads with pencils so as not to ruin their long, curved acrylic tips, and they would talk trash about anyone who was not within earshot. The now ubiquitous French manicure had not yet been invented, and I remember that among the black women from project-adjacent neighborhoods, the preferred nail color was fuchsia, while amongst the women from so-called “white ethnic” neighborhoods, fluorescent orange was de rigeur. Because it makes you look more tan, I was once told. I was the sole woman with natural hand-chewed nails, and I also dressed in a style that flummoxed both sides of the customer service culture. I was constantly being asked where I got my “crazy clothes,” and once, in a bad mood, I wondered aloud whether fashion magazines were sold in Chicago south of 22nd Street, and that put a stop to most of the comments on that particular topic. Mostly, though, I kept my head down and my eyes on my own work.

One of the main topics of conversation that I would overhear was “things that people on food stamps buy that they have no business buying.” According to the wisdom of the customer service ladies, bitches on food stamps have no business buying:


Jay’s Potato Chips


Soda pop, even super-cheap Canfield’s

Ice cream, all flavors


The cheese thing kinda baffled me, but I found out that it was because if you are on food stamps then you should be getting government cheese instead of buying it.

Hey, I never said their reasoning was logical. Or even accurate. Although I have to say it did strike me as funny when many years later I would hear Tracy Morgan joke “I grew up on government cheese. I prefer it.”

And the ice cream thing. I was actually sitting right next to the customer service lady who went off one day about the woman she saw at her neighborhood grocery store buying ice cream with food stamps.

“Aw, come on,” I said, venturing, against my own best instincts, into the fray, “I don’t see what’s so bad about ice cream, every once in a while. Why can’t people on food stamps treat themselves a little bit? It’s only ice cream.”

“My kids don’t get ice cream,” she replied emphatically. “We can’t afford it.”

“Well, that sucks,” I said. “But so no one can have ice cream?”

“I work two jobs,” she said. “My husband works twelve house a day. And we have to pay for that woman’s food stamps? So she can buy ice cream for her kids when I can’t buy ice cream for mine? Hell no.”

I saw her point. I did. But I also saw, among the customer service ladies, both black and white, a remarkable resistance to seeing life from another person’s point of view.

And I resisted the urge to ask how much her manicure cost. I had learned my lesson in that area several months before, when another woman complained about the bunions that her high heels gave her, and I suggested that she could wear some cute flat shoes instead. I received a look back from her as if I had just suggested that she pick cotton or eat fried chicken for a living. And I realized that as awful as they all looked with their ridiculous weaves or their permed lank oily locks with crispy high bangs, and their bright talons and their stirrup pants and their embellished sweatshirts, as awful as it all was, they took a tremendous amount of pride in how they looked. To look put together, to look their own version of “professional,” was everything to them.

And as glad as I was to escape my acrylic-tipped hell, I wouldn’t mind going back for just an hour and ask the customer service ladies what they think about this whole financial mess. What they think of those AIG dudes and their “retention” bonuses, given at a time when it was my impression that the job market was flooded with talented professionals who would be happy to have a job at all, and wouldn’t need to be bribed to stay working at one.

I also wonder what they’d think about those auto executives who drove their companies under by consistently making what Americans didn’t need, and then had the nerve to take private jets to their appointment to beg us for money. Detroit resisted fuel efficiency, resisted hybrids, killed the electric car, kept churning out crappy low-efficiency dinosaurs against all industry market predictions, and yet they want us to save them with our borrowed cash, because why, exactly? So we can finance the shipping of more jobs to Mexico? I bet you most every one of those ladies had a husband, a cousin, or a brother-in-law who once upon a time used to work for a decent wage in the Motor City. I doubt those executives would get much sympathy from them.

Speaking of private jets, what of JP Morgan Chase, recipient of 25 billion taxpayer dollars, and their plans to upgrade their private fleet and hanger? How on earth can they remain so inexplicably tone deaf to our demands to at least pretend like they give a fuck?

It’s because they know, that if one of them gives in, then more of them might have to give in, and then the whole scam will be shot to hell, and they’ll have to admit that, given what they actually do, they are the most obscenely overpaid individuals to ever walk the earth, and yes, I am including Manny Ramirez in that comparison. Ballplayers might make crazy money, but at least they have the good grace to be one of a handful of people in the world who can do what they do. CEOs don’t do much. I’ve known a few in my day, and their dirty little secret is that they, collectively, ain’t all that.

How many of us were told by our employers that there would be no annual bonuses, or raises, this year? I know I’m not the only one with my hand in the air. I think I said, during the meeting where the action was announced, that if our sacrifice would signal to our stakeholders that we were committed to making it through these hard times, then it would be worth it.

Now I feel like a sucker. Because how many of those upper-level guys would’ve done the same? You think they’re going bonus-less this year? No way. They’ll be getting their money all right. Their bonus will be based on the excellent job they did getting you to give up yours.


Bubs said...

I'm forwarding this to our eldest. She's currently working in the 2009 version of your employer. She came in to work the other day fighting a bit of a stomach flu, and when she mentioned she was nauseous she heard more than one "GIRL, are you PREGNANT?"

And the rest of your post was dead on.

SkylersDad said...

I hadn't heard of JP Morgans plans for the fleet. As my old boss used to say "Jesus tap-dancin Christ!"

