The Other Side of the Register

aspiration dreams tedium

I did have the chance to get a small taste of that life when I worked at the local grocery store as a deli clerk. At first, I thought the work would be engaging, but it quickly turned tedious and I found myself itching to get out.

But the worst part of the job was the other people, not because they were bad people, but because they were such great people who had given up on ever accomplishing something greater. Much of the conversation behind the counter was dissatisfaction and complaints, constant whining at a job they didn't want but thought they deserved.

I guess there is a lot to be said for someone who can be happy anywhere, who accepts a low-paying, menial job and brings everything they have to it. But it is worrying to me to be around people who want so badly to do something else, but who don't believe that they can. The concept of doing a job you hate with little pay for 2 years is hard to wrap my head around. Doing it for 10 years is incomprehensible.

In the speech, "This is Water," by David Foster Wallace, the speaker describes a cashier as, "living a life of boredom and tedium that surpasses the imagination of any of us sitting at a prestigious college." I come from a world where that bleak existence is simply unknown. Sure, us college grads might put in our time, working menial jobs for a few months or years, but it is expected that we will eventually move on to 'real careers.'

But how often do we contemplate what it might be like to have that menial, meaningless job be your entire life.

I worry that most of the people in my circles try to ignore the reality that they could be one of those people behind the cash register. If we ever do the job, we think we're different (and to a large extent, we are, because we hold the assumption that we'll move on, while the lifetime cashier doesn't hold that assumption). But when we do move on, how many of us continue to empathize with 'service staff'? How many of us try to understand by holding on to that feeling of tedium and meaninglessness that characterized our few months or years, and try to magnify it until it takes up decades?


It doesn't seem fair to me that I should have this (assumed) shining future full of possibilities while others, by accident of birth or circumstance, should have to resign themselves.

But then, perhaps I am being pretentious simply by feeling that way. I'm learning that there are so many different ways to be in the world, and not all of them fit tidily into my schema for empowered living.

I have been blessed with a powerful imagination, and I can imagine what it would be like to live that life. I found my heart breaking watching David Foster Wallace's video, a sincere wish for the happiness of these people who seem to have given up on themselves, whom society has given up on and seems to want to forget.