The priv­i­lege I couldn’t check

Prep-school grad Noah Phillips wanted a work­ing-class ex­pe­ri­ence. But his back­ground fol­lowed him any­way.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­ Noah Phillips is a free­lance writer and il­lus­tra­tor liv­ing in Madi­son, Wis.

Iat­tended the Ed­mund Burke School, one of North­west Washington’s small pri­vate prep schools, where col­lege ac­cep­tance rates were close to 100 per­cent, stu­dents called our teach­ers by their first names and — de­spite our de facto lib­er­al­ism and the lip ser­vice we paid to the ideal of di­ver­sity — we were mostly white and well-off. Most of our par­ents were left-lean­ing ar­chi­tects or jour­nal­ists, fed­eral em­ploy­ees or lawyers, who thought their chil­dren would thrive best in small classes and had the means to make it hap­pen. I was shel­tered, and I knew it.

So I in­clined away from the kind of in­tern­ships or re­sume-build­ing white-col­lar gigs that my peers were pur­su­ing the sum­mer af­ter grad­u­a­tion. I wanted some­thing phys­i­cal, some­thing work­ing class. This wasn’t based on an in­tel­lec­tual de­sire to gain a deeper un­der­stand­ing of class the­ory or race re­la­tions — just a 17-year-old’s urge to broaden my ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond my $30,000-a-year high school days.

I’d never had a job, but I knew where I wanted to find one. I’d spent the first fewyears of my life in Adams Mor­gan, a funky, di­verse neigh­bor­hood and, in my eyes, the an­tithe­sis of Friend­ship Heights, the leafy, gleam­ing en­clave my fam­ily had moved to. A few weeks be­fore grad­u­a­tion, I spent a Satur­day morn­ing pac­ing 18th Street, stop­ping at ev­ery es­tab­lish­ment with a “help wanted” sign, grav­i­tat­ing to­ward the places that ful­filled my vi­sion of the city’s seedy un­der­belly: the late-night spots, the greasy pizza joints, the hookah bars.

I’m hardly the first priv­i­leged young man to go look­ing for grit. Oth­ers, from Ge­orge Or­well to Chris McCand­less, also have chafed against the neat­ness of their up­bring­ings and tried to step out­side their com­fort zones. They found this to be the only tonic for their in­creas­ing un­ease with and bur­geon­ing cyn­i­cism to­ward their back­grounds.

Nor, I’m sure, was I the first to learn that my mis­sion was doomed to fail. No mat­ter how blue-col­lar my sur­round­ings, I’ll al­ways carry the marked ad­van­tages of my ed­u­cated, mid­dle-class up­bring­ing. De­spite my to­tal lack of rel­e­vant work ex­pe­ri­ence, I leapfrogged straight into man­age­ment. Class bound­aries are not so easily breached.

Iwalked into Am­s­ter­dam Falafelshop, a place I loved for the same rea­sons ev­ery­one else did: It had tasty, cheap food and a neigh­bor­hood vibe. I told the guy be­hind the counter that I had seen the “help wanted” sign and was in­ter­ested. He looked me up and down and told me they needed some­body for the night shift. The night shift was crazy, he said. That was pre­cisely what I was look­ing for, so I told him that I thought I could han­dle it— I had ex­pe­ri­ence with crazy from run­ning high school bake sales.

I got the job and soon found my­self at the res­tau­rant at 2 o’clock most morn­ings. By this time, fries were usu­ally scat­tered across the hard­wood floors. Hum­mus and baba ganoush were splat­tered on the ta­bles and the counter. A ragged line of mostly young, mostly white and en­tirely wasted souls stood be­fore me and ex­tended out the door. I was be­hind the counter, hot, sweat­ing, cry­ing “Small wheat!” as I punched the but­tons on the register. “Two white com­bos! One small wheat, one small white, large fries!” And so on, for hours.

Be­hind the scenes, my co-work­ers and I cre­ated our own drama.

There was Catal­ino, a short, mid­dle-aged, mus­tached Honduran who had been work­ing there maybe four years, the long­est of all of us. He was the falafel master, and he stood for hours hunched over his tools as he scooped, shaped and fried the falafel balls.

There was Fran­cis, close tomy age and born and raised in Ecuador. He was tall and had very straight black hair. He used to take classes at the Univer­sity of the Dis­trict of Columbia.

There was Alex, also Honduran, and so gan­gly we called him Flaco. He was a ladies man and of­ten leaned jaun­tily over the counter to flirt with pretty cus­tomers, a han­drolled cig­a­rette tucked be­hind his ear.

And there was David — that’s the Span­ish “dah-veed” — a mus­cly man with a cru­ci­fix dan­gling around his neck and an af­fected, scorn­ful laugh. His English was the best, af­ter mine, and he some­times filled in for me at the register.

