There is so much about author Linda Tirado's book, Hand to Mouth, Living in Bootstrap America, that kept me turning its pages one recent chilly afternoon.
For starters, the writer in me was taken with her no-nonsense, unapologetic style of writing and I was fascinated that a major publisher allowed her to be that authentic. Let those "f*ck" words fly when they work -- I am so on board with that. And they do work here. Kudos to all those who shepherded her through the process.
The book was also illuminating, over and over again, in the way it took the perceptions of the poor and of poverty and then turned them on their heads. Take some of the chapter titles, for instance -- I'm Not Angry So Much as I'm Really Tired, I've Got Way Bigger Problems Than a Spinach Salad Can Solve, and We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money.
But probably my biggest takeaway was her painstaking explanation of what the average service worker might be dealing with when they're not handing the rest of us our coffee or helping us find the right aisle for Band-Aids. It is exhausting being poor and that's in every sense.
"Being poor while working hard is f*cking crushing," Tirado writes. "It's living in a nightmare where the walls just never stop closing in on you."
What she did here was take me from thinking I know how it feels to be a cashier or a receptionist to realizing that, yes, I do know what that's like, but I don't know how it feels to believe that's all I am ever going to be. I don't know what it's like to honest-to-God not believe I have the energy or intellect to elevate myself beyond that station in life.
Here's an example of my shift in perspective. I've long told the story of how I put myself through college in part by working temp jobs. One such job at a prestigious corporation was subbing for two weeks for the secretary in the legal department over the Christmas and New Year holidays. I spent the better part of those days typing Ivy League college applications for the attorneys' children.
I've always told that story with pride, like I paid my dues. And I did, make no mistake about it. But now, after reading Hand to Mouth, I am more aware that I had that well-paying assignment because my mother was the manager of a temp agency. I was not afloat, with no connections. I had a roof over my head for as long as I wanted it in my parents' house. I had a car that, yes, I paid for, but if it broke down I had other people to help me with alternate ways to get to work.
I've worked two jobs at times. I've earned what I have. But even in my most desperate financial days in 2002-03, there was never a chance I'd wind up on the street. This book was sobering in showing me a perspective I just hadn't understood fully.
"It doesn't make sense to hire people at wages that guarantee they'll be desperate and then be disappointed when they're not always capable of pretending otherwise," Tirado writes.
Seems so obvious, but it wasn't before. Already Tirado has me being much more mindful of my daily interactions with people in the cafes and stores I frequent. I already enjoy the heck out of engaging workers I see on a regular basis. I'm on a first-name basis with many. But I think I can do better.
"Our survival mechanisms are the things that annoy the customers most," Tirado writes. "Next time you see someone being 'sullen' or 'rude,' try being nice to them. It's likely you'll be the first person to do so in hours. Alternatively, ask them an intelligent question. I used to come alive when someone legitimately wanted to know what I'd recommend."
I am friendly most of the time, but I think I can be more thoughtful on a consistent basis. Even though I don't take a worker's sullen disposition personally most of the time, I could make more of an effort to not find it off-putting and instead go out of my way to be a little friendlier in its face. What do I have to lose?
I see only gain there.
Sometimes a day well lived means I've opened myself to someone else's efforts, in this case a book, and I come away a better person.