Sunday, December 29, 2013

Paid to Take Another's Punishment

I am, by any rational measure, a product of extraordinary privilege. I have a prestigious job. I own my own house. I can walk into pretty much anywhere and be taken seriously.
And yet, even though I can see that those things are true, it often doesn't "feel" like that.
It's not because as a gay man, I feel like a second-class citizen. I don't.
It goes back to high school. Really before that, but high school makes a better story.

St. John's Chapel, Groton School.
I went to a very prestigious boarding school. The same high school as FDR, and half of JFK's cabinet. When I graduated, I was disappointed because I only got into one Ivy League school, one that I (and most of my compatriots) thought of as a "safety" school.
But I wasn't like most students there, I was the son of a teacher, a "fac brat". My parents paid pennies on the dollar for tuition, and everyone knew my place, including me.
One odd tradition they had there was that if you got caught doing something you weren't supposed to do (like skipping services in the lovely chapel shown here), you got assigned to various work duties, the lowest infractions were "punished" by cleaning up the dining hall, wiping the tables down and straightening up the chairs. One of the most severe punishments was to wash dishes, a messy, hot, wet job that lasted for hours.
In 10th grade, I figured out that you could make a bit of money by doing other people's punishments for them. I used to charge $10 to do a night's worth of dishwashing, then when I figured out you could charge even more than that exorbitant rate, I started raising my rates to $20 and even more if it was a night I didn't want to do it, or if I thought the purchaser was a jerk.
I could (usually) get away with it because these jobs were also ones that everyone had to do on rotation, so the fact that I was washing dishes even though I didn't often break the rules didn't necessarily raise eyebrows. But occasionally, one of the faculty would notice and ask "Hey Bill, didn't I see you washing dishes earlier this week?" and I'd have to lay low, not taking on any more customers until suspicions would no longer be raised.
I loved washing dishes, I loved getting messy and wet, pounding the slop down into a trench where it would become feed for the local pig farm; piling the dishes as efficiently as possible into a washing rack; jamming it into the machine, and then yanking the clean dishes off and stacking them in the appropriate piles, throwing the plates airborne as much as possible to minimize skin contact with their scorching hot surfaces. I did it in college too, as a work-study job.
At the time, it didn't feel the least bit demeaning, I was making money, and having fun while doing it. I even felt a degree of pity for the jerks who paid me to work off their punishments.

When I wonder whether they ever felt bad about it, I doubt it. Maybe a little. But they learned a valuable lesson too, one that you see every time a bank settles rather than accepts blame for screwing people over. Just pay up and move on. Maybe it's even the same guys.

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