Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Midtown Bustle

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It’s five o’clock. Hot off a full shift, I wait for the opportunity of another full shift. There are twenty five of us, all told, in this dusty basement conference room. They asked for twenty five yesterday, they got twenty five today. There’s a project, the boss says, and it requires computer technicians. It did not take much to get us into the room. A phone call. Somewhere in the city there is another four hundred like us, if not four thousand, if not forty. Yet here we are, all of us in slacks, pointy shoes, ties.

College educated, technically trained and certified, day laborers. Preacher Krugman might have given a sermon on this.

There’s a giant inflatable rat sitting outside the building lobby, brought to bear by painters, ironworkers, something like that. A fairly pathetic rent-a-protest for skilled manual labor lucky enough to still be unionized. Even so, that’s far above us independent contractors, each with a paper identification badge with stamped plastic clip. It occurs to me: We’re not the coal-stokers I imagined for the great engine of commerce. We’re the coal.

This isn’t exactly a revelation. In fact, of my coworkers, I’m the outlier: The lifer, the one who came from New York and wants to stay in New York. The soft-spoken Haitian, who finally received the nickname of Rip Van Winkle, dismisses my observations that he’s burning the candle at both ends. He speaks of returning to his country in ten years for his wife and daughter. He sends them pictures of his morning commute so they know how hard he works. This is effectively indentured servitude for him, spoken of like a prison sentence. Nobody sees New York as anything but a paycheck.

Over the days, I keep gaining nicknames. Ichabod. Hair-oin. Plays on being lanky in the extreme with long hair. Everybody has nicknames. The ex-marine senior technician is good at doling them out. He’s effectively the field boss: Rising as far as he will career-wise, he has taken it upon himself to invest effort daily to make work bearable for everybody. So when Schroeder complains to Donkey about Twinkle Overbite on the fifteenth floor, the drudgery of the day is made just that much lighter.

The day laborers don’t get nicknames, however. There’s a level of fodder that defies even caricature.

The farce is necessary. In the last month, just about every permanent technician has blown up at least once. Leftie Communist growls about not getting a raise in five years, and whiles his time watching Hulu documentaries about Fidel Castro – there will be no guesses as to how he got his name. Schroeder cannot stand being directly supervised and grouses how there’s more bureaucratic protocol surrounding the work than actual work. The field boss is still practically six seconds away at any given moment from being called into the office of Human Resources. Every perceived slight is made hyper-sensitive because of everybody’s incredibly low status. Violence is prone to occur when one’s self-image is frustrated by one’s real status.

Rip Van Winkle and Church Clothes talk about moonlighting gigs; freelance IT support out in the world during brief moments of downtime from structured temporary gigs such as the one we’re on. Rip Van crows about the power he has to remotely shut down the servers of any client who gives him guff when it comes time to pay him. He’s been burned before about such things, though his means of retribution is the sort of action that’s liable to get him stabbed one day by people with even fewer scruples than he has.

All in all, there’s surprisingly little political discussion down in the bowels of this corporate office. Back in the public sector, politics were pretty much on everyone’s lips all day every day, mainly because everybody was either outspokenly socialist or outspokenly (and hypocritically) anti-socialist. Here, politics are supplanted by feelings. One does not speak of injustices. One feels slighted.

The Jamaican ex-teacher starts up one odd moment, as he is often wont to lecture, by admitting straight out that he’s homophobic. I joke that he’s not exactly the sort that’s liable to be hit on, but he relates this resentment to the idea not so much that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face physically, but that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face socially. That they succeeded where immigrants, Black men, and immigrant Black men in particular have struggled for far longer and with deeper consequence. That they dictate the shit on the news without having had to try nearly as hard.

He’s right, but he’s wrong. He’s wrong, but he’s right. It’s a politically perilous point, but it’s a sincere feeling, and not entirely without cause. The field boss and Donkey tend to rock back and forth between complaining about how much less stressful their jobs would be if pay was, say, 25% higher – with open supposition on how that would solve the structural problem concerning the revolving door of unmotivated new trainees – and complaining about how this horde of faceless temps half-ass everything and why the importance of a job well done is independent of the size of the paycheck. Yes, but no, but yes.

