Hi, do I know you? Then stop using my first name. You're a stranger and this is a commercial transaction not a blind date.
My partner recently left a serving position because of how much she hated her bow-tie; it came to signify for her an oppression. She was working at an old, neighbourhood spaghetti house, which, before being re-opened, had sat closed and unused for a number of years. The new owners were serving upscale, haute cuisine Italian in a first-generation immigrants’ family restaurant, and they’d bought the space purely for the kitsch. It was dark and grimy inside, with home-made oil paintings still hung on the wall, and all the brass fixtures and heavy wood left intact. The servers were dressed the way the old place used to do it: black vest, white collar, black bow-tie. All part of the nostalgia trip.
Except the vest and bow-tie were cheap polyester, while the shirt was unshaped and elegant like burlap. The overall appearance created was that of an owner having chosen to humiliate his staff for the amusement of his largely large groups of affluent, multi-generational, suburban families driving into the city to remember the old days. People wanted service there the way they used to like it: a lot of finger snapping, boorish Goombah summonings and constant minor complaints over nothing. Getting to treat wait staff as sub-human seems to have been a lot of the appeal of going out in the old days.
My first year at the college I was at Orchard Park Mall in Kelowna with another professor. We got a coffee. We bought some sports gear. We shopped for dress shirts. At the coffee place, the server on till had a name tag so he said, “Hi Cassandra, and how are you today?” At SportCheck, the clerk working till had a name tag so he said, “Hi Brianna, how is your day going so far?” He made excessively meaningful and patronizing eye contact with each so that they would know that he knew that they were real individuals, special to God and him. The menswear store guy was not wearing a name tag, and neither was my former colleague. The sales associate asked if there was something in particular he could help us with today. My shopping buddy said, “I don’t know anything about this at all, Me I’m just white trash.”
It was a racially charged comment in the context: our sales associate was not Caucasian and the comment stopped him in his tracks. I also remained rooted to the ground. I had no idea what to say. This seemed to be the desired effect for my colleague sauntered from the store and, after a moment I followed.
My colleague was anything but white trash. He’d been born into a middle-class family, had enjoyed his entire life the security of a middle-class income, investment portfolio, educational opportunities and had never once known what it was to have to work retail or service because if you didn’t you didn’t eat. I think that he, like the clientele at the Italian restaurant, don’t mean to be rude, condescending, demeaning and offensive. But class is a real thing. And people not born into poverty and the serving classes have no idea what it’s like. Here’s a tip: no one wants to wear uniform. No one wants to wear a name tag. Seriously though, how do you not know the last one? Like, it’s such a truism, that forcing employees to reveal their names to anyone who can see, is an enforced violation of their personhood. A basic premise of the occasionally brilliant NBC sitcom Superstore is that the character named Amy (America Ferrera) wears a new name tag in each episode with a name that is seldom Amy. It’s one of the precious few tactics still available to working people trying to protect the remaining shreds of their dignity.
You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.