Jim Corrigan
Essays

The Multitasking Cashier and Other Political Issues


Let's talk about food.

Why? Because I like food, and I’m too lazy to do any research to make my points.

The actual reason is that food offers me a vehicle to follow up on my “pox” post and discuss the sort of issues I think the Democratic Party, and by extension the entire American political system, should pay more attention to. We all eat. And because I can only walk in my own shoes … which is part of the point.

Every weekday, I get coffee at the same place on my way to work. It’s my second cup, usually, and it’s not optional. If I’m 15 minutes early, I stop there; if I’m 45 minutes late, I stop there. When I stop, I tend to be carrying too much stuff -- sometimes my work laptop, sometimes not, but really the days without the laptop can be worse because then the stuff is not compressed into one thing. I’ll have a book, my reading glasses in a hard shell case that is broken and won’t close tightly, and my brown (plastic) bag lunch. So the coffee, which is self-serve (I pour it, I put the milk in) makes a new element and sometimes creates a delay in the time it takes me to get the money out.

The delay can be, I’d say … five or six seconds. Long time. Forever if there’s a line.

By the time I look up, the cashier has looked away. She is looking out over the floor of the place, scanning for problems: a spill, for example, or a customer who isn’t a regular and can’t find what they want.

Now I’m waiting, and sometimes my wait is longer than the delay I caused. But the cashier is just doing her job. The troubleshooting is built into her role. I know this with relative certainly for two reasons:

- A table near the cash registers functions as a management station, and no cashier has ever been criticized for not being at their post.

- I worked in retail seven years ago, as a seasonal Christmas hire at a large bookstore chain that I am tempted to name out of lingering loyalty and gratitude for a job I really needed at the time, but I am declining to name it because … well, I don’t want to get sued.

Seasonal hires, at this store at least, served a specific purpose: keeping the lines short at the cash registers. So everybody is a cashier, that's the first thing you're taught. I volunteered to work in the music section, a mistake because it’s a boring section when it’s inside a bookstore, but part of my job was “flipping” (I think that was the term). You flip through stacks of CDs. You’re looking for stuff that’s in the wrong place, or an extra security tag, because the extra tag means another CD is missing its tag, and therefore was stolen.

Another role is checking the floor for messy piles of books or misfiled books. That sort of thing spikes up considerably during Christmas shopping season, and hence the need for the additional staff. I liked this job, despite its mediocre pay: $7.50 an hour. The manager said something about seeing if she could keep me after the season, and I would have definitely considered staying on, but it never became an option; the season ended (January 2, if memory serves), and the seasonals ended. Thanks for playing.

So back to that cashier and my coffee. The coffee costs almost two bucks. Let’s say she makes 12 bucks an hour -- which is probably overly generous, I really doubt she makes that much. Six cups of coffee, one every 10 minutes, would cover her salary. I need hardly note that they go past her way faster than that during morning rush, and coffee is not the only item the place sells. (Obviously there are other staff, including the guy who makes the coffee and restocks the self-service shelf.)

Yet, despite the comfortable profit margin that implies, other functions are built into her role. Cashiering alone does not justify her having a job.

I’ve noticed this at my local grocer, which I also decline to name, but it’s a fairly large local chain. In 2008 I saw Jim McGovern speak at a Democratic breakfast, and he said he had calculated that his personal grocery bill for his family had increased 30% since 2007. He compared the same basic list of items for the family (milk, bread, etc.), and he had spent 30% more.

At my local store, there are about 12 cash registers. They are never full. At the absolute busiest time, which in my experience at this store is Sunday, maybe eight of them are open. Maybe three of them have someone available to bag groceries. I don’t mind bagging my own groceries, in principle, but I’m pretty bad at it, and I can’t possibly keep up with the cashier doing the scanning. So to avoid creating that delay, I pick a line, even a longer line, to make sure I get someone to bag the groceries. But sometimes the baggers float, so I end up not getting one.

And what’s the latest thing at the grocery stores? Self-service scanners. I refuse to use them. Not until they make me. It’s my little (futile) protest against potential staff cuts.

