This is the last piece in our series on sleep. Juan writes about sleeplessness, stress, poverty, and work.
‘Bout to explode: a day in the life of a precarious worker
by Juan Conatz
“Damn it, where’s this pinche thing?”
Sometimes when I get real frustrated, a few Spanish curse words enter my vocabulary. My mom would probably be both amused and disappointed.
“Jesus Christ, there ain’t nowhere in here for anything to get lost!”
It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m frantically looking for both my house keys and bus pass. It was another all-nighter. I’ve been up for almost 2 days now. Think I inherited these sleeping problems from my dad, if that’s possible.
Insomnia pushes your tolerance for minor annoyances a lot lower. Normally, such things like not being able to find something wouldn’t bother me, much less cause swearing in two different languages. The mental disconnect that comes with lack of sleep almost turns you into a flustered child who can’t understand why he can’t do simple tasks.
I finally find both my keys and bus pass hidden behind my suitcases, which I’ve been living out of for about a year now. See, since December 2010, this guy has lived in 3 states, 4 cities, and 11different apartments or buildings. It’s hard to explain the disorientation this causes. Imagine having jet lag for months. Waking up confused as to where you’re at. Is this Madison? Davenport? Sometimes I see a portion of Minneapolis that I think is another city and have to remind myself that it isn’t.
This early in the morning is no time for a human being to be searching for a bus pass, but when you’re virtually unemployed, you’ve got to get on your grind. This morning, ‘grind’ means walking down to a temporary day labor agency down the street. It’s one of those set-ups where you gotta show up when they open at 5 AM, so you can ’sign-in’ and wait until they send you out to a job. A job inevitably paying the $7.25 federal minimum wage. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent around 30 hours at that place and never been sent out. That’s around 4 hours each time.
I think about this fact real briefly, then try to shove it out of my mind. It’s hard though. Precarious employment seems like a given, just a part of life. But it isn’t for everyone. Just a couple weeks ago, a drunk Wobbly crashed on my couch. Telling her about the day labor experience made her cry. Granted, she was intoxicated, but seeing those tears felt like a punch to the kidneys. This isn’t what life is supposed to be like. Thinking about her tears this morning is almost making me choke up myself. Only thing preventing this are some shreds of machismo and pride that seem required to hold it together and maintain. Whether this is bullshit or not is a separate issue.
Pretty awake now. Scrambling around and downing 3 cups of coffee will do that to you. Also force fed myself some oatmeal. Don’t have any milk or butter, so it tasted like Depression-era slop. Whatever.
I walk out the door and then down the street to the day labor place. Either the last of the night’s drunks or the first of the morning’s crackheads are arising out of the alleys. Like zombies, I approach them cautiously. You can’t trust anyone awake at this time in the morning. Reach the day labor place and see almost 20 people outside smoking cigarettes already. Walk in and sign my name. The guy at the counter somehow remembers my name and says he tried to call me for a snow shoveling job. I don’t tell him that I can’t afford to keep my phone on, but instead explain that my battery is wrecked and my cellular company is in Iowa. Can’t present myself as too poor.
After about 10 minutes of sitting on a cold, nearly broken metal chair the guy calls me back up to the counter. Not a moment too soon, if you ask me. The place is just packed and seating options are limited. It was getting harder to ignore the guy to the left of me loudly talking about the time his baby mama stabbed him mid-conversation. Way too early to be that loud.
Looks like I’m actually getting sent out to a job. Not prepared for this. Thought I would just wait around for a while, as usual, read a book, bullshit a little and then go back home and to sleep. Instead it looks like me and 3 others are getting sent off to a food packaging plant. Didn’t even bring a lunch, been up for too long and only have a couple halves of cigarettes to last me the day. Oh well.
We all cram into some tiny Japanese car and head to the southeast side of town. Pretty quickly, I realise the driver has some serious issues going on. Something is really off about him. Can’t understand his mumbling and he can’t stop swerving down the interstate. Wonder if worker’s comp covers the ride to work?
