Part blog, part oral history, part research project.
How has the Great Recession affected your path beyond college? What is your story?

Monday, January 24, 2011


With her easy manner, wide grin, sprinkling of freckles and closely cropped hair, Kaila looks strikingly like Huck Finn—if Huck Finn had a faint Canadian accent. Kaila graduated with a B.A. in Spring 2009 after receiving multiple awards for her scholarship and academic work in anthropology. When I met her we sat in a room full of boxes—she was in the middle of moving from San Francisco to Berkeley, seeking lower rent. Kaila has worked for a shoe shine and repair business in San Francisco for over six years.


I felt like I needed a break from all intellectual pursuits after [college]. I was like, "Ok, fuck it, I'm shining shoes now.” I work for a company that my friend started in downtown San Francisco. We made it through the whole economic downturn pretty well. Shoe repair is a good—people want to get their shoes repaired more in a bad economic climate, right? Because they want to take care of the stuff they've got, rather than buy new shoes.

I'm the repair manager at the stand. I let the repair guy, who is off site, know which shoes need to come back that day, you know which are really time sensitive or whatever. And then, start busting out shining the shoes that have been repaired. Processing them. I work at the shoe shine stand that's sort of the hub, so all the repairs come back to that stand and then we have multiple stands and they go out to the stands. So that's what I do all day, is shine the shoes that need to be--the repair shines that need to be shined and then take them out to the other stands. And in between I'm shining shoes, dealing with customers, ringing up shines. Ringing up repairs, etc, etc. Up until I think it was about January 2010. And then I got bored with that. I was like, "Ok, I want some more stimulation for my brain."

So I immediately went to M--- A---, who is the archaeology professor at [my college]—he has become a good friend of mine. And I said, what do I do, how do I go about getting a job, here's my resume, look at this. So, he looked over my resume, corrected it a little bit, got me some contacts I talked to. I interviewed with this girl that he knew in CRM, Cultural Resource Management, and then sent my resume out to a bunch of CRM firms. Cultural Resource Management. It's corporate archaeology. In California, before you build you have to make sure there isn't cultural remains underneath a building site. You need to go in and have contract archaeologists check it out. And make sure there's not stuff there. And if there's stuff there—which, there's always stuff there because people have been walking around in California for a lot of years and you know, leaving their cultural deposits behind. She laughs. Then, you know, you have to deal with that stuff there.

To make more contacts I went to Riverside, which is, they had their archaeological convention there, the Society for California Archaeology. So I went there and I met some people, made some contacts, M---introduced me to a bunch of people, but nothing really came of that. I mean—well, some things. Like job leads came of that. But, nothing, really. I got some bites, but I got no fish basically. She laughs. I was bringin' it to a certain extent and I got the contacts, but oftentimes I didn't follow-up on it. I was like, if this happens, if this is meant to happen, it's gonna happen, but I wasn't really, really, really, hardcore pursuing getting archaeological work. So I got nothin'. I mean...I put some work into it. And so, I was frustrated that no prospects came of it. Archaeological fieldwork pays about the same as shining shoes—if I'd done fieldwork I would've done it just for the enjoyment of it.

The firms were not hiring as people. They always, CRM firms always have a tendency to want to hire people that have already worked for them, but I think, you know, more so, with the economy being bad. A few of the places that I applied for jobs at and a few of the people that I had talked to had said that they're going to go with the people that they have. Because basically they want good solid workers that they know know the job, they don't want to lose money on training new people.

A lot my job contacts who couldn't offer me jobs, said,”Go to grad school. Get your MA.” I've had the plan to maybe go to grad school and learn—there's two ways you can learn how to be an archaeologist, you can go through grad school, get your MA, and a CRM firm will most likely hire you. I could go that route or I could go the route of getting field work. I kinda like the idea of that, because it's more blue collar, you get your experience in the field.

There's definitely hesitation about going to grad school. It's a commitment. I'm not, I don't feel fully ready. Which is why I've been hesitant about it. Which is also why I wanted to get some fieldwork experience.

And actually I love my job. I love shining shoes. I'm working with all my friends. I'm a recovered alcoholic as you know and everybody that I work with is a recovered alcoholic and it’s a totally fun job. It's a really fun gig. That's part of it. Leaving that, leaving what I know and love for something that's unknown, that potentially might not make as much money or is a little bit iffy, I don't necessarily want to do that.

Fieldwork is, it's temporary, it's sporadic. She laughs. The great thing about the shoe shine job is that it's somewhat flexible. So I could leave, go do some fieldwork for a month or a couple of months and come back potentially. But, maybe not. Maybe they hire more people...I mean, I'm pretty solid there, I know the job really well and most likely I'd be able to come back. But I might not get as many hours when I come back, something like that. So, that—that's iffy.

I didn't expect to be shining shoes for this long after I graduated, but I didn't really have—I didn't have a really clear idea of what it was going to be like after I graduated. I think if the economy was better, it would've been easier to find field work and with the amount of effort I did put into it, I would've been able to find a job no problem. I actually did find—M--- offered me a job, he said he could get me this particular job, but it was in L.A. and it was labwork. She laughs. Which, if it had been fieldwork, I probably would've gone for it, but labwork is boring. And then, the economy plays into that too, because I didn't necessarily have the money to move down to L.A. to get the job. It costs money to move, in order to do the field work you have to be mobile, it costs money to get a plane ticket and stuff like that. And I don't have a car here, if I lived in L.A. and worked in L.A. I'd definitely have to have a car and have all of the expenses associated with that car. So I didn't want to do that. So, yeah, the economy's definitely affected me.

My sister actually just—she's in Canada so it's a little different climate. But she just graduated, she just got her Phd in English and she had trouble getting a job right off the bat. She's brilliant, she got really good grades, did TA the whole time, so she's got all the job experience teaching and everything like that. She didn't have a job for months and months. She finally ended up getting some teaching work, but it's not what she wants. She got some community college work. Even a Phd isn't what it once was, you know?

I think if I was to stay at the shoe shine forever, I would be sad and restless about that. I want to get out and do something. I do want to use my degree at some point. The question is whether I can use it as a undergrad degree or whether I have to go to grad school to use it…I might have a bit of a positive outlook on the economy, I don't think it's going to stay this way forever.

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