The following piece appeared in issue #8 of Hard Crackers, which can be purchased here.
I get to work late and hung over. I rush past the reference desk, past the remaining display of Black History Month books that Eleanor is replacing with a “queer movements in the 80s” theme. Clocking in, I say hi to one of my favorite students, Rizzy, who is working on her senior thesis project, “Promoting Self Care for Women of Color in College.” Once I make it to the cafe, I take down the handwritten sign that reads: “Cafe will reopen when someone gets here” and put up the nice laminated sign, “Be Back in 5 Minutes.” The first shift cafe attendant usually leaves early to pick up her kids from school, and I usually come in late for no good reason. I mean, my shift starts at two in the afternoon.
In the back prep room, I close the door so no one can see me change into my work uniform. This is a point of humiliation—being mandated to wear a corny outfit. Management is always coming up with lame-ass ways to increase team spirit. Last Halloween we were encouraged to dress up. For my costume I wore my regular uniform. Then I ripped a piece of paper out of a student’s spiral-bound notebook, wrote in black Sharpie, “I’m a grown man who resents that every other day of the year I’m not allowed to pick the clothes I want to wear,” and pinned it to my chest with a safety pin.
I have two thoughts on being made to wear a uniform at work. One is that it’s another tool of the bosses to subordinate, strip away autonomy, and enforce hierarchical relationships between workers, and between workers and the public. The other is that in restaurants where you are allowed the freedom to dress as you please, your clothes get ruined from washing dishes, cleaning grease traps, bussing tables, getting covered in trash juice while lifting a super heavy bag of garbage into the dumpster and the bag breaks, and punching annoying customers in the nose and getting blood all over yourself. Bloodstains do not come out, and we don’t make enough money to buy new clothes, so sometimes you appreciate having a uniform to soak up the stains of exploitation, so you can keep your nice threads intact. Regardless, if you do have to wear a uniform to work you’re gonna hate it, and if there is no uniform, I hope you take money out of the register to replace your favorite hoodie that got ruined because you forgot to put the lid on the blender when you were making that balsamic vinaigrette.
I kick off my Adidas, which were dope as fuck a couple years ago (Rizzy helped me pick them out—before that I just had these Larry David-looking New Balance shoes), put my uniform on, take a soda water from the fridge, pop an edible, wash my hands, and then begin attending to the line which had queued up before I even walked in the building. Yeah, that’s right, customers saw me take down the “Cafe will reopen when someone gets here” sign and sighed with relief and the arrogant expectation that they were about to get served, only to feel like an immoral injustice had been committed against them when I put up the “Be Back in 5 Minutes” sign. Service workers don’t have many opportunities to assert ourselves, so when you think we’re acting like a dick, it’s because we are. It’s no accident; make your own fucking coffee.
Speaking of being a dick, I know almost all the customers’ orders and names by memory. However, I only acknowledge that fact for the students I like. I can tell the rest of those crackers get slighted with disrespect when I don’t address them as Chad and Becky, and honestly that warms me up inside. It’s how I take my stand. It’s pathetic, I know, but as a 37-year-old whose job it is to get college kids their coffee, and I can’t pay my bills unless I work overtime, I can be bitter. Ask any service worker how assaulted they feel when a customer knows their name. And how they feel about customers’ insistence to tell you all about their stupid day, with their witty comments and cute remarks, while we are forced to grind down on our teeth, smirking and nodding in agreement, enraged, and helplessly beholden to the soul-wrenching constraints of the tipping economy. Out here selling our smiles.
There are many students who I do adore. I grew up in the next town over from the college, and like most people in my community, I thought only yuppie rich kids went to school here. This is only half true. Amherst College has a huge endowment, which allows a lot of smart kids from the hood to attend. For the sake of generalizing, these students are much more emotionally mature than Chad, Becky, and the rest of the nineteen-year-old students with luxury cars. One of the greatest revealers of inequality within the Amherst College “community” is the parking lot. You’ll notice the Hummers, Beamers, and Volvos all have student parking stickers. Meanwhile, a chef who’s been working in kitchens for over thirty years gets in their 2006 Ford Taurus, starts it up, and the belts squeal like a day’s-end whistle blowing at the coal mine. They drag their sagging exhaust clanging against the potholes to the nearest liquor store. A couple nips for the ride home. Or maybe I should drop the hyperbole, and say they’re just going to the grocery store on the way home.
