What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Ahhhh....... :) After five years, three applications, a whole host of struggles thoroughly documented on this blog, and a whole lot of work fostering relationships with faculty there, I have finally been accepted to Rutgers Anthropology program!  :)  I can not tell you how big of a deal this is to me.  As my mom said, the only other thing in my life that really compares is being offered a place on the West Virginia Football team when I was a senior in high school.  At that point in my life I had been working for all 17 of my years to make myself the best athlete I could.  It was my dream to play Division I football, and on a trip to Morgantown, WV the recruiting coordinator extended his hand and an offer to play for them.  They had finished third in the country that year, and I was going to be playing for them.  I'd worked so hard, endless days running, catching, pushing myself to physical exhaustion - fighting both to make myself better, and against all the people that said I'd never be able to to it.  But I did, I made it.  And while what I did with that opportunity involves a lot of youthful indecision, and adult regrets, I learned from it.  And now I will be going to "play" at one of WVU's former Big East rivals!

I wasn't expecting much more from Rutgers than I got last year when I was put on their waiting list again this year, but over the last week they'd sent me a few hints that I needed to still be patient.  I didn't want to think to much in to it and start hoping, but I did return to their website and reenvision myself there if even just to be able to compare with Binghamton.  I spent most of this week in Binghamton, and was going to be writing a blog post about that visit today, however that post has just been high-jacked by a phone call I got while nestled in the depths of 25 Central Park West's servants entrance to apartment 7Q.  I'd just rung the doorbell to the servants' entrance with no answer, the guy the takes you up the elevator and monitors that you don't go crazy or steal things, decided to try the front door just as my phone rang.  A 908 area code, Jersey!  It was not stored in my phone.  Immediately I thought of Rutgers and said F-it, I've gotta take this.  I answered and it was the director of graduate studies.  Immediately I thought, there's NO way he'd be making a personal call to me to say I did NOT get accepted!!  He then said, "I'm not sure if you've read your emails" (I said I hadn't), but I wanted to give you an actual phone call to offer you a position in our program, with funding."  I can't even explain the emotions I felt, the senses, the moment, it all went hazy, emotional, exuberant.  I couldn't express to him enough how great it was to hear this!  I quickly had to tell him though that I was at work and couldn't talk, but said I would check my email and try to get back to him if I got a chance while at work!  

The funny thing though, was that I didn't say yes on the spot.  I knew better given past mistakes, like the decisions I made involving leaving football at WVU. Thus I now always sleep on any decision of consequence.  Also, one of the first things that ran through my head was Binghamton.  I had just spent two full days attending classes, meeting professor, and feeling comfortable with a future there.  They have such great people.  The students, the faculty, the administrators.  I really enjoyed my time there, and know there are a lot of things that I could do there, even things I couldn't do at Rutgers.  A radical department for a radical scholar such as myself!  But my emotions and innate reaction to this news from Rutgers didn't allow for a decision, wei wu, action without action.  My body, mind, and soul knew right then and there were I was going to school.  I don't know how I am going to tell the people at Binghamton.  But I told them this may be the decision I had to make and that it would be tough to turn down a top ten Anthropology program.  But it is not just that.  The offer comes with four years of funding.  The first year in the form of a fellowship for $22,000, and the next three as a Teaching Assistant fro $26,000 per year. There is a full tuition remission and healthcare throughout.  While the cost of living is less in Binghamton, their three years at $15,000 per and a tuition remission, is still less, nevermind that I'd then have to pay for healthcare there.  But all told, its a no-brainer, and the people I met there, that either were honest about the two options or were in Anthropology and knew what Rutgers had to offer, thought I'd be crazy to even consider it!  But to me, I think the main difference is the organization and faculty mentoring at Rutgers.  Binghamton is largely self directed (a big positive), but with discombobulated support and institutional structures/guidelines.  I never got the same story from anyone regarding what the process exactly entailed with their evaluation process and their "area papers", but it wouldn't have kept me from going there, especially as they are actively working to rectify it.  I felt very confident that I could have navigated the program.  I did get a lot of students that said they struggled to find a "mentoring" role from above, that guidance was sporadic and dependent.  One faculty member when directly asked about mentorship said "oh, we definitely mentor students that we believe in" [my italics].  At Rutgers, I felt like there was so much love.  Students, and faculty alike.  I felt like they genuinely seemed to care about me, especially the second time around when I went to open house this year.  Even the offer email says:  "We are a program that values close mentoring relationships between faculty and students, a supportive rather than competitive environment, and a rich and lively community of scholars."  This is not to say I would not get that from Binghamton faculty.  I met several that I immediately clicked with.  And BU is not a bad program.  It's full of a history of truly revolutionary scholarship and hopefully a wonderful future.  I am finding this really difficult to write as I had such a wonderful time there.  To look the people in the eyes that I stayed with, talked with, had a drink with, and say I'm not coming will be tough.  There is so much talent there, and so much I would have learned.  I will have to figure out how to stay involved with them, but like I said, my body knew where I was going as soon as I got off the phone.  My heart has always been with Rutgers.  A program that embodies me in every which way shape and form.  And I will even get to go to the football games!! 

