It’s hard to survive on $14 an hour. Even when you work full time. After taxes, that’s about $450 a week. Even living in a state where there’s no income tax, $14 an hour, 40 hours a week, doesn’t really stretch that far.
Rent. Car payment. Car insurance. Gas for said car to drive self to and from the $14 an hour job. Phone bill. Utilities. Food for (very large) dog. Food for self. Student loan payments (for very expensive and excellent education). Credit card bill. The occasional five-dollar mega million quick-pick (it could happen). The occasional splurge on a nice bottle of wine. A new pair of work jeans when the old work jeans wear out. A hair cut once every six months.
Being poor is difficult and exhausting. It’s much more difficult to be poor than it is to be rich. Middle-class, even. That’s why We the People of the Lower Class look the way we do: we’re tired. Burned out. We can’t often afford new make-up and we sure as shit can’t afford Yoga classes or artfully highlighted and trimmed coifs. We’re called the huddled masses for a reason.
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s true: I’m sometimes prone to hyperbole. But here’s what I know: being able to buy a new package of socks (that’s right: package of socks because it costs less to buy in bulk) or a new bra that actually fits had become exciting for me. At some point along the way, having the basics had become luxury. And just after I had reached that point, I got tired of it. So, I got a second job.
Some people love working in catering. I, however, do not and it took me exactly one catering event to figure that out.
It was a mother-daughter event at Nordstrom. For charity. I don’t know which charity it was for, but there were mothers and daughters everywhere, hundreds of them, trying on boots and getting make-overs; teenage girls swarming loudly all around me, grabbing fancy turkey sliders with kale aioli and mango sushi rolls off of my tray as they, in pairs and in herds, went from Calvin Klein to Juicy Couture to Kenneth Cole, shouting, “Oh! I can’t wait to see So-and-So’s face when I show up to school in this tomorrow! Mom, you have to buy this for me!” “Well, it is for charity,” the mothers would rationalize. “Sure, we’ll take it!”
My favorite moms, in a very perverse way, were the ones who sat together at the Nordstrom bar on the second floor while their daughters shopped up on the third floor. They tossed back glass after glass of cheap chardonnay (FYI: the wine at these kind of events is cheap wine, people), gabbing quite loudly about some of the other moms at the event. As far as they were concerned, I was no more than a fly on the wall to them, carrying around glasses of escapism. Listening to them was like watching the Real Housewives, if the Real Housewives were filmed before a live audience:
“Well, you know he’s leaving her right? He met that floosy at The Club and packed up his bags. I can’t even believe she came here tonight,” Botox Mom said.
“I’m sure she gets to keep the money,” Over-Processed Blonde Mom said.
“Maybe she can spend some of it on a weight-loss program,” Five-Karat Diamond Ring Wearing Mom said, laughing.
“I know! Did you see her hips?!” Botox Mom said.
“Um, excuse me,” Diamond Mom said to me. “Our glasses are empty over here.”
These women were the future versions of their daughters and I wept for them. I wept for the future. Until I realized that Bravo might actually produce the Real Housewives of Seattle at some point and that, maybe, I should ask these ladies for their autographs. They’d probably totally give them to me.
Diamond Mom snapped her fingers at me, pulling me out of my little Bravo fantasy, “Hi? Server? Wine? Did you not hear me the first time?”
I looked at her, smiled sweetly, set my empty tray down, and simply walked away. It was true that I was being paid more than $14 an hour to work the Nordstrom event. It was also true that I wasn’t being paid nearly enough to serve some greedy, self-important asshole who had just snapped her acrylic-tipped fingers at me. And I decided, in that moment, that if RHoSeattle ever did become a thing, I would totally boycott it.
I took the escalator to the top floor of the store to see if I could sneak away for a bit. There was almost no one up there and I wanted to walk around unnoticed. Which is when I saw the Armani Collection. And the Diane von Furstenberg collection.
Right in front of me, as I reached the top of the escalator, was the most wonderful dress that I had ever seen in real life. Simple. Just a floor length black sheath, really, with the most delicate spaghetti straps and a perfect silhouette. Elegant. Remarkably, exquisitely elegant. Giorgio Armani. Not the more affordable Emporio Armani. Giorgio Armani. The real deal. It was the center piece of the collection and was lit from above by a single bulb and, somehow, it shone.
I had once watched a documentary that featured Diane von Furstenberg and showcased some of her most influential pieces. Patterns. Patterns and colors that would intimidate most designers are what make Diane von Furstenberg a living legend in the industry. Somehow, the documentary told me, she is able to see things differently and the pieces that she creates are among the most unique, the most original. She marries geometry and symmetry in a way that compliments human biology like no one else can: Diane von Furstenberg is, the documentarians told me, the Picasso of fashion. Looking at her collection, to my left, I knew that to be true. Hers are more than just clothes: they are art.
I had never seen clothes like that. Maybe because I’d never shopped at Nordstrom. Standing there in my ill-fitting, too-high-waisted black pants, my feet tired and hurting in the cheap work shoes that I wore, I vowed that I would never shop budget retail again. No more Ross. No more TJ Maxx. I would make more money, somehow. I would have nicer things. I would buy individual pairs of socks instead of packages of socks. I would buy one nice piece of clothing and make do with it until I could afford to buy a second piece of nice clothing. I would have two pairs of jeans that really fit me well instead of five pairs that kind of fit, mostly. And though I wasn’t sure just how I’d make that money, I knew that it wouldn’t be working for a catering company. It would happen some other way. That night would be the only night that I ever catered. That was enough for me.
As it turned out, I got a raise at The Grocery Store a couple of weeks after the Nordstrom event. A few weeks after that, I got a promotion and another raise. While I still can’t afford a Giorgio Armani dress, I do earn more than $14 an hour now. Just enough to be able to take an actual, honest-to-God vacation, which I did last week, for the first time in several years. And I don’t shop discounted retail anymore, either. Well, not really. I’ve upgraded to Nordstrom Rack recently, which is a step in the right direction. It’s only a little bit discounted. Instead of wearing stuff that was sewn wrong or has a zipper that doesn’t work quite as well as it should, I just wear stuff that’s a season behind. I’m totally okay with that.
One day, I’ll have my very own Diane von Furstenberg piece. I’d also really like a Burberry coat. Though I’m really not one for labels, these design houses produce timeless, elegant fashion and I’d really like me some of that.
One day, I’ll earn a real salary again. I’ll take myself to lunch at Nordy’s Grill and enjoy a glass of decent wine there. Maybe try on some Marc Jacobs boots. I think that David Yurman’s jewelry is tedious and uninspired but maybe I’ll try some of it on, anyway. Just because when I decide not to buy it, it’ll be because I don’t want it instead of because I can’t afford it. And I’ll remember that one time that I worked that catering event and I won’t treat any of the employees poorly or snap my fingers at any of them.
Because I know what it’s like to work in a service job. I know how hard it is to support yourself on that kind of a salary and I know how often people who work in the retail industry are treated badly by the people who shop it.
And because I’m not an asshole.