Hanging on at the Bottom

How Long Could Oprah and Trent Hold a Job at the Quik Trip?


Special to The Progressive Populist

Oprah thinks she's helping with her inspirational shows and self-help books, doesn't she? Oprah means well, but I wonder how tight those pretty hair extensions are pulled every time she says, "If I can do it (become rich and famous), everyone can."

It just ain't so. In fact, statistically (if you trust that leftist group, the U.S. Census Bureau) you have a better chance of winning a lottery than dying within a higher socio-economic status than the one in which you were born. (You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than either.)

True, Horatio Alger stories can give the struggler a nice little buzz, but getting drunk on Jim Beam causes less of a hangover, and it's cheaper. A single self-help book alone will set you back more than two six-packs.

But that's where Oprah joins the Corporate American Olympic Tag Team. By insisting that people just need to work and believe harder to get ahead, she's accepted the baton (labeled "Made in Indonesia") from "the boy who can't say 'no'," Clinton, who got it from "let them invest in pork futures," Trent Lott, who was handed it by U.S. corporate interests.

We can be pretty sure that Corporate Interest has no interest in "everyone" getting rich, or they're dumber than they look. Even if you ignore "downsizing" (in Iowa we still call that "getting fired") and job exportation, the fact they insist the minimum wage is too high should be proof all by itself.

When one points out that minimum wage is below the poverty level, Lotts and Lotts of Republicans, particularly Pat Buchanan, will claim no one works for minimum wage unless they want to. Pat also says it's unconstitutional to force employers to pay workers a living wage or limit campaign contributions or Lotts of other things. (Pat subscribes to the King James version of the Constitution, because, hey, if it's good enough for Machiavelli ...)

I WISH HE KNEW Karen, Jan, and Penny. I don't know what it's like in the Beltway and Chicago, but here in Iowa, people have to work for a living. (Can you say, "time clock?")

Karen, Jan and Penny are Iowa working mothers in their 40s who earn roughly minimum wage. They're "tuck and roll" women who long ago accepted that getting ahead or into that "premium" wage area (anything more than $6.00 an hour) means your days are numbered on the job. It's just a matter of time before a reason is found to can your high-priced butt in order to hire someone at $5.25. They anticipate it, plan for it, and survive it with a fiscal genius that CEOs and national economic advisors should envy.

Jan and Karen sell me coffee every morning at a convenience store. Well, just Jan does now. Karen was "downsized" last month. She saw it coming. She'd been promoted to "assistant manager" which meant ordering, store opening, as well as clerking, and her pay rose to $6.70. The truth is it's cheaper to train someone from scratch at minimum wage than to pay that kind of money for very long.

Looking for a new job was further complicated for Karen because the day she was fired, all but the clothes she was wearing had been stolen from the laundromat. Though Oprah and her Lotts might wonder if Karen could benefit from an attitude adjustment to "improve" herself, I was amazed at her optimism: "Hey, I was out of work when I found that job. I'm a tough old bird. I'll be okay."

Jan is hedging the "promotion" now being offered.

PENNY DRIVES THE CAB that I take to work when it's too cold, or I'm too lazy to walk. "Here's the new Enquirer," Penny says as I climb in, "Check out the cruddy retouching job they did on Lisa Marie." She made another keen journalistic observation once: "These are the only papers I read. You can count on 'em. They're all lies. One hundred per cent. Don't trust regular papers. You never know when the stuff they print just might be the truth."

As I begin to reconsider my subscriptions, I wonder if AP and Time/Warner has figured out that working America is on to them. After all, it's the tabloids that first introduced working women to Icy Hot pain liniment, which provided more relief in their lives than the 92nd­p;106th congresses, the national press corps, Wall Street, and Oprah combined.

I ask what's up with her today. "Oh same-old, same-old," she says, "Gotta drive a ten-hour shift, grab asthma medicine for the youngest on lunch if I have enough tip money by then -- that stuff's expensive -- hit the laundromat, try to get those new windows in my trailer before it gets colder, and somewhere in between take another stab at keeping my oldest boy out of jail."

She's not joking. She describes the impeccable precision of her plan for accomplishing her day as well as contingency strategies if the tips aren't enough, the public defender won't take her call, or if the library is closed before she can make a Xerox of a section of the Iowa Code that her son's PD doesn't seem to know about, and then grabs the Icy Hot and self-deprecates, "This is what I get for pounding nails without gloves in 30 degrees. I know better, but you get in a hurry..."

I want to nominate her for president. I know for sure that there is no one in Harpo Productions that could handle the complexity of her day with the resources she's been given.

We wait for a train. For the hell of it, we count 58 cars that have "ADM, Supermarket to the World" tattooed on their bellies. We wonder where we'd sitting instead of in a cab if we broke the intersection blocking time-limit law 42 times a week, the way ADM does.

We see a man shivering in a wheel-chair waiting for the 30-minute train and agree, "That's just wrong."

We talk about visiting sons in jail, make fun of the BMW in front of us and how you don't find BMWs in the jail parking lot.

We compare the nail-up window plastic with the hair-dryer kind and tricks for stalling asthma attacks. (And what is so damned difficult to get about the need for national health care anyway?)

As the last ADM car passes, Penny shivers, "That outfit's too damn big. Every time, I see one, I feel just like I felt when Charlton Heston hollered in that movie 'Soylent Green is people!"'

NOW, I REALLY WANT Penny for president. Penny knows that she, Karen, and Jan aren't anomalies among working women, Oprah is. More than half of the working mothers in America earn wages nestled near minimum wage, and almost as many retire there. They haven't fallen through the cracks, Oprah climbed up through one. They're where they've always been, holding this nation together on a shoestring and as things get tougher they get better at making do.

They are the American icon of rugged survival. The working woman who's not working hard and smart is rare, but most will never get rich. It's not set up that way.

Oprah's a nice person, and she gives Lotts of money to good things, but she won the lottery. And the philosophy -- beloved by the GOP and the liberal chic alike -- that women not as successful as Oprah didn't work as hard or as smart or had a less positive attitude are not only lies, they're mean lies. Oprah has little to teach these women, but their perseverance should inspire us all.

I crawl from the cab, tell Penny to hang in there, and that I'm sure she'll get it all done.

"Yep," she agrees, thumping the Icy Hot back on the dashboard, "I always do."

Mona Shaw is a free-lance writer, working mother and human rights activist in Iowa City. Email: monashaw@aol.com

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