Another store near my office is a large (really large) drugstore. It might be the only one I’ve ever seen of this chain with two floors. I tend to think of it as another food source because that’s how I tend to use it. I don’t do much convenience shopping there, and there are better options for some junk food, but the office has some community candy sources (especially right now), and I try to avoid them, but the flesh is weak, so when I feel the need to chip in, this store has the best options for that.

You should see this place at lunch. Incredible lines. Just packed. One thing they do that We the People never liked is that they try to have one line instead of several. But because the registers were behind a counter, there weren’t natural lines, and there was a snaking column of people. The system lent itself to abuse by impatient people, which we have in abundance in our fair city.

To recap: massive store, always busy.

Well, they just replaced nearly every cashier with scanners.

How long before my friends selling me my coffee and patiently waiting for me to fumble for my cash are replaced by scanners?

Jobs are disappearing. Not manufacturing jobs, not green jobs, not high-tech jobs -- though more on those in a minute -- but crappy jobs that you don’t want are disappearing, despite the obvious presence of heavy demand for the items.

Just after Election Day, I began reading The Rascal King, Jack Beatty’s biography of James Michael Curley. I had spotted it at the library about 10 days before the election, and read a bit and got interested, but deliberately passed. Not right now, I thought, I can’t get more cynical before Election Day. I have some GOTV to do. When I did take it out, I didn’t expect to learn anything important. I just wanted to have some laughs at the old crook’s expense.

But I am learning things. What’s interesting about The Rascal King is that it captures a rare moment when the tide of history was turning. Historical novels always employ this as a cheap trick. The Alienist does it ad nauseam. There are two guys who keep saying things like, “There a technique we could try, it’s largely untested, but it’s called ... fingerprinting.” Oh shut up.

But The Rascal King is actual history, and Beatty takes pains in the early part of the book to provide context for Curley. The dominant party in Boston in the 1850s was the Know-Nothings, who later became the modern Republican Party. They weren’t all bad -- they were abolitionists, for one thing. Boston Irish Catholic Democrats openly scorned abolitionists, and they were mocked in The Pilot (yes, The Pilot, same newspaper). The two groups came together, sort of, during the Civil War, but according to Beatty the animating issue for the Irish Democrats was not slavery. It was secession. They rallied to protect their new homeland -- no potato famine here.

The Know-Nothings, in Boston anyway, were bigoted against Irish immigrants. In the name of reform, they did things like raid convents to prevent the terrible things allegedly going on there. (Who knows, maybe they were even right once or twice, but you can imagine the effect on Irish Catholics.) So when Curley later said, “I won’t be styled a reformer,” he was echoing this cultural memory -- according to Beatty anyway, and I find his case quite convincing.

Curley and two cronies, banished by a rival from the dominant Irish faction, formed a club called the Tammany Club. The name was deliberately chosen, because Tammany Hall was already scandalous. But Curley said they wanted to emphasize “the good side of Tammany” -- getting people jobs.

So then this tidbit gets dropped --

We got 50 men jobs in New Hampshire.

Whoa.

My grandfather worked in New Hampshire in the 1930s, at a paper mill.

Fifty men is quite a few. Google the stats on small businesses in this country, and notice how many business have fewer than 50 employees. Notice how many have fewer than 25.

Then bear in mind that women at the time, largely, didn’t work outside the home. Fifty men with jobs is 50 families being fed.

I don’t believe that Curley or anyone who worked for him got my grandfather that job. But did that sort of thing, happening in various areas and reflecting the increasing influence of Irish politicians, make it easier for my grandfather, living in Medford, Massachusetts with his six children, to get a job? I can only speculate. But when I told my mother that I was reading The Rascal King, she said her parents thought Curley was great.

In politics, we call that sort of thing loyalty.

And by the way, at one point during my grandfather’s employment at the paper mill, he would mail home his check, and my grandmother would bring the check -- the entire check -- to the grocery store to pay down the tab. I don’t know how long that went on, but it happened more than once.

We’re getting back to my cashier friends, but first I want to tell you another story about loyalty.

In 1989 or so I had a temp job at an investment firm. I was an administrative assistant -- a highly unqualified one, I might add. So one day I was sitting there, nothing to do, playing with this funky and primitive little program called PowerPoint. And then my ears perked up, because I heard someone say:

IBM is dead in the water.

What? IBM? That’s the company that makes my Selectric typewriter!

