Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | Month 2018 | 10 minutes (2,519 words)
In May of 2017, Mayor de Blasio unveiled Jimmy Breslin Way, a street sign dedicating the stretch of 42nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue to the late reporter. It was a strange press conference — half eulogy, half lecture — a chance for the mayor to laud Breslin and scold members of today’s media by whom he often feels unfairly maligned. “Think about what Jimmy Breslin did. Think about how he saw the world,” said de Blasio. He left without taking questions. What was he talking about? Did he imagine he and Jimmy Breslin would get along? In 1969 Breslin wrote a cover story about Mayor Lindsay for New York Magazine, “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?” was the title. Lindsay was an inch shorter than de Blasio.
In 2010, Heike Geissler took a temporary position at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig. Geissler was a freelance writer and a translator but, more pressingly, she was the mother of two children and money was not coming in. Seasonal Associate, which was translated by Katy Derbyshire and released by Semiotext(e) this month, is the product of that job. (Read an excerpt on Longreads.) It’s an oppressive, unsettling book, mainly because the work is too familiar. The book is written almost entirely in the second person, a style that might’ve come off as an irritating affectation with a lesser writer or a different subject. Here, it’s terrifying — you feel yourself slipping along with Geissler, thoughts of your own unpaid bills and the cold at the back of your throat weaving their way through the narrative. It’s not just that this unnamed protagonist could be you, it’s the certainty that someday she will be you. “You’ll soon know something about life that you didn’t know before, and it won’t just have to do with work,” Geissler writes. “But also with the fact that you’re getting older, that two children cry after you every morning, that you don’t want to go to work, and that something about this job and many other kinds of jobs is essentially rotten.”
The question of who killed New York used to be up for debate. Was it John Lindsay, who couldn’t face reality, who covered the city’s debts with short-term, high interest loans he knew were impossible to repay? His successor, Abe Beame, who bent to the demands of the bankers and gutted the social safety net during the fiscal crisis of the 70’s? Ed Koch, who embraced Beame’s cuts wholeheartedly and mocked past mayors as men who wanted New York “to be the No. 1 welfare city in America”? Giuliani, who launched the deregulation of rent controlled apartments and the quality of life campaign that gave us Broken Windows and COMPSTAT? (I’m not mentioning David Dinkins, because I really don’t think David Dinkins brought us here.) Was it Hipsters and their attendant paraphernalia? Was it the McKibbin Lofts? Union Pool? Was it Shred Stuy?
Inventory work provides Geissler with a granular view of consumerism. Stripped of the marketing and storefronts that make it palatable it quickly begins to look like a form of mental illness. Who is buying these mugs, stamped with George Clooney’s face?
All New York City mayors are venal, but some are more venal than others. A few months ago, I would have told you Bloomberg was to blame, our bloodless, billionaire mayor, who rezoned the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods and openly courted real estate investment from foreign billionaires. Rents rose at neat clip alongside the homeless population. To his credit, Bloomberg — a very short man — was always transparent about where his priorities lay. The city, he said, was a “luxury product” and it should behave that way.
De Blasio was supposed to be the antidote to the Bloomberg years, a progressive underdog who ran on universal pre-k and affordable housing. But that affordable housing has largely failed to materialize — where it’s been built, it’s often still pretty unaffordable — and his administration has been marked by disappointing half-measures and an ill-conceived plan for a ridiculous four billion dollar streetcar no one wants.
On Black Friday, Amazon workers staged mass walkouts across Europe. On Cyber Monday, led by community groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change (NYCC), protestors stormed Amazon’s Midtown bookstore to protest the planned headquarters in Long Island City and later gathered in front of the LIC Civil Courthouse chanting “I stand in the rain, I stand in the snow, Amazon has got to go!” City Council members Jimmy Van Bremer, Jumanne Williams, and Melissa Mark-Vitero were all in attendance — Williams and Mark-Vitero, it should be noted, are both running for Public Advocate. All of them decried the incentives offered to Amazon, which total about 3 billion. Williams claimed they were steamrolled by the Mayor and Governor Cuomo and that while Cuomo’s betrayal was no surprise, the de Blasio administration was “the biggest waste of progressive capital [Williams had] ever seen.”
