What is “privilege?” Privilege is when a 23 year-old can turn his time working at a falafel takeout joint as a teenager into a Washington Post think piece about challenging his own privilege and not think the world will say, “Hey, fuck off.”
“The advantages of race and class are not easily shed, even in a falafel shop” promises the foreboding subhed on this tale of Intraclass exploration by Noah Phillips, a self-described “fancypants.” He grew up upper middle class in DC; he went to a nice private school full of good liberals; at the age of 17, he yearns to go see What Life Is All About.
I’d never had a job, but I knew where I wanted to find one. I’d spent the first few years of my life in Adams Morgan, a funky, diverse neighborhood and, in my eyes, the antithesis of Friendship Heights, the leafy, gleaming enclave my family had moved to. A few weeks before graduation, I spent a Saturday morning pacing 18th Street, stopping at every establishment with a “help wanted” sign, gravitating toward the places that fulfilled my vision of the city’s seedy underbelly: the late-night spots, the greasy pizza joints, the hookah bars.
I’m hardly the first privileged young man to go looking for grit. Others, from George Orwell to Chris McCandless, also have chafed against the neatness of their upbringings and tried to step outside their comfort zones.
Adams Morgan is as much the “seedy underbelly” of DC as Noah Phillips is George Orwell. Onward!
Young(er) Noah lands a job at Amsterdam Falafelshop. He mans the register selling falafels to drunk ass people getting out of Adams Morgan bars at night. Spanish-speaking dudes work in the kitchen. If you said “so in other words Noah Phillips had perhaps the world’s most common restaurant job,” you fail to grasp the depths of anti-privilege learnings being plumbed by Noah on a nightly basis.
My co-workers vied for dominance in their different kitchen-duty niches, but I had an easy advantage when it came to the desirable position of cashier: I spoke English. With no work experience and without actually depending on the job as a source of income, I had inadvertently jumped the managerial line in front of my much more experienced, Spanish-speaking immigrant co-workers. And it was me, the white kid with the prep-school background, who was trusted with the sensitive tasks of closing the register, taking the cash and receipts to the basement, and filling out paperwork. (Contacted by an editor at The Washington Post, Amsterdam Falafelshop co-owner Arianne Bennett said the author was selected to run the register not because he speaks English but because of his entertaining personality. Bennett says all employees are trained to work the register; the most talkative and witty are tasked with running it.)
The kitchen workers were no doubt driven nearly insane with jealousy at Noah’s register privilege.
As far as I know, we were all paid the same wage, and by no means was the register a cushy position. But I served as the cultural bridge between my Hispanic co-workers and our downtown customers, as well as the restaurant’s owners. My bosses exploited the background I had sought to rebel against by making me the perfect link; thus my effort to see how the other half lived resulted in further entrenching the differences between us. This was especially evident with my friends or students from my high school, who treated the job as more of a novelty than an actual occupation. When I told them where I was working, the response was invariably something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s so cool!”
Free falafel is cool.
Noah worked at this falafel shop in 2010 after high school and then went to college. The world’s most boring motherfucking story that everybody and their mom can recite, you say? Yes. But does everybody and their mom have a dramatic kicker like this which may just torpedo your passive acceptance of grotesque socioeconomic norms, with bolding added by us???
The last time I visited, I did a double take when I entered the store. Behind the register stood another kid from my small private high school. He had been a few years behind me, and we had both been on the wrestling team, though my defining memory of him was his performance as Lucky in the school production of “Waiting for Godot.” As I spoke to him, learning that he, too, was taking a gap year before what I don’t doubt will be a college degree and a successful future, an African American man fried my fries and served up my sandwich.