Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Waiting For The Crosswalk Light To Change

It was probably around 1987 or so that I found myself one early morning standing on a downtown Seattle street corner in the pouring rain waiting for the crosswalk light to change. It had been one of the things that had endeared the city to me, this local ethic of not crossing against the red light even when the streets were empty of traffic as they were this morning. As I stood there, a scruffy street person shuffled up beside me where he stopped to wait as well. Moments later an older gentleman who I recognized as John Ellis, CEO of Puget Power, one of the area's largest utility companies, stepped up on the other side of me. And there we waited in the downpour, the three of us being Seattleites together, until the light changed and we each went on our way.

I've lived in other places since then and I've never been anyplace where this particular pedestrian quirk was so pronounced. 

Today, I live in a part of downtown called South Lake Union, an area being aggressively re-developed, primarily to provide more office space for the online retail giant Amazon. Some of us still wait for the crosswalk signal, but the charm is apparently lost of the bulk of Amazon employees who charge across the road given even the smallest break in traffic. I know they're Amazon employees because they're all labelled as such with employee badges on lanyards or clipped to their belts. This sort of scofflaw behavior is also evident in the touristy areas of downtown, near Pike Place Market, for instance, where jaywalking has become standard fare, but I can hardly fault them given where they're from. When you get into other neighborhoods, however, it's still fairly common for locals to wait for the light, even when it's inconvenient, the last charming vestiges of when we all waited together even in the pouring rain, living our lives in such a way that we actually had the time to wait.

A couple days ago, the New York Times published a lengthy article about what it is like to work for Amazon, portraying it as a sort of dog-eat-dog world of impossible hours, impossible standards, where employees who are not 100 percent devoted find themselves out on the street; no excuses, data driven, and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Among the money quotes are "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk," and "The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last." A friend who worked there for a number of years, declared the article 85.7 percent accurate.

I've taken an interest because I live here on the Amazon campus which is transforming this part of our city and because I know many current and former employees, some of whom have enrolled their children in our school, but mainly because several early childhood educators have pointed me toward this article saying something like, "Oh my god, this is exactly what they're trying to do to our public schools." And indeed, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has been involved in the corporate education reform movement that is turning our schools into test score coal mines.

I know people who really like working for Amazon and I know other people who only lasted a year because they otherwise would have had to pay back their signing bonus. To each his own. Personally, I couldn't do it. I will never voluntarily be a mere "human resource." I'm married to a woman who will never be a human resource and I doubt my daughter will agree to be one if she can help it. Indeed, I reckon most of us, even if we really needed the money, wouldn't last long in a place like Amazon, but, you know, who am I to judge those who do like it, those that say things like, "I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from." Amazon is far from the only stressful workplace; some people thrive on that.

These are the people who don't wait for crosswalk lights to change.

No, my critique is a broader one than just Amazon. I mean, the way they make money, what they drive their employees so hard to do, at bottom, is sell more merchandise, more stuff, at rock-bottom prices. It's the same critique I would have of Walmart or Target or any of the other gigantic retailers who are leading the American race to the bottom, and ultimately my critique is of American consumers who don't seem to share my concern.

When you buy cheap, you make the world a more miserable place to live. Much of that cheap stuff is manufactured in sweatshops in third world nations, work that is too often performed by slave labor or children. Much of the way cheap stuff is kept cheap is by paying wages so low that full time employees qualify for welfare, and cutting corners on safety, and even things like air conditioning in warehouses where temperatures regularly soar past 100 degrees and employees pass out with such regularity that ambulances are stationed outside to rush them to the hospital. Our worship of cheap stuff means that the independent mom and pop enterprises that once anchored our Main Streets can't survive because they can't compete with the economies of scale created by these gigantic retailers.

I could go on, but you get my point. I'm proud to say that I've never spent a dime in a Walmart. I often shop on Amazon, then purchase the product I want at a local brick-and-morter retailer. I try to buy products made in America at every opportunity, and if I can find something of local manufacture, then even better. I'm not a wealthy man. I afford the higher prices by simply not cluttering my life with so much stuff. I've lived with lots of stuff and I've lived with less stuff: living with less stuff is better.

As the Buddha taught, "Life is suffering." To me that means we're here to alleviate that suffering, not just for ourselves, but for our fellow man. Our national obsession with cheap stuff, from where I sit, just adds more suffering to the world. There is an institutional sociopathy at work at places like Amazon, where the drive for profit, the drive for sales, the drive to move more and more cheap stuff, is the highest virtue. Its symptoms are Seattleites crossing against the red lights and grown men reduced to crying at their desks, not to mention the even more grotesque suffering farther down the food chain. I'm not blaming Jeff Bezos or the Walton family: what they are creating can only thrive when we the people support them with our pocketbooks and, through our elected representatives, the laws we've made to govern their behavior.

I strive to live my life otherwise.

But now they are attempting to bring their sociopathy into my house, to the place I live and work, where I am entrusted to do what is best for young children. Across the country, young children are crying at their desks as well. A grown man can chose to walk away, but our children have no other option than to suffer. Our schools can't be in the business of selling cheap stuff, and our children are not mere resources. To quote the great Utah Phillips, "Have you ever seen what they do to valuable natural resources?"

The purpose of education in America is to create well-educated citizens, critical thinkers, people capable of working with the rest of us in the grand project of self-governance, traits more aligned with those mom and pop enterprises that were once the backbone of our nation, where finding a work/life balance came first.

I will fight for children. I will refuse to become a human resource. I will always believe that people regularly crying at their desks is a sign that something is horribly wrong. I don't want my life cluttered with cheap stuff. And I will strive to live each day so that I have the time and constitution to wait until the light turns green, right there alongside my fellow citizens.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post gave me the chills and brought me to tears. I can't say I experience that often enough. Thank you, Tom.