Flying across the country can teach you a lot about our society. When I flew from New York to California for family vacations I always wondered why my family could not sit in big comfy chairs in first class at the front of the plane. Why would anyone want to spend 6 hours sitting in third class when the best seats were clearly in first class? My parents told me that we would sit up there as soon as I got rich and famous. Still, I always wondered what life must be like for the people who sat up there. We were comfortably middle class, but it just felt like our lives just weren’t as important as other peoples.
Class is more than money; it’s an entire way of life. In Nickel and Dimed, the author enters into a different world. Her education and career mean nothing when she must stock shelves, serve meals, or clean up poop at rich peoples’ houses. Somehow she just felt different from her co-workers.
Minimum wage work requires a unique set of skills. When I got my first job working for a grocery store I failed miserably. I hated the work and was terrible at it. My AP scores and knowledge of Hamlet, A Doll’s House, wars that most people have never heard of, Prussian monarchs, and Chester A. Arthur meant absolutely nothing. I had good grades and was on my way to a good private college, but I just couldn’t make change for people at a grocery store. I barely lasted two weeks before getting fired.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself doing the same work again, but this time at a movie theater. My first several weeks were challenging to say the least. I had just written a lovely paper about the influence of gender in the narratives for missionary martyrdom in seventeenth-century New France, but had trouble serving popcorn. The other staff thought that I was an idiot and I didn’t think I would last, but I persevered and stayed on.
The biggest lesson I got out from all of this was that I was privileged. Like many of my co-workers, I was a student who was only doing the work to get more spending money. It meant having more money to explore England for a semester; it wasn’t about paying rent or buying food. We all did the same work, but there always seemed to be a big divide between the students and older employees. We did the job to have a little extra money and to have something to do, they did it to survive.
I was raised to be middle class. Both of my parents had attended graduate school and college was never a choice for me. I had to go. But were we really that well off? I always noticed that my father’s boss had a much bigger house and nicer stuff than us. Rich people are just different from the rest of us. They have bigger homes, nicer cars, and get to go to all the best parties.
As museum professionals we will have to depend on rich people’s generosity. Their money will pay our salaries, keep the lights on in our offices, and heat our buildings in the winter and cool them in the summer. People write entire books about how to ask them for money. We might never become rich, but like the maids in Nickel and Dimed, we will always be fascinated by rich people. They’re just as human as us, but they’re just different.