Recently, I missed a flight and ended up in a vast airport-adjacent suburb with a few hours to kill. My first stop was at a Starbucks to do some quick work. (Although I don’t drink coffee, I travel enough to know that Starbucks outlets almost always have clean bathrooms and reliable wireless Internet connections.)
One appeared quickly, at the corner of a big box shopping center. It was larger than most of the shops in the Pacific Northwest, so I figured there’d be plenty of room near noon on a weekday. But I was mistaken. The place was packed.
It took a few minutes to find an empty table where I could set down my tea and set up my laptop. In the meantime, I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.
A youngish man with a carefully cultivated scraggly beard and black apparel was plugged into his laptop via elaborate headgear. He was facing me, so I couldn’t see the screen of his computer; but, from the cadence of his talk, it was evident that he was participating in some sort of video conference. He made direct eye contact with me for a few moments — which I thought might be a reproach for looking at him — but then he changed his gaze to another person and spoke into his mic.
I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.
Something I’d read somewhere came back to me: videoconferencing veterans suggest choosing people or things in the room around you to represent the other participants in a conference call. On video, this creates the impression that you’re responding to specific others in the “meeting,” as if they were in a real room with you. He was just using me as an eye-contact avatar.
I couldn’t make out everything the fashionable man said. He was too far away and the Starbucks had too much background noise. But a few phrases made it across the space. “Elevations.” “Build-out.” “Retrofit.” “Improvements.” Because my wife is an architect, I recognized these as terms from a construction project — and, specifically, the expansion of an existing building.
Other snippets of words he used conveyed a certain fastidiousness; he constantly asked others what they thought and if they understood what someone else had said. Sounded like he was the construction manager or coordinator on the project.
I noticed that he’d chosen a seat with a blond panel wall behind it. The small video camera atop his computer screen would frame him in a background that could be from some fashionable office. And the elaborate headgear probably filtered out the background noise. Smart. His clients would have no idea he was sitting in a coffee shop.
Closer to me, a middle-aged salesman and saleswoman huddled at a smaller café-style table and swapped office gossip. The man did most of the talking — an overweight man with an overbearing voice: “The guy is so clueless that he has no idea Everett actually hates him. And he’ll never figure that out.” “I tried to give him some advice. Live on your draw and save your commissions. Don’t count on commissions for paying bills. But he doesn’t listen.” “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not my fault it’s like this. I mean, times are hard. We’re all cutting back.’”
The woman listened and nodded agreement with most of this. But she looked tired and clearly wished she were somewhere else.
As they reached the bottoms of their lattes, the salespeople plotted their afternoon. They were sharing one rental car but had separate appointments before their flight home that evening. He sketched out a plan for dropping her off at her next call while he made his and then switching driving chores, so that she’d drop him off at his last call while she made hers.
If times were better, they’d each have rented their own car.
Just behind me, two women — one older and very sharply dressed, one younger and casually dressed — talked about graphic design work. Their conversation was more about practical matters than aesthetics. The older woman opened a nice leather portfolio and showed the younger various business forms: letterhead, contracts, purchase orders and invoices.
It wasn’t clear whether the business forms were the product of the older woman’s practice or the forms that she used to deal with clients. And the younger woman’s questions were so elementary that they didn’t make matters any more clear.
This meeting seemed to be a “Can I pick your brain?” session. Perhaps the younger woman was the daughter of one of the older woman’s friends. The younger may have read somewhere that asking an established person for “advice” is the best way to get intelligence on employment.
Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.
I’ve been on the older woman’s side of the table for a few of these meetings myself. I caught a glimpse of her face. She was in her late 40s or early 50s, quite attractive and carefully appointed. But her eyes looked sad. They squinted a lot — in contempt, I think — at the younger woman, whose childish questions and cadence made her sound simple-minded.
If the meeting behind me was a job interview, the younger woman wasn’t going to be hired. As the older woman folded up her portfolio, the younger asked her about any contract work that might be available. “It would be subcontract work,” the older said ruefully. “Give me a couple of business cards. I’ll keep them handy.”
Nearly finished with my emails, I took a break to use the men’s room. There were a couple of men ahead of me. While waiting, we listened to a white-haired man pitch four or five other older men and one woman on an investment scheme.
He’d handed each of his marks letters and information printed on heavy-stock paper which had a Baroque-style firm name ending in “Capital” at the top.
“ . . . our record speaks for itself, of course. But, like everyone, we are always looking for more business. And advertising on radio or television, frankly, isn’t something that interests us.”
The others nodded eagerly. This was a job interview. The white-haired man was selling them on becoming sales representatives for his firm — which was involved in some capacity with reverse mortgages. But my turn to use the bathroom came before I could hear the details.
Reverse mortgages are, essentially, the subprime loans of the coming decade. They are legal but unwise financial vehicles that are most effective at separating gullible people from their wealth. The gullible people, in this case, are seniors with real estate that they own outright or nearly outright; with a reverse mortgage, they get a monthly stipend in exchange for leaving their property to the mortgage company when they die.
If they die after just a few years of payments, the gullible old people have effectively sold their property for a fraction of its value.
Although he had the cheap sophistication of a game-show host, the white-haired man couldn’t have been very high up on the food chain of his shady industry. Multilevel marketing schemes are usually desperate to seem established, so they aren’t usually run out of coffee shops. But, hey, times are hard. And we’re all cutting back.
Back from the bathroom, I packed up my computer and scanned the place one last time on my way out. There were at least a dozen intense conversations going on; and another dozen or so people working intensely on computers or other devices. Did any of these people have “jobs” in the sense that the Department of Labor defines them?
Statist hacks like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Barack Obama think of “jobs” as compliant proles lining up at the gates of General Motors for hourly-wage work, performing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined places. But this thinking is antiquated and wrong. Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.
For most people, a “job” means — and will mean, for the foreseeable future — hustling for freelance work. Contracts and subcontracts. Commission sales. Multilevel marketing. There’s money in it, but that money doesn’t come easily. And, sometimes, it doesn’t come reliably.
That’s what I saw at the suburban Starbucks freelance labor bazaar.