Of course I never questioned the wisdom of my learned peers. For years I waited for IBM to die. Almighty Microsoft would take them down.

Still waiting. Still really don’t know why they’re still around.

Oh wait, yes I do … their stuff works. But lots of stuff works. Why did they survive when so many others failed?

Years later I heard a clue. I worked in a technology firm, and learned a little saying, a maxim if you will, that IT managers have (and it may be dated, but they said it in the late 1990s).

Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

More loyalty.

It hardly needs to be said the Curley model (I’ll get you a job, and you remember me on Election Day) won’t work today, and certainly won’t work nationally.

But it’s probably time for us to think about what will work, and bear in mind that our decisions will be judged by that aforementioned tide of history.

Put another way, what are you going to do, Mr. Politician, for my friends the cashiers? Curley got the scrubwomen off the knees -- because his mother was a scrubwoman, and he’d seen her bruised knees. What that meant, in practical terms, was that he got them mops. They no longer had to scrub floors on their knees.

One more story -- no, two.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I realized we were Democrats, I asked someone in my family what the difference between Democrats and Republicans is.

Republicans are the party of the rich, and Democrats are the party of everybody else.

OK then. I know which one I am.

But one thing we have to remember is that, in global terms, we are rich. I can afford a cup of coffee that costs almost two bucks. (My mother would say I can’t afford it, because I could make it at home. Well I do that too … but I digress.)

Jobs are being lost to India. Take a look at India’s per capita income sometime, or China’s. At some point people began to say the US is a service economy. OK fine, but jobs are vanishing in the service industry too.

If I were advising a Boston politician right now, I would give them one very distinct piece of advice:

Crack down on underground restaurants.

I get the appeal of an underground restaurant. It’s a chance to eat a very good meal you can’t afford for a price you can almost afford. Chances are some of the underground chefs will go legit someday, and you can say you were there, man. I’ll bet you can get a nice glass of wine for a really tiny markup too. Tempting, very tempting. I got asked to like a Facebook page dedicated to underground restaurants.

Um, no thanks, I don’t support white collar crime.

That’s what it is -- the moral equivalent of kids selling OxyContin outside a drugstore.

No business is subject to greater government scrutiny than a restaurant. A town can shut it down; all kinds of state boards have input; and once I was having a drink with a guy who works for the IRS, and he mentioned, just casually, no threat implied, by way of explaining what he does, “I could shut this place down.”

And all that is just food and finances. It doesn’t begin to consider the liquor license, which is the absolute key to survival for many restaurants. The money Dianne Wilkerson got -- what was it for again? And what was the margin in her final race, the one where there was no doubt that she had broken the law?

Crack down. And don’t do it for Lydia Shire and Todd English -- do it for the waitresses, waiters, and dishwashers. To my untrained eye, the Boston restaurant scene seems pretty healthy -- a few chains, but a number of independent, good places to eat. Why should we allow unfair competition? Anyone who’s worked at a small business knows that the anxieties of the owner will be transferred to the staff. These anxieties will affect hiring and the life of the business. These are people’s jobs -- people working hard and playing by the rules. This is the economy (stupid).

Furthermore, there are actual residents of Boston. I can picture some difficult to rent space becoming home to these things. When Boston had a rave scene, the ravers knew where to go. But that’s just noise, which ends -- restaurants bring restaurant problems. The underground ones won’t be inspected. There will be problems -- yes, I’m talking about vermin. The residents will be left to deal with them.

Make some friends! Show some moral consistency. It’s not your job to be cool, it’s your job to enforce the law. Enforce it -- now, before this gets out of hand.

And then let’s talk about what you’re doing for my friends the cashiers, and especially the woman who isn’t a cashier, who cleans the tables (which the customers are supposed to clean, but a lot of people blow it off). She says hi to me every day, and every day we have the following conversation.

“Good morning, how are you?”
“I’m good, how are you?”
“Good, and you?”

Her English might need a bit of work. But you’ll notice that I didn’t attribute the dialogue. Sometimes I’m the one who says “Good, and you?” because I’m doing my own multitasking.

And by the way, I’m loyal to this place for a specific reason. They have the best coffee.

Just remember, Republicans are the party of the rich.

Democrats are the party of everybody else.

Everybody else.