Thursday, July 03, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 099 (blue-collar edition), and Fuzzy People 35

I worked in the trades for a number of years: oilfield blowout-preventer mechanic and framing carpenter principally. I worked some other blue-collar gigs as well: janitor, restaurant line-cook, grocery-store bag-boy. Some quasi cubicle-drone gigs: administrative assistant, data-entry operator. Some quasi-white-collar gigs: bookstore manager and guitar-studio manager. I've had a job since the age of 12 (still remember the parental tantrum that made it clear that I wasn't going to be able to engage in any cost-intensive sport if I didn't earn the money for same) and I've got no doubts about my work ethic.

But if you're someone of a certain age, upbringing, occupation, and/or set of political convictions, having people working for you brings up some ambivalence. Currently, Dharmonia and I have a "yard guy" who comes twice a month and a "house-cleaner" who does the same. In both cases, we pay somebody else their asking rate (plus an across-the-board +15% "respect" bonus) to do something, faster and better, than we could do ourselves. If it's a question of me spending 2 hours wrestling with a lawnmower--and doing a bad job with it--or 2 hours writing an article, the latter is both (a) probably more lucrative and (b) a better use of our respective skills.

On top of that, this month we have a contractor in doing some renovations (rescuing a garage--an essential appurtenance in this golf-ball-sized-hail-prone climate), adding some french doors and a sun tunnel in the house. This is a guy we've used for several years, off-and-on, to do "quality of life and property value" upgrades (my brother, a really bright guy with a good deal of practical sense about his own wealth, says "you should prioritize those renovations that will either add to your quality-of-life or the value of the house--and you should really prioritize those that do both"). He does great work, at a good price, and he's got a hell of a lot better design-sense and sense of practicality than either of us do. If we come up with an idea, and he says, "You don't want to do it that way; do it this way instead," we pay attention.

But--White Guilt: having a black or brown or blue-collar person coming to work on your house on an hourly wage, doing stuff (house-cleaning, yardwork, renovations--remember, I used to frame houses) that you could do yourself--poorly, but cheaper--is likely to evoke certain levels of ambivalence. Or White Guilt.

I've played music for hire for decades, and I can say that I have been treated best by people at one or the other end of the economic spectrum: either the poor folks (Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester, MA, where the groom's dad would set aside a special table for the musicians: "you guys got enough to drink? Is the food OK? Y'know, I had an uncle who played music, and I really admired him"; Irish tunes in Mexican mariachi restaurants in the Southwest, where the response is "hey, ese, slow down! Damn you guys play a lot of notes"--much laughter) or the richest folks (house parties for White Russians--Romanovs--who moved to the States and married rich) are the ones who treat you the best. The poor folks know what it's like to work for a living--mostly, they work a hell of a lot harder than the white-collar folks--and they appreciate somebody with a special and unique skill like music. Les anciens have been hiring people to work for them for generations, and they know how to behave to them (noblesse oblige is not a fiction--it exists).

Who treats you the worst? Nouveau riches: the ones who only recently came into money, and want to make damned sure you knew it, and found your very presence distasteful (I still remember the Midland/Odessa oil wives who bitched when, in the 1979 oil bust, hubby decided they couldn't take the company jet to Neiman's-in-Dallas for the afternoon any more), and would tell you to come in the back entrance, and grimace when they had to interact with you, and act resentful when you had to remind them to pay you.

So White Guilt (wonderful punchline from an old Martin Mull routine: "But what if they weren't really from the United Negro College Fund and we never get the magazines?!?"): even though you worked your ass off for literally decades to get a decent-paying job in your area of aptitude, even though you have the money, even though you're paying asking-rate-plus-15%, even though they're doing the job massively better than you could, when you hire somebody to do work you could for yourself, you--or, OK, I--still think "jeez, what the hell kind of a bourgeois asshole have I become?"

The contractors and household help aren't thinking that: they don't give a shit about your White Guilt except insofar as they might have to deal with some kind of weird over-compensatory nastiness (note: when the contractor or yard-guy or house-cleaner decline the offer of a house-key "for convenience's sake", it's not because it wouldn't be more convenient--it's because they've seen Liberal White Folks regress to some nasty shit when something turned up missing). the reality is that all anybody wants out of an equitable services-for-hire contract is a fair (OK, maybe high-end) price and decent treatment, and that the client keep all the weird-ass guilt-and-compensation shit out of the equation. So, as the client, how do you convey respect, and keep your own White Guilt out of the exchange?

Well, you treat people like peers--recognizing that the contractor's ability to re-roof a house tight and swift, so it won't leak at all, is as valuable and practical a skill as your ability to craft a lecture or a lesson plan; you say "Good Morning" and offer coffee or "Have a good night" and offer a beer; you engage with people as people, asking after their families and kids; you back the fuck off your own timetable (nothing is dumber than to bitch-out a contractor, who is working to a quoted price, about the number of hours it's taking--the only person who ought to care about that is him, and trying to bring the job in at cost in the fewest number of hours); and, when you can be constructive about it rather than just being a pest who's getting the way, you pitch in next to them, and haul trash or sweep up. Most importantly, you recognize that, in the hierarchy of skills, the most useful thing you can typically do is stay the fuck out of the way, and be appreciative of the caliber of the work they're doing.

If you do it right, and you just put your White Guilt to rest, abandon the Liberal "What do they think of me?" neurosis, and engage with what those other people working for you can actually use, then, over the course of three days, you have a plumber, a contractor, and a yard-guy, who, in taking the coffee, or the iced tea, or the beer, all three say "Thank you, brother."
You got that right.

Below the jump: Mister Man snoozes.

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

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