The Working Class Culture of Staten Island

In case you missed last week’s Special Announcement, the blog is now every other week, due to my new full time job. I won’t say where I work, but it’s a site where I associate with truckers that are both American and immigrants. So I’ll hear stuff like “Ya working hard or hardly workin’?” or “Cheer up. Life could be worse; ya gotta job!” or even “We can do this paperwork…or it can go [screw] itself! Hur hur hur!”

I’ve been hearing phrases like this since I started working at 12 years old, so I figured, “What the heck? Why not post about some of the things I’ve noticed in my fifteen years chasing a paycheck?”

working kids

 (My dad actually wanted me to start a business at 12, but he settled for employing us.)

First a little about me. I was born and raised in Staten Island to a mother and father who always worked, but when I was around eight or so, my parents ended their marriage, and if you’ve done any research on economics at all, you’d know that divorce destroys wealth, so after the split, my two brothers and I went from “middle class” to “lower middle class”.

Working at an early age was not just inevitable but necessary. My dad set my brother and I up with a part-time job in his bakery, Kiddie Cakes (which the local newspaper the Staten Island Advance wrote about here) doing very simple things like washing dishes and cleaning up. Nothing fancy; It was all just to instill in us a work ethic and get used to what was waiting for us in adulthood