Some of the best material from this column comes when theory is put aside and real-world experience is explored with the attempt to explain it as a form of logic. What is found, usually, is vestiges of layers of the past; the exploration represents a historical analysis and not a revelation of structure as it is now as some adaptation or otherwise logical process of responding to the world. Such things have me thinking of flywheels.
As you probably know, a flywheel is a counterweighted, spinning wheel used to absorb and store energy, which is translated into the momentum of the wheel and later sent back into action. For example, some transmissions use flywheels to store momentum when idle; upon re-engagement, the gears immediately have power while the engine takes a few seconds to catch up. Infrequent bursts of power store well in a flywheel, so that a constant lower rate of power is drained from its momentum while the source can work intermittently. It's a sensible device, in certain situations.
However, upon visiting a modern grocery store, I see a flywheel of history: energy stored in case someday it might be useful, but more likely than not, simply running down because it is disengaged permanently. It took nearly a half-hour to get through the line at the grocery store within easy walking distance here, and when we look into the events that transpired, much like reading the rings of a cut tree, we saw what went wrong.
To set the scene: several customers waiting in two lines, including some who have giant loads of stuff in their carts. As it is mid-day, there are two types of people here: the self-employed or otherwise flexible scheduled people, and those who have nothing else to do. At the third line, an "Express Lane (Fifteen Items or Less)," another checker is getting ready to open her lane. She is doing so at an absolutely vermicular pace, taking nearly five minutes to unlock her drawer, another five to remove her jacket, then plenty of fiddling under the desk.
Fifteen feet away, at the "Customer Care (We Care)" desk, another employee is drumming her nails on the counter between transactions. Here people come to reimburse coupons and transact rebates and the like. At one of the other checkout lanes, an employee is stocking bags with vigor, but she is delayed by the person checking out, who is moving very slowly. Now, we're looking at a flywheel here, so expect this narrative to generate some energy, store it, and then discharge it in a different direction.
The slow-moving checkers - all three - are non-white; black, black, Hispanic. The girl at the customer care desk is Hispanic. Next to her, at the bank, a young Hispanic couple are applying for an account or a loan. The customers are about half white, and the other half is mostly Asian and Hispanic. Occasional Africans wander through, but during the day, it's mostly the lighter ones. The girl who is stuffing bags is white, and hefty and not attractive, while the Hispanic and black checkout people are more generally attractive and in two cases, thinner.
So what happens is this: the snail's pace of the girl opening the express lane finally culminates, and having nothing else to pick at or preen, she opens the lane. Her first customer is a white lady in her sixties, obviously a stay-at-home wife, who breezes into the lane with a cart half-full and proceeds to chat with the cashier, needing help extracting purchases from the cart, and immediately mentions her coupons and her free turkey (apparently, the store gives them away to people, like her, and she said this, who have been shopping there since 1952). She debates the price of an item. And here's where it gets interesting: the (Hispanic) girl from the customer care counter comes over at the behest of their checker, and goes to investigate with the customer. The rest of us wait, and the checker does... nothing.
In the meantime, from the door behind the customer care desk, a hefty white woman in her fifties comes out and resumes duties, having seen that her deskgirl has disappeared. Interesting. The whole process grinds to a halt, customers pile up at the lines, and one woman walks out, having abandoned her purchases because she was unwilling to wait fifteen minutes to get through the line.
If I were writing propaganda for simplistic people, at this point, I'd blame someone. Liberal? Blame whitey. Rightist? Blame the Negroes and Hispanics. Instead, I'm a design-based hater, and have observed over the years that it's not the details of our modern system that are broken, but the fundamental design; it's completely unrealistic. I could fight the heads of the hydra, like racists or environmentalists or civil rights leaders, but really, that's a non-winnable proposition, which is why it attracts professional protestors, activists and politicians, who are not looking for a solution so much as they're looking to sell us a product in their own image. What do I blame here? I don't know if I can blame as much as point out where the flywheel of history spins, and where our own energy is thus lost to entropic dissipation.
First, let's look at it from the perspective of the woman who left. She was older, and had taken care with her personal grooming; she was from an older generation when bad service was unacceptable. In our "progress," of course, we've moved on to liberate the workers from most obligation and to give them violently combative unions, so now service is worse for everyone, and if each of us there was earning $20/hour, the world would "owe" us $10 for our time that was wasted. That's "progress," remember. This poor woman got screwed out of at least ten minutes of her time, first waiting in two slow lines (remember the hefty girl who had to slow her bagging because the checker was slow?) and then bailing out without her purchase. Her expectation was that a grocery store would exist for every neighborhood, and would make enough margin to hire the same people as checkers, and they'd be grateful for the job.
Should they be? Well, let's look at it from the perspective of the Hispanic workers first. They are not first-generation; they were born here and grew up in Mexican and Guatemalan and El Salvadorian neighborhoods. In their view, they are here because their parents came here for greater opportunity, and compared to life in the open sewers of San Salvador, it's an improvement; however, since they've grown up here, they can see (unlike their parents) how they are at the bottom of the system and, since competition is fierce and there are new people pouring in everyday, unlikely to rise. They are labor that's sold like potatoes, by the pound/hour, in which there's little room to compete on the basis of intelligence or diligence. From their perspective, and I'll throw napalm on the fire by saying it's legitimate, they are getting screwed the long and slow and boring way, and they're not going to hurry because -- why bother? (They will eventually change this attitude as even more people arrive, but for now, it is accurate, and I attribute no blame to them for being slow as molasses.)
OK, let's look at the African-Americans. I like the term "African-American" because it conveys racial pride for the black people among us, although it would be superior I think to name them by tribe. They have grown up here; their ancestors fought for equality, for the vote, and then for affirmative action, and new generations have found out it doesn't mean a damn thing. If they're the tiny percentage of African-Americans who can make it through college, there's infinite scholarship money and a constant stream of jobs to fulfil AA quotas. But that doesn't feel right either; it's like selling out, to become an Oreo Uncle Tom, and to fucking suck as a person, basically. I sympathize with this view; it's better to live according to culture and neighborhood than it is to have a pliable spine for money, obviously. Most of these were below 100 IQ points, and thus, were doomed to these types of jobs forever. Why hurry? Really, I think they've figured it out accurately. They have no incentive to hurry.
Now, what about this fat white chick working behind closed doors? A lazy bitch, right? Well, not really. She realizes that the scenario outside her closed door is a disaster by design, and that to fix it requires spending more money on employees than the grocery store wants to, and so she's going to hide out because otherwise, she'll have to hear about it all day long, probably from elderly white people who are wondering why things are so dysfunctional when back in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and even 1970s they were more workable. Even in the 80s and 90s there were holdouts, especially in the neighborhoods outside the city centers, where you could find good service. But now? One of the guys at the butcher shop cannot read or write. I don't mean the quality of his reading or writing, but I mean that he cannot; he has to ask the guy who works in seafood if there's anything printed or scribbled on a work order. In the age of UPC symbols, all he has to do is scan and hit "Total," and then summon a manager if the customer points out that $19.98 a pound is a bit much for head cheese.
We could always crucify the older white woman who took so much goddamn time at the register. After all, if it hadn't been for her, we would have been out in -- well, actually, seven minutes faster, all added together. That's not that much, considering how long the whole debacle took. What was her problem? Like most older white people, specifically baby boomers, she now lives in a world that has raced forward past her. I don't mean technology, as a totality, but that she lives in a different type of society. She mis-read a price; in her day, there were price tags on individual items, and stuff wasn't crammed on shelves so that it was easy to mistake prices. Further, there were people you could ask who were more accessible than the few wandering price checkers in this store (cutting costs, again, the stores have removed most of their on-floor staff; I know because I was able to shop in old school grocery stores in America and Canada in the 1980s). She screwed up a few things. But ultimately, what was her error? Loneliness; the woman was going batty from living alone in a world where clearly she relates to few people or things, so she goes to the grocery store and invokes extra help so she feels she has had a human interaction. She is probably a 115 IQ pointer, and was once not bad looking, though now she has the spindly regality of age.
I see plenty of older people doing this, because they grew up in a time where the rule was to find a job and work hard at it, and you'd do OK in the end. They have. Unfortunately, their society rotted around them, so now they have trouble finding activities. There are no community centers, no towns, no consistent organization. Some go to churches, and find themselves sequestered with people of their generation, talking about death. Others chat with young girls from Russia for $50/half hour. It's stark and empty, but it's what they have, and so like the woman who held up the checkout lane, they do what they can to adapt. Really however, society has passed them by, and we have to wonder if this "progress" brought us to a better state.
If I were a good moronic leftist, I'd blame the store. "You bastards! You have the money!" But they don't, because they're publically traded, and competing against five other chains. Their job is to cut costs and get people into the store, which they do with advertising and coupons and the like; they're not trying to offer a superior product, because they'd go broke doing that. Selling more crap in cans and boxes and bags raises their stock price, not faster lines, because people cannot compete according to such intangibles. They need numbers, lower ones, specifically. Thus we have a situation where no one is to blame, yet everyone is in the wrong: non-whites here as work fodder, but unloved by the white population, who are declining and thus becoming queenlike in their demands and avoiding the real issues. It's a tragedy, not a story of victimhood, as what will be left will be a society that has nowhere to go but further decline, yet people are caught up in their egos and political identity (left vs right) and therefore, do nothing about the real issue.
Some out there would like this to be a racial fairy tale, where black = bad and white = good (right) or white = bad and black = good (left). They're equally racist and misguided, because the only "equals bad" here is the design of our system. Using people for labor doesn't benefit them, as it takes them from societies where they were equals and brings them to a place where they're servants, and cheaper services for white people means that increasingly economic competition tears apart their communities and leaves them so lonely that arguing over the price of turkey with an anonymous cashier is something they desire. The new immigrants will find their children are indifferent, realizing their fate is to be grist for the mill (much as white kids now are dispirited, knowing that A Job and an endless procession of featureless days are in their future), and thus lazy and drug-addicted and useless. Accustomed to different societies, the races cannot get along because they expect different things and thus are in constant clash, which creates employment opportunities for increasingly greasy politicians who, in the Clinton-Bush style, show us there's not much difference between right and left except on token issues (abortion, school prayer, AIDS education).
No one is minding the ship, and that's both the end result of the design of modern society, and what has been its design problem all along. You might try to swat at the details, like the black nationalists and white nationalists out there will attempt to do, but the fact is that you're shit on the flywheel of modern life because you're not addressing the fundamental problem: our motivations are corrupt, and because we compete for popularity and low prices, no one is going to address the goddamn problem until it blows up in our faces. But like a flywheel, it never explodes; it simply drains away the energy from all races, from all people, and leaves behind only a lingering whining noise.
January 4, 2006