Bagging Groceries in Greenwich

This is what “middle class” means when you live on the Gold Coast of Connecticut:

My kids have slept in honest-to-god mansions, then returned the next morning to our little house (“great condo alternative!” was the real estate come-on) in the town’s lone neighborhood of rentals, multifamily dwellings, and zoned low-income housing. We’ve always been aware of the class disparity here. The first year we hosted a kids’ Halloween party, one of the mothers said to my wife, “Your house is so cute! Is it your only one?”

But it’s one thing to pick up your kid at a 5,000-square-foot house and chat with the dad about your book or your teaching because hey, he’s seen those things on TV and those people seem to do all right for themselves, and he’ll confess to you that he’s always envied people in the creative fields. It’s another thing entirely to hand that same dad a bag of kale while your name tag reminds him exactly who you are and where he knows you from. Instead of being embarrassed, I was reminded that first week that it’s not up to me what goes through someone’s head about my work situation, if they’re thinking of it at all.

Matt Debenham is a writer, a parent, a teacher, and now he works at a grocery store. His is not a “woe is me, white man not allowed to be a master of the universe” story, though. As many adjuncts have done before him, Debenham exposes the absurdity of our higher education system and its values. Tuition is $60,000 a year per student, with more students than ever attending college, and yet these institutions can’t pay their teachers a living wage? (That’s right.) Instructors who are talented, credentialed, and good humored are valued this little? (Yes.)

At the same time, he paints a compelling picture of his workplace:

My co-workers at the grocery are great. I was familiar with many of them already, having shopped at this store since we’d moved here. There are at least nine non-American nationalities represented, including Ghanaian, Haitian, German, and Cambodian. I’m definitely not the only one with a weird job history. One person used to be in advertising. Someone else worked in the music industry during the ’80s and ’90s boom times. Another drove military transport trucks in Afghanistan. Several people are getting their degrees. One guy’s studying physics after switching from literature. Another person recently finished back-to-back poli-sci and math degrees. Another owned a pair of small delis in a nearby city and finally gave it up for the stability and health care of working for someone else.

Grocery work itself pleases him: it is active and flexible and stable and pretty well-paid. But teaching pleases him too. And there’s the rub.

While I genuinely love both my teaching job and my retail job, it’s a daily reminder that shit, as they say, is fucked up. A reminder that America is a very different place than just a few decades ago. While all the adjuncts I know are juggling multiple campuses, most of my fellow grocery employees — nonmanagement level — have second jobs as well. When I was growing up, “retail employee” and “college teacher” were both career options. Now they might still be, but only if you combine them.

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