Snapshot of a White-Collar Worker

‘THE way it looks to me,’ said Mr. Jameson, as he put the new muskmelons on display, is that Business and Politics are fighting it out for control of the United States.’ Although I have long been a good friend of John Jameson, I had never thought of him as a private or noncommissioned officer in that great American army of white-collar workers. At what point in thirty years of being salesman, chain-store employee, and bookkeeper Mr. Jameson discovered the fact, I don’t know. But that morning there was no doubt lie thought of himself not only as Jameson, but as an articulate — not to say voluble member of the largest economic group in the United States.

There was a time, I meditated, as Karl Marx had said in the mid-nineteenth century, when the proletariat, was getting bigger and bigger at the expense of the artisan and shopkeeper. But then the trend reversed itself. The proletariat shrank, the salariat grew. Today in the United States, through recruiting millions of Jamesons, the American middle class is larger — under almost any definition — than the working class. But long before I could toss out this bit of observation Mr. Jameson had done so himself.

Last year John K. Jameson became the proprietor of a small market and grocery on Front Street. Cheerful and tireless, he is certainly winning customers away from the A & P. ‘I suppose,’ he remarked, lifting a crate, ‘store managers and white-collar people don’t produce anything really, and that is why they’re caught between the producers — between Capital and Labor, you might say.’ Mr. Jameson talks easily about politics or anything else, and certain phrases he enjoys as much as a ripe apple, but it must be added that his customers are less apt to carry away his economic opinions than some fragment of moral philosophy. ‘What we need in this world,’ Mr. Jameson told me yesterday, ‘is unselfishness and more people aiming at the Middle Way.’

All his life Mr. Jameson insists he has been on a white-collar job, or what he calls ‘the servicing end, in one way or another,’ of our economic system. His parents came from Ireland and Scotland and settled in Massachusetts. Since he was in the fifth grade at school he has been supporting himself — but not as a manual worker. He has been an auto salesman, has worked for a company which serviced farmers with spare parts of reapers and tractors, and in half a dozen American cities he has been a chain-store employee. ‘I have been rubbing up against Mr. John Q. General Public for years,’ he summarizes, ‘and usually rubbing his most sensitive spot, the pocketbook nerve.’ We were interrupted by customers. Mr. Jameson gave careful directions to a housewife where to buy the soap compound which he didn’t have in stock, and carried a carton of groceries over to a customer’s car. Though now a ‘business man,’ Mr. Jameson’s manner of living hasn’t changed much from what it’s always been — except working hours. He’s at the store from eight to six, Saturday nights to eleven, Sundays nine to five — long hours being one way to ‘beat chain-store competition.’ He lives with his wife in a little flat on Pearl Street.

The great dramatic turning points of the past twenty years have not been turning points in Mr. Jameson’s life. When America entered the World War, Mr. Jameson was not called to the colors. The Draft Boards skipped him, and, feeling neither belligerent nor adventurous, he did not enlist. No one ever called his ‘Americanism’ into question. When the Great Depression descended like a cloud over the United States, he worried a lot about the future, but it never destroyed his faith in the American Way. (His job continued at reduced wages.) And the New Deal? Mr. Jameson feels it was a good thing to throw the Republicans out in 1933, and it will probably be a good thing if the Democrats are thrown out in 1940. ‘When any party stays in power too long,’ Mr. Jameson observes, ‘more and more of the taxes leak into the pockets of the politicians. They become cocky and cease to be the servants of the people.’ But in spite of this fixed distrust of Washington, Mr. Jameson has no fixed beliefs for or against the New Deal as such. On Monday morning he said to me, ‘Roosevelt should have been bolder, gone all the way down his own street with his own program. That would have solved things. On Wednesday afternoon he said, ‘The business man has been interfered with too much. What this country needs is a new administration to give Business confidence.’ The truth is, Mr. Jameson has not yet identified either party with the real world of the Jameson market and his flat on Pearl Street. The candidate who makes that identification will win his vote.