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It might’ve been a good show of force, had not all of the aforementioned politicians signed the letter urging Amazon to build its headquarters in New York. What did they think was going to happen? A New York Times investigation released earlier this year showed that the city had lost 152,000 rent-regulated apartments since 1993. The subway system is crumbling, the state leads the nation in income inequality, and the homeless population is at an all time high. No reasonable human being could look around and conclude that the answer to all these problems is to give the most avaricious company in the world the keys to the city. Amazon swallows everything it touches, it isn’t interested in civic health. Only half of the jobs being brought in are in tech and many of the low level positions will likely be replaced by robots fairly soon, but for now, these are the jobs for which the Mayor sold the city. “At any rate,” Geissler writes, early on in Seasonal Associate, “it’s almost impossible not to be forced to your knees and into defiance by this job you’re about to have.”
Geissler was hired in the warehouse to handle the Christmas rush, hence the title, and the cold is so omnipresent it seems to be a feature of the company rather than simply the reality of winter. A gate that will not latch properly becomes a major antagonist and everyone is either ill or on the verge of falling ill, although they have been warned specifically against this. “Sick days hurt Amazon,” Geissler is told at her orientation. Precarity manifests as a constant, low-grade fever. You’re the protagonist but her voice leads you through the job, a tired Virgil navigating a new circle of hell. The work is inventory — entering items into the system so they can be purchased online and performing at least a cursory check to make sure they’re undamaged. “Everything exists, in case you were going to ask,” says Geissler. “Absolutely everything exists, and people can buy it all.” Despite the scale of the warehouse, inventory work provides Geissler with a granular view of consumerism. Stripped of the marketing and storefronts that make it palatable it quickly begins to look like a form of mental illness. Who is buying these mugs, stamped with George Clooney’s face? Who needs these pre-distressed Iron Maiden hats, already rags at point of purchase? Amazon customers, which is to say, all of us.
Geissler tried to sell the book as straightforward journalism initially and was turned down by five publishers, likely because the book is largely boring. It’s a propulsive, weaponized banality though — something unnatural is going on here and it’s hard to see a way out.
Geissler isn’t the typical warehouse employee and as a temporary contractor she’s something of a tourist at Amazon. She’s well-educated, she’s white, she lives with the father of her children, and she’s normally able to make a living — however precarious — as a writer. There’s significant privilege there. Many people spend their entire lives working shitty, unforgiving jobs with arbitrary, infantilizing rules and part of the reason Geissler is so attuned to the myriad indignities of Amazon is because she’s unused to them. She’s aware of this position though. “It has to be said right away,” she writes, “that no one is suited for unhappiness, yet this fact doesn’t get enough recognition.” Seasonal Associate is a book about slippage and a sudden fall into the working class, but it’s a document of anxiety and futility rather than stunt journalism. The central rallying point in the warehouse is a desk made out of a door — a replica of Jeff Bezos’ desk when he founded Amazon; an absurd symbol of frugality and the company’s dedication to customer satisfaction over employees’ personal comfort. As if every warehouse worker has the potential to become the richest man in the world, if only they would stop buying such expensive desks. The idea that if you work hard enough you will inevitably rise out of poverty has always been a sham and Amazon has taken it to it’s logical endpoint. You work hard and nothing happens. You will never be good enough at your job, because you’re a human being, not a machine. As long as you’re alive you’re a potential problem for the company.
In order to maintain some sense of agency Geissler stages tiny acts of rebellion — refusing to hold a handrail despite the signs instructing her to hold the handrail, keeping her safety vest in her pocket until she absolutely has to put it on. The gestures are adolescent and effectively meaningless, but every time she’s snide it’s a relief — a sign of life. Much later, after her contract is finished, she recognizes a man in a parking lot who she described as Amazon’s “only hipster.” The last time she’d seen him he was docking people’s pay for what’s commonly known as time theft. They had lined up a few minutes early to leave work, rather than waiting, unpaid, to go through security. “Unable to think of anything better,” says Geissler. “Or because it seemed like the most appropriate idea, I called out the name of a book I’d just read, by Mark Greif and others. I yelled at him: What Was the Hipster! I called it twice and I thought then he might know he was over.”
