Down and Out in the Eighties
Issue #53, January 2001
The statistics do not lie. Why should they? Who could possibly benefit from such a lie now?
Check the figures, down at your local library, just for old times sake. At one time, we assembled. We forged. I remember the story of a former professor who had worked, once, in a plant assembling something. No one knew what. There were rumors it was part of a vending machine. No one knew for sure. My friend the playwright, who ruined his back on the bumper line at Ford. And my uncle — mattresses and aircraft. But the statistics will tell you: times have changed. We are either serving or selling — the shock troops and mop-up squads of commerce — or we are behind the scenes, silent and undetected, making the money move.
I grew up in these times. The transitional years, really. It's my story, too.
I went through the Yellow Pages, calling fast food places, asking if they had any openings. Most said 'no'. It was 1982, the beginning of the Reagan Recession. Trickle-down. Trickle, trickle. In the Sunday paper I found an ad for a Burger King on Highway 12 that was hiring. I took the bus out, filled in the application, and got the job. A week later I rode back out to get my uniform and train-in.
It was like a polyester wetsuit, that uniform. Just the thing if you were working, say, in a refrigerated warehouse. The centerpiece of our workplace, however, was the huge, gleaming, stainless-steel burger broiler, which heated the kitchen like a blast furnace. At the end of a shift, my brown slacks and my zip-up shirt would be soaked with sweat. There was a hat, too. The WWI overseas cap that would never stay on my head.
I started with dishes.
"We wash our dishes with bleach," the manager told me, "but don't tell people that! It's perfectly safe. It's safer than the detergent you use at home, but people might not understand!"
From dishes, I moved to wiping tables and mopping up children's vomit. Weeks passed before I was moved to the mouth of the broiler. Frozen disks of meat were dropped onto one rotating chain; upended buns onto another. At the other end, the burgers assembled and stored in a steam drawer. It was the closest I ever came to the old economy of mechanized lines and components passed from hand to hand.
Only one memory remains vivid: The sudden joy I experienced, arriving at work one afternoon to find an ominous white smoke pouring from the great broiler and the manager's polyester ass emerging from its open top.
It's not there anymore. I went back to check, one summer when I was visiting relatives. Found the office abandoned, partitions pulled down and left in a heap on the floor. The phones and the desks gone. But the sign was still out front, painted on the side of the building: Blue Ribbon Food Service Co.
It was the summer before college. I had one job as a movie projectionist at a museum, but I was moving to New York City and extra money seemed like a good idea.
If you lived in Minneapolis during the summer of 1984, I might have spoken to you. I might have tried to sell you a side of beef.
That's what we did.
When I got the job, I was given a seat at a desk, a telephone, a piece of the White Pages, and a script.
"Hello! My name is ________ , I'm calling from the Blue Ribbon Food Service Company. We'd like to show you a way to feed you family better quality cuts of meat for lower prices that you pay at the supermarket."
The idea, if you allowed one of us on the phones in the boiler room to sign you up, was that the company would install a freezer in your house, fill it with the equivalent of a side of beef, in various cuts, and restock on a regular basis. I couldn't imagine what anyone would do with all that meat.
The woman who hired me listened in on an extension while I made my first few calls and told me I would be very successful at this. After a few days, I began measuring time in phone numbers, feeling an idiotic kind of relief when I'd made it to the end of a page, even though I would only be given another page with which to start again. One woman, answering my anonymous call, reacted with a horror I can remember still, almost screaming, "I'm a vegetarian!!"
Across the office from my desk sat an older man who had apparently sold meat over the phone for several years. He was good at it. Had a golden, syrupy voice like a radio announcer and could completely detach himself from the words he was speaking. He used a fake name.
I left for college mercifully soon afterward. I don't think I ever sold any meat.
I remember riding up in the elevator, looking down at my tie.
I had just graduated from college. My girlfriend had dumped me the week before, I had an infected ingrown toenail, and my rent money was running out. I imagined myself joining the homeless on the benches on 103rd and Broadway and I applied for a job as a paralegal.
The personnel manager asked me the standard interview questions, glaring at me the whole time, as though she knew I was lying about everything: my name, my Social Security number, what I did for fun. Eventually, she took me to another office and sat me down with two gray-suited young men who gave me the hard sell, fraternity-style.
"There are a lot of bennies in this job," one of them said. For a moment, I thought he was talking about benzedrine, but he meant benefits. The health club, the Dim Sum when they worked all night on Sundays, date-stamping vast stacks of documents.
I didn't get the job. I bought a cheap bicycle and a bag and prepared to go out into the Manhattan traffic as a messenger. The day before I was scheduled to start, a call came in from an application I had forgotten about entirely. A financial firm on Wall Street who needed a researcher.
It was a lean and decidedly mean operation. Risk arbitrage: free-riding on the mergers and acquisitions craze of the late 1980s. Four traders (two men, two women), three secretaries, and the Big Man, who sat in a darkened, circular office, surrounded by monitors and tinted glass. His personal secretary wore shoes I have only ever seen sold in fetish stores.
On an average day, they cleared five or six hundred thousand dollars. On a good day, three million or more. But I never saw the traders angrier than on the day they lost thirty thousand because someone forgot to check the fax machine in the back room and one of their pals had sent through a warning to dump a plunging stock. The traders did their best to live up to the stereotype. There was a lot of screaming. "Where the fuck is my lunch?!? Where the fuck is my fucking car service?!?" They played squash.
I photocopied financial reports and clipped newspapers. One morning when the head trader walked past my desk, I waved him over and handed him a five dollar bill from my wallet. "If you get anything good today," I said, "put in five bucks for me."
After work, I went home to a lofted walk-in closet in the East Village. I started drinking every night at a bar on Sixth Street where five dollars would buy five glasses of beer. I had a band in rehearsals — what did I care?
When the Eighties ended, I drove out of New York in a $600 van that broke down in the middle of Pennsylvania. After sitting for three days in a room at the Econo Lodge, I walked across a snow-bound parking lot to catch the Greyhound, carrying a duffel bag and my instrument case, feeling like I had finally wrenched myself loose.
I had great hopes for the new decade.
JC Myers lectures in political theory at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.