By Courtney Rae Kasper
Longtime journalist Tracy Kinne never imagined she’d one day stand in the shoes of the low-wage cashiers that most big-box patrons guiltily neglect to engage with in any type of manner past their bleak responses to “will that be cash, credit or debit?” and “paper or plastic?” In fact, most don’t even attach a face to the blue vest and clip-on name tag standing behind the register. But after taking a buyout from The Post-Standard in 2007 with the concern that the media was turning away from hard news, Kinne, not wanting to squander her savings, suited up in her new khaki and navy blue uniform, put on a how-may-I-help-you smile and rode out the Great Recession. This four-year post at her local supercenter was the catalyst that led her, like a Homeric Odyssey, to pen the most meaningful work in her two decades-long writing career.
Last March, a month before she parted ways with the retailing goliath, the Parish resident released her self-published memoir, “On Sale: Employers Get Good Workers Dirt Cheap.” For the first time she had actually lived rather than reported on the story she was telling, and being transported to this strange place opened her eyes and forced her to encounter her fellow man on a deeper level than ever before.
“I didn’t realize all the struggles people face. I didn’t realize quite how hard it is for some people, or the variety of people who work at these places to try to make ends meet. People from all different walks of life and here they were all together and I never would’ve realized it,” Kinne said of her big-box chain experience. “You think that sometimes people who work at these places don’t care about their work, but that’s not the case. I met very interesting and caring people who really cared about their work, coworkers and customers.”
In a soft, hushed voice, she tenderly recalled a co-worker who worked on her feet for hours on end through the pain of rheumatoid arthritis yet never missed a beat to politely assist customers, the professional electrician who, tired of the rat race, traded in his successful career to push shopping carts, and the jovial fella who on one particular day became oddly frustrated while helping Kinne bag. She later realized he was really struggling just to breath. “He was fighting emphysema, and he was trying to keep working but finally had to give up and go on disability,” she said.
There were also young college graduates stuck after failing to find jobs in their respective fields, middle-aged people who were laid off due to factory closings and senior citizens working because they didn’t have enough money to make ends meet after retirement — all the cast of displaced, underappreciated, underpaid, but intelligent and hardworking individuals whose stories she compassionately weaves into her 82-page account that follows a year of her experience at the mega chain.
“I kept seeing what was happening around me and I realized that when you’re in that situation and basically living day to day because you can’t seem to ever get enough ahead to get away, it’s hard to undertake any [additional] projects or to start rallying for change when you’re exhausted,” Kinne said, stating that this is the exact reason why she left the company. “The people I worked with were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs and not being able to find another one. I needed to be a voice for [them]. I’d spent my life as a journalist; I owed it to [my coworkers] to share what the conditions were really like.”
Kinne admits that she hasn’t had the greatest response in book sales, nor has she received feedback from the influential figures like Oprah, Paul Krugman and President Obama to whom she sent copies. But she realizes that “On Sale” won’t be every reader’s cup of social justice. Her antipoverty think piece did, however, take honorable mention at the Paris and New York Book Festivals and landed her a 30-minute interview on National Public Radio’s “Out of Bounds.”
In the meantime of self promoting her book, Kinne, a substitute teacher, is already crafting her first fiction title about a teenage girl fighting hydrofracking in her rural community and has taken on roles with Central New York workers’ centers. “My book isn’t going to change the world. I realize that this is a labor of love and that I won’t even break even on this venture,” she said. “But I do hope that some people will read it and that it will make them think.”
Whether the sentiment is shared or not, Kinne only hopes that people won’t presumptively judge her book. For you never know what story actually lies behind that shiny name tag.