I had been hired to re­place the night-shift man­ager, whose de­par­ture left a power vac­uum. My co-work­ers vied for dom­i­nance in their dif­fer­ent kitchen-duty niches, but I had an easy ad­van­tage when it came to the de­sir­able po­si­tion of cashier: I spoke English. With no work ex­pe­ri­ence and with­out ac­tu­ally depend­ing on the job as a source of in­come, I had in­ad­ver­tently jumped the man­age­rial line in front of my much more ex­pe­ri­enced, Span­ish-speak­ing im­mi­grant co-work­ers. And it was me, the white kid with the prep-school back­ground, who was trusted with the sen­si­tive tasks of clos­ing the register, tak­ing the cash and re­ceipts to the base­ment and fill­ing out pa­per­work. (Con­tacted by an editor at The Washington Post, Am­s­ter­dam Falafelshop coowner Ari­anne Ben­nett said the au­thor was se­lected to run the register not be­cause he speaks English but be­cause of his en­ter­tain­ing per­son­al­ity. Ben­nett says all em­ploy­ees are trained to work the register; the most talk­a­tive and witty are tasked with run­ning it.)

I never felt any bit­ter­ness from the other guys, but a dis­tance did de­velop af­ter the ini­tial awk­ward­ness of be­ing the new kid in the kitchen. My cul­tural affin­ity with our cus­tomers had the flip side of alien­at­ing me from my co-work­ers, who laughed at my awk­ward at­tempts to speak Span­ish. Along with the fun and ca­ma­raderie of work in a kitchen, I was also ex­posed to views that chal­lenged the safe, touchy-feely be­liefs I’d ab­sorbed in my high school. I re­mem­ber one ar­gu­ment I had with David as we were mop­ping and sweep­ing up at around 4 a.m., pop salsa on the sound sys­tem. We were talk­ing about gay sex.

“I just don’t get how they could do that,” David said. His cru­ci­fix dan­gled from his neck as he mopped.

For one of the first times in my life, I was con­fronted with some­one whose cul­tural per­spec­tive had led him to com­pletely dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.

“You don’t have to,” I re­mem­ber re­ply­ing. “They wouldn’t want to do it with you, any­way.”

I’d of­ten use this kind of ban­ter to stand by my be­liefs with­out de­fend­ing them out­right. I had to be­come flex­i­ble in how I re­acted to views among my newfriends that clashed with those I shared withmy old friends.

My co-work­ers did in­clude me in their be­hind-the-counter pas­times, like throw­ing knives into cut­ting boards and sneak­ily stick­ing pieces of tape to each oth­ers’ butts. Formy 18th birth­day, I got a sur­prise. De­spite his lim­ited English, Catal­ino took the register for a few min­utes while Alex and Fran­cis led me into the base­ment, to the long, nar­row freez­ers where we kept the French fries in 20-pound brown pa­per bags. On one of these freez­ers, al­ready ar­ranged, were salt, limes, three empty ketchup to-go con­tain­ers and a bot­tle of te­quila. I’m proud to say I held my own.

As far as I know, we were all paid the same wage, and by no means was the register a cushy po­si­tion. But I served as the cul­tural bridge be­tween my His­panic co-work­ers and our cus­tomers, as well as the res­tau­rant’s own­ers. My bosses ex­ploited the back­ground I had sought to rebel against by mak­ing me the per­fect link; thus my ef­fort to see how the other half lived re­sulted in fur­ther en­trench­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween us. This was es­pe­cially ev­i­dent with my friends and stu­dents frommy high school, who treated the job as more of a nov­elty than an ac­tual oc­cu­pa­tion, came to visit. When I told them where I was work­ing, the re­sponse was in­vari­ably along the lines of, “Wow, that’s so cool!” When they stopped by, though, they didn’t grasp that I couldn’t chat with them longer than the time it took to wipe down their ta­ble.

This was five years ago. I grad­u­ated from col­lege in De­cem­ber with a ma­jor in ge­og­ra­phy. At age 23, I’m a free­lance writer and il­lus­tra­tor in my col­lege town. I’ve done other low-wage work in the past five years, but my tra­jec­tory has brought me to­ward the more skilled and spe­cial­ized la­bor ex­pected within my class. When I visit my mom in D.C., I usu­ally stop at the falafel shop, where the smells and the mu­sic re­main un­changed from the sum­mer of 2010. None of the peo­ple I worked with are there any­more, although I know from Face­book that Fran­cis re­cently earned a de­gree in ki­netic science and is look­ing for a job as a sports trainer. I don’t know where Catal­ino, Alex and David are now.

The last time I vis­ited, I did a dou­ble take when I en­tered the store. Be­hind the register stood another kid from my small pri­vate high school. He had been a few years be­hind me, and we had both been on the wrestling team, though my defin­ing mem­ory of him was his per­for­mance as Lucky in the school pro­duc­tion of “Wait­ing for Godot.” As I spoke to him, learn­ing that he, too, was tak­ing a gap year be­fore what I don’t doubt will be a col­lege de­gree and a suc­cess­ful fu­ture, an African Amer­i­can man fried my fries and served upmy sand­wich.


Noah Philips at Am­s­ter­dam Falafelshop in AdamsMor­gan, where he worked as a cashier on the late-night shift af­ter high school.

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