Christmas For The Privileged Class

Do you remember the olden days when everything was closed on Christmas Day?

It's hard to believe it now but there was a time when stores didn't have signs posted at their entrances proclaiming, "Open till 9 pm Christmas Day". In those days, if you forgot to buy maple syrup to glaze your ham, well, you'd better try to make a coating from brown sugar and nutmeg because every single store was closed. There was no such thing as getting up on Christmas morning to run to the store for another can of pineapple. No visiting the cigarette counter to grab another pack of smokes when you accidentally ran out.

In fact, I remember my parents freaking out one year when they ran out of cigarettes on Christmas Day. Everything was closed so there was nowhere to purchase another pack of Benson & Hedges. They had us kids scouring every single ashtray and waste basket, including the one in the car, looking for butts with some sliver of smokability remaining.

Every Christmas Eve seemed to find me and my father in the local Kroger with my mother's list of last minute requests, written in her painstakingly neat calligraphy. The store would be packed with other last-minute shoppers, eagerly snatching the last package of whole wheat dinner rolls off the shelf just as my father began to extend his hand for it. My dad would agonize over whether to go home with the white dinner rolls or nothing at all. This was before cell phones so he couldn't exactly call my mom and ask her which she'd prefer.

Times have certainly changed. Today I headed down to our local Vons grocery at a little past noon. I didn't even bother to call first to see if they were open. Once there, I slowly strolled the aisles with dozens of other shoppers. I added a bag of baby carrots, luminously red tomatoes and other salad stuff to my cart. In the checkout lane, I picked up a copy of Us Weekly. After buying these things and stashing them in the trunk of my car, I headed back inside to stand in the long line at the Starbucks counter.

I waited behind a woman who was wearing what must have been her special holiday outfit: a red jersey mini dress, cinched at the waist with a wide black leather belt. Her legs were sheathed in an unfortunate pair of black spandex leggings that ended just shy of her ankles. Rhinestone bows trailed up the back of the leggings, disappearing from view as the red dress covered them at mid-thigh. Her shoes were black, open-toed, patent leather heels, the kind of heels I describe as stripper heels. The conservatively dressed man standing by her side murmured to her, "You can't wear this to my mother's house." She ignored him studiously as she ordered her drink. I'll bet there was drama at that Christmas supper, don't you think?

My appetite for observation was whetted. Once it was my turn to order, my annoying curiosity compelled me to ask the barista behind the counter the rudest question ever.

"So, I hope you get paid extra for working today?" I asked. She nodded her head yes as she rang up my grande soy chai with a shot of sugar free vanilla.

"I guess that makes being here worth it then?" I continued.

She looked up at me, tilted her head slightly to the left and twisted her lips into a slight grimace. "I guess," she said.

"Well, thank you and have a wonderful rest of your day," I replied.

She probably wanted to slap me, and rightfully so. How annoying it must have been for her to have me asking these questions. She knows I'm going to take the chai home and sip it while lounging on the couch and perusing the Us Weekly. On the other hand, she won't be going home till 9 pm.

Things seemed so much simpler when I was just an oblivious girl tagging along on Christmas Eve in search of wheat dinner rolls. Now I know, whether or not I want to admit it, that my being in that store today is participating in something awful. My luxury of a chai on Christmas Day is only possible because this woman is working a job with no health care, no paid time off, no benefits at all. That's the real reason my local grocery and yours can stay open nowadays. Stores wouldn't be able to advertise that they're open on Christmas Day if their employees weren't willing to work it. But everyone needs more money when they're only making $10 an hour, if that much.

I came home thinking about how holidays are now only a day off for those of us privileged enough to stay home. We watch "A Christmas Carol" every single year on TV and don't even realize we're living it. It shouldn't be this way.


Sundry said…
I get your point, Liz, but... There's probably plenty to feel guilty about, but maybe not so much your Starbuck's barrista's troubled existance. Starbucks has long been rated one of the best places to work because they offer great benefits to part timers.

I worked a few Thanksgivings when I was a waitress and it turned out to not be so bad. People were really grateful and I only had to work part of the day. The barristas I spoke with on Thanksgiving and Christmas this year were both working short shifts and I tipped them more than 100%.

And, um, what about all the people who don't celebrate Christmas? Don't they deserve a nice latte as a compensation for being excluded from the shopping extravaganza? [winks]
Jon said…
The thought of Christmas past makes me want to lead a simpler life. There should be some days that remain "closed".
Anonymous said…
i, too, went to starbucks on christmas. i was so, so, so nervous to do christmas dinner without having a latte. this is mostly because all morning i felt as though my eyes couldn't quite open and i thought it had something to do with caffeine withdrawal. well, even after my latte my eyes felt heavy. probably because i stayed up until 3 the night before playing my brother-in-law's x-box 360. my sister's house is truly luxury for me -- cable, dvr and x-box!!!

oh, and just like in your story, the line at starbucks was loooooong and steady, as if no one could face their family without caffeine.

while i've heard about starbucks' benefits program - my most recent discovery about part-time retail work has to do with a strange "cutting hours" phenomenon that doesn't exist in my would of employment. a friend of mine had been working a steady 4-days a week retail job and suddenly, with no warning, it was cut to 1 day a week. how do you do that to someone and not feel bad? it's as if part-time workers aren't relying on those wages as much as full-time, insured workers in other industries.

