This story also aired on Marketplace.
By: Sayre Quevedo
On a mission to find the most lucrative jobs for young folks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, I began awkwardly asking every young person I saw, “How much money are you making right now?” I found volunteers, making what volunteers make, nothing. I also found crossing guards making 18 dollars an hour. These were the kind of jobs you expect to find at a major political event like this: coordinators, greeters, and support staff.
Outside the convention hall, the hustles got a little more interesting. I met Chris Miller thanks to his incredibly enthusiastic glad-handing. “Hey! What’s up?” he called out to me. “Oh my goodness, you look like you’re famished! Please, come down to Rock Bottom and grab something to eat. Get ten percent off.” Miller stuffed a restaurant coupon into my hand.
The 24 year-old waiter and his colleague were dressed in all black and baking in the 90 degree midday heat. They were working their collective tails off, interrupting my interview to catch people passing by and hit them with their sales pitch. How much were they making for all this? “Well, right now? We’re making $2.13 an hour,” said Miller, “but he’ll [our manager] probably compensate us whenever we get back, depending on how long we’ve been out here.”
Compensate, meaning a free meal. But for a guy getting paid $2.13 an hour without tips, Miller seemed to be genuinely enjoying life. He even broke out into song. A theme-appropriate, ‘America the Beautiful,’ with more soul than most people can even muster in an air-conditioned room. Did I mention it was hot?
Not ten steps away, Tre Randleman was hocking shiny buttons with a very familiar face on them. It’s this guy a lot of the DNC folks seem to like. Yeah, okay, it’s Obama. When I asked her about the merch, 27 year-old Randleman traced her finger across each button. “This right here, the more conservative people they’ll choose the presidential seals,” she said. Then pointing at one with the president and the first family she said, “This has got him looking young…looking kind of sexy there.” It was one my favorites too. Although my top choice was the one where he’s dressed like a Jedi Warrior.
The pins are one for $5 and three for $10. Randleman says 85 percent of the proceeds go to a food pantry, and she gets the other 15 percent. Five dollars a button adds up quickly. She can end up taking home 150-200 bucks a day.
Up the street, Mikey Stuart, 17, and Thomas Watts, 16, are taking home a lot less. “We’re just trying to make enough money to eat off the dollar menu today,” they told me. The musical duo call themselves the Elaborate Door Retrievers, with Stuart on harmonica and Watts on guitar.They were sitting against a wall with the classic starving musician’s guitar case open in front of them, and it was freckled with change and stray bills. Thus far they’d managed to pull in $6.87.
“We don’t even need to eat on the dollar menu now,” Stuart joked to Watts, “Maybe we can go somewhere fancy? Take you out somewhere nice.”
“Maybe we can afford Chick-fil-A,” exclaimed Watts.
Just when they thought it couldn’t get much better, they realized a someone famous was standing feet away at the curb. It was Jesse Jackson surrounded about throngs of reporters and conventioneers.
They picked up their equipment and set up shop just outside the huddle mass, and in a supremely awkward moment, they called out “Jesse, this song’s dedicated to you!”
While they made the most of their influential audience member, I tried to have an audience with Mr. Jackson. I wormed my way to the middle of the group and asked, “What do you think the president should do about jobs, especially for young people?““There will be more jobs as soon as the blockage to direct investment is opened up,” replied Jackson. He explained that bi-partisan gridlock means there’s only so much the president can do on his own, without Republican support.
“So it’s not up to him,” I pressed.
“[Job creation] can’t happen unilaterally,” Jackson said, “I wish it could, but it just can’t.”
So, if a real job is too much to ask amid political gridlock, I guess four days of odd jobs amid political theater, are better than nothing.