We’re soon there and it all looks so familiar. Like most factories, it is very familiar. Same large, pothole filled parking lot. Same unforgiving gray concrete. Same “No Firearms Allowed On Property” sign on the employee entrance. Walking inside, there are about 60-70 people in the breakroom. Confused, I try to find a recognisable face to get the low down on what to do. Apparently, we wait until the head floor supervisor comes in and reads off a sheet of papers that assigns us to the various production lines. It takes a while for this to happen, but I get assigned to a line and follow everyone out of the door. Not knowing exactly where to go, I wander until a blue shirted floor supervisor yells at me and points to a line. With all the machines running, forklifts rolling past and foam earplugs in my ears, he might as well be whispering, but I get the point.
The line leader instructs me to cut open boxes from 4 different pallets of 4 different dried fruits or nuts. Then I place a certain amount of them on a scissor lift conveyor belt that will be lifted up to a platform and dumped into a large mixing container.
It doesn’t take long for this work to get old and tedious. My thoughts start to drift away. Not a good thing. When you’re caffeinated and exhausted, it’s hard to think about anything but major worries in your life. In some ways, its one of the few things that helps you keep going in shit jobs like this. The faster and harder you work, the easier it is to block out such thoughts and get yourself recognised as someone worth keeping on. No such luck this time. Outside of the perpetual financial crisis that is my condition, my personal life is beginning to be affected, and become deeply troubling. I’ve started to withdraw from my social circle. Even the people in the same apartment. One of my roommates even tried to check on me last week. It was implicit that what she was saying was that she was worried I might have killed myself. I don’t tell her that I know that’s what she was thinking…or that the thought has crossed my mind.
Additionally, the few times I have gone out, the combination of lack of sleep and over-the-top drinking is starting to lead to me blacking out. When it gets this bad, sometimes I turn into a different person. Sort of a regression to what I call “my old self”. This “old self” is filled with all kinds of undesirable poor Latino/white traits and characteristics, so you can imagine there are instances where I wake up in fear of things said or done.
Try to concentrate on my work. While cutting open the boxes, there are little pieces of cardboard falling into the dried cranberries. One of the older women on the line notices this and yells something. Can’t bring myself to care.
Scanning the shopfloor, there’s around 90-100 people. There’s probably some logic to the way the lines are set-up, but it’s incomprehensible right now. It’s just a flurry of chaotic movement. Random floor supervisors scrambling from one line to the next. People with pallet jacks moving product around. Young white guys on forklifts whipping around, blasting their horns.
The break alarm bell sounds off. About a quarter of us rush to the breakroom or outside for a cigarette. It’s a long walk to the designated smoking area. Something about FDA rules or something like that.
While power puffing a menthol, a Somali guy is talking about how he just lost a $15 an hour job, being a personal assistant to an elderly, wealthy man. The man died, throwing him into unemployment. The specialised agency he worked through basically told him he’s done when someone dies, as other people have priority over him for the next position. It could take an entire year to be matched up with someone else. He half-joked that when finding the old man dead, he shook him and yelled “No, mothafucka, you can’t die now! I got bills to pay!” Everyone on the smoke break erupts into laughter, agreeing we would do the same.
Behind me, a black woman tells us she also did the personal assistant gig, but was fired because the old rich white woman she worked for accused her of stealing a can of coke (drinking without permission). But the real reason was the old woman’s dislike for black folk and a reluctance to have someone who was black assist her in her day-to-day affairs. The more rural type white co-workers shift around uneasily. Discussions about race and racism are still polarising in 2012…
The break is over and we’re back to work. Apparently, my refusal to avoid getting little pieces of cardboard mixed into the product has led to a multi-line shutdown. I just committed sabotage without even thinking about it. It takes a lot of self-discipline not to smile and laugh about this. If my phone worked, texts to some comrades would be in order.
While amusing, this is worrisome. The majority of people here are through day labor or temp agencies. These types of jobs always involve lightning quick responses and judgment calls on workers who mess up or can’t do the work right. In this economy, they can afford to be like this. There are literally hundreds of people ready to replace you, if needed. Luckily, it doesn’t look like they’re going to send me home. Instead they throw me on another line. This time I’m grabbing boxes from a conveyor belt and stacking them onto a pallet.
