Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Sweat Shop

On the same floor of an adjacent office building where I work, there was a space directly across from my window that we often called The Sweat Shop. This is the Garment District in New York, so all over that part of town, you’ll find small garment-oriented workplaces, most likely spaces where designers have a small staff doing their thing with fabrics: steam presses, sewing machines, pattern-cutting tables, mannequins, sheets of fabric hanging on rods.

We jokingly called it The Sweat Shop because most of the people who worked there seemed to be Asian women and Latinas, wearing t-shirts and jeans, a very informal workplace, and the place always had the look of these women buzzing around all day. It’s always strange to spy in on people in another workplace, especially when they’re doing a completely different kind of work from what you’re doing. They must have looked back at us, in our collared shirts and ties, and thought, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that shit.”

Well, I almost feel the same way they do about what I do, but I go on doing the same, while a strange thing happened to The Sweat Shop the other week. The lighting changed, got a lot brighter. And then the women were showing up less. One day, they were gone. The next day, there were a bunch of construction-looking guys in there, appearing to re-arrange the office space. The next day, we found they weren’t doing that at all: they were removing equipment. Two days later, the space was empty, and it looked gigantic with no one and nothing in there. Now we look across the way, and see this tastefully lighted, empty space, the kind of gritty loft you imagine living in when first moving to Manhattan.

Who knows what happened to all that equipment. Some guys where I work specialize in “moving” that stuff when a company folds. It’s harder than you think. Sometimes it gets auctioned off, generally at pennies on the dollar. Other times, it just sits there for weeks, and then goes into storage once the owner realizes he simply can’t sell this stuff on his own, and owes so much that he has to give it back to the original lender and have him re-sell it to cut-down the enormous debt. That sounds relatively easy – we’re generally talking weeks or months of yelling on the phone with the lender regarding personal finances and such. He’ll often try to hide the equipment – and in some cases we’re talking machinery that weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds. Sooner or later, it occurs to him that he’s not going to magically re-invent his business. I don’t know what happens to these guys: it’s a spooky thing to witness. But I gather most came from money to begin with, lick their wounds for awhile, then figure out another venture that hopefully won’t torpedo them into bankruptcy.

The workers? They just struggle to find another “sweat shop,” and these days, that’s probably not as easy as it used to be. Of course, I suspect the people working there were getting paid a pittance, so it’s probably not as hard as trying to find work as a six-figured vice president. Life will go on. Not all of us are piling loads of worthless, over-priced shit onto our lives. “Close to the ground” is what I call it. In my mind, simply an easier way to live. I don’t have a lot of shit. I don’t want a lot of shit. The less shit I have, the better I feel. I don’t care if I have this wrong or right. I can only imagine how suffocating it must feel to be in constant, serious debt.

I can’t say what’s real or not with the economy. We tend to judge things like this by what we see in our own lives. I had a friend in the 90s who was always “getting vibes” about the world through his own life. He never got a good vibe. The general vibe tended to be: “The world is closing in on me … things are getting heavy … haven’t you sensed that things have gotten crazier in the past few months?” As compared to what, was my general reply. His job sucked, doing I.T. work for a company that was always having money problems, that he’d make his own, even though his only job was to make sure everybody’s computers ran right. I always got the impression he functioned better that way, in the belief that the world was this heavy, and it was falling on him. He attached weight to things to make them seem more important to him.

What doesn’t help that overall sense of doom are 24-hour news channels. Everything becomes more than it is courtesy of these outlets. The worst dose I ever had of this was 9/11, actually experiencing this first-hand in NYC that day, but later, that night and the next few days, being inundated with the repeated, horrific images of what happened. As I noted at the time, it was awful to see over and over again, and I couldn’t stop watching. It’s no different with the economy now. You will definitely develop a “sky is falling” feeling watching this shit all the time; it’s unavoidable. The sky, in effect, fell on 9/11. If it didn’t fall on you directly, life went on. I’m guessing the same with the current economy. You manage to keep on working, think about it, your life isn’t going to be much different from how it normally is. Save you’ll be encouraged to be wracked with dread and paranoia although you personally have no reason to feel it.

