Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Stop Helping, Son"

I was having a meal this afternoon at a diner (okay, it was a Denny’s – I live in Buffalo, NY and travel solely by bicycle), when a couple of people at a nearby table caught my attention. A middle-aged woman and someone I assume was her son of about fifteen years old had finished their meal and we’re about to get up to leave. The young man had his back to me, while I could see the woman in profile. The kid’s hands moved on the table in front of him as he wiped crumbs from the surface or stacked the plates, or something along those lines. I know this from his mother’s reaction, which was to reach across the table, snatch something from the young man’s hands and command him to stop cleaning up after himself. From what I could see, she appeared to actually be taking things that he had gathered together neatly and scattering them back into their prior positions.

“It’s called waitressing, or busing,” I heard her hiss with genuine derision. “They get paid to do that.”

The young man protested delicately: “I’m just cleaning up my own mess.”

The mother began to get up from the table, aggressively pitching a used napkin into its center and gesturing for her son to follow her out. “Don’t do their jobs for them,” she insisted, repeating that “people get paid for that.”

So focused was she on willfully leaving a mess behind that she didn’t ever seem to notice me, off at her side, glaring at her openly, with fury in my eyes. Her son got up as she began moving past him, still being scolded and thus compelled to defend himself against what I think was the single most irrational verbal attack I have ever heard a parent levy against her child. “I like to clean up after myself,” he reiterated.

Here was this adolescent child taking it upon himself to demonstrate a bit of personal responsibility, and his parent was actively chastising him for it, endeavoring to instruct him that it’s wrong to make something easy for another person if they’re getting paid for it and you’re not. Never mind that in this case they’re presumably getting paid less than minimum wage and relying on tips that, given the neighborhood, the establishment, and the arrogant disregard on display among certain customers, probably just aren’t there. And never mind that all that you need to do to improve their shift working at such a shitty job is run a napkin over a table and move a few pieces of dinnerware six inches or so. They’re getting paid to do that shit that takes absolutely no effort on the part of the customer, but quite a bit when you’ve been doing it every ten minutes for ten fucking hours.

I have encountered this sort of attitude many times throughout my life, in numerous circumstances. I still vividly recall arguing with a good friend in high school who routinely tossed his trash onto the floors of the hallways after school, insisting that it was okay because there were janitors that got paid to clean it up for him. As a matter of fact, he argued that he was providing them with job security by being lazy and filthy. He was a smart kid otherwise, so I give him the benefit of the doubt by figuring that that was probably just an ironic way of justifying his own self-centeredness. Then again, he also self-identified as a Marxist, which added a whole further level of necessarily unintentional irony. Being the principal’s son, the kid was from a decidedly upper-middle class background, and his adolescence created in him an identity that thoroughly grasped the theoretical concepts of equality and social justice, but failed at the task of connecting that to the very simple idea of people actively helping one another.

To this day, there is a special loathing in my heart reserved for these kinds of people – people who applaud themselves when it comes to the vague pursuit of social and political causes, and can speak loudly about them, and build their self-perception around them, but are perfectly willing to leave all the work to others when it suits them, or blame the victim when confronted with individual instances of disenfranchisement and inequality, or drive past a person who’s being attacked on the street.

Of course, in the case of the woman at Denny’s, I have no idea what her social views are. She might just plain not like poor people. She may just think that whatever pittance they’re making to clean up her shit, it’s too much, so fuck them and make sure their job is as hard as it can be. She may be that lovely kind of conservative who thinks that “personal responsibility” is just a phrase that’s used to criticize people at the bottom of society. In that case, here’s hoping that her son’s act of teenage rebellion in embracing liberalism and actually behaving with personal responsibility is not just a phase.

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