Such low level discussion is partly because everybody’s nose is so close to the grindstone. Such low level discussion is also partly because everybody’s afraid of looking too deeply into the situation – either in making connections with compatriots who might not be there tomorrow or in simply burning up from the anger. It’s a tenuous position, and most of the day is spent riding that line.

It’s hard to predict the future of this grist for the eternal mill. The City forced restauranteurs to pay tipped workers more – from obscenely below minimum wage to merely offensively below minimum wage – and Walmart staved off strikes and a potential federal investigation by raising wages from starvation level to semi-starvation level. Both are compromises that would end up costing their respective industries less than the actual cost of livable wages, just as investment banks have long since realized that paying penalties for grossly illegal activities costs less than the money earned from their grossly illegal activities. But where is the breaking point, if one still exists?

The Midtown Hustle

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It took nine business days to find a single black employee working above the first floor. Rather, it took me that long to find a single black male working above the first floor: Most people of color coming in, flashing their IDs and taking the elevators are young and female. There is plenty of melanin among the elevator operators, security guards, mailroom clerks, janitors and porters, natch; Some things never change.

The background check took ten days. It involved five years’ tax records, interviews with the last ten years’ worth of employers, calls to all listed higher educational institutions, records in federal and state law enforcement, a credit check and a urinalysis test. It was far more comprehensive and intrusive than that required for government work, but then this is far more important than one’s responsibility to the American public: We’re talking one’s responsibility to rich people’s money.

Practically as illustration, at this financial institution, there is a ban on the stock and commodities trading floors of all cellphones. This isn’t due to distraction or interference with the confluence of sensitive equipment on hand, but to keep the traders honest. The bank knew it had hired thieves – indeed, it’s counting on that; those lawyers aren’t just for show – but it took precautions that they steal for the bank, not from the bank.

Working for a contractor to a contractor to a contractor to said institution – itself a necessary precaution, this time against unionism; 50 hour workweeks are the bare minimum – placed me down in the bowels of the building, among men for whom no love was lost on the folks above, but whose distance from the top was so vast that they might as well be in different countries. Then again, maybe they are; who knows? It is also a respite for all the color: Upstairs gets folks from England, Brazil, Japan; downstairs gets Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti.

A senior tech, ex-marine, big black dude, incongruous loudmouth that defies corporate convention: Coworkers say he’s warming up to me because the first word out of his mouth when he sees me is no longer “douchebag.” He gave nicknames to the temps; mine is “ponytail.” A fellow temp, this poor black kid pegged as somebody who doesn’t know where he should be in life, is known as “church clothes,” because he came in for most of his first week in a manner of dress that was sorely unprofessional, making it up on Friday with the best clothes he owned.

Another temp, a skinny, snappy-dressed Haitian dude, hasn’t got one, however. That’s largely because he works 17 hours a day for two full-time jobs and commutes for a further three. Most of the time he’s quiet and the rest he’s napping in the corner. When he’s regarded at all, there’s a small sense of pity. Not much, though: Nobody in the office has less than two sources of income. Nobody can afford to. Overtime work is jealously hoarded, and rationed out lest the whole department simply work 24/7.

The Jamaican supervisor intimates to me that they’re looking for someone permanent. The ex-marine immediately chimes up that the only reason he likes me is because I’m half-black. The Barbadian tech asks who called me black, to which the ex-marine retorts, “his white half.” Another Jamaican tech points out that, with my knowledge, my accent and my skin color, I could be making a great deal more money creating and plying connections in his home country than working here. I reply that the Chinese have already formalized the process; he grins.

He’s colorstruck and aware of such. I’m colorstruck in reverse. We’re both in it for the money; under the prying eyes of ubiquitous security cameras but away from the prying eyes of true movers and shakers, stoking coal into the great engine that this economy is supposedly based upon. One day it may fail, in which case the ground floor may yet prove to be the best vantage.

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