I just checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the unemployment rate is at 8.1%. That’s pretty high by normal standards. But far from a depression. I’ve heard put forth that these are low-ball numbers. They can’t be – they’re pulled directly from people filing for unemployment. You might get fragments of a point for people who lose their jobs and can’t file for unemployment, for whatever reason (quitting or being fired, etc.), but that’s not going to be some massive figure that doubles the percentage – I’ve seen a few ass clowns put forth that we have over 20% unemployment. Which is bullshit. We get that high, things are going to feel a lot more hairy than they are now.

Of course, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I just looked at the wonderful nest-egg of stock-based savings I’d developed from being fully-vested at a job I had in the early 90s. Before this downfall, that thing was growing exponentially every quarter, by leaps and bounds. Now? The damn thing is cut almost in half. Cooler heads have told me to just grin and bear it, that it will come around again. And if it doesn’t, well, I sure won’t be the only one taking it in the ass financially.

There are some good things I’d like to see come about from all this financial darkness going on now. One, I hope real estate prices come back to earth and stay there. This has been one of the most grotesque acts of aggression to take place in my adult life – real estate in most places in America becoming over-priced to the effect that two people have to work like fiends to buy a house and keep it going. I grew up watching guys who pumped gas and work in factories own homes, and have to wonder how much that happens anymore. I know in the New York area, this is an insane issue, when people tell me how much it costs them to live here. You can’t have a “normal” life in New York like most people do in America. A boxy, deeply unimpressive apartment in Manhattan would get you a McMansion most places in America. And I don’t care what anyone says – the quality of life in New York is not worth that much. Sooner or later, all this shit is just background noise to how you live, or where you live. They don’t matter all that much. God bless you if you can run that ruse into your 30s and 40s, but you should know better by then.

But if there’s one thing I learned from 9/11, it’s that people don’t really change all that much, even after a traumatic experience like that. People said they would – they declared they were forever changed. But they weren’t – at least not here, and here is where you’d expect that to be the case. People went back to being just as self-absorbed and prickly as they ever were. Just as spoiled. Just as pampered. Just as neurotic. In effect, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way – this is how a lot of people who live here are. And they come off as complete jackasses when they pretend to give a shit about anyone else. Just the way they are. They’re not vigilant, or particularly brave. They’re just people. And they tend to live as they are, where they are, and have an attitude about it. New York can’t survive without greed and excess – the tax base would fall through. The worst problem we’ll have now as a city is the spending power and taxes created by all those financial workers who live and work here has gone up in smoke, which is no joke on that level. Ditto the taxes of all those financial firms that disappeared into thin air or merged.

I’m not sweating all this too much for a number of reasons. It’s an edict of mine to live affordably – always has been, always will be. I just can’t live otherwise. (And if I got lucky and came into a few million, hell yes, I’d upgrade accordingly – but again, within reason.) And I’ve come to the unavoidable conclusion that I’m a worker. It’s my mentality. I work. If I was in the army, I’d be a sergeant, like Dad was. I’d rise high enough to be of importance, but not high enough that I’d have to engage in the political nonsense of getting ahead. Good workers are valuable – boy, do I know this after two decades in NYC offices, and seeing the unbelievable amount of people who don’t like to work, and make the work lives of those around them misery. (Or, conversely, are obsessed with work and have nothing else to live for.) My goal in life is to always have balance.

Anybody who wants to work will find work. That’s how our country runs, save for a few moments in our history when things got strange. I’m not sure if this is one of those moments – let’s check back in 6-9 months from now. I’m having a hard time with all this talk of “opportunity” springing out of financial turbulence. Why not look for reason and sanity instead, where there was none before. Instead of always thinking about ways to get ahead. You can have the opportunity to stop living like a fuckhead, stop looking for any opening to screw everyone else, stop poisoning your mind with obsessive greed, and start creating a world where decent, hard-working people don’t need to feel like they have their heads in a vice 24-7. I know that’s asking too much, and probably won’t be a welcome byproduct of all this turbulence, but it’s nice to think we could return to a place in America where life didn’t feel like it was spiraling out of control in some larger sense, be it upwards or downwards. The way we live now can't go on forever, and that's a good thing in my mind.


John S. said...

Hey Bill, Were you referring to me as the I.T. worker? Just curious.


William S. Repsher said...

No -- a guy who lived in NYC and was a scientist by trade, but got into I.T. work because it paid better. But her learned fast: all I.T. workers are (or become) miserable at their jobs!

John S. said...