America got a good laugh this week over news that Snooki, a “Guidette” of Jersey Shore fame, got paid more to speak at a university than Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate for literature. They are both authors, after all, but Snooki is certainly more famous and more in demand these days. She’s been on David Letterman twice recently, whereas Morrison is almost never on TV, not even when she gave her Nobel speech in 1993. By contrast, Harold Pinter could deliver his masterful rant on the BBC in prime time.
Of course, each British household must fork over £145 per year to support BBC television. Such misuse of public fund, such government-sanctioned robbery, would not go well in America. Hell, 234 bucks could buy the Pentagon a box of nails at least, or maybe not. In any case, serious authors are more or less banned from American TV. Day in and day out, you’ll see a teeming lineup of shouters, schmoozers, unctuous bullshiters and apologists, but never a serious writer. Athletes of all levels are endlessly interviewed, but never a serious thinker and crafter of language. Americans want words from everybody but their wordsmiths. To borrow a phrase from Jersey Shore, one has to go back to “prehistoric kindergarten” to see the likes of Allen Ginsberg butt heads with William Buckley. Has anyone seen Gore Vidal, Robert Coover or Clayton Eshleman lately? Who?! What?
To get good seats for Snooki, some students showed up seven hours early. The decision to invite her at $32,000 was made by the students themselves, so this was also democracy in action. Snooki is a Jersey girl, and the venue was in New Jersey, but the students’ identification with her goes a lot deeper, I think. They like her because she is wholly untalented and unapologetically stupid. Her vapidity gives them hope. If someone this unexceptional can cash in on fifteen glorious minutes, then maybe the good, easy life can be theirs also, unless, of course, they like to cogitate and can string three or four sentences together. If that’s the case, then fuggedaboutit. Onto the trash heap you go!
Eight-five percent of American college graduates must move back to their parent’s homes. Most carry loans that will take decades to pay off, if ever. Many will default. Their unemployment rate is 10 percent and trending higher. Many toil at jobs they could have gotten without attending college. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five-thousand American cashiers have university degrees. Ditto, 317,000 waiters and 18,000 parking lot attendants.
Parking lot attendants get paid $19,000 a year, on average, so that’s actually a pretty good job in this economy. When McDonald’s held a job fair recently, 60,000 people applied for 13,000 minimum-wage positions. I know desperate people who are working for even less than minimum-wage. Take it or leave it.
On a Greyhound bus, I talked to Ron, a Cincinnatian with two college degrees and three jobs. Primarily a social worker for children from disfunctional families, Ron was also a substitute teacher and soccer referee. He was paid $28 a match, $22 for games between children under 14, which he prefered, since at 45-years-old, Ron could only run so fast. An imposing, trim black man, Ron considered his physique and stern demeanor his chief assets in the classroom. “As a substitute teacher, you don’t really teach anything. You just have to keep them from going crazy!” To increase his hours, he worked at four school districts. He also felt that his social worker job was safe, “There will always be these messed up families, and in this economy, there will be more. What do poor people argue about? They argue about money! Without social workers, there will be chaos.”
“But even cops are being fired,” I pointed out, to which Ron said nothing.
Ron was spending 25 hours to travel from Cincinnati to Providence. Only the poor do that. Knowing we would stop in Philadelphia, he asked me about the price of a cheesesteak. “About eight bucks for a really good one.”
“Damn!” he exclaimed, and would not buy one. Ron didn’t share my pessimism about our country’s prospects. Believing in the recovery, he said he always bought something each time he stepped into Walmart, “to support the president.”
Back to Jersey. Outside its capital, there is a large slogan displayed permanently on a bridge, “TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES,” but Trenton’s factories are long gone, like in the rest of the state, or America itself. Since 2001, the US has been losing 50,000 manufacturing jobs a month. South of Trenton, Camden used to have the largest ship yard in the world, as well as the Campbell Soup factory. Chronically broke and among the most dangerous city in America, Camden laid off a third of its police force this year. The Guardian Angels, an unarmed citizen group, now patrols a tiny portion of this free fire zone. A sign on Camden grass: “THEY PUT BULLETS IN MY HEAD ALIEN BULLETS FLAIR A TUMOR.” A sign in Camden window: “HUNGRY? POOR? NO MONEY? NO PROBLEM. PLEASE COME INSIDE FOR A FREE SOUP, BREAD, SODA.” There is no inside to come to, however. The store is out of business.
Walt Whitman spent 19 years in Camden. He is also buried here, in a tomb that cost more than twice his modest home. Hardly anyone visits either. There is a Whitman bridge, park and arts center, and the Gray Old Bard is even painted on the wall of the downtown McDonald’s, yet in this city of 77,000, home to America’s greatest poet, the very man who defined her, there is only one public library left. The main downtown branch is closed. Another branch, funded by Andrew Carnegie, looks like it has been bombed. Whitman wrote about Camden, “I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth.”
Hard core New Jerseyites will point out that Camden is not really Jersey, and no one goes to Camden anyway, certainly not Snooki. If you live in “The Garden State,” you may take a day trip to the City, New York, or head down to the Shore. Atlantic City used to be the only gambling destination on the East Coast, but casinos are now sprouting all over America. In adjacent Pennsylvania, Sands has even opened a casino on the grounds of Bethlehem Steel, with its colossal, rusting smoke stacks still standing. We no longer make steel, but you’re welcome to dump your dosh into this steel box, thank you. Get head, crank that lever!
For 84 years, Atlantic City was also the home of the Miss America Beauty Pageant. For looking good, for just being herself, a woman may win a scholarship. For flashing much teeth and flesh, she might be able to uplift and round out her mind. In fact, Miss America boasts that it is the largest provider of scholarship money to young women in the world. Which takes us back to Snooki. For just being herself, she is corralling the big bucks, so who needs a scholarship, really? As Snooki advises, “Study hard, but party harder!” No wonder the young are seduced. Clutching a useless degree and a six pack of discount brewski, the educated youth of America can remember this $32,000 flint of wisdom as they wade into the coming dark.
Like Snooki, I too am an author, but I can only claim a tiny fraction of her readership. I’ve also been paid to talk at universities, but my payment rarely breaks four figures. Like a fool, I routinely write essays for no money at all. My last piece in the New York Times grossed me $75. My last two in The Guardian, nothing. Though I wrote and published much last year, including a novel, my entire income was less than $9,000. Like an American steel worker, I am redundant, my labor is nearly worthless.
Perhaps I can jog myself into shape in hopes of becoming a soccer referee? Though I hate cars, maybe I can wiggle into a job to park and deliver other people’s steel boxes, and double my annual wealth? I cleaned offices and apartments for several years, painted houses for more than a decade, but these jobs have been cornered by illegals who can work much faster than I can. I’m 47. My friend Bob, 51 and with an English degree, don’t laugh, used to do construction work, but is now studying to be an ESL teacher. If you can’t compete against them, you might as well try to teach them English. I know of another guy who gives private ESL lessons in the food court of an upscale shopping mall. Like the graffitti says, I HUSTLE CAUSE I GOT 2!
My first employment was at McDonald’s, and there’s no reason why it can’t be my last, although the competition has gotten a lot stiffer. The menu has also changed much in the intervening 30 years, there were no wraps, swiss cheese or chipotle, whatever the hell that is, way back then, but as a relatively quick learner, I still have an outside chance, I think, to clown with Ronald again.
[A shorter version of this article appeared in The Guardian.]
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.