There are a lot of people who I think would have profited from having spent at least a little time in a real job. By “real job,” here, I mean something that isn’t primarily practiced at a keyboard, doesn’t require a degree, and is paid by the hour. For example, I’ve worked packing meat on an assembly line in a sausage and lunch meat factory, I’ve driven a truck, I’ve schlepped appliances on a loading dock, I’ve done repossessions, and I’ve filled and handled propane in a propane plant. I like writing and programming better (a lot better!) but I’ve done all those things.
What brings this to mind today was three bits of media: David Brooks’ famous sandwich story, this story about a village in Nunavut (the First Nations province in Canada) that buys great quantities of stuff from Amazon, and an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods in which he drives up the Pacific Coast Highway to sample the local delicacies of coastal mid-state California.
Brooks first. I imagine you all have already been exposed to this column, in which he argues that the lower economic classes are being held down because they don’t learn the “cultural signifiers” that mark the upper educated classes. Here’s the core paragraph:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Presumably, she was more comfortable with tamales and enchiladas and menudo than sandwiches named “tomato” and “godfather.”
In Zimmern’s show, he went to sea with a fisherman and then had dinner with the fisherman’s family (which had been fishing professionally for generations), then went into the tidal zone with a Hmong couple who showed him where you could forage for mussels and whelks and limpets and make a meal of them, then went to an Elks Lodge where bartenders pour heavy and the Elks get together and cook big chunks of top sirloin on a spit. Zimmern was just ever so impressed with these folks living the American Dream, out there working and bringing in fish and raising cattle. And amazingly enough, not one of them had a bone through their nose.
Then we look at the village in Nunavut, where the story was that the whole village loved Amazon Prime, because they could order food and furniture and tools and supplies and get them with second-day delivery. The prices were far better — and the selection even more so — than the stores in the villages. The money quote to my eye was one person who said that Amazon Prime had done more for their quality of life than years of government programs. The bulk of the story, however, was that they were afraid Canada Post was going to not want to continue to deliver to their village because they were using so much shipping, along with people from the government saying that Amazon Prime wasn’t good because some people didn’t have credit cards, or were on assistance and so couldn’t buy things from Amazon.
The point is that for all Brooks’ talk about “social signifiers” and how the different signifiers were preventing the less-educated classes from moving up, when his female friend was confronted with this menu, he didn’t say: “Look, ‘Pomodoro’ and ‘Padrino’ are just names they gave the sandwiches, soppressata and capicollo are kinds of salami, and the other one is a kind of bread.” Instead of “insensitively” explaining things to her and giving her a chance to try something new, he “sensitively” took her to a Mexican place, and so preserved her from needing to learn all those “social signifiers.”
I used to frequent a steel mill bar in my old home town in Pueblo, where there would be a bunch of guys eating capicollo and soppressata sandwiches and drinking michelada (a Bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka). All those guys were wearing jeans with slag burns and had heavy work gloves and hard hats; not one of them had a crease in their pants leg. David may think that’s “gourmet” and exotic — but to people with real jobs, that’s just lunch.
Which is exactly the problem. In all of these stories, the underlying assumption is that they are the civilized people, and they’re out on the reservation where the unenlightened are living. (In Nunavut, almost literally.) Fishermen on the Pacific Coast aren’t some romantic image of the American Dream — they’re people doing hard work that every so often kills them. Amazon Prime is important to that village because it provides them a good selection at a fair price. And David Brooks’ friend doesn’t need him to “sensitively” take her somewhere she already knows while pondering on the social signifiers that keep her from being as enlightened as he is. What she needs is for him to pull his nose down far enough to say “it’s salami.”