Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Class and coffee

By Emily Felder

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Dan Knott/Collegian

Over the summer of 2009, I worked in the financial district of a city. I wasn’t in a cubicle; I was behind a cash register. Every day I served countless corporate men and women their coffees. They wore suits, I wore an apron. I found it painfully funny that my managers wore blue-collared shirts while I was forced to wear a white-collared one, despite my obvious status as a blue-collar laborer. I worked on the first floor of a bank building in a café. On my breaks I would leave my ugly, mustard-colored baseball cap on, and in my uncomfortable, black synthetic fiber slacks, which clung to my curves most unflatteringly in the humidity, I would walk the city streets like this. I kept those clothes on because I wouldn’t blend in with all of the Men’s Warehouse guys and Anne and Taylor women walking around even if I was wearing my normal, everyday clothing. What was the point in hiding my status, anyway? Besides, I wore those clothes from 5 a.m. on.  What was another 30 minutes to me?

In the mornings I prepared a silver pale, filling it with ice to stock orange juice and yogurt cups for the morning’s business elite. Everything was systematic at the café, every day more or less exactly the same. The only inconsistency was the daily alternating soup flavors, but even that was fixed beforehand by my corporate managers. At 10 o’clock I’d change over the coffees. At 11 o’clock I’d bring out the wraps. At 3 o’clock I’d clean the bathrooms, although sometimes I’d have to kick the bum out of them first, telling him it was for customers only. But I couldn’t blame him when we lived in that city, with that economy. It was the summer of the recession. We couldn’t do anything but sweat just thinking about it and try to stay in the air conditioning.

On breaks I usually just grabbed some lunch and read a newspaper that some yuppie businessman left for me to clean up. They would leave the business section open along with their wrappers and discarded ketchup packets. Even though my job did not entail waitress or janitor, I essentially became the human mop that summer. However, I also read about the economy. I listened, cared and actually knew first-hand the pain, the unemployment and the lack of healthcare. It was unavoidable anyway, working in the city, feeling the pressure when my boss told me to wash the surfaces over and over, especially on days when his boss would be visiting.

Everything at the café was presented in a monotonous, superficial manner. Meals and options were presented immaculately, for this was a corporate world where sandwiches and salads were as fine and tailored as the suits that bought them. When I saw how food was actually prepared in the back rooms, and how filthy the surfaces were, I  realized these men and women paid for the experience, this mirage of quality. And the worst was these men and women, from whatever bank in the area, felt entitled to the experience and expressed their supposed higher status by buying a more expensive meal – regardless of quality. Dunkin’ Donuts was on the same block, but you never saw any of them in a place like that. They were paying for what they believed was quality in a quintessentially American, quantity-driven state of mind. Couldn’t they see it? They were making choices to reaffirm their social statuses and designated their specific tastes to correlate with their mode of consumption. To buy a cup of coffee with the Dunkin’ Donuts signature rather than one with the Starbucks logo or our own chic, yellow, Parisian-styled emblem made a serious social statement. It didn’t matter if Dunkin’ provided better quality coffee at a more affordable price; it was a matter of displaying the acquisition of cultural and symbolic capital. Culture defined those brands, including my own, as the aesthetically and socially superior provider.

The higher the class, supposedly better the taste.

At my café there were two women in particular who were regarded as the upper class of the business elite, for my manager would always rush out to the floor to greet them as they bought their gut-busting meals. This personal attention to customers caught my eye. They were praised for their rigorous work and determination, or perhaps their survival through the economic recession and considerable layoffs, especially in American banks. They were well dressed, respected and they were certainly conscious of it. Once the two women were introduced to me by my manager they immediately began enquiring after my business. They asked me where I went to college and what I was studying. When I replied that I was attending the University of Massachusetts, they nodded their heads in approval. Then when I said I was declared as anthropology major, they twisted their faces in disgust and confusion. One then retorted, “Anthropology? What do you want to go digging around in the dirt for?” They didn’t wait for my response. They were asserting their commentary, not interested in any reply.

My assertion of my set profession rang the loud bell of class distinction between myself and these two women. Since they were clearly part of the corporate elite, they believed their acquisition of cultural capital justified their ignorant and misguided statements. What occurred at my cash register was not a well-informed interaction between equal individuals, but rather a social relation that was the result of one interest group’s symbolic domination of the other. It was because anthropology, according to them, yielded no monetary benefits, or at least symbolic or cultural capital that would meet their standards, so they scorned my sought profession. It was because they didn’t realize anthropology isn’t merely ‘digging in the dirt,’ but a far more complex and intriguing field present in our everyday lives, even their own. I was so angered by their ignorant disregard of a field of study which has contributed considerably to our everyday lives and understanding of the past. I wanted to learn about archaeological material culture, linguistics, our biology and history –  all the things that defined who these women were, and yet they could not see or appreciate it. It was they who could not read the cultural codes by which we determine these false class distinctions, to see the true worth and benefit of something they would never have access to. With their known status of high-class business privilege, they believed their opinions were not only worthy, but unquestionable.

Working at that cafe was not a role I was restricted to, nor one I am ashamed to have had. These women, on the other hand, exploited their positions by justifying them with their belief that taste defines class and ultimate hierarchy.

Two summers have passed since I wore a coffee-stained apron. The economy remains weak, but I’m still an anthropology major.

Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

1 Comment

One Response to “Class and coffee”

  1. Doug Young on September 23rd, 2011 3:26 am

    Classes and groups – it is pervasive. I’m thinking that whether you are an anthropologist or a business woman you still perceive your identity in some way as tied up in the class membership.

    Most people do not seem to live outside their own groups – they might socialise somewhat but do not share their lives.

    You should look at the rural UK – there’s usually 6-12 different classes bouncing off each other on an average day.

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