Exercises in Precarity
It’s one of the miracles of our modern society that one day you can be on a flight from London to New York, and the next you can be picking someone else’s children up from school for less than the minimum wage.
It was the middle of my seventh month in New York, and I was broke. This wasn’t the kind of broke where you run a little low on spending money at the end of the month; this was true, down-and-out, can’t-afford-food broke. A babysitting job floated my way like a plank of driftwood toward a drowning person; it wouldn’t save me, but it would keep my head above water for just a little longer.
I took my first job the morning after I returned from a whirlwind, five-day trip to London for my boyfriend’s cousin’s wedding. I was still riding the prosecco-fuelled high and feeling homesick for England. It was always a hard adjustment back to New York, back to a city where elegant brownstones and the modern high-rises taunted me, reminding me daily of the incredible wealth stored behind those heavy front doors, of the comfort and security that I seemed unable to access.
The mother called at 9am sharp, desperate to get a babysitter nailed down for later in the week. At first glance, it was a simple enough job: picking up an eleven-year-old from school and dropping her off at a dance class. She offered me $15 per hour—New York City’s minimum wage. I smarted, thinking of the salaried job I had hoped I would have six months after completing my PhD, but I was in no position to negotiate. Rent would be due in less than two weeks, and I couldn’t risk losing potential work by asking for more than she thought I was worth. Remuneration settled, she asked me where I live.
“Central Brooklyn,” I told her. “Crown Heights.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she replied, with almost palpable relief. “I live in Queens.”
One thing I’ve learned since moving to New York is that Queens can mean a lot of things—from the modern cityscape of Long Island City to the Chinese enclave of Flushing to the down-on-their-luck neighborhoods around JFK airport. She asked if I’d been to Queens before, and I said that I had, a couple of times. In reality I had been exactly twice, once to Flushing to see its Chinatown (reported to be a purer imitation of the real China than Manhattan’s version), and once to Astoria to see why it topped the list of coolest neighborhoods in New York City. Long story short, I didn’t know Queens very well. Even if I’d enquired as to her exact location, it’s fairly unlikely that I could pinpoint it on a map, and I certainly wouldn’t know the transportation links between her location and mine. I took the job.
We agreed that I would start work the next day, yet she texted minutes later to ask if I could, in fact, collect both of her kids from school later that day. I was tired, still jetlagged, but I agreed. I set off from Brooklyn about an hour before the end of the school day, got the train to Midtown Manhattan and stopped by Starbucks to pick up two chocolate croissants for the kids’ after-school snack.
Waiting outside the school, I wondered how many of the other adults were parents and how many were nannies. I suspected a high proportion of nannies and wondered why people have kids when they don’t have time to take care of them.
Children began to emerge from school, passing the glossy reception desk and exiting through the glass doors. It must have been like going to school in a conference center. The girls wore plaid skirts, the boys jackets and ties. I wore black, high-waisted jeans and an oversized vintage button-down, looking like the second-wave gentrifier that I am, and completely out of step with the other babysitters. They wore T-shirts and practical shoes.
My nine- and eleven-year-old charges found me, and the pressures of my new life as a childcare professional hit me in full force. I cycled through a mental list of seemingly kid-friendly questions: “How was your day?” “What grade are you in?” “Do you like your teachers?” “What’s your favorite subject?” I worried that these would come off as condescending, so I picked the most neutral option: “How was your day?”
“Good,” they replied. It dawned on me that I have no idea how to talk to kids. I’d read before that you’re supposed to interact with them as though they’re adults, but when confronted with two real-life children, I didn’t see how this was supposed to work. If they were adults, we might have talked about our work, places we’d lived, upcoming travel plans, tales from past travels. The nine-year-old asked if I like sports and—assuming the correct answer was “yes” when the true answer was “no, absolutely not”—I fumbled my response, spouting off some nonsense about how I’d been on the swim team in middle school.
The good thing about kids these days, I learned, is that they’re so enthralled with their phones that there’s no pressing need to make conversation. So as we began the long journey from Midtown Manhattan to the outer reaches of Queens, I let them stare at their screens. I stared at my own reflection in the window of the subway car, wondering how I ever got to this point.
After dropping the kids off in Queens, I made the unpleasant discovery that it would take three trains and over an hour to get home. It’s fine, I reassured myself. At least I’m getting paid. I settled in for the journey, pulling out my current book—Edward Said’s Orientalism—and holding it high, trying to convey to everyone around me that I am more than my circumstances, that I read interesting books, that I care about social issues, that I understand the theoretical underpinnings of my place in this precarious world. The curse of studying theories of oppression is that, when you find yourself in a marginal position, you have all the tools to understand your situation but no way to break free.
I carried on like this from Wednesday to Friday. On Friday evening, I received a $53 payment for three days of service. $53 for a job that consumed the entirety of three afternoons. $53 for the time and forward planning and attentiveness to make sure that the kids stayed safe and got their Starbucks snack after school. $53, I worried, was all that I was worth.
I quit the following afternoon, citing the financial unsustainability of a job that consumes so much time yet pays so little. I felt very small, yet the act of quitting in itself was an exercise of privilege. I didn’t need to sell my time for less than the minimum wage, and I knew it.
I started babysitting because I was broke, and I came away with $53 and a glimpse into the lives of exploited workers. For the briefest of moments, the merciless three-train commute home from a low-wage job seemed an unavoidable necessity. I had a window into the lives of undocumented immigrants, of single mothers struggling to make ends meet, of victims of domestic violence trying to rebuild their lives, of the formerly homeless, of anyone who for some reason or another has entered into the informal economy.
I escaped, but others can’t. I got a full-time, salaried job weeks after the Fifty-Three-Dollar Incident, but this seems an increasingly exclusive privilege, available only to those with the proper degree of education, health and family support. I’m grateful everyday—grateful as I ride the train to work, grateful as I sit at a desk in an office for eight hours a day, grateful when I go grocery shopping and know that I can buy whatever I want. Yet the ravages of precarity stick with me. I’m more cautious now, more scared. I know how easy it is to slip off that ledge of “security” and into a freefall. I was saved at the very last moment, when an employment offer swooped in and gave me a chance at regaining a place in the world. Yet everyone isn’t that lucky, and everyday I’m astonished by what a sick system we’re living in, where true stability is only available to the privileged few.