I talked to her because I knew her experience was shared by many, including myself, and would unfortunately continue to be shared long after the both of us were dead and buried.
You’ve probably seen Tara Johnson before. She’s a young black woman in her early 30’s, always smiling, and eager to help customers at the grocery store she works at. Since 2001 she’s helped maintain the store’s “friendly” image, a cheerful employee who gets up every day before the sun does, like a machine. Behind her smile lies a hidden story, one that seeps out in the tired way she walks or the exasperated way she speaks.
She is an American worker and her life is not her own.
“4 to 2’oclock. 4 am to 2pm, let’s say that.” That’s Tara’s everyday schedule, a week she describes as “extremely rough.” When she gets home she either passes out due to exhaustion or lingers on to pick up her girlfriend’s daughter and do homework.
Like most Americans, Tara spends the majority of her time in service to someone else. Americans work longer hours than anyone else in the world: 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers, all without any of the usual benefits the working class is allotted elsewhere; totally alien concepts like setting the maximum length of the work week, the global average of 20 paid vacation days, or even a parental leave benefit seem more like fairy tales than a possible political priority. Tara’s girlfriend still can’t afford healthcare, why waste the time and tears imagining a vacation?
Most people in the United States can’t imagine anything beyond work, a full 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females in America putting in more than 40 hours per week. Many do so across multiple jobs, barring them from overtime pay and leaving little time for anything beyond the bottom rungs of Maslow’s pyramid. Tara’s girlfriend works about the same hours she does, scrubbing apartments on top of cooking, cleaning, and raising a child. “She definitely got two jobs,”says Tara. “No doubt.”
“A lot more people working similar hours and struggling,” she said. “I can easily count out 10 right now, and that’s me not even thinking about it. Majority have kids.” She describes the life of the average American as one where you “do enough so you can pay ya’ bills and then die.”
Numbers do little to capture this reality. Facts and figures can’t accurately portray the sadness that drips from the faces I see, the shoulders perpetually bowed and wearied. I watch young people at the height of their health spend lightless days inside buildings, running from one workplace to the next all just to break even.
Scarcely fifty years ago Tara might have owned her own house, participated in a political organization, or even studied necromancy and how to awaken the Dead. Her life would have been far from ideal, especially as a woman of color, but certain benefits like time would have at least been around. Rough jobs with long hours have always existed, but they usually pay better because they’ve never been the norm.
Today even time has become a luxury under the American workload; “living” means little when you’re too tired to get off the couch. Tara and her girlfriend struggle to carry out a normal relationship, to make time for one another as a couple and as individuals.
She sees the problem everywhere. “Everybody’s too tired to do anything nowadays.” She’s crouched on the floor, opening boxes. “Work so many damn hours. Plus if you have children.”
“Do you have any time to do anything for yourself?” I asked her. She paused for a while, greeting a customer as they walked by.
“Not at all. Maybe… maybe take a shower.” she says. “Watch a few tv channels, that’s it. Sleep, go home, go to work.” Once a month, if she’s very lucky, she tries to play basketball, a sport she once loved as a child, “but who has time for that?” Tara looks at me with eyes that ache, resignation pouring off her body. “Now you gotta pay bills so you gotta work.”
For nearly two-thirds of the U.S. labor force this is the only world they’ll ever know.
And by the gods, I’m one of them….