Yesterday I stopped at the grocery store after work to buy a few items. The clerk at the check-out counter asked me how I was doing, and I asked him the same. As he gave me the requisite cheerful answer I noticed it wasn’t true. He was breathless, and shaking his head with an “I can’t believe this” look in his eyes. Tall and balding, maybe in his forties, he carried many extra pounds under his ill-fitting clothes, and I could imagine that standing at the cash register all day would be a nightmare. It seemed to me as he rolled his eyes he was looking for any sympathy the universe could muster, even from a random customer. I said, “You look kind of exhausted,” and added, “I can relate.” I was thinking back on my own breathless day at work, wanting him to know he wasn’t alone, but then surmising maybe he was, because probably the kinds of stress we were each experiencing were worlds apart. How would I know what his was like?
“This place is relentless, just relentless, ” he said, shaking his head again.
“Yeah, my son used to work for them,” I said sympathetically. ” Then I murmured, ” I guess they’re out to make a buck.”
“They’re making lots of bucks,” he grumbled, as we exchanged knowing glances.
For some reason I then found myself compelled to say, rather loudly, “It will be a lot better when the minimum wage is $15.00 an hour.”
Looking at me out of the corner of his eye as he finished ringing up my groceries, he asked, “Do you really think that will make any difference?”
Hm. His question stopped me cold. Was he implying that the powers- that-be would find ways around such a law? Or was he simply following the conservative line he’s learned somewhere along the way? I could hardly pursue the topic further, with our transaction complete and others in line. I was worried there were spies around who would report that he was complaining about the store’s cut-throat culture. Wasn’t he worried too, or had he just had it? Ready to walk? Two clerks were checking people out on either side of him, older women who maybe had some loyalty to the company, or not. I wondered about his air of discouragement, or perhaps even despair. I wondered about how we live in a country where people are free to openly complain behind the boss’s back , but that’s about as far as they go. I’ve come to realize we have a fool-proof check and balance system in place, our inherent, blindly loyal, almost universal belief in capitalism. This man, like most of us, didn’t spend much mental energy imagining alternatives to the way things are.
Somewhere in the historian Howard Zinn’s books I read many years ago, he talks about the rags-to-riches myth promulgated by the nineteenth century novelist Horatio Alger. It’s effectively kept Americans from even fantacizing about any kind of revolt against our inherent and timeless inequalities. I have never forgotten Zinn’s point, and think of it when I meet people like this seemingly fatalistic grocery clerk. Underneath the fatalism, Zinn explains, is misguided hope. Americans generally nurse a secret belief that they too can make it to the top, if they work hard enough. So they have no interest in toppling the big guy. They are He. The self-made man or woman. It’s the American Dream.
Lately I’ve heard news stories trickling out that dispute the myth. In fact, our society isn’t very mobile at all. Most people who are born poor stay poor, and most people who are born rich stay rich. And most of us spend our lives on the rung of the social and economic ladder that we were born into, more or less. It totally contradicts what we all learned in grade school about how our country is so superior to other countries that have obvious class systems.
When my husband started touting the shockingly simple idea of raising the minimum wage a couple of years ago, bringing the subject up socially to anyone who would listen, I felt embarrassed. Had he properly researched it? Did he know the pros and cons? But now, like many overdue ideas, raising the minimum wage is in the air. It feels to some of us like a no-brainer, though to others in our polarized culture it still sounds blasphemous. I can raise the subject at the grocery store while the President raises it in speeches to Congress. But I wonder about the clerk’s weary skepticism, our misplaced trust in the American Dream, and the tangle of adamant “no’s” and “yes-buts” that still greet every sensible effort to free ourselves.