Monday, April 02, 2012

Feeding the Masses

When I first started supporting myself with my own work I was an intern and a teacher and ran after school programs. There was never any food offered at a work place and we often ate out. We moved from place to place, teaching in a number of venues each day, and there wouldn't necessarily be a place to eat or even time enough. You didn't always have access to a microwave or a refrigerator so your options were slim. As was your wallet. One year I was extremely honored to get a small bonus, the employer in question (of the many I had at the time) rounded my check up from $92 to $100. $8 of course wasn't much but, knowing the finances of the organization, it was a huge vote of confidence in me. Needless to say health insurance was not included.

Later I worked for a large non-profit arts organization. It was hellish but coffee, tea, and Swiss Miss were provided. We often banded together to order out, didn't have much time to be away from our desks, though we could have brought our meals. Some people did, in fact, since we had an old jury-rigged microwave and plenty of fridge space. For most of my time at that job, though, I worked upwards of 15 hours a day so I chose not to spend the few free hours preparing my lunch. Financially an unsound choice but mentally a pretty solid one. I worked in the production department and, as one of the few departments that had relationships with vendors, we'd often get gifts of food - cookies, candy, fruit - especially around the winter holidays. We shared that food with the group since that's traditionally what the company did (a lot of wonderful spare-time bakers in that crowd) by bringing it up to a small counter near the receptionist who would announce the food via intercom to the entire office. We once got a 5lb box of Pepperidge Farms cookies. The receptionist decided to time their shelf life. 12 minutes. We had major medical health insurance there, no bonus that I remember, except for the baked goods.

Then I went to grad school. When I got back I did a goodly bunch of temping. You never knew what you were going to get in terms of a place to put your food, a time to eat it, whether you could warm it or chill it. Hell, I always counted myself lucky if someone told me where the bathroom was without my having to ask. Often I'd be placed in law firms or ad agencies where the kitchen would be stocked with free snacks and drinks. In places like that you were almost always told what you were allowed to take but sometimes you'd get a really enthusiastic liaison. People who had temped before, or who had never seen offices like that before they got their job, or even folks with a basic sense of empathy would haul you into the kitchen and fill your backpack up with sodas and water and small bags of chips and cookies and a couple of apples. They'd wrap you a sandwich left over from a meeting and cover your phones while you ate it. I was always embarrassed by the greed I felt it put on me but that was overwhelmed by the gratitude because when you're temping you're  making a low hourly wage for an unspecified number of hours per week. Those sodas were an important luxury. That sandwich saved me $10 for lunch. Of course no health insurance here and no bonus.

In 2002, the rubble of my city still sharp in my nostrils, I took an offer to make one of those temp jobs permanent and I found myself in the world of finance. In finance lunch is served every day, not just one menu either, a small variety of choices. Snacks are available all day. Soda, juice, water, coffee, cocoa, are all there for your grazing pleasure. Leftovers from meetings are offered to the group and personal baking is presented perhaps even more than at the non-profit level. It can sit out there all day long, though, being picked at. The 12 minute box of cookies is unheard of here. The people who work in these companies can afford to buy lunch every day and not just the cheaped out $10 lunch I tend to go for but $15 to $25 a day on snacks and specialty drinks and restaurant meals. They don't have to, though. I got health insurance in that job, too, the real deal stuff with a tiny co-pay and no deductible or referrals required. All that while making the most money per year I've ever made doing a job that tried to beat the shit out of me and very nearly succeeded. I'm wary of even mentioning the bonuses. One particularly challenging year in that job my bonus was more than I made in a whole year when I was teaching after schools.

It's the way our society works, though, isn't it? Celebrities could afford to buy their own clothes and create their own style but they're given clothes to wear to promote a brand to people who probably can't afford it. The people who make our health insurance policy are the only people who never have to worry about coverage and who could pay for care without it if they had to. The people I work with these days make plenty of money to support Manhattan apartments and $1000 jeans but rather than dig through the fridge to make a sandwich out of what the company pays for they'll order out for lunch. I once brought a cake in to share and, while it was exclaimed over and appreciated, it lasted 3 days.

It's a topsy-turvy world and if I ever get 5 minutes alone in a room with some of these current political candidates I'll spend 4 of them playing the harmonica loudly in their ear and the 5th telling them about the 12 minute box of cookies. In the mean time I shove granola bars and soda cans into the bags of every non-profit, hourly wage, worker I see cross this threshold. Doesn't really seem like enough, though.

1 comment:

  1. When we were in college, Chris and I would host breakfast nights in the apartment we shared with our friend Amy. Someone would bring bacon. Someone else would bring eggs and someone would bring bread. I would flip pancakes while Chris scrambled eggs. It was a marvelously cheap feast.

    I miss breakfast nights.