The day in January I brought my job application back to the grocery store, I assumed I'd just be dropping it off, but the manager, Scott, wanted to look it over with me standing right there. He read through my work experience on the front. I hadn't worked retail since college, but I'd had management experience in the private sector. Then he turned the paper over and I watched his eyes move across the hours available section.
"Lots of availability," he said, nodding. "That's good."
"The only times I can't do are daytime Monday, Tuesday nights, and then late afternoon Thursdays."
Scott flipped the application over again, looked at my info, then back up at me. "How many hours are you hoping for?"
I was teaching two three-credit undergraduate courses at one college near my home in Connecticut and a three-credit class at another, along with a private writing workshop Tuesday nights. I also write weekly reviews for a TV website and do private editing work when it's available. I'm 44 years old. My wife and I have two teenagers. The town we live in is one of the most expensive in the country.
"As many as you can give me," I said.
I'm not the only college teacher in this boat, and I'm certainly not the worst off. To be clear from the start: I'm not poor, and I'm not claiming hardship. My wife works at a good job in New York City. We live in a part of Connecticut known as the Gold Coast. Those are some of the facts.
Here are others. I'm unable to make a living teaching college classes; my employment in higher education exists on a semester-by-semester basis, and there are no benefits for adjuncts. My wife works in an industry not known for its stability.
Sometimes I think I did everything wrong. I should have stayed in public relations. We should have stayed in New York. Or maybe we should have moved to Los Angeles before we had kids and became entrenched in the TV industry there. I should have gotten my MFA in my twenties, not my thirties. I should have begun writing seriously earlier. I should have gotten better grades in high school. I should have written novels instead of short stories, or tried writing for TV instead of either. I should have been more aggressive about many, many things. I should never have fallen in love with teaching. There are a lot of should-haves. At some point, though, there come the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-its.
I worked in PR throughout my twenties, and then we had a kid and decided one of us would be the stay-at-home parent while working freelance — a decision we were lucky to be able to make. I earned much less, so it made sense for me to be the one to stay home. I had freelance clients and made a go of that. We moved to Connecticut 13 years ago to be closer to family while still being within commuting range of the city. I went to graduate school and transitioned to educational sales — an entirely commission-based job that involved more travel than PR, but which would still allow me to work from home. As an independent salesperson, I worked for two or three companies at a time, selling their DVDs, VHS tapes, and streaming licenses to schools and libraries. I would visit colleges all over New England and think, Someday I will teach at one of these.
Grocery is a physical job. At my store, you're rotated all shift long, doing something new every few hours: stocking, cleaning, cash register/bagging, shopping cart runs. A crate of milk weighs around 35 pounds. You're lifting two or three dozen of these off the pallets they're shipped on, then wheeling them somewhere in stacks of five. You're doing this at 4:30 in the morning, hours before the store opens, and when the milk's done it's on to loading up long carts with 40- or 50-pound boxes of chicken, cheese, bottled water, produce, and whatever else makes it onto the shelves. Between 11 and 15 pallets come in each morning, and a small crew of four to six people is dismantling all of them. If you're there for the evening shift, there's another load at 7 p.m. In either case, morning or night, you have to stock all the stuff you just took off the pallets.
At the end of my first week at the grocery store, everything hurt. My FitBit was set to buzz at 10,000 steps, or roughly 4.5 miles. Pre-grocery, it would buzz around the end of the day. After, if I started work at 4:30 a.m., it went off by 9:30 a.m. Some days, I'd get out of work in the early afternoon, take an hour nap, pick up my middle-schooler from his after-school program, then head out to teach. I'm drawing a picture here, not complaining. My wife, for years, has routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days.