Geissler tried to sell the book as straightforward journalism initially and was turned down by five publishers, likely because the book is largely boring. It’s a propulsive, weaponized banality though — something unnatural is going on here and it’s hard to see a way out. “You’ve completely forgotten that you have a profession and are only here to alleviate momentary poverty,” Geissler writes, just after her interview at Amazon. “Something inside you is essentially unsettled and will never calm down again, even though you do get the job. From this point on, you are beside yourself with worry.”
My own mother raised two kids by herself as a high school English teacher and she took a number of side jobs to supplement her income. Tutoring, working at a bakery, working at a strange, luxury gardening store that sold copper birdhouses and rocks that said things like “LOVE” and “CREATE” for people who couldn’t. None of them were bad jobs, none as oppressive as warehouse work, but they did not pay very well. Her desk (worse than Jeff Bezos’) was just a slab of wood, perched atop two filing cabinets. She never made a big deal out of that though, because she is not an asshole. She’d wake up at four or five in the morning to grade the lousy papers of teenage Republicans and shovel the walkway, but she still tried to read to me and my brother before putting us to bed. Oftentimes she’d fall asleep mid-sentence and start mumbling about the electricity bill or replacing the boiler. Eventually, a doctor told her she had to relax — her blood pressure was dangerously high, her muscles so tense that when she breathed, her ribs barely moved.
If you think you’re immune to this — if you went to college, if you believe you’re upwardly mobile, if you imagine you will comfortably survive the inevitable spike in rent once Amazon’s headquarters settles into Queens — unless you have vast familial wealth to draw on, I’m sorry but you’re wrong.
My mom was thrown into financial uncertainty (and my dad wasn’t even a deadbeat) by an early divorce and the responsibility for two small children, but at this point that choking feeling is basically just the lived experience of the average American. In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2003 J.G. Ballard said that “the totalitarian systems of the future will be subservient and ingratiating, the false smile of the bored waiter rather than the jackboot.” This is it, the future is here now. It’s because Geissler doesn’t fit the typical profile of an Amazon warehouse worker that her book is such a well-timed warning shot. If you think you’re immune to this — if you went to college, if you believe you’re upwardly mobile, if you imagine you will comfortably survive the inevitable spike in rent once Amazon’s headquarters settles into Queens — unless you have vast familial wealth to draw on, I’m sorry but you’re wrong. Without immediate collective action, this is coming for all of us.
“Too tall,” Breslin clarified, about Mayor Lindsay, “means too Manhattanish, too removed from the problems of the street corners.” He wrote “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?” shortly after his own failed mayoral bid with Norman Mailer, a campaign that left him “nervous and depressed.”
“I saw a sprawling, disjointed place which did not understand itself and was decaying physically and spiritually, decaying with these terrible little fires of rage flickering in the decay…On top of the city was an almost unworkable form of government and a set of casually unknowing, unfeeling, uncaring men and institutions. The absence of communications in a city which is the communications center of the world is so bad that you are almost forced to believe the condition of the city is terminal.”
If that doesn’t sound familiar, it will soon. On December 12, the New York City Council held the first of a series of hearings on the new Amazon headquarters. Protestors covered the balcony and unfurled a No HQ2 Banner. “It’s all smoke and mirrors!” a man yelled. “Don’t let them monopolize the city! Don’t let them near the subways, don’t let them near the schools — these guys are lying creeps!” He was escorted out.
Amazon has become so large that it can have the same pacifying effect as the threat of climate change, but despair isn’t helpful right now. As Hamilton Nolan and Dave Colon have already pointed out over at Splinter, Amazon’s New York headquarters represents the best chance at effectively unionizing the company and the resistance to HQ2 is broad and growing. Still, it was difficult to watch the City Council hearing without a paralyzing sense of dread. Amazon is a contractor with ICE, they have a horrific labor record, and they’re accountable to no one. That guy was right, these people are lying creeps, as are many of the people we’ve elected. There’s such a long and rich tradition of grift in this city that it’s rare to be able to definitively level blame, but here we are. De Blasio was too tall to be mayor and we didn’t see it. “Is this all a matter of life and death?” Geissler writes, at the very beginning of Seasonal Associate. “I’ll say no for the moment and come back to the question later. At that point, I’ll say: Not directly, but in a way yes. It’s a matter of how far death is allowed into our lives.”
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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller.
Editor: Dana Snitzky