When will just one of these huge corps go under from sticking their head in the sand too long?

frogboots said...

you know, this is probably the most intelligent and succinctly written explication of why these bonuses suck ass. I've heard an awful lot of "experts" and economists defending the bonus money, and it just doesn't add up to more than a sack of bullshit. many people never get a bonus at all. my folks taught public school for a combined 60+ years, and the closest thing they ever got to a "bonus" was a coffeemug filled with cheap candy at christmastime from students.
my problem isn't so much that these bonuses are being paid with taxpayer dollars (WE aren't paying them - our imaginary great-grandchildren are, because it's all just borrowed money right now). The problem is that anyone thinks that kind of money is appropriate as a bonus, ever (unless you cure cancer AND the cold in the same pill), and that evidently million-dollar bonuses are in order even when you have ruined your business AND plunged your country's economic system into total chaos.


and you should copy this and send it to every editorial page in the country. and to every congressperson.

Imee said...

Seriously, no ice cream just because you're on food stamps? That's quite discriminatory, I think. Then again, the woman has a freakin' manicure, so her sense of priority and spending money properly is definitely warped.

Cap'n Ergo "XL" Jinglebollocks said...

"And I resisted the urge to ask how much her manicure cost."

Bingo. I bet you could by a whole HELL of a lot of icy-cream for your children for that cost.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Bubs: Oh, the gossip, the gossip, the gossip. And the backstabbing. It was awful, actually. My sympathies to your daughter.

SkyDad: JPMC has said that they will not update their private jets until after the government money is paid back, demonstrating that they really just don't fucking get it at all.

FBoots: Well, the big defense is that if you don't give these people retention bonuses, they will leave and take clients with them. It's long been an industry tradition. But how can they not realize that they are deep into "So what? Let them." territory.

lmee & Cap'n: Well, see, my point is that any time you get into judging another person's spending priorities, you're on shaky ground. To them, a manicure was an important part of there business attire and as such was not exactly a luxury.

Grant Miller said...

Manny is way overpaid though - he's getting up in years and won't admit it...and he's playing in a pitcher's park...his numbers last year were a fluke...they will decline in 2009.

And the rest of your post was good too.

sv said...

"their dirty little secret is that they, collectively, ain’t all that." I have a friend that works for a non-profit. She used to sit on a board with Ken Lay, Enron's Nero. She said he was such a nice guy. It's too bad he wasn't watching Enron's books.
I used to work for a large pharmaceutical company. I once met the president of our division and concluded that he was dumb as a fencepost. Eventually, he became president of the whole company and the stock price fell by more than 75%. If I had shorted the stock on his hiring, I could have retired.

I have picked a couple of leading indicators for my present company as well. If they rise much higher in the company it will be time to get out, both financially and physically.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. As you deftly pointed out, each person at every level can justify what they consider reasonable expenses or reasonable compensation. Nothing short of daily protests along the very posh streets where they live and play will make them pull their heads out of the sand or change their attitude of self entitlement and greed.

Gwen Ann Wilson said...

Hey! Great post! Thanks for sharing. This is what is happening in our world right now.
To those who are interested on having a Customer Service career path, please visit New Customer Service Jobs for the latest job of the day review.

bubbles said...

There are boatloads of talented, educated, hard-working people out here that would love to be employed. You got that right!

I was sickened by the idiot that put his resignation letter in the newspaper! What a douche. I want to see the receipt for his bonus that he claims will be donated to charity. He's a liar, I'm sure of it. Why not just give it back, or pay 100% tax on it?

dguzman said...

Excellent post, Vikki, and you nailed it when you called the entire thing a "scam." I just other people would read and absorb your wise words, people like all those managers/CEOs/company presidents who do jackshit except put out memos and statements, get paid six or seven figures, and wonder why the fuck we little people don't want to work harder for less money. They don't fecking get it AT ALL.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Gwen Ann Wilson: Comment FAIL

vikkitikkitavi said...

Grant: I'm not a big fan of Manny, but he'll still do more for the team that the freakin owner ever did. How much does that guy make?

SV: You're exactly right. I can't tell you how many upper level execs I have met who have a talent for shaking hands and golf, and very little else.

Kirby: Can I just say that I loved when people in NYC went to Wall St. and stood outside the exchange with signs that said "Jump!"

Bubbles: Oh yeah, the AIG Financial Products douchebag who made his resignation letter public, thinking that it would engender sympathy for his alleged lack of involvement in the scandal and his hard work to clean up the mess. Fuck him.

DGuz: I wouldn't exactly describe my words as "wise." But a scam is exactly what it is.

GETkristiLOVE said...

This year? I've been told no bonuses, raises, or travel expenses for over five years now. I think folks at my company were more upset when they took away free bagel day though. "No raises, I can understand in this economy, but bring back Bagel Wednesday."

I laugh at the rebuttals of Obama's plan to put more taxes on the rich. The guys on Fox News that say "So just because I'm doing a little better than you, I have to pay more?!" Um, yes. Yes, exactly. If you have a private jet, I think you can afford to pay more taxes than someone who has been waiting for airline prices to drop to go visit her nephew.

Dr. Monkey said...

Back when my family got food stamps there was no such thing as free government cheese or free government peanut butter. And you know what? I freakin' loved the store brand Twinkies my mom used to buy us with those food stamps. And the pop and Kool Aid as well.

Liberality said...

My mom was too proud to get free government anything. We just didn't eat when there was no food. I remember being hungry and no one should be hungry, especially in the supposed richest country in the world.

vikkitikkitavi said...

GKL: I understand why the guys on Fox News say stupid shit like that, I just don't understand why people living on 32k a year believe shit like that.

Dr: Of course you did. I never had a Hostess Twinkie until I went to college. We always got the store brand. And they were individually wrapped, whereas the real Twinkies came in twos. Sigh.

Liberality: To my mom's credit, she never did either, although there was a time when we definitely could've qualified. Mom saw welfare and food stamps as a slippery slope, and having dragged herself out of white trashitude, she was not anxious to slide back into it.