My co-workers at the grocery are great. I was familiar with many of them already, having shopped at this store since we'd moved here. There are at least nine non-American nationalities represented, including Ghanaian, Haitian, German, and Cambodian. I'm definitely not the only one with a weird job history. One person used to be in advertising. Someone else worked in the music industry during the '80s and '90s boom times. Another drove military transport trucks in Afghanistan. Several people are getting their degrees. One guy's studying physics after switching from literature. Another person recently finished back-to-back poli-sci and math degrees. Another owned a pair of small delis in a nearby city and finally gave it up for the stability and health care of working for someone else.
I learned most of these details the first week, when you're paired with a mentor of sorts and conversation begins with "So what's your story?" At one point during this week, the physics guy — a Latino dude who likes to talk books and who used to hang out at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe back in the day — turned to me in the break room, where conversations were zipping around us in at least four different languages. He grinned and said, "Welcome to the French Foreign Legion."
A few years ago, the two main companies I sold for decided to eliminate their sales teams. One opted to sell entirely through its existing retail channels; the other handed its education business over to a call-center company. People who'd been doing the job for 30 years, who'd begun selling cans of 16 mm film in the 1970s, were out of work with no safety net in place. I was teaching by then and thought, Jeez, I dodged that bullet.
In 2012, two years after publishing a book of short fiction, I'd begun mentoring in the low-residency MFA program at a nearby state university. I worked remotely with graduate students on their writing via emailed "packets," sending them my comments and revisions, helping them develop their fiction while they remained active in their lives and jobs. But I know my strengths, and I'm the person you want in a classroom setting. So I put my hat in the ring with the undergraduate writing department too, and they picked me up to teach a business writing class.
Last year, through a fellow adjunct friend, I was able to interview for and take over a pair of media history classes he was teaching at a small college in New York an hour away from my house. I love this school. The kids are great, the learning atmosphere is positive and affordable — it's everything I think a college should be. I only wish I could afford to teach there more.
The numbers are important. If I teach undergrad for the Connecticut school, it's just under $4,800 per course per semester. For the small New York college, it's $2,000. It sounds like there's a clear winner here, except there's a rule in Connecticut: Adjuncts can't teach more than two courses at one time across the entire Connecticut State College system, which comprises 4 four-year colleges, 12 two-year colleges, and an online university. So the most I can make in-state is $9,600 for a semester, regardless of which state institution I teach in. But there's also no guarantee I'll get more than one undergrad class, and most of the time I haven't; there are too few classes and too many other adjuncts to go around. Meanwhile, there's the graduate program, which pays a fraction of what the undergrad classes do — but Connecticut counts the MFA courses and the undergrad classes as the same thing. So while the pay is wildly different and the credits are different, one undergrad course plus one grad course equals Maxed Out for the Semester.
If $4,800 sounds like a lot, by the way, that's for 16 weeks of work, which equals $300 a week before taxes. I have the opportunity to make this twice in a year, for a total of 32 weeks. (The calendar year, as you may know, is a few more than that.) I'm also driving 50 minutes each way, and not getting reimbursed for gas. If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm actually pointing out that the person who does this work must really want to do this work.
My No. 1 fear with the job at the grocery store, and why I resisted applying here for so long, is that it's in my town. Meaning: I'm gonna run into people I know. There are people here whom I've taught in writing workshops; there are others who've seen me lecture at the library; there are people whose kids go to school with mine. I saw people from all these categories the first week.
It wasn't that I was ashamed; it was that there was a certain narrative that I assumed would be playing in people's heads if we ran into each other. On its own, the store pays about $100 better per week than my teaching, and it lives up to its national reputation as a place that treats its workers well: At three months I'll be eligible for dental and vision; at six, it's full benefits, including family health care. But it also represents a well-worn punchline among network sitcoms and hacky standups alike: the retail job with a nametag. This might not rattle me if we didn't live where we do.
My kids have slept in honest-to-god mansions, then returned the next morning to our little house ("great condo alternative!" was the real estate come-on) in the town's lone neighborhood of rentals, multifamily dwellings, and zoned low-income housing. We've always been aware of the class disparity here. The first year we hosted a kids' Halloween party, one of the mothers said to my wife, "Your house is so cute! Is it your only one?"
