Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Parking Lot Movie: In Defense of Service Workers

Many years ago, when I found myself griping about the horrible and infuriating treatment that restaurant service-people-- at the time, that included me-- get from their patrons, I remember my father telling me: "Everyone should have at least four types of jobs in his or her life: (1) a job in the service industry, (2) a job in sales, (3) a job that requires manual labor, and (4) a job where you basically just punch the clock. That's the only way to respect what goes into another person's job."

Dad: Word, f'realz.

My current occupation doesn't really fall into any of those categories, but in my life I've had all four, so I've always deeply appreciated my dad's wisdom on this score. I started working literally within the week that I turned 16-- in a job that was a combination of categories 1, 3 and 4 above-- and the only time in since then that I haven't exchanged labor for money was the first two years I was in grad school. (I suppose that, technically, that's not even true, since I did get a stipend to study as a graduate student. And study is work.) Given my long and varied litany of wage-earning endeavors, I was shocked to discover upon my arrival at Villanova (where I started graduate school in Philosophy) that so few of my cohort had ever been employed. Like, in a real job, where you work for somebody not related to you, and for pay that you actually need to live. These days, when I have a pretty good job that I really do enjoy, I find myself equally astonished to discover that so few of my students (and, to be honest, my colleagues) have had one or another of the jobs my dad described, either.

Here's the thing: there are plenty of satisfying, gratifying and respectable jobs, with plenty of opportunities for self-actualization, in the categories above. In fact, most jobs fall into one of those categories. But there are a lot of crappy jobs in those categories, too, and I think it's those that my dad's sagacity was intended to highlight. I wouldn't wish a crappy job on anyone, having had more than my fair share over the years, but the truth is that there's a whole lot to learn about yourself, about life, about the world, and about those fickle talking apes you share the world with when you spend your days and nights slogging through a crappy job. If you're interested in hearing some superbly-reflective talking apes of above-average intelligence unpack all of the existential issues embedded in unappreciated labor, I highly recommend the documentary The Parking Lot Movie.

The Parking Lot Movie (by Meghan Eckman and Christopher Hlad) focuses on a pay-to-park lot called "The Corner Parking Lot," a humble little place situated behind a cluster of restaurants and bars in Charlottesville, Virginia. The guys who work at the parking lot-- all of them are guys-- are mostly graduate students (heavily drawn from the Philosophy, Anthropology and Sociology programs at the nearby University of Virginia) and, by their own account, none of them ever applied for or actually earned the job they eventually received there. The Corner Parking Lot is one of those places where friends recommend friends, who then get hired and recommend their friends, so that the whole employee group remains incestuously homogenous. In this case, that's a good thing, because the characteristics that are common to this particular group make for excellent documentary fodder. They're all hyper-analytical, idiosyncratic, mildly antisocial, reflective, articulate, over-educated for their job and literally dripping with what Nietzsche would call ressentiment. They're also a weird mix of Marxist and libertarian, that is to say, they're extremely critical of wealth and privilege, but also preternaturally inclined toward a defensive independence of the Don't-Tread-On-Me ilk. Most importantly, like all graduate students, they're more than willing to let you know what they think.

And what they think is something like this: "You're profoundly, aggravatingly, even maddeningly stupid. You don't deserve what you've got. You have no idea what real people working real jobs have to deal with when they deal with people like you. Also, f**k you."

Anyone who has ever worked in a service industry job can feel that pain, no doubt. The endless barrage of disrespect, disdain, rudeness, condescension and sometimes outright contempt that service workers are subject to will drive even the most Pollyanna among them to cynicism and spiritual destitution. Take it from someone who knows: service work is a front-row seat to the Very Worst of Humanity spectacle. If you've never parked cars or waited tables or sat at receptionist's desk or answered customer service calls or cleaned or organized or fixed someone else's mess, you have no idea. As my father rightly noted, and I take this as a moral imperative: you ought to have done this, or do this, at some point in your life.

This film should've been titled The Help: Part Deux.

I love stories of humanity's weaknesses, imperfections, foibles and ennui. (To wit, The Parking Lot Movie reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite documentaries of all time, Hands on a Hard Body.) The protagonists of this film aren't heroes--they're barely even likable-- but despite their arrogance, bitterness and waywardness, they are able to show us something of the underbelly of our beloved social contract. I hope you'll watch it and learn from it. I hope you'll be nicer-- by which I mean, minimally humane-- to those who you don't usually consider deserving of your cordiality. I hope you'll stop, take a moment, and really consider the fact that you could not live the life you live without the literally billions of people who work every day, invisibly, to make that your life more comfortable.

And, for god's sake, I hope you'll tip better.

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