My first Thanksgiving introduced me to the trials and travails of the paid-by-the-hour worker. In 1987, while in graduate school, I worked in the university cafeteria. I made $4.25 an hour for: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, taking soiled dishes off one conveyor belt, and stacking them on another (the dishwasher); and on Saturdays and Sundays, making sandwiches at the deli counter, and baking pizzas. It was boring work; the dishwashing room was miserable; and I hated having to take the train to Newark on the weekends. (This last aspect of my workweek meant that I had to deal with using the Newark subway on Saturday and Sunday evening and in that grim inner-city, it felt like I was exposing myself to extreme danger.) But, all this inconvenience and boredom did net me 85 dollars a week, and that kept me financially solvent. I paid 157 dollars a month for rent (sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with three other graduate students); the balance took care of my modest needs, somehow. Every week’s income was a vital contribution to this barely afloat ship.
And then, disaster struck. I had been dimly aware that the Thanksgiving holiday was coming up, but had not paid attention to its effect on the university’s calendar. I knew my usual Thursday and Saturday classes would not meet, but beyond that, I remained oblivious to its broader ramifications. I was soon disabused of my ignorance: the week before Thanksgiving, as my supervisor walked past me, on her way to the serving area, she casually said, ‘Remember, next week, the cafeteria closes early on Wednesday and we re-open on Monday morning. Enjoy the break.’
Enjoy the break? I rapidly did the math. I stood to lose 16 hours of wages. That came to 68 dollars. With one blow, the Thanksgiving break had wrecked my finances, disrupted the precarious balance I carefully maintained. I would either have to impose an even grimmer fiscal discipline on myself for a couple of weeks, or borrow money from my friends. The former option could only mean one thing: denying myself breakfast and lunch and waiting to eat till I got home at night after classes. The latter sounded less painful. but seemed acutely mortifying. I had been proud of my hard-earned financial independence from home; would I now have to seek favors elsewhere?
When Thanksgiving Day rolled around, I was confined to my little apartment with my roommates. None of us had family close by; no one had invited us into their warm homes for a feast. The weather was gruesome: the standard northeastern mix of temperatures in the thirties, grey clouds, keen winds and a depressing drizzle. I do not remember if we watched football or drank beer. We most certainly did not eat stuffed turkey or worry about leftovers. There we remained, suddenly reminded of how small our apartment was when all four of us were at home, and of how spartan our life seemed compared to those families whose homes were sometimes visible to us from our windows.
Monday couldn’t come fast enough.