But it's one thing to pick up your kid at a 5,000-square-foot house and chat with the dad about your book or your teaching because hey, he's seen those things on TV and those people seem to do all right for themselves, and he'll confess to you that he's always envied people in the creative fields. It's another thing entirely to hand that same dad a bag of kale while your name tag reminds him exactly who you are and where he knows you from. Instead of being embarrassed, I was reminded that first week that it's not up to me what goes through someone's head about my work situation, if they're thinking of it at all.
At the same time, maybe there's a reckoning of sorts on both sides of the register counter: It may be a perfect distillation of Education in America 2015 when one of the parents says, "You're, uh, still teaching, though?" and I answer, "Yup!" and we both know they have an older kid who's already going to a $60,000-a-year college that likely employs the same percentage of adjuncts as the schools where I work.
While I genuinely love both my teaching job and my retail job, it's a daily reminder that shit, as they say, is fucked up. A reminder that America is a very different place than just a few decades ago. While all the adjuncts I know are juggling multiple campuses, most of my fellow grocery employees — nonmanagement level — have second jobs as well. When I was growing up, "retail employee" and "college teacher" were both career options. Now they might still be, but only if you combine them. I knew people, growing up, who were solidly middle class and whose moms or dads worked at our town's big, local retail store. (It's since become a Walmart.) At the same time, there are far more people now who are going to college and who are paying exponentially more to do so. (In 2012, there were 48% more kids in college than there were in 1990, the year I met my wife at our tiny Massachusetts state school.)
Forget, for a moment, the question of what kind of instruction and attention your $60,000 a year is buying. Forget what happens to a school's identity when a large chunk of its teaching staff isn't really staff, don't sit on department meetings, aren't able to be involved in campus organizations, aren't part of the college's daily life. I certainly don't have office space at either place I teach. Hell, I have a mail slot at only one of them.
Instead, for a second, ask yourself: If people with a good amount of higher education themselves are having to work additional jobs or go on welfare just to afford to teach the next generation, what is the message? Besides "Don't go into higher education"?
And for me, that's the other, quieter tragedy in all this. For every one of the people I've met who honestly hate their jobs, their $100,000-plus-a-year jobs, there's an adjunct out there who's willing to do whatever it takes just for another chance at another semester of doing what they love. And because it pains them to think of that same job falling to someone who just doesn't care.
I worried about publishing this piece. I worried about torpedoing what teaching career I have. I worried about certain people in my life finding out I work at a grocery store. But I'm also a writer, and I'm writing about something that's important to me and getting paid to do so. I don't see a downside.
I've been at the grocery job nearly four months now. I love it. The people are great, it keeps me physically fit, I like interacting with customers, it works with my school schedule, it allows me to stay within close range of my kids. Meanwhile, I'm working on a new book of stories and waiting to see if I'll be assigned classes for the fall. I had a banquet of fears and narratives laid out for how all this would go, but what's surprised me the most is how normal the routine feels — wake, work, nap, teach — and how quickly that normalcy came.
Last semester, pre-grocery, I met an adjunct who was guest-teaching a class at one of my schools. He lived closer to the New York–Connecticut border and was teaching at five colleges between the Bronx and Bridgeport. He was older than me and had two small kids and when I asked him what it was like teaching at five schools, he told me the teaching was great but he still wasn't earning enough. He shrugged and gave me a tired but knowing smile.
"Gonna try and find a sixth, I guess," he said.
While a lot of teachers hearing that might at least sympathize with him, most other people would find it flat-out insane. I'm starting to wonder if most other people wouldn't be right.
Matt Debenham is an author, teacher, and retail employee living in Westport, CT. He is the author of a story collection, "The Book of Right and Wrong." (Photo credit: Lisa Jane Persky)
Contact Matt Debenham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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