Back to the library café, I pound through the line in ten minutes and send those kids off late to class with their dirty iced chais, bagels, and packs of gum. “There was a line at the cafe” is a popular excuse among students who are late to class and professors who are late to meetings. Hey man, if they wanted to get to class on time they should’ve stole that shit when no one was there. The line is gone and my edible has begun to kick in. At this point in my shift I usually head over to the periodicals area and get the paper. Exiting the cafe I notice the giant windows overlooking the quad are covered in fliers.
Man, I’m so grateful for windows! I used to work in the main dining hall, which is a beautiful building with high ceilings and large windows, where the entire Amherst “community” enjoys a typical all-you-can-eat college buffet. But in the depths below, the workers toil—the kitchen is in the basement, where cooks and dishwashers duck their heads below plumbing pipes, hiding underground for twelve- hour shifts, scrubbing hot pots, and making dry falafel for 2,000 people. I got hired at the college as a casual worker. Casual workers at Amherst make up over a third of the staff in Dining Services. They don’t get vacation time, the excellent benefits that the College boasts about, or holiday pay. I never thought I’d be at Amherst for more than a couple weeks, especially after my 6’4” ass kept smacking my fucking head on those pipes. But then I got offered the full-time position working up in the library at the cafe.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the cafe, besides the windows, is that I work alone. Before Amherst College, what I always valued most about working in restaurants was the camaraderie: in the weeds, plowing through a dinner rush when everyone knows exactly what to do, shifties after work, pulling pranks on the servers when I was a cook, and bringing the cooks beers in coffee cups when I was a server. But I found the workplace culture in the Amherst dining hall toxic. People talked shit, ratted each other out, and were generally much more depressed than in other kitchens I’d worked in. I attribute this to two things. One is Amherst has a human resources department, so it’s much more difficult to fire someone. I’m no advocate of workers getting fired, but there were a bunch of miserable pricks making other workers’ lives hell. There’s no fucking HR in restaurants. You are fired without notice, indiscriminately or discriminately. There was a prep cook once at Amherst who didn’t show up to work for five days. Then she just showed up one day and started working like nothing was wrong, punched in and went about her business. After the sous chef fired her, he got a call from HR telling him he had no right to fire her because he didn’t clearly communicate her schedule to her. And she kept her job! That shit blew my mind! You think that shit would fly in any restaurant? Fuck no!
The other reason I think the work culture sucked is the benefits. Most cooks dream of one day opening their own restaurant. Rizzy and I want to open our own cafe called More Soup Less Crackers. But sadly, the dream is rarely brought to fruition for those who don’t have the initial capital to get it off the ground. Eventually you get tired of giving fake names at the ER, and then maybe you have a family and can’t depend on the precarious nature of restaurant work. And if you’re lucky, you get a job at a place like Amherst College. Cooks, who are not casual workers, tend to stay at Amherst. Find another restaurant where there is a retirement package, never mind one that matches six percent. But then, on go the long shifts. Spending your day making 2,000 wraps for lunch. Following a mandatory recipe for a seafood gumbo that you know is going to have zero flavor, your mind occupied with the thought that you will work here until you die, or until you are too old to do all the things you wish you were above ground to do on this beautiful sunny day. Reality sets in—I will never open a restaurant. This is where dreams go to die.
Edible in full effect, I stand in front of the windows of the library. The fliers are a series of definitions surrounding the words “Not My President” written in soap. Apparently what happened is the Office of Diversity and Inclusion put out a glossary of definitions of various words such as cisgender, indigenous, and transphobic. I guess the idea behind it was that queer students and students of color were sick of explaining things to students who were unfamiliar with such identities and concepts. The glossary was emailed to all of campus; then immediately afterward the president of the college sent out an email saying that the person who sent out the glossary was out of line and didn’t go through the proper channels, and that the glossary is not official Amherst College policy. This pissed off a lot of the progressive students, so they had a protest last night, printed out the glossary and plastered it all over the windows.
Louise, a person of notable regard in the Amherst College library staff, explains all this to me as I skim over the definitions listed in alphabetical order. I look under C: Capitalism – a system that leads to exploitative labor practices, which affects marginalized groups disproportionately. I guess there could be worse definitions, but nonetheless I think it’s a pretty shitty one. Louise immediately gets defensive when I tell her why I think it’s shitty: I do understand it’s kinda hard to define capitalism in one sentence, but it should say something about how society is organized, private property, wage labor, etc. But the biggest issue I have with the definition is that capitalism doesn’t LEAD to exploitative labor; exploitation is fundamental to capitalism. Then she says to me, “Did you ever think that maybe it’s easy for you to say that as a straight white male?” Enraging! Identity politics at its worst, or its finest, depending on how you look at it. The nerve of this lady, basically telling me I don’t have the agency to have thoughts about capitalism when I’m over here pushing a broom. Okay, for transparency, that cafe gets swept maybe once a week. But I’m trying to prove a point here. In order to simply end the interaction, I hit her with some of her own slick woke shit: “Who the fuck told you I was straight?” The look on her face is worth a day’s wages.