I called everyone, and smiled for the rest of the day.  Even now, I can't stop talking about it...  ;)     

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Moving toward the/a future

So in all the here and there of trying to make decisions about schools and where to go a very definitive moment and circumstance has been illuminated for me.  Months ago I looked at some European schools and settled in on the University of Ljubljana as a good option for me, and one that I was guaranteed to get in to.  The educational merits are there for me to attend this school.  Third ranked school in Eastern Europe, Interdisciplinary program, done in four years max, 1.5 years there and then back here to do (required) coursework at foreign institutions and my research (i.e. could study at Rutgers), etc.  Just prior to hearing back from Binghamton, when the rejections were starting to rain in, I started really thoroughly examining this opportunity.  And it quickly became more about a career and life choice than a school choice.

I started constructing a rationale in my head that made, what could be seen in many ways as a defeat (if I did not get in anywhere here), into a victory.  The problem was that the rationale was in fact, way to sound. As you start to think about your future and creating a place of joy for the long term, you start thinking through things of personal and social importance.  Where you want to get old, what type of society you want to live in, if you had kids what kind of society would they grow up in, does your country embody your beliefs both at home and abroad, and perhaps most importantly what are does a country and its socio-economic prospects for the future hold?

For me these questions made me want to move.  Getting a PhD in America means setting ones self up within the American system, and best positioning oneself for a job here in America.  Going abroad does the opposite.  If I went to Slovenia (a small country of 2 million people, formerly part of Yugoslavia, that is nestled within Italy, the Austrian Alps, and the islands of Croatia on the Adriatic sea and carries a rich history of egalitarian economics and slavic language and culture) I would stand a very good chance of creating career opportunities there.  If I spent four years there I would both ingrain myself within the European academy and Slovenia.  I would speak Slovenian and maybe Serbo-Croatian to some extent, to go with my Czech and the German I studied in college.  If I studied Occupy and the US's suppression of the movement, I would have a strong American studies resume that would make me very marketable on the teaching market throughout Europe, nevermind the areas of Central Europe that I feel at home in.  If I go to school here, the degree could still open some of those doors if I do it right, but not the same social and linguistic ones.  More readily though, it sets me up for a life here in the United States, as part of the Academic and socio-economic system I so readily struggle with.

More importantly though with this logic is that it is a bet on America moving forward.  This right now is not a bet that I feel very comfortable taking.  America is in decline, and the only people (sadly a majority living here) that don't believe this are people blinded by nationalistic rhetoric, our sensationalist media, and/or are just plain ignorant of the signs showing this.  Forget about China's assent and the shear numbers of people in Asia, and the rest of the trajectories of the outside world and lets just focus on America.  We are a disaster.  We are incredibly in debt, of which more than half of that is owned to foreign creditors who now carry US dollars to buy our goods with, except we are not producing as many goods for sale.  That money we borrowed, rather than spend it on investing in our own production (infrastructure, economic production and investment in manufacturing and services for sale to the world) we spent it on wars and tax breaks which are not being spent here at home as much as in larger investments in places cheaper to invest and with higher rates of return (i.e. Asia, Africa, South America, etc.).  This is basic capitalism 101, the capital will flow to areas of lower costs and higher returns.  The US does not fit in to this model at all as it carries high wages and regulations that require companies to do humane things like limit work weeks to 40 hours, provide safe, sanitary conditions for workers, and not lock factory doors so all the people die if there is a fire.  The problem is though that with all this regulation and investment, we are not doing it right.  Our political establishment is deliberately incapacitated and disastrous.  Tomorrow we are about to have this mandatory sequestration that cuts government spending across most all boards by up to 10%.  The politicians are intractable ideologs beholden to a system owned by corporate and private interests that carry soooo much more weight than individual people that would love to think they have democratic control over the country.  While economically speaking we should be increasing public and governmental spending to stimulate the economy we are giving tax/regulation breaks to people and companies so they will stimulate our economy.  But - again - they are all following the basic rules of capitalism and for the most part not investing locally, nevermind in infrastructure and the foundational elements of an economy that expand the economic multipliers for every business (roads, bridges, research, etc), not just those in their supply chain.  Technological advancements, and cheaper labor options abroad are taking higher level jobs away from the American workforce, while the advertisers emphasis on debt fueled consumerism only creates low wage retail and service type jobs fueled mostly by the growth of population and perceived "needs" for new gadgets, widgits, and elves on shelves.  Real wages (meaning adjusting for inflation) have been dropping since the seventies, and since 2008 50% of the jobs we've lost were at a middle class wage level, while on two percent of those that we've regained since the start of the crisis are middle income.