Chas said…
Living here in LA, the land that ate sanctity, I feel like its extra hard to seperate a holy day from any other. Religous affiliation not withstanding Dec 25th feels no more sacred than May 4th when I called in sick to work. Its sadly just another day off. Some combination of the weather, the never ending commerce, and the detached SoCal-ity of it all has sucked it dry of meaning. Theres no wreath at the Grove big enough to hide that.
Liz Dwyer said…

You're right about Starbucks and I think it's great that they do what they do for their employees. But someone told me awhile ago that the employees in a Vons are actually part-time Vons employees, not SBUX employees, so I don't think they get the benefits. I guess I was also thinking about more than just Starbucks employees. For example, anyone who works at a school in LAUSD and is not a teacher gets zero benefits or vacation days. Oh yes, I definitely remember those waitressing days...I was usually broke and so therefore happy to get a free meal at the restaurant. ;) To me it's not so much about Christmas (so tired of it at this point) but that nothing used to be open on Veterans Day, 4th of July or Memorial Day either. I guess I kinda miss that sort of vibe.
Liz Dwyer said…
Hope y'all managed to create a simpler existence for yourselves. I saw the picture of the was looking pretty minimalist at the time! :)

Yes, if only I could have escaped to a Starbucks or grocery years ago when the drama of a family gathering was getting to be a bit much...I probably would have paid ten bucks for a chai to avoid a few choice scenarios that are now burned into my psyche. Yup, axing of hours is a very common tactic in retail. They learn it from Walmart. Elarryo has gotten involved extensively with labor unions out here in LA, so he can rattle off a bunch of facts on this, moreso than moi.

YES, my experience at the Vons does probably feel more...sad, due to this being LA. Cynical Liz hates feeling like that nothing is truly sacred in this city where 80% of children live below the federal poverty line. People are so dispensable here...just like those wreaths from The Grove.
12 27 06

Hello Liz:
I found you via the Field Negro's blog. I am confused about one thing; why did you think you might have offended the barista? I must admit that tact is not one of my stong suits, so I see nothing offensive about the questions you asked her. I too wonder about those who work on holidays and would hope that they WOULD receive extra cash!

Have a nice New Year:)
Liz Dwyer said…
Hey Mahndisa,
Thanks for coming by to visit! My curiosity was satisfied but I do think I was somewhat rude. I suppose I wondered how I would have felt if I'd been the one behind the counter and she'd been the one being nosy. I probably would have been so annoyed if I was her, and I think her grimace said it all.
Unknown said…
At the risk of sounding like a complete bitch, I have to say that everyone can't be rich and not all jobs are deserving of benefits such as health care and high pay. If you are doing a job that anyone can do then you obviously are not going to be paid that much because you can be easily replaced at any time.

People get paid commiserate with their experience and education which everyone can't be highly paid.
Liz Dwyer said…

I don't think everyone can be rich but I do think everyone has basic human rights that can't be denied. I also know there's not always a direct correlation between pay and the skill set a job requires. Just look at teachers. Not everyone can be an effective teacher. It requires a high level of education and experience to develop the skill to produce great teachers, but teacher pay is abysmally low. It requires a great deal of skill to pick cotton or strawberries, yet the workers that are doing the labor, get paid next to nothing. We still want to have strawberries year-round at reasonable prices but we want it without having to think about the lives of those workers.

Every person deserves access to decent healthcare. That shouldn't be based on some sort of arbitrary meritocracy, especially when a level playing field doesn't really exist in the first place.
Unknown said…
Every person deserves access to decent healthcare. That shouldn't be based on some sort of arbitrary meritocracy, especially when a level playing field doesn't really exist in the first place.

I disagree. I don't think healthcare for all workers is a basic human right.
I agree with you, Liz. I was a single mom who raised three children alone. Too often, I was the employee who had to work on holidays. I was never given a choice of more money or a day off; in fact, I was never paid time and a half or double time for working a holiday. It was that or lose my job, which I needed too much to have any bargaining power.

I think that too many employers take advantage of the people who sacrifice far too much to make them rich. And, like you, I feel guilty when I breeze in and out on a holiday now, knowing that those who serve me must stay.
Liz Dwyer said…
I'm assuming you have healthcare either through your job or someone else's. I don't meet many working people without healthcare that are just fine and dandy with that circumstance. Now, imagine your life without access to that healthcare. Imagine you work as a teacher's assistant in the second largest school district in the United States and you also work s a waitress at a local restaurant. And you are working on your B.A. by going to school at night. Wow, you help teach kids to read and you're putting yourself through college. Nothing more noble than that. Right?

Now imagine you start spotting between periods and you develop serious pains in your lower abdomen, but because you don't have health insurance, you don't go to the doctor. Finally the pain gets so intense, you have to go to the ER. Turns out you had an ectopic pregnancy and one of your fallopian tubes has to be removed. Now you go home and get a $7,000 doctors bill. Except, your annual salary for what you do is around $22,000.

Smartblkwoman, do you really want that for anybody?
Liz Dwyer said…

Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of experience. What you lived is what too many American workers live nowadays.

Sadly enough, the reality is that most of us are only a paycheck away from being the person with no health insurance.

Popular Posts