Book Review Archives

You Want Fries with That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage

By: Prioleau Alexander
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Arcade Publishing, 2008
$24.95, Hardcover

Auburn graduate Prioleau Alexander is one hilarious writer. At age forty-one, he walked away from his job as a well-paid advertising executive to explore the underbelly of the employment world by hiring on for a series of low-paying jobs to write a book about his experiences, You Want Fries with That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage.

Alexander’s anecdotes and insight are wickedly amusing. The first job on his road to self- awareness is that “of America’s most beloved road warrior: the Pizza Delivery Guy.” His sense of humor is often brutal. In writing about how customers pay scant attention to those who deliver pizzas to their doorsteps, Alexander writes, “Hell, the average American wouldn’t notice if it was the Elephant Man delivering their pizza, even if he took the money with one hand, made change with the other, then handed over the pizza with his trunk.”

The author is even more ruthless when he describes the ancient computer employed by the manager of the pizza joint for which he works: “He leaned over a keyboard which was hooked up to a computer that was obviously purchased from Houston Mission Control after Apollo One made it safely home.” Ouch! Apollo One, of course, never made it “safely home” because the spacecraft never left Earth. Instead, it caught fire on the launch pad three weeks before blastoff during a routine test that killed all three astronauts onboard. After that sick shocker, it’s one knee-slapper after another.

The author’s description of “Black Tuesday,” when the typically busy dinner rush hour fails to materialize and the manager sends most of the employees home to cut labor costs, is laugh-out-loud funny as Alexander describes the mayhem that ensues when those still on the clock are forced to perform tasks of which they are clueless. And his descriptions of those he encounters when delivering a pizza to an address are a scream, such as a fellow asleep on his porch “because he was afraid he was too drunk to hear the doorbell.” As he exits the pizza workforce to seek new job escapades, Alexander offers his analysis: “When all is said and done, being a Pizza Guy is pretty cool. Why? The divine lack of client interaction. You get on your iron horse and deliver those pizza pies like a twenty-first century Pony Express rider. It was a dream job for a guy like me, except for one thing: short hours plus rip-off driving policies times minimum wage minus taxes equals no actual income. If they’d been able to give me forty hours at a real income of eleven dollars an hour, I’d probably still be riding the iron horse. Come on . . . eleven dollars an hour for people to leave you alone? Sign me up.”

He later works as an ice cream scooper, flips burgers in a fast-food joint, faces a gruesome world as an emergency room technician, rides a horse as a make-believe cowboy leading Mormons on a covered wagon historical re-creation of the religion’s long ago westward journey, and eventually takes on construction work as a demolition man, tearing out parts of houses for remodelers.

As a demolisher, Alexander spends much of his time waiting on subcontractors to show up, which they seemingly never do until days after they are supposed to. He ends up with time on his hands, and inevitably begins taking a cooler full of beer to the work site for those days when he has nothing to do. His encounter with an electrician is both insightful and hilarious. In describing the importance of a properly wired house, he expresses amazement that electricians rarely discuss the task at hand, as if distracted. When Alexander asks an electrician, “How do y’all keep straight who’s running what wire where?” the electrician replies, “It’s hard on these remodeling jobs.” Trying to act like he knows what he’s talking about, Alexander then comments, “I hate remodeling jobs.” The electrician responds, “I love ’em…. If the house burns down, who’s to say it was our wiring and not the previous builder’s?”

For those contemplating quitting a well-paying occupation or who fear losing their job for whatever reason, the book can be as terrifying as it is funny as the reader ponders life on the low-end of the work ladder. Yet for all his poking fun at life on the bottom rung, Alexander can be quite empathetic: “It’s hard to experience life at minimum wage and come away unaffected. It gives you a little more insight into how quickly and permanently life can snowball in a direction you don’t want it to. And the sad thing is that it happens so early and so ruthlessly. One day, you’re the high school quarterback dating the homecoming queen, and the next you’re at the twenty-year class reunion talking with the class nerd.” Nov 2008

Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.