It now takes two incomes to provide what one wage earner used to for a family.  So we go further into debt with credit cards, home equity, medical bills, and soon to become the worst bubble of them all: student loans.  Given the crunch on jobs, and more aptly decent paying career type positions, as these jobs are shipped abroad, our workers become "redundant" and un/underemployment rises.  Education is of course shown as the ticket to a better paying job.  Thus we all have to roll the dice and try to be the one in 500 to get that job, but we have to have the degrees or you don't even get considered.  So we take the loans, go to school, and then nearly 50% of us end up in jobs that don't require degrees or pay for them.  So we struggle to or can't pay back our loans as we don't have enough income, meaning we will forever be financial behind (with no possibility of bankruptcy on federal student loans).  This stagnated struggle of course limits the capacity for the "american dream" of home ownership.  This of course then hurts the housing market, leading to lower values and less jobs.

It seems the only market to get into would then be education, as it is fueled by government subsidized loans that you can't default on, and which financial companies churn and burn through a system of hedges, safety measures, and insurance/derivative options to allow companies to still make money even while consumers fail.  Schools though keep raising tuition, 5-10% every year to upgrade facilities to try to bring in the best students, but this is all based on debt as well and will eventually prove unsustainable.

Most importantly though the education market is predominantly fueled by governmental spending - either through loans, grants, or subsidized tuition - and most importantly to this condemnation of the American system moving forward - is the ideological pathway we are headed down.  In the 50's and 60's when America was  in the midst of its "greatest generation's" heyday, we had as high as 90% tax rates on the rich which progressively went down from there, that tax bracket was down to 35% and below last year.  Capital gains, inheritance, back then the government still made money and spent money - and lest you think this is about entitlement programs, it's not - its about investing in our country's ability to make its way forward economically, and to provide for its citizens and its business endeavors.  I no longer believe that this is what we are doing.  We are cutting everything.  40% of our bridges are in desperate disrepair, not to mention roads, we are destroying our environment with every second we don't act, we sped money on weapons that destroy economic capacity and lives rather than build upon them, all the while "leaving education to the states" while we both cut and "cherry pick" their funding.  We have created an ideological and populist fear of taxes, that is and will slowly strangle us into a privatized, capitalist, profit driven noose that will not invest in common interest projects for the betterment of our economy and society, but rather in short-term individualized profit.  This is not an investment in the future that I think will really create a wonderfully sustainable place to live.

Look at New York City alone.  Go anywhere in the world it seems and most subway systems in major cities are beautiful shining examples of care and functionality.  They look like places meant for people.  The NYC subway system is grossly infested with disrepair and just as much dysfunction as the rest of the city.  Our politicians are grossly corrupt, and we have a draconian policing strategy that has spread throughout the country and infects all of our communities with stiffing repression of minorities and economically disadvantaged people.  And it's only getting worse.  I go into these buildings that I deliver to and see palaces that cover entire floors, two floors even.  Tens of millions of dollars for home after home in a city with a median income below the national average and a cost of living almost double the next closest city.

Fact of the matter is that NYC, like America is going down and ideological pathway that is untenable for the economic and social future of the country and planet.  So how do I, with an eye on my future, make a choice to be a part of that?  Yes, things are easier for me here in many ways as my family and friends are here, day to day things make sense, I know how it works and am rarely surprised functionalities, but still, I am left tremendously wanting.

And the most troubling things is that as I have been reading a People's History of the United States, it is eiry how little things have changed.  New technological faces on the same old systemic problems.  But of most importance in thinking bout this book and life here, I have found myself seeing things through the eyes of the settler to America, the European outcast, the immigrant that picked up there things and family and said I'm going to bet my future on something else than my current existence.  They looked at their lives in Europe, China, wherever, and left.  They didn't know what they were going to, but just knew they didn't want to be where they were.  I don't believe that short term unsettlement is as bad as the decades of the decline that my surroundings are likely to go through.

But is Europe any better?  I mean, the same neoliberal pathways are being followed there as well these days.  But at least they are starting from a place of strength.  Universal healthcare, lives not based solely on work, vacations, safety nets, etc.  I was always happy with the way the systems around me worked when I was there, even if I struggled at places within it.  I came back to the US with the goal of getting a PhD so I could have the qualifications to go live anywhere I wanted and to be able to get a legitimate job and support myself while I was there.

I have no idea where that place is, but I do know that right now what I see out of America makes me feel like those that emigrated from their own countries and came to America.  I feel a lack of hope, a desperation in my surroundings, that makes me think that there are other places to look to for better future prospects.  But where do you go in today's world to escape capitalism?  I don't know that there is any escape.  It's a global epidemic.

So I guess there is no answer.  But I tell you, when I allowed myself to look at a life in another place, less assuming, less aggressive, less competitive and ambitious, with a quieter pleasanter life, I found myself idolizing it.  Shorter time in school, solid job prospects, and a clear transition strategy.  Sigh, now I still have other schools to hear from and Boston (northeastern) and Hawaii are a different place than Binghamton for sure, as is York in Canada, so we will have to see.  But I tell you, Ljubljana - with its juxtaposition to this American future - feels like a nice alternative to spending seven years preparing to spend the next several decades competing in a job market and economy that I've already spent more time losing in than I've even been in.  Plus, we have military bases and kill people without trial or impunity all over the world to satisfy our aggressive global imperialist/unethical agenda.  I don't like saying that I am a part of that, do that, or represent that.  Maybe I am not proud to be an American, or of what America is.  I don't know.  Maybe its time to look elsewhere.