My mind quickly goes blank and time flies by. All of the sudden it’s lunch time. The notorious caffeine crash is beginning to happen to me. Also, my 1 month contact lenses I’ve been wearing for 13 months are starting to become blurry and bother my eyes. Heading to the break room, I sit at a table by myself with no lunch and drink a cup of coffee that taste like vinegar and chalk. Start staring into space. How long is this lunch break? Why are people staring at me? Are they actually staring at me or am I imagining it?
End up getting up and walking outside and realise my earplugs are still in, which probably looked weird and was the reason folks were looking at me weird. In the smoking area, a Latina is talking about a bad experience at a pay day loan establishment and how they treat her like a child. I feel that. Being poor invites numerous different types of condescending attitudes from people. Whether its social workers, police, employers, pay day loan places, or even your own friends and comrades. From those who aren’t sharing your experience of extreme precarity and devastating poverty, these attitudes are somewhat in stages.
At first, there are expressions of sympathy. Whether sincere or not, this can be summed up by “I understand this is happening to people. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” If your situation drags on, sympathy turns into a form of pity. Pity in itself isn’t necessarily bad and can be tied to forms of solidarity such as making sure you’re not homeless, that you get some food, are included in social outings that cost money, etc. Being on the receiving end of this can make you appreciate these people in your life. But if it drags out it can be humiliating and destructive to your pride as an individual. The embarrassment of not being able to provide for yourself, of feeling like a ‘mooch’, can bring up a sentiment of resentment. This resentment, while really directed at your general situation, can easily be misdirected at people instead, which can confuse them and make you feel shame.
Sometimes from pity, which in itself is a feeling of superiority, a greater sense of superiority can happen. It can be explicit or not, it doesn’t matter. You can feel and read the faces of judgment. Things like “You’re just not trying hard enough”, “What is wrong with you?”, and “Your standards are too high” begin to be said (not always in those words). You can feel the change in how people talk to you. Their tone changes. It’s the tone of talking down to someone. Jokes about your situation that are deeply hurtful are said with barely an afterthought.
It’s worth mentioning that along with friends and family, this is a pretty accurate description of how relationships develop in workplaces where there are both temps and ‘regular’ employees. What the actual difference is when it comes to wages, benefits or even decision making power are often irrelevant in the face of perceived increased stability.
This is all a lot to think about during a lunch break.
The rest of the day goes by fairly quickly. I start to become too tired to even think in complete sentences and my body is full of aches and pains. When the day ends for us, and the shift changes, it’s almost a stampede, as hundreds of workers squeeze through a narrow hallway. The crazy guy who gave me a ride leaves without me. Luckily, the day labor place sent out vans to pick people up. 2 Latinos in the back are talking to each other in Spanish and the driver yells that he doesn’t want to hear anything he can’t understand. Not sure if this was a racist comment or a warning to talk more quietly. Either way, my face probably shows pure hatred towards him.
When we arrive back at the agency someone reminds me that I can get an advance. At the counter, after filling out an advance request, I find out this will equal around $25. A pitiful $25. Yet, I’m happy because this allows me to do laundry, buy a pack of cigarettes and afford bus fare. But I’m angry that I’m happy. What kind of life is this to lead? I’m not even the one most hurting out here right now.
It’s weird thinking that living paycheck to paycheck would be a step-up from where us day laborers are at right now. Bizarre thinking that the time when you could quit one mind-numbing factory job and get hired at another one the next day were the ‘good ole days’. There is a tension you can feel on the streets right now. I can feel it in the day labor agency and in the bodega down my block. How much can we take? How long will we put up with this until something snaps?
It has been said by others that in the U.S., precarity isn’t new. That the transition has been more drastic in places like Europe with had more visible social democratic set-ups than we have ever had. That could be true. Regardless of the larger question of whether this model of precarity in capitalism is ‘new’ or just a throwback to the pre-WW2 days, it’s eating me alive.
Whatever the case, and recognising my perspective is colored by the drastic situation I find myself in, we need to hasten the building of the new world in the shell of the old…before some of us decide to just burn down the old world with no regard of what emerges in its place.