Friday, June 27, 2008

You Want Fries With That? (non-fiction book) by Prioleau Alexander

The full title of this book is You Want Fries With That?: A White-collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage. Prioleau Alexander used to work for an advertising agency before he got tired of it and quit. He was tired of having to kiss up to clients who thought they knew his job better than he did - actually, he was tired of having to kiss up to clients, period, because none of them ever seemed to appreciate the work that he and the others in his advertising agency did for them. For a while after quitting, he just sat around like a lump and apparently made his wife angry at him (I'd probably be angry, too, if my family were suddenly depending on just one person's income because someone decided they were tired of their job). Then he got an idea - he'd start doing minimum wage jobs, just to see what they're like. The jobs he did were pizza delivery guy, ice cream scooper guy, demolition guy for a construction company, tech at a hospital, cashier guy at a fast food place, and cowboy. He also tried to get a job at a big-box store, but no one would hire him.

For each of these jobs, Alexander talks about how he got the job (in some cases, very quickly, without even the need for an application or interview), how the job began (usually with little to no training), what the job entailed, and what the benefits and drawbacks of the job were. The book was strongest when Alexander talked about normal minimum wage jobs that many people take - pretty much anything except for his time as a hospital tech and a cowboy. While those two jobs were interesting to read about, they felt like they didn't really belong in this book and were maybe just there because Alexander had a page number quota he needed to fill.

Although I imagine people who are working in minimum wage jobs right now will probably find a lot in this book to agree with Alexander about, this book seems to have been written more for those who are currently in white-collar jobs and haven't ever worked in anything but jobs like that. I found myself wondering about Alexander. Hadn't he ever taken jobs like these when he was younger, either in high school or during college? He mentions that he used to be a Marine, so maybe he went straight from high school to the military, without stopping to get a crappy, low-paying job along the way. At any rate, he sure writes like he's never had jobs like these before.

Alexander's earliest chapters are his best. I enjoyed reading about what it was like to be a pizza delivery guy, an ice cream scooper guy, and a demolition guy. Alexander had interesting observations to make about the people he worked for and with and any customers he might have served. In his chapter about being a pizza delivery guy, Alexander explains why he now never tips less than $5 when he has a pizza delivered, and why others should do the same. In the ice cream scooper chapter, he writes about the categories of customers he observed, whereas in the demolition guy chapter he writes about the types of workers found at a home renovation.

Considering that the stereotypical minimum wage jobs are at fast food places, it takes a long time before this chapter shows up and then it's way too short - by this time, I think Alexander has gotten a bit bored with minimum wage jobs. The hospital tech job, while disgusting and sometimes depressing, cannot really be considered a normal minimum wage job - after all, Alexander only got it because he had a friend who was a doctor at the hospital. The cowboy job was also something that felt out of place because most people would not have had this opportunity - Alexander got this job because a friend of his knew a guy, and the guy was willing to pay to fly Alexander to a new state to do the job. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't happen to most people who are looking for minimum wage work. These oddball chapters are my biggest complaint about the book.

My other complaint is that in a few places near the end of the book, Alexander gets pretty political - I had problems keeping my hackles from rising, even though I didn't necessarily disagree with everything he wrote. Also, Alexander is occasionally amazingly idealistic when it comes to America and how well it and its various systems work. In his mind, America is the greatest country on the planet, because even the poorest of its poor have clothes. Also, anyone who perseveres and gets a college education won't end up with a minimum wage job like one of the ones he wrote about - apparently, Alexander hasn't looked at the job market lately and hasn't considered the fact that so many people have college degrees that having one isn't necessarily worth much. I should know - I've got a BA and an MLS (Master's in Library Science) and I still haven't managed to get a full-time job in my field after more than a year of sending out applications. Minimum wage jobs aren't just for people lacking college degrees.

One final complaint: although Alexander starts just about every chapter with information on the history of whatever it is his job is about (ice cream, big-box stores, etc.), he rarely ever looked at a book while doing his research. Most of his history sections start with the phrase "I Googled it." When Google fails him (as it does in the case of big-box stores), does he go to his local library and talk with a reference librarian? No, he contacts a Wikipedia writer. In case you're unfamiliar with Wikipedia (however it may sometimes seem, there are still people out there who haven't used it), it's an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. This means that when he said he contacted a Wikipedia writer to ask about big-box stories, he could've been talking to a 12-year-old kid or a conspiracy nut. The "nut" option seems like a possibility, since his history of big-box stores has them starting with a gangster whose idea was stolen by Sam Walton. Apparently, Walton sent a whole squadron of corporate lawyers after the guy, as well as, eventually, a bounty hunter. Since this all sounds like it might potentially be just anti-Wal-Mart fiction, I would've appreciated it if Alexander had actually used cite-able sources so that his readers could check his information. However, there are no citations whatsoever in the entire book, and the only book Alexander mentions is Fast Food Nation. Granted, this is a popular non-fiction book, and not a scholarly work, but it's still incredibly sloppy.

Overall, though, this was a funny, scary book - funny if you can approach it objectively, scary if you think of all the people who have to have jobs like this. Very scary if you have to have a job like one of these yourself, or if you, like me, are facing the possibility of a life with jobs like these, because you can't manage to get anything else.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian (non-fiction book) by Scott Douglas - Douglas writes about his experiences working in libraries. He began working in a small public library in Anaheim and eventually decided to get a degree in library science, after which he got other jobs at public libraries in Anaheim, ones with more responsibility. This description makes this book sound dry, but Douglas' humor and his anecdotes about his co-workers and library patrons makes this an entertaining read - you don't necessarily have to have worked at a library to enjoy this book. Those who liked Alexander's humor and the details he provided about working in different jobs and what the co-workers and customers were like might like this book.
  • Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (non-fiction book) by Jeff Ferrell - In December of 2001, Jeff Ferrell quit his job as a tenured professor. With a place to live but no real income, Ferrell began an eight-month period of dumpster diving, trash picking, and scavenging. His efforts provided him both with a way to survive and convenient field research. Although I think Ferrell might lean in a different direction, politically, than Alexander, readers who enjoyed reading about the efforts of a man who quit what others might view as an excellent job with nothing else lined up to take its place might like this book.
  • Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-line Employee (non-fiction book) by Alex Frankel - Journalist Alex Frankel wondered about how well-known companies win over the hearts and minds of their employees in retail and service. In an effort to find some answers, he embarked on a two-year undercover journalism mission, getting hired by half-a-dozen companies. He was a UPS driver, a t-shirt folder at the Gap, a coffee brewer at Starbucks, a salesman at the Apple Store, and more. Those who enjoyed reading about an outsider's experiences in different jobs might enjoy this book.
  • 30 Days (live action TV series) - In this documentary-style program hosted by Morgan Spurlock (known for his documentary Supersize Me), individuals are introduced to a different philosophy or culture for a whole month. This might involve an atheist living with Christians, or a pro-choice person working at a pro-life birthing and counseling center. The intent of the show is to encourage communication, learning, and acceptance from everyone on both sides of whatever issue an episode covers. Those who liked reading about a white-collar guy working in minimum wage jobs might enjoy this show. Those who are especially interested in the minimum wage job aspect of Alexander's book might enjoy the first episode of this show, in which Spurlock and his fiancee try to survive for 30 days on minimum wage pay.

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