Saturday, February 23, 2013



So the day after I write the 'defeated' post, I get the email I've been wait for for over five years, and working towards for ten.  Accepted to a PhD program - with funding!  I still have five schools out there to hear from, but with one in the pocket, I have little to worry about!  I can't tell you the relief that it is.  The weight on my shoulders that was alleviated, the pressure on my brow that waned  the pure sense of victory that I felt at that very moment.  I'll probably always remember exactly where I was when it happened.  Coming back from a delivery, I dipped into that horrid coffee chain to catch a quick moment of wifi and download my emails for whenever a moment arose.  I've been obsessively waiting for word from programs, so I quickly ran through the emails for anything.  I see Fred Deyo - I know that name - Binghamton I think, and right underneath it in the subject heading it says congratulations and then sociology under it in the body.  I of course didn't register it right away.  It didn't add up, something impossible to happen was trying to compute as happening in my head, but my head wouldn't let it.  lol.  Yeah, that's pretty much as it seemed.  Discombobulated, out of order.  I opened it, and there it was.  You've "been accepted...with funding".  Ahhhh... even reliving the moment right now feels so empowering and enlivening I'm getting chills down my spine.  It is the final sense of accomplishment for a long road.  I know I will do fine in a program, but I had yet to be able to convince anyone to give this old dyslexic football player a shot at the big time!  But here it is, time to run with it!  We'll see what the other schools say and how Ljubljana plays out, but I know I'll be somewhere come September - and it won't be delivering groceries in NYC!!  :)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The familiar stench.....

....of defeat floats through the air, but I will not wait for it to envelopment me this time.  For I will not be defeated, there is always more than one way to find victory.

I have started hearing form schools.  One by one they trickle in, no, no, waitlisted, no, no, waitlisted.  It is what it all tells me though that is most important.  Year after year I am told the same thing by American academia.  I am not good enough - at least by their arbitrary measures.  Now mind you, it is not over, but I've gotten my rejections from UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and Boston College, and my waitlistings from Rutgers and UConn.  There still are six schools out there, but it doesn't bode well to be 25th on UConn's wait list.  And last year I was on Rutgers' wait list, only for them to not even go on it.  They had two spots.  UConn has about ten.  To be that far down on their's means I'm still a ways off.  I was offered a spot in the masters program at BC, but with no funding or guarantee of PhD admissions.  I've already been through two MA programs and turned down the same type of spot last year at the New School.  No, I'm close - as always - but there is something about my application that is not quite good enough it seems.  Grades and GRE's I would imagine.  But it tells me more and more each day.  My skill set does not seem to be what American academia wants.  I am an "armchair anthropologist."  I've been all over the world, lived in all sorts of places, and spent all that time tieing together how things function in this globalized world we inhabit.  But perhaps that is not what they want.  Perhaps it is book smarts they want, not the real world.  They want people who's grades and GRE's show an academic rigor from birth, rather than the dyslexic football playing late bloomer that I am.  But so be it.  I have strength, and I will not be defeated.

I went into this process with the ultimate fall back school, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.  If I apply, all I need is the masters (which I have).  No GRE's, no BS, no recommendations, anal probes, retinal scans, or poncy description of what sociological question I'm going to answer.  I just need a masters degree to get in and then I can just put my head down and work without wasting time worrying about what everyone else thinks!  The kind of place for me!

But hold up, let me get back to the beginning.  I still have six schools to hear from and they are some of my top choices and best chances.  I got an ominous email from Pitt today though talking about decisions not being made yet but that they had over 80 applicants for 4 spots - not holding out too much hope.  That leaves Northeastern, York, Binghamton, UC Santa Cruz, and Hawaii.  Hawaii was always kind of my fall back, NEU and York are my two top choices with Rutgers, then Binghamton as really solid, but without decent funding.  With UC Santa Cruz, I am just assuming my declination is a formality waiting till March.  I mean there's a chance at the other five still.  One of my best friends is at York and working for me, but they have only one spot for an international student which doesn't bode well.  Binghamton is really specialized, I'm in or out - experience in this apps game tells me I'm out.  Hawaii is a political science program and not going to get me very far on the job market afterwards I'm thinking.  Northeastern seems to me to be the best shot I've got here in the states.  Not a highly ranked school, and really ideal for me.  But I've thought that before.

