While active in Strike Debt, I continued working for the temp agency. One day my supervisor called to give me the news that I had been positively reviewed by the employers with whom I had been placed. She wanted to offer me a new role filling in for an administrative assistant on maternity leave. I was made to understand that this was a kind of reward. I would earn $20 an hour at a “luxurious” and “spectacular” office and that there would be a butler on site. I didn’t think I had ever seen a butler before, except on television.
Early the next morning, I took the subway to a building in midtown Manhattan. Black town cars were picking up and dropping off smartly dressed people, some of whom were being escorted by valets. I had to pass through a security checkpoint to get inside where a receptionist steered me towards an elevator that didn’t make a sound as it sped to the 57th floor. When the doors opened, my breath caught in my throat. I thought “jaw-dropping” was a clichéd phrase until I saw the view that greeted me as a I stepped into the lobby. Central Park stretched out far below me like a bright green river. The park was surrounded by a maze of buildings, some squat like boxes and others tall and thin as pencils. I felt like I was standing on a cloud in the middle of the sky. I gathered myself and addressed the receptionist: “I’m the temp.”
For the next few weeks I worked at what I eventually determined was a private equity firm that I’ll call Equity Partners. Two dozen well-heeled executives worked out of offices flanked by windows that looked down on the park. All but two of the executives were men. All of their assistants were seated opposite their bosses so that their desks made up a kind of inner ring from which they could not see the view. All of the assistants were women. As usual, I did not know how to do whatever it was the real administrative assistant did. I was quickly moved to the receptionist’s desk, a job I could more easily do without training.
EP had a full household staff including, yes, a butler as well as a chef. Lunch was served each day in a large dining room that also overlooked the park. The executives ate first. Only when they were finished with their meals were the rest of us allowed into the dining room. The dishes were gourmet, with fresh fruit and vegetables along with expensive cuts of meat and fresh fish. I couldn’t believe people ate like that at work every day.
EP enforced a rigid hierarchy among staff members which did not stop at the dining room door. One day, I entered the room during the lunch hour reserved for the secretarial staff. Two executives were still seated at one end of the long table. I didn’t know if I should turn and leave or not. There was a moment of awkwardness. I continued on to the buffet. The two men stopped talking, picked up their plates, and left.
My main job at EP was letting people into the main office by pushing a button under the desk as soon as someone appeared on the other side of the glass door that separated the elevators from the lobby. I was told never to let my eye wander from the door because it was inappropriate to make the executives wait. I was also tasked with answering the phone which meant finding out who the caller wanted to speak to and then routing the call. I got to know other members of the support staff, especially the security guard who would wander through the office on his rounds. The chef would often come out from the kitchen to chat. Unlike at some other temp jobs where I felt constantly surveilled, no one at EP paid much attention to me. Once I became skilled at keeping one eye on the door, I was able to read and write most of the day. I eventually stopped noticing the view.
That year was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. had given the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Strike Debt planned to mark the anniversary by producing a pamphlet highlighting King’s commitment to economic justice. “We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now,” King had said in 1967, “we’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.” These were not the words that King was famous for uttering, but we thought they were a key part of his legacy. Especially towards the end of his life, the civil rights leader had criticized capitalism, referring to the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” While reading through King’s statements, I was struck by what he had told his congregation as he was preparing for the 1963 march. “I’m going to Washington to collect,” he had said, suggesting that the federal government owed black people economic rights as well as legal ones. Debtors, as we had been saying for almost a year, are those who are owed.
This language of collection was exactly the message that Strike Debt wanted to recover from the civil rights movement. Our pamphlet would highlight the fact that the August 1963 event had been called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In addition to ending racial discrimination, civil rights organizers were pushing the government to end unemployment by offering a federally funded job to anyone who wanted one. A few years later, those who had organized the March wrote what they called the Freedom Budget which laid out economic priorities including quality housing and education for all. As the socialist organizer Bayard Rustin put it, advancing the struggle for black equality beyond civil rights required “a refashioning of our political economy.” The fact that the civil rights movement had integrated a demand for economic rights into its agenda seemed like a critical piece of history. I was convinced that Strike Debt could make a similar connection between abolishing debt and advancing the cause of racial justice.
My experience at EP was another reminder that being at the mercy of employers could be a boring and humiliating experience. One day, in the late afternoon, I was at my post when the chef came rushing out of the kitchen looking worried. Earlier that day there had been a lunch meeting between a group of executives and their clients. The chef had served chicken. He had just learned that there would be another meeting that same evening where he was expected to serve dinner. “The only protein I have is more chicken!” he sounded frantic. “My next delivery isn’t until tomorrow.” In response to my quizzical expression, he clarified: “I can’t possibly serve chicken twice in one day!” The Chef was afraid he would be fired for not varying the proteins consumed by his bosses. I stayed late that night to help him and other staff members serve the meal. I scanned the executives’ faces to see if they seemed disgusted at the sight of their second plate of chicken in a single day. But they betrayed no emotion.
The Chef was not fired for the chicken incident, though for days afterward he was too traumatized to even joke about it. “This is a very tense place to work,” he admitted. I nodded. “What was that group that started protesting downtown a few months ago?” He couldn’t remember the name. “Occupy Wall street?” I answered. “Right,” he replied. “Occupy Wall Street made these guys around here nervous.” I asked him why. “Because they know that one day all of this,” he gestured around the office, “is going to end.” If one wanted to describe what the end times looked like, all that obscene luxury being obsequiously delivered by low wage workers in the sky above Manhattan was a good place to start.
My time at EP came to an end soon after, and not because I had been caught reading Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches while on the job. The administrative assistant that I had replaced came back to work. My last shift ended on a fitting note. I was preparing to leave when one of Vice Presidents came through the door. He stopped to talk to me on his way in, the first time he had ever done so. He advised me not to turn east as I left the building. “Someone just jumped from the balcony of the Franklin,” he said, referring to the luxury hotel next door. “The guy landed on a car, and it’s a mess.” I thanked him for the tip. Once I got to the street, I saw that there were police cars up and down the block. Sirens were blaring. I turned west and took the steps down to the A train platform where it was a rush hour like any other.