‘ Why did you resign from the chain store? ‘ I asked. ‘Have you been planning for a long time to become your own boss?’

‘No indeed,’ he answered. ‘I don’t care about being my own boss, but I wanted more security. Now I’ve got it. That was the only reason. . . . Whenever I saw that car from out of town with license number 934 come up the street I felt like running for a storm cellar. I knew that in the space of five minutes I could be promoted or fired — by License No. 934. “Increase business or else . . .” Chain stores, you see, have certain rules; if you break them you’re fired. Now one of them is giving credit to customers. But how do you increase business? By taking it from another store, of course. You do that by breaking some rule which the other store has already broken to get your business.’

He contemplated human nature in general with a certain sadness only slightly mixed with resentment at License No. 934.

‘Big stores,’ he continued, ‘of course swoop down on the little ones like vultures, — dog eat dog, — but come right down to it, though, what the average man wants is security.’

We were interrupted by two small customers, one for ice cream, the other for candy. ‘They’re happy,’ Mr. Jameson remarked, ‘completely absorbed in the joys of the moment.’ After the boys had left he looked at me thoughtfully: ‘How are we going to find jobs for those youngsters when they grow up? What’s going to become of them?’ He came out from behind the counter to give me the answer. ‘It’s the younger generation we’ve got to think about,’ he said earnestly; ‘give them the chance we’ve all had once.’

‘How?’ I asked.

‘Right now to solve unemployment we should shut off immigration,’ he answered; ‘in fact, encourage people to get out of the United States.’ He looked at me a little apologetically. ‘That’s hard-boiled, of course, but we should balance that with something else. As I see industrial employment today, it’s like a long line of men marching. The older men are at one end of the line in the best places. They have the jobs. This end of the line come the younger generation marching along into the labor market without money or jobs. Now the front of the line should step aside and let the youngsters take their places. That’s where Social Security comes in — to give the old people enough to live on. But more than that, it should be explained to the older men that they ought to be unselfish enough to step out and give Youth its chance. They’d do it, too, and more unselfishness in the world wouldn’t hurt a bit.’

On most social questions — as on this one — Mr. Jameson is apt to stress his hope for moral betterment. In fact, moral questions interest him far more than all of economics and politics put together. And it’s possibly because of his Calvinist ancestors that there’s a strong streak of religious fatalism left in his system. ‘I believe,’ he explains, ‘everything is predestined and blueprinted for a man when he is born; even when his will drives him very hard, even when he does the unexpected, that is predestined too.’ He declares that there is a ‘compensating principle in life.’ When a man ‘wins success and a lot of money, he loses something somewhere else. When a man loses success and is poor, he is likely gaining something else, though he may not know it.’ Speaking of the impact of the modern world, he complains that ‘nowadays people want too many things.’ Having spent a lifetime serving people’s wants, he has about concluded that a lot of them are futile, not worth the ‘work and worry.’ ‘Gadgets, automobiles, radios, and electric ice boxes — you read the advertisements and you must have them. So you worry, saving up — buying on installment. . . . But are people any happier than they used to be?

‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘I believe in progress.’

And to the leading question, ‘Have you got what you wanted out of life?’ he finds a spiritual answer. What he wanted as a young man he insists were ephemeral things and of no importance. To hold the current job, make money enough to enjoy himself. ‘I was very cocky and self-centred,’ he says in selfcriticism. Now he has another philosophy.

‘I’m a married man,’ he says with emotion. ‘You are, too. Well, isn’t it true that we enjoy the keenest moments of pleasure when we can do something for them? I used to be selfish, — I still am, of course, — but I know I’m best satisfied when I’m too busy to worry, and doing something for another person. . . . I’ve certainly been talking too much; the truth is, I haven’t any filter between my mind and my mouth. And all this is just one man’s opinion — you understand. I hope I haven’t been wasting your time.’