I love Joy Division references. For those of you reading this on the front page who can’t see the title (I’m sure I can fix that but I’m lazy and it’s late), I titled this “Failures (of the modern man),” which was the title of an early Joy Division song. I don’t remember what it was about. It was just a really cool title.
I saw another ghost today. Not literally. A ghost from the past. Someone I knew a long time ago, someone I hadn’t seen in eight years. I know I looked vaguely familiar to him because we made eye contact and he gave me the I-know-you-from-somewhere-but-I-don’t-know-where-so-I-won’t-say-anything look. I gave him the very similar I’m-pretty-sure-I-know-who-you-are-but-I’m-not-saying-anything-just-in-case-I’m-wrong look.

I met him in 1991. I’d just turned 16 and this was my first job, at a place called Rax, a now-defunct fast-food joint whose specialty was roast beef sandwiches. I was ambitious and worked hard. I had several reasons for working: It was something to do. I liked having date and weekend money. (Not that I got many dates–so it was mostly weekend money.) It was another place to meet people outside of school.

A lot of people looked down on me because I was working in a restaurant, and a fast-food restaurant at that, and it made me mad sometimes. I got the job easy and I didn’t want to make a lateral move, so it made sense to stay there. At that point in time, it was virtually impossible for a 16-year-old male to get a job outside of food service because until you turn 18, you can’t be prosecuted if you steal stuff. At a fast-food joint you can steal little stuff but they can fire you for doing it, and that’s usually enough deterrent. And I was ambitious. This was my job until I turned 18 and could get something else. Then when I turned 18 it was hard to get something else because not many places were hiring in 1992. We were in a recession. So I stayed until I left for college. No shame in any of that. I worked hard, I did the job well, I was good at it, and I did move up. My next job was in retail, hawking consumer electronics for two summers and two Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. My next job after that was as a part-time computer tech, which grew into a full-time network administrator job.

I’ve been a young professional for just over four years now, and I can look back over the four years, see good reviews, a lot of work accomplished, and a steadily increasing salary, presumably a reflection of how my employers have valued my work. My car’s a 2000, I wear a tie most days, and I command respect. I guess I turned out OK.

Back to this guy I saw yesterday. He worked part-time. He was the guy who walked around the mess hall “dining room” and cleaned off the tables. He swept the carpet. He washed the trays. He got people refills. He was a good guy, a nice guy, personable. He didn’t strike me as dumb either. I remember him being reasonably articulate. He’s not of old European stock; he’s at most a second-generation American and more likely he’s an immigrant, but he had a very light accent.

I don’t know how well respected he was. One night I came in, and the general manager asked me to fill out the night’s lineup. The positions were usually pretty obvious. You had to be 18 to run the slicer, so you’d put the 18-year-old there. One of the people working until close took the salad bar, and the other closer took the drive-thru. Of the two people left, one took the dining room and one took the front register. Most of us had our specialties. I was good on the register, fast at making change, so I was usually on the drive-thru or up front. So I filled out the lineup, handed it to her, and asked if it was OK.

“No, put [this guy] on front cash,” she said, then laughed. “No, it’s great. Post it.”

I don’t know when I last saw him. The store closed in 1993. I left a little before that to go to college, but I remember the store’s last day. I don’t know if I came in just to say goodbye, or if I came in that day to get my last paycheck. I know I didn’t see him that day. The store fell on tough times near the end, because the company was struggling big-time, and just about all of us knew it. More often than not, we went without someone in the dining room. The salad bar person or the front cashier would pop out there and clean up the dining room when things were slow, which was often. He probably didn’t make more than $4.50 an hour, but if the store could save 9 bucks by not having him there from 5-7, the pressure was there for them to do it. He may well have sought employment elsewhere long before the store closed.

I saw him today. I was bad today. I rarely eat fast food anymore, because it’s terribly unhealthy, but today I had a Jack in the Box craving, so I went there. And there, working the dining room, was a dead ringer for the guy I was talking about. This guy had a beard, and he looked older, but it’s been 8 years, so of course he looks older. The name on his badge was a diminuitive form of the name he used when I met him, and it’s not a terribly common name. If I were a betting man, I’d eagerly wager a hundred bucks it’s the same guy.

And I felt bad. I’m 26 now. I said something derogatory about yuppies a couple of weeks ago, and one of my coworkers said, “But you are one.” And I guess he’s right. I wear a tie. I drive a 2000. I can afford a ritzy apartment. (I prefer to bank the money instead.) I’ve done OK.

And here’s a former coworker, in all likelihood in his 60s now, still doing the very same job he was doing when I met him more than 10 years ago. I confess I don’t know what minimum wage is these days because it’s been eight years since minimum wage affected how much money I made. And I never made minimum. My starting pay was $4.50 an hour, when minimum was $4.35.

While all fast-food jobs, outside of management, are considered unskilled labor, cashiers are generally paid better than the people who clean dining rooms. I doubt he made much more than minimum 10 years ago, and I doubt he makes much more than minimum now. Meanwhile, the only way minimum wage affects me is by raising the price of things like soft drinks and milkshakes.

And I’m wondering, where did it go wrong? Maybe he likes working fast food. I don’t know. But he didn’t look particularly happy, so I doubt it.

You can learn a lot in 10 years. I’ve been slacking. I wanted to know Unix by now. I also wanted to be able to read Greek and Hebrew by now. I can build and administer simple Linux servers now, but the only non-English language I know is Spanish, and I sure don’t know much of that. I can find the bathroom and I can ask for three of my favorite foods, I know a good way to get funny looks is to say, “Llavo mis manos con sopa de pollo,” and when one of my coworkers curses in Spanish, I know she’s cursing but I usually don’t know what she’s saying.

But I have learned a lot.

Why hasn’t he? Where were his opportunities? Did he choose not to better himself, or has the door been slammed in his face? I know it’s not the government’s responsibility to see to it he betters himself, or necessarily even to give him opportunities, but isn’t it his neighbors’ responsibility? What have they been doing? What should they be doing? What should I be doing?

Those are tough questions I don’t have an answer for.