Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reflection #25/40

One summer, when I was a grown man in my 30s, I worked as a cashier at Target. I needed a job and my self-esteem was too limited for me to shoot for anything more ambitious.

To get a job at Target, you first take a quiz on a computer at the front of the store. It’s easy to guess what they want you to answer.  

Q. What would you do if you suspected a co-worker of stealing?
A. I would report them to my superior immediately!

I didn’t have company loyalty to Target, just like I didn’t for Barnes & Noble or Meijer, because it is ridiculous for a human being to feel loyalty to a corporation. Corporations are an integral part of our world, and you can’t avoid them, but it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, they are amoral monsters.  

Being a cashier is, more than anything, boring. You stand in one place and you do the same thing over and over. You are a cog in the machine. And to make the machine more efficient, they give you a speed score on your screen. I had very good speed scores. The key thing is to cut out that annoying “small talk” with the customer and get the items scanned as quickly as possible. My high point was when I maintained a 100% successful speed rating for over 100 consecutive transactions. My high speed scores made up for the fact that I never, ever talked people into signing up for the Target credit card.

The longer I worked as a cashier, the more I felt like I could see the outlines of what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison, whose walls surround us without us realizing it. Every day people came in, presumably to pick up something they needed, and then showed up at my line with a pile of stuff, just random stuff, not essential, and not particularly glamorous, just items that must have caught their eye as they roamed around the store. Hey, these shoes are on sale, and I needed some tape, and this little plastic pumpkin is only a dollar . . . Especially on payday, people would come in and, not even splurge and buy something exciting, but buy piles of junk.

I can’t know what the customers were actually thinking, of course—I avoided small talk—but I felt like I could see the desperation in their eyes. They knew that something was missing, they felt some void inside, and the only way they knew how to fill it was to go to Target and look for something, anything, to spend money on, to buy as much junk as they could in an effort to numb the pain. I’m not looking down on them; I’ve done the same thing plenty of times, particularly with fast food and the internet.

Standing there at Target, ringing people up, I started to think, what if this empty consumerism isn’t just a toxic strain in our culture? What if our culture itself is toxic, a virus that’s infecting and killing the world?  

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