So as it is, I'm wallowing in desperation with every ring of a rich person's door bell and "where would you like your groceries miss/sir?"  But not today, for the last few days I've started turning my attention elsewhere.  I mean, I'm not the biggest fan of America on many levels as many of you know, education being one of them.  The system systematically excludes people like me from its perches.  So why not just go to a far flung school in a part of the world that has always felt more at home to me?  Central and southern Europe.  The former socialist areas of the world resonate so well with me.  I don't belong here in the US, its to restricted, to polarizing and conformist.  Thus, I feel restricted and confined here.  I want to fly freely, and the frame of mind I'm in right now is a good one just thinking about it.  Getting a PhD here in teh US is a sevenish year project.  In Europe - given that they recognize my master degrees - I'm done in four.  If I go to Slovenia I would be in an interdisciplinary doctoral program with foci on Ethnology/Anthropology, Sociology, Political Anthropology, History, American Studies, Geography, etc.  Everything I am interested in studying in one place.  And in four years I'd have a PhD.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, if I do the Occupy project I would be ripe to teach American studies anywhere in Europe and be a solid candidate for job throughout the continent.  The program would put me there for a year and a half and then at a "foreign" institution for a semester -  which could be Rutgers, Northeaster, the New School, wherever.  Then I do my research here in NYC for a year, and write up for another and I'm done.  I teach in Europe and do research for a few years, and then I'm still in the same place I would be here after seven years, except I would have already been employed for a few years, already researching, teaching.  And I get to live in Europe.  I get to learn another Slavic language, maybe two as serbo-croatian isn't to far off.  And I'd be happy there.  I struggle here.  But I could still be here, researching etc.  I could also spend the next six months focusing on publishing my MA thesis and something on Occupy to help get myself ahead of the game. So many possibilities.

Honestly, I feel enlightened, enlivened.  I've been back here in the US for almost four years.  It hasn't been very kind to me, nor do I really like it.  I want a PhD, and I like being in Europe.  Why not?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Settling In

Ahh.. it feels nice.  It is Friday, but feels like Saturday for me.  I have off from work, nothing that "must" get done. I'm having a nice bowl of granola with some mango, kiwi, and dried cranberries with a little kefir over it.  Sitting in bed, just finished a three day attempt to watch "Blood Diamond" with the usual tears I struggle at the end.  I'm nestled in to my bed, writing, and have a crock pot simmering away from last night that should provide effortless food for the next couple days.

I'm in a new home.  This is key.  A small two bedroom in Bed-Stuy with one other guy.  He's a key figure in Occupy and a pleasure to live with.  No more neurotic land ladies on power trips, no more economic half-way houses in the hood, modest accommodations for a modest, stable life.  It feels good.

Anyone that has read these blog posts over the last several years knows that has not been the case.  Ups and downs, unemployment, homelessness, struggles on every level, but now things seem to be settling in.  My job is good.  I'm not making much money, but I'm making rent and needs.  I also end up with probably on average 2-3 dollars and hour extra in tips.  Money that will go directly to Sierra Leone and maybe to a new transmission for my car so I could think about selling it. I've got ten Phd applications in, one has come back as a rejection, the only decision thus far.  But despite deja vu type fears of a recurrence of years past, I still think I'll find a home for next year.

For now though, I'm quite happy as am.  Funny to say that three days into this, but still, I know myself and life well enough to know this is going to be fine.  I caught myself looking at a nail on the wall and saying, oh, I can bring my scroll from China and put it there!  And in the kitchen I was already mapping out the verma composting (with worms) process and thinking about a small roof top garden for the spring and summer!  Gotta have my kale!!  The perfect crop for me, hardy, sturdy, and will survive anything!

All told, I'm doing ok.  I need a few things like a dresser and such.  But on the whole.  I finally feel whole again.  :)        

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dirty Jersey!

So I went on Monday to revisit the depths of last year's despair.  Last year's academic quest ended with a last second denial at Rutgers.  I was wait-listed, thus had to wait till the final hours of the April 15th deadline to learn my fate.  This year I've got this new strategy that places the ideal analytical lens below just getting in to a PhD program that allows me to get back to work.  That debate is the Sociology versus Anthropology debate.  I struggle with locating the division between the two in practical terms, but I tend to find more fulfillment in anthropological work and reading - seems closer to the ground.

Anyway, Rutgers is the only Anthropology school I've applied to this year.  Everything else is Sociology, with one political science program and one joint program.  Most of the places I've found do interdisciplinary work, and the people cross over well, but still Rutgers was my top choice last year, and it is hard to imagine it as anything but that this year.  It is tough though.  I am visiting a lot of schools and developing relationships with people and places.  My friend and the critical nature/perfectly structured program at York, the radical joint program at Northeastern, the anti-capitalist global critique of Binghamton, Boston College's focus on public sociology, the Cali schools, Pittsburgh.  There are really good people that I would really struggle to say no to.  Programs that all sound great.  Rutgers, always seems to rise above them though.  It pains me to say that, because I want to work with my friend in Toronto, etc.  But the program just fits.

On Monday I met with I think seven people.  My one friend and professor that I have been working with all year on Occupy.  Then several people I met last year and really like.  It was great to see them again as ther was an immediate familiarity and almost affection.  And then the new people!!  They were great.  The one works on media and the other is a joint criminology appointment.  So right there in addition to the engaged anthropology (i.e. using what you learn to bring change), and the focus on violence, conflict, Africa, American inequality, and with several people working on social movements, they now have the two buttresses of my Occupy project.  There is only four years of funding which is tough.  But your field work usually has funding through external grants and such, and mine would be in NYC most likely so wouldn't be such a challenge to handle.

