Dirty Jobs, but Never Done Dirt Cheap

The world is truly full of overlooked and underpaid laborers.
Photo: Housekeeping Cart

This is a story as old as human community, and yet it’s notable how little it’s changed. The ugliest, dirtiest, the most physically demanding and unpleasant tasks, the ones that no one in his or her right mind would usually choose to do, let alone without any recognition or reasonable pay, these jobs don’t cease to exist because nobody likes them. They simply get done by people who have no other choice. And do we thank them for it? Do we give them public honor and paychecks commensurate with the knowledge and patience and back-breaking effort and yes, specialized skills that are required of them?

You know the answer. In this country, we spend more time and energy on vilifying the working poor as nuisances and a weight around the necks of their higher-taxpaying richer neighbors, at best. At worst, we accuse them of criminality, many of coming into the country illegally—which they may well have done—to snatch bread from the very lips of our own better educated and better protected children through their stealing jobs from the local citizenry. Which, of course, they rarely do, considering that neither we nor said children are willing and able to do without the jobs that the working poor do for us, let alone perform those tasks ourselves. Never mind that those we abhor for daring to come across the nation’s borders unseen are doing precisely what the vast majority of our own ancestors did, and out of the same desperation for survival, but now with the additional barrier of laws designed more out of fear and hatred than out of specific plans to better the safety and welfare of any of the parties involved.

If immigrants could remotely afford the risky business of taking a national day of “working poor flu,” the way that unionized workers go on strike or recognized organizations march in protest, just imagine what that day would look like across the United States. I don’t begin to think that there’s an easy solution to the problems of regulating this country, protecting individuals and the nation from the very real danger of criminal activity and the bane of individualism gone rogue. The latter being, in my opinion, a far larger risk to the rest of us from among native-born citizens who take their American privileges as the right to do as they please, even by force and against US governmental “interference” with their personal sovereignty. But I can’t believe that the draconian and targeted proposals many suggest these days are the right solution, either.

Let our internal renegades, our legal complainants against immigrants, and all foes of the “lazy” or “problematic” working poor themselves take up the labor and care required to ensure that every one of their fellow Americans has enough food to eat, education to navigate life and progress beyond restrictive ignorance, health care to prevent the spread of diseases and unnecessary pain or early death, and a safe, clean place to sleep without fear of exposure to the elements, destruction of their environment, or unfriendly intruders. Then I might start thinking we can narrow the gates to allow in only primly approved new neighbors able to contribute equally to the cause. Or would anybody out there like to see what happens on that imagined Flu Day, when all of the orderlies, cooks, construction workers, landscape maintenance crews, sanitation workers, child- and elder-caregivers, and all of their fellow underpaid workers lay down their tools and lie down on the job for even 24 hours?

I surely don’t know the solution to any, let alone all, of the problems that roll up into this one massive puzzle we have sitting on our doorstep. But I know that I will try to do better at giving proper respect and thanks, and a hand up when possible, to anyone who does what I can’t or won’t do myself. My life depends upon it.

Discretionary Fun

Digital illustration/drawings: Mood & 'TudeI get the impression that some people treat non-work times as the only times when they’re allowed to be happy. I do understand the need for income that can drive one to spend time in a job that doesn’t fulfill any other need or desire in life, and many of those are in the least-compensated positions at low-paying employers’ as it is. Been there, done that.

But I can say, too, that the greatest misery in my work life was attitudinal, and the more I did to discover and avoid the things that made me unhappy in my work, the less miserable I was. The more I sought to learn what I enjoyed in work and chose ways to magnify that, the closer I got to contentment both at and out of the workplace.

I grew more cognizant, at the same time, of not wanting to waste precious time on work that challenged my inner playfulness or threatened my general sense of joy and purpose. I was given a great gift in being able recognize the longing and accept and pursue it by choosing a much lower-paying job (on paper, at least) with a great happiness-quotient. I’ve seen, over the years, that many of us are easily misled when we try to calculate what we think we need for our daily expenses, and how much it costs us to earn that. Yes, we get those paychecks, but if the job requires, say, clothes that we wouldn’t wear other than at work, child care, transportation, professional training and memberships, and that sort of thing, how much pay on an annual or monthly or hourly basis does it really cost to go beyond paying for those, at least far enough to keep a roof overhead and food on the table as well?

Nobody knows this awful kind of math better than the working poor. I’ve been in that category more than once in my life, but have always had safeguards others lacked—like friends or relatives from whom I could rent living space more cheaply than I could even a minuscule, run-down apartment in a scary part of town—so I also know that I am luckier than most. Now, when I am married to a person who is not only able to make enough income to support both of us but is willing to do so, I am among the most privileged and fortunate of creatures, and I know that, too.

But one of the best things I learned along the way when I was living on a very slender, sometimes sporadic, income, remains valuable to this day: if I spend so much time and energy on just ‘getting by’ in life and don’t put forth equal effort to enjoy, live, and love my life along the way, all of the pennies I earn are of little value at all. And while I can’t always afford the most thrilling and glamorous ways of keeping myself amused, especially when I do need to be working at any task or job, I had better find the simpler and cheaper ways and the most reliable ones to fill my life with happiness and contentment, I know by now that surrounding myself with people I love, admire, enjoy and respect is the very best solution. And if my job doesn’t allow for that kind of happiness and contentment, then it is costing me more than it pays, in the end.

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos