The Origin Story of a Rabid Pinko
Most of my friends already know this story. If I were a character in a sci-fi movie, it’s one of the scenes that would function either as a “fixed point in time” that anchors my existence, or as a splinter point where the identities of me in Earths 1–795 branched out onto vastly different paths. It was, at least on this Earth, the moment that I became a Marxist.
It was the early 2000s, and I was working on my Bachelor’s at Youngstown State. YSU is by and large a commuter school; I split a two-bedroom apartment with a good friend, and made my half of the rent and utilities by working at Wal-Mart. I was a part-time “associate,” the name that the company gives to its workers in a crafted attempt to foster company loyalty. If you work the morning shift, which I rarely did due to classes, you also show your loyalty by performing the Wal-Mart Cheer, where every able-bodied associate has to stand and give the manager not only each letter in the company name, but also wiggle their butt while announcing the hyphen as a “squiggly.” I discovered that this particular piece of associate team spirit was not optional on the first morning shift I worked, when my dumbstruck lack of a hip shake caused the manager to point at me while shouting to the entire assembled team to give him a squiggly a second time.
I was part-time primarily because I needed my schedule to flex around my school schedule, but also because it was the easiest thing to get. They kept me right around 32 hours every week, the max that I could work without getting benefits. I didn’t worry so much about insurance, because I was young, and dumb, and could always head to the student health clinic or Planned Parenthood for any medical issues. I had to clock out promptly at the end of my shift to prevent going over hours without approval, an offense that could lead to a write-up, and I had to be sure to remove my blue smock and finish no duties after I swiped out, because some stores had gotten sued for making employees work off the clock. This part was never an issue, because I had no urges to go front and face aisles for free.
The minimum wage at the time was $5.15 per hour, the wage I’d made at my previous two jobs, one in fast food and one in a seemingly more upscale mall department store. I came to Wal-Mart because they started at $6.25 an hour. Soon, due to my exemplary performance in the Foods department, I was making $6.31, plus a ten-cent shift differential on Sundays. I brought home between $600–650 a month, which was theoretically enough to pay my half of the bills and have enough left over for gas and groceries, but the temptation to do things like go to movies and eat omelettes in diners at 2am with my friends was almost always too great to resist. I had my checking account connected to a credit card for overdrafts in order to prevent fees, so my coffee and hash browns ended up sliding seamlessly into my growing debt each month.
One day, I was stocking the milk case with a guy named Jay, whose $6.25 per hour was paying to support his toddler daughter while his girlfriend studied for her nursing degree. The shift manager’s voice came over the intercom, calling all available employees to the back room. We looked at each other, wondering whether having a giant cart of perishable food counted as being unavailable, when we saw a wave of blue smocks flowing past us. We flowed with them and into an arc of associates surrounding the timeclock and our beaming shift manager. I ended up crushed somewhere in the middle of the crowd.
“Okay, sorry for the short notice, but I brought you all here because I have some very exciting news. For the first time in company history, Wal-Mart has made number one on the Fortune 500! You’re part of the most profitable company in America!”
This is the part in the sci-fi movie where the camera zooms in on the protagonist’s motionless face as everyone around them starts moving in slow-motion and all of their sounds turn mute under an ominous score. I saw hands fly up around me in whoops and cheers as the shift manager mounted a shiny plaque, undoubtedly shipped express straight from corporate, directly above the timeclock where I swiped my name-badge to start ticking up my $6.31 per hour of pallets of canned soup unboxed and shelved. I felt like tumblers were falling into alignment inside my brain, unlocking the ability to see something I’d never known was there. The company that made more money than any other in the country, in one of the richest countries in the world, was paying me the cost of a diner omelette — before tip — for every hour of work that I did. For every hour that each of us did. And we were expected to whoop, and cheer, and wiggle out an enthusiastic squiggly about playing a part in making someone else’s fortune.
I didn’t have a name for this, not then. All I knew at the time was that my previously stellar performance had now officially come to an end, because I was no longer contributing one iota of effort more than I was valued. It wasn’t until the next year, when I took a literary analysis class and learned about applying the lens of Marxist criticism, that I was able to put a name on the door that plaque-mounting ceremony had unlocked for me that day. To me, once it was open, I thought of Marxism simply as a thing that is, like gravity or evolution. The beard-faced German man had merely discovered it, analyzed it, and left his name on it, but it had always been a fact of human society, at least since we came up with the notions of personal ownership and capital.
My various political views have evolved since that day, but my stalwart identification as a Marxist hasn’t wavered. To me, it seems as logical and unchanging as knowing that the world is round. But then, there are those who doubt that, as well.
For everyone who’s read this far, thank you, and I wish you all bread and roses.