The meetings went well.  I got some very good questions and had to find ways to frame things in different ways for each person to understand things.  I have two supervisors right off the bat that I would think would be fabulous!  I spoke with both of them for an hour at least.  One lives five blocks away from me here in Brooklyn!  Anyway, as is, this school search is tough, I have the applications in and should start hearing back from places any day now.  I had a positive email from UC Davis, and good visits throughout.  We'll see.  Rutgers would probably be the highest regarded program I applied to.  It would be tough to turn down.  But we'll see, so would York in Canada, and Northeastern in Boston, and Davis in Cali.  So it goes, assuming I get in - an assumption I've made before....

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Much Respect Due

So within my new job I have had to work the cash register.  Wow.  I never knew how much respect the people doing that deserve.  Eight hours a day, five days a week.  I just did a two day stint and I tell you my body feels it.  My neck, my legs, feet, etc.

They have a very defined and regimented protocol for the register there.  When you get in, you go to the supervisors counter and get a little red bag full of the money for your register.  $288 in cash and change.  You count it, and put it in your drawer.  You get to your register, sign in, deposit your cash drawer in one of the two slots, and start ringing up people.  You do this then for hours.  You stand on the hard ground and just move your upper body back and forth, with only your hands using the touch screen device to enter produce PLU numbers, scan items, bag groceries, smile and send people on their way.

These shifts are eight and a half hours long, with a half hour unpaid break and a fifteen minute paid break.  I can tell you this too, you need those breaks.  You are not allowed to eat anything at the registers, but you can have water.  To go to the bathroom you have to call the supervisor and ask permission.  Usually you get to go right on the spot, sometimes you have to wait your turn while others are going.  I haven't been told no yet, but with a long line I could imagine someone may ask you to wait.  Talking among cashiers is discouraged and reprimanded.  It is agonizing physically, and trying mentally.

The first two hours seem to go fairly quickly.  You are ringing up people constantly and not physically hurting yet.  But all the concentration and standing takes a progressive toll.  My concentration and blood sugar levels seem to drop after a while and my ability to concentrate wains exponentially.  This is an obvious problem given the draconian policies for miss counting or not have you bills the right way in your drawer.  I have dyslexic moments, but so far I think they have been typing in the right produce code, and you can go back and change it.  But what happens when you have one with the cash?  I was short yesterday 80 cents on one transaction.  It was 62.84 and the woman gave me 65.04, I typed in 62.04 by accident, my mind was in a fog by that point, and the woman was really pushy.  She was treating me like I was just another subservient worker - beneath her - as is a common occurrence it seems.  She was saying its simple, the change is three dollars, she was wrong, but I didn't realize it until later.  I typed in another $3 to make the $65.04, her change should have been $2.20, and it said this, but the woman was bitching and badgering about $3 while I was trying to figure out my mistyped amount.  I gave her three only to realize a moment to late after she'd gone that it should have been $2.20 as it all added up.

I now see how common these interactions are.  Because this is a hard job.  It is so sad that all too often customers treat people at the register like morons because the type in the wrong PLU code, or miscount the change.  I would love to see all these executives and office types come down here and spend eight hours a day on their feet doing the same repetitive motion, counting on the fly, bagging, and scanning over and over for eight and a half hours.

To each customer this is their money, their food, their pain in the ass exercise in sustenance that they have to do, and want to do as quickly as possible between their jobs and getting home or to play in their free time.  They eagle eye you and have little remorse for the slightest mistake.  The cashier on the other hand is staring at a screen all day, doing the same thing over and over.  I have never had such acute blood sugar issues as with this job.  I have to eat something every two hours or I'm lost.  And I can feel it, I end up in this fog that is almost surreal.  Like you barely see the money and PLU codes as they fly by your eyes and hands.  I usually recognize the issue and grab my water or sneak a little something to get the sugar back.

Customers though don't see these ins and outs of the job.  They see the singular action, and see it as simple.  They don't see the eight hours and the pressure put on you for your job by the company.  They treat you like you are stupid because you are counting the change, reentering the PLU code or fiddling with the bag.  No, I think it's safe to say that the general public has little respect for this work, hence its low pay and prestige.  Apparently one customer who had to call over the manager at one point said to her daughter that she needed to go to school so she didn't end up as a cashier.  Right in front of the cashiers.  It is really sad to hear that, sad for society.  Yet still this is the society we live in.  A place where "menial labor" garners no respect even from those that so deeply and heavily rely on it for the very existence.  Whether you work for a company that employs cheap labor, or buy products that cheap labor makes cheap for you the world goes no where without people like supermarket cashiers, and its hard work, just like digging a ditch, mopping floors, building a roof, whatever.  Much respect due.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The laws of the register

So I am going through training on the cash register for my new job. Wow. I don't ever want to be behind the register. I am scared to death of the draconian rigidity of the terms and rules, and how quickly the slightest slip – like not having all the bills facing the right direction – can lead to getting warned and fired.

