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Excerpt from On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger , plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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On the Clock

What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

by Emily Guendelsberger

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger X
On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 14, 2020, 352 pages

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Print Excerpt

Introduction: In the Weeds

What does "in the weeds" mean to you?

I've been asking people that for a couple of years now — it's become a sort of hobby. There's two definitions, and you can often tell a lot by which one a person knows.

First, there's what I call the academic definition: "To be bogged down in the minute or unimportant details of a large project." I heard this a lot in the ten years I spent working in newspapers.
Then there's the waitress definition: "To be harried or frantic because there's more work on your plate than you can do at a reasonable pace." A key part of this definition is a feeling of desperation and hopelessness— being unable to catch up, even though you're working as fast as you possibly can.

I think of this as the waitress definition because that's who I learned it from, at my first real job, scooping ice cream as a sixteen-year-old for $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage in 2000. "Hurry up, kid, I'm in the weeds," snapped an older waitress, impatient to use the cash register I was fumbling with. Her meaning was obvious: she was hustling around at top speed, grim-faced, trying to get her customers taken care of before her tips went down the drain. And I was in her way.

I became very familiar with the weeds that summer. Counter kids spent hours in the weeds each evening, scooping as fast as we could and delaying our bathroom breaks until the line of hot, impatient customers at the window cleared, usually around 10:00 p.m. Afterward, it was bliss to lean my sticky forearms on the counter and relax a little as we waited on the trickle of late-night customers.
But the relief was always short-lived because of another new addition to my professional vocabulary: If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean.


I loathed this cheery little rhyme, coined by McDonald's founder* Ray Kroc and favored by passive-aggressive managers everywhere. It felt like I was being called lazy for taking five minutes to rest after a solid four hours in the weeds, which I found infuriating. In the weeds and time to lean, it seemed to me, were opposite sides of the same coin and should even each other out. "This is some bullshit," I thought, with the righteous indignation of a teenager at her first job. I legitimately worked as hard as I could when things were busy. Did they seriously expect me to ask for something to mop the instant I had a second of down time, like some overeager, kiss-ass robot?

After a few weeks, my dad asked how the job was going, and I vented about time to lean, time to clean. I'd just read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed — a new release at the time — and had become pretty passionate about labor organization. Dad was less than sympathetic to my new progressive ideals, probably because they came on the heels of what must have been a pretty intolerable Ayn Rand phase.

"They're not paying you to sit around," he told me. "If you're on their dime, you do what they tell you — that's how jobs work. Suck it up."

But I wasn't sitting, I protested. It wasn't like I was doing nothing. I was supposed to be ready at the window whenever a customer walked up to buy some ice cream — and I was! I never complained about working twice as hard when we were in the weeds; it seemed only fair that the pace would slow down when business was slow.

Dad sighed, and gave me some fatherly advice that stuck with me for a long time.

"Well, life isn't always fair, for one. But there's dignity in working hard and doing your job well," he said. Yes, even if that job was scooping ice cream. If you can take pride in doing your work well, that's the key to a happy life, no matter what your job is. Be the best at whatever you do, try harder than everyone else, make yourself indispensable, and you'll succeed. It's the American Dream.

Excerpted from On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger . Copyright © 2019 by Emily Guendelsberger . Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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