After that, Eleanor comes over to the cafe to score an espresso and a brownie. She’s a friend and visits the cafe every day for free coffee and snacks, and usually hangs out for an hour or so complaining about her boss. I like Eleanor, but this job has similarities to my old job bartending, only now it’s sober people who I have to listen to while trapped behind the counter as they dump all their problems on me. Come on, man, I’m just trying to sling drinks and get through this shift. I guess the main difference between the two jobs is you gotta watch what you say at this job. There’s a good side and a bad side to this, I guess. I’ve worked in restaurants all my life and have seen the rampant sexual harassment, racism, and just horrible shit that is tolerated in the workplace. I tell Eleanor about my interaction with Louise and about how I think a lot of this wokeness stuff is being used by the college to reinforce the subordination of college staff, especially workers of color.
A couple months before this protest, the college sent out an email asking all staff and faculty to fill out a survey. If ninety percent of people completed the survey, we would get a paid day off. The survey was conducted by a firm contracted from Chicago that studied happiness in the workplace. They compiled the data; then there were departmental meetings to discuss the results. Unsurprisingly, Dining Services scored the lowest. We were the least happy department on campus—Fuck yeah! At the meeting, the Director of Dining Services, a real smarmy liberal motherfucker—the kind of guy who says he’s a feminist but makes all the women around him uncomfortable—and a host of representatives from the research firm swore they were taking the results seriously and were going to improve things for us. They also encouraged us to not get too down, urging us to take pride in the fact that we were the most diverse department on campus. Are you fucking kidding me? You’re taking pride in the fact that your most unhappy department on campus is also your most diverse!
The only result I ever saw from the happiness survey is that we were given an ice cream social. Management asked for feedback from workers on what toppings we wanted. Of course, we had to cater the event and clean up after it. After the melted ice cream was wiped up, and all the sprinkles swept off the floor, on went Amherst College, a liberal institution that values diversity and inclusion so much that Puerto Ricans scrub the dishes and wipe down the tables after all the six-figure-earning white people finish eating. Nancy is a Jamaican woman in her sixties who has been working in Dining Services for over twenty years as a casual worker. She seems to know every student, administrator, and coach by name, and she is a delight to everyone on campus. In addition to working at Amherst, she has a part-time job at Walmart. She seems to enjoy her work for the most part. Regardless, she deserves better.
When the pandemic hit in March, we all got sent home with pay! At first this seemed amazing, and again I felt lucky to be working at Amherst College while most restaurant workers appeared to be fucked. However, we quickly realized everyone on unemployment was making more than we were with the $600-per-week COVID relief, so we began asking to be furloughed until it was safe to return to work. This was increasingly important for many of us who were employed on the academic calendar. We don’t have guaranteed work during the summer, and college employees are ineligible for unemployment benefits during the summer. Although our work contracts are only for 46 weeks out of the year, most of us still find employment at the college over the summer in other capacities, either working in facilities departments or at other campus eateries that remain open. But with the college shut down, we would have no opportunity to earn income there over the summer, so we were asking to be furloughed before summer so we could collect unemployment. They refused to lay us off. The college knew it would be more costly to rehire an entire department for the following semester than to resume paying people’s salaries, which they had already budgeted. Plus, they looked good continuing to pay workers’ salaries even though they didn’t have to report to work.
Come fall, the college did reopen. Dining Services had a massive hiring campaign as they had to completely restructure their operations. Every new position that was created was a casual position—unbenefited. Louise, of the library, and the rest of Amherst’s administrators worked remotely, continuing to earn six-figure salaries. In the wake of the biggest public health crisis in world history, Amherst College’s response to their essential workforce was as shortsighted and callous as the rest of America’s—driven by profits and maintaining the status quo rather than meeting people’s needs.
Over the summer I looked for work. The only places hiring were Amazon, DoorDash, and InstaCart. When I used to live in New York City, I would say there are two types of people in the city: those who went to brunch and those who worked brunch. Now it seems there are those who get deliveries and those who deliver.
Shaun has worked in the service industry his whole life. He hates capitalism with all his being and believes in the free creative capacity of the working class.