They work on a system of a written warning, a final warning, and discharge.  In terms of being absent or tardy if you are:

  • 3 times in 30 days, 
  • 4 times in 90 days, 
  • 5 in 6 months or, 
  • 10 in a year,
you will be given a written warning that lasts for a year.  This includes sick days (though back-to-back days only count as one "incident").  If this happens you are on written warning for a year.  If in that time this or any other issue happens again (see below), you get a final warning (which last six months).  If in this time anything else happens you are "discharged" (i.e. fired).

So what is included in this?  Well with the register you are accountable to balancing your till.  If you are a penny off one way or the other 5 times in 30 days its a written warning.  Meaning no take a penny leave a penny, and if you're off by more than $5 on any one occasion it is an immediate written warning.  This means that you count wrong once, accept a counterfeit bill, whatever... you're on warning.  But it gets worse.  If within a 30 day period you have 5 instances of any of the below issues:

  • excessive coins or cash
  • bills not facing the right direction
  • missing a coupon
  • missing an EBT slip
  • missing voided transaction slip
  • miss entering a product code
  • improperly filling out a traveler's check
  • talking to the cashier next to you
  • not asking to go to the bathroom
  • coming back even a minute late on a break
  • looking at someone the wrong way....... breathing.... ok, so I made that one up.
But really?!  You don't place the bills face up and all in the same direction!?!?!? or give someone a penny!?!?! and your in trouble!?  Enter the wrong code, give back the wrong change and in trouble you get!!!  No sir, not me.  Keep me off of that register.  My dyslexic, hypoglycemic ass would be done in a week.  I mean hypothetically speaking (and keep in mind schedules only come out Wednesday for the next week), if someone is late or sick more than 5 times in 6 months (keep in mind NYC subways, doctors, dentists, kids), and they don't put their bills all face up a few times and then take a counterfeit bill by accident, they're done.  No flexibility, only a lashing with the whip.  Amazing.    

Monday, January 7, 2013

Blue Collar State of Mind

So one thing that I did want to bring attention to with my new job is my inherent regression into ethnography.  I am working as a delivery boy.  This is of course not commensurate with my place in society - as an educated white man.  When I am out and about as a "white man" of seemingly respectable capacity, I am treated a certain way.  This became incredibly evident to me throughout my involvement with Occupy and the daily awareness of my place of power in the socio-economic system.  In those circles I am constantly reminded of it every day.  This is why it was so eye-opening - and dare I say refreshing - to be treated as just another blue collar worker once I donned my delivery apron and hat.

There are of course two aspects to this.  There is the way random people and the people you are delivering to treat you, and the way you are treated by other workers such as doormen.  No one really wants to be talked down to, or have assumptions made about them that aren't nice, but we all know this is bound to happen though.  The interesting thing for me is that knocking on doors as a delivery person immediately places you in a category that I am not in otherwise given the general demographic makeup of the delivery profession.  For example there was a woman the other day in a penthouse apartment that when I knocked on the door was very deliberately trying to not let me see in her apartment.  She came out and closed the door behind her, overtly showing an apprehension to me and what I might see on quick glimpse in corner penthouse apartment on the 40 something floor.  Now obviously there is a large amount of speculation here as to her motives.  But having been in the situation and reading it, I can only say that this was the way I felt and my interpretation given the visual and verbal cues I received, and coupled with my own place in society and thoughts.  Yet still, I felt that she did not want me to see in her apartment and also an apprehension towards me.  But hey, for all I know she had a cat in there or a naked man!  lol.

Anyway, my point is that if I was someone living in the building, or someone (eg. the person I am when I don't have my delivery hat on) that was not presumptively of lower income, but stereotypically of higher need/propensity to be "casing" the place, would she have acted to skeptically and with such reprehension?  My suspicion - however prejudiced it may be - is no she probably would not have.  Apprehensive of a stranger yes I'm sure, but if I came with a suit on and a handshake, versus an apron and an eye towards a tip, responses would be different.

Regardless though, this incident was not so much my main point as the way I am treated by other workers.  At pretty much every door thus far people have been friendly and good to me, offering both smiles and often enough tips.  But the big thing for me is the acceptance as a worker that I receive.  When I walk around my neighborhood - which is predominantly black - I am a white guy.  To the average person I am just another gentrifier.  I have to open my mouth and hope that my words sell me and allow me entry into "their club".  And my words do around here, hence my relationship with my bar and others.  However, always at first glimpse I am what I look like.

This is the same throughout the rest of my life.  When I walk into a high rise/rent building in midtown Manhattan when I'm not working, I look like I "should" live there (and yes, these people are pre-ju-dice). Door men treat me a certain way with lots of yes sirs.  And when I walk in to a upscale supermarket like where I now work I am treated the same, like just another wealthy enough white shopper.  But the minute I don that delivery apron and name tag, its like I am transformed into just another guy.  A guy that can be joked with, cursed with, and that other workers of similar stature can let their guard down with.

