My First Thanksgiving

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.

11 thoughts on “My First Thanksgiving

  1. Brutal! In 1987 I was still an undergrad and had dropped out of school to play in bands and work in a pizza restaurant. I was very motivated to become a rock star so I wouldn’t have to cook for a a living. At $3.35 an hour. How I lived on that is still beyond me, but I guess I got free lunch and dinner 5 days a week and my rent was only $125. Oh, and free beer after my shift!

    My “best” dishwashing job was when I was 15 when my mother insisted I get a summer job. I had an Italian immigrant for a boss and that lady was mean. As most folks can attest, old-world bosses will border on child-abusers due to their work-ethic as former farm laborers from the age of 5. So things have gotten better (at least in the west!)

    But really, those years just turn into side-notes to my life of entitlement and being cared for. Education was absolutely the-most-important-thing-in-the-world to my jewish mother so when summer vacation was over I could quit the dishwashing job (And buy skateboard gear with the earnings) and when I decided to go back to college in 1989, she was all too happy to pay my tuition and rent so I could focus on my studies and reach the pinnacle of human achievement: a college degree. It wasn’t until my 30’s did I baulk at the thought of asking them for help. I was late bloomer.

    I have to be grateful since not only did I still acquire a good work ethic but I was spared many of the indignities of being a minimum wage worker. After my first year of college I walked out of a fast-food restaurant job on my first day. I knew there was better (and there was– I landed a sweet security guard job that summer). But if my back was up against the wall or I hadn’t had the imbedded sense that I deserved better, I would have been stuck there.

    I also learned to appreciate first hand what it means to make a crappy hourly wage and empathize with plight of those workers. I don’t know how folks in the NY metro area can even manage. Hopefully more and more will now be able to get health care.

    Sorry to respond with my own essay about myself, and thank you for providing a springboard for my own trip down memory lane.

  2. Rob,

    Awesome comment. Thanks so much. My experiences taught me to empathize as best as I could – for after all, I was privileged in my own way – with hourly workers. They have it hard, and I hope they can stand strong together.

    Have a great Thanksgiving and keep on keeping on!

  3. Hi Samir, Thanks for sharing your story. Reading this on “Black Friday” as I wait to pick up my teen daughter at midnight from her new retail job that is sucking the joy out of her. Some days she is lucky to get 3 hours of work. Today, she is forced to work a grueling 12-hour shift. She & her fellow employees were just told many of them will be let go after the holiday season is over. Managers told them to compete with each other to “demonstrate a superior work ethic” if they want to be one of the lucky few who will remain employed in January. Like an Hourly Worker Hunger Games.

  4. Samir, your story is a distant past for you now yet you must have made it seem so real for several others out there this past Thanksgiving. I did my best to help some folks who had nowhere to go or not enough to afford turkey or a slice of pie. It makes me thankful for what I have. Thank you for a beautiful post!

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