For me this is truly refreshing.  I do not feel comfortable in wealthier settings or with people of means and "proper" decor   I am much happier sitting around talking with people living real lives, with real struggles, that can just let themselves be free of some of those decorum things.  When I went to Binghamton and was sitting at a table of graduate students I had to be "educated", "intelligent", "on".  With "regular" people I can just be me.  I don't have to sell myself, I don't have to exude skill, competence  or confidence.  I can just relax.

The amazing thing about this is that as regular Tim Weldon I have to prove myself and work to get to this level of dialog with people, but as a delivery boy, I seem to innately already be there.  I can talk how I want, am talked to how they want, and talk about whatever any one of us wants.  There is also an inherent understanding and seeming bond through the unspoken struggle with power that is innately understood amongst "workers".  Statements about the people living there, the way they treat people, the way we are treated.  Mechanics, doormen, shop workers, janitors, whatever.  It is an ease of mentality and a welcome place of respite from the rest of the world that somehow thinks that because I am a white man that I should both be a certain way and be treated a certain way.  I like being a delivery boy, it lets me - if even just for a moment - be me with the people most like me.  

Visiting the future

In the last several weeks I have started visiting schools in an effort to assist my chances of getting in to a PhD program.  I have an extensive list of schools I am applying to and the costs of which are absurd.  But I'm all in - I MUST get in to a program - so I'm going to go sell myself to each one.  The dyslexic football player I am does not seem to look as good on paper as I do in person - as Rutgers reaffirmed to me last year.

So I have been to visit UCONN, York, and Binghamton thus far and will visit Boston College and hopefully Northeastern tomorrow, then Stony Brook on Thursday if anyone is around there.  Rutgers is having an open house on the 29th as well that I will go to.  The only schools left really then would be the west coast schools which I am hoping I can get to, or at least UC Santa Cruz and Davis in the first week in February.  Santa Barbara and Hawaii are a bit too far afield for my current means and time schedule so will have to be left to their own accord.

As it is, I am very happy with the meetings thus far.  (You can read more about UCONN here).  I almost feel like I'm back getting recruited for football again.  The schools have all gone out of their way to show me around and put out the red carpet.  After three visits, York in Toronto is head and shoulders above the rest.  It seems like an ideal program for me.  I met with the closest possible supervisor for me and got on well.  I have some reservations about a few methodology/theoretical issues, but with more information these may be completely resolved.  The fact is that she is an activist and scholar along my mold, just further advanced in her study.  I met with the head of the graduate program as well, and the admin person, and they were wonderful.  Not sure if its because they are Canadian or just that they are nice, but they were great.

I also was up there at the behest of one of my best friends who is doing a PhD in their program and that I know from Central European University in Budapest.  We are now working on very similar things, and frankly I may just want to go there to work with him, nevermind the eleven other faculty members with similar interests.  The program there is shorter - as they value my masters - there is six years of funding, and a flexible core structure that would fit perfectly into my skillset and dyslexic parameters.  Just one method and theory requirement of your choice - quite different from UCONN's two Quants and two Quals plus their courses.

Then of course there is Toronto, which at first glimpse left quite a bit to be desired.  But I as coming from Montreal - which was AMAZING, even under two feet of snow and a wind chill of -14 degrees Fahrenheit - so Toronto could just but subjectively leaving things to be desired.  I mean it wasn't bad, it just looked discombobulated and eclectic, like there was no zoning regulations and you could build anything anywhere not matter what it looked like compared to the thing next to it.  But we had good food, and the rents seem cheep.  I would do just fine there.

From there I went to Binghamton, NY.  I was just in and out and met with some grad students (I'd met with one prof in NYC last week).  They have a really good program for me.  It is very flexible, and you get to set much of it up as per your liking.  But there seems to be some difficulty within the faculty.  I mean the program is completely left and the right vantage point for me, but the faculty seems to struggle at times to work together.  The funding is also an issue.  The give three years of funding and it seems to be causing serious problems with students (I'm hearing the same things I hear from New School students).  The funding is supposed to cover through your comprehensive exams, but it doesn't  seem that anyone finishes them in less than four years.  And it also seems that a really "leftist" program as they describe it does not bode well in grant applications.  One person said grant fund organizations and the government just simply don't fund Binghamton projects and the types of projects coming out of there.  It's tough to hear as well, because Binghamton's core courses would be my electives elsewhere.  Basically, global capitalism, how much it sucks, how unequal it is, and then theories on how to critique it, and the problems with social science's methods.  lol.  So needless to say, it is a great program for me.  But my visit left only more questions and maybe even some reservations.

But, all told, I would do really well there.  They basically said that if you are proactive and assertive that you can get the things done you need to and in a timely manner.  No one has ever accused me of not standing up for and pushing for what I want.  I would do fine there, and intellectually rather well.  Better funding would probably be the trump card.  But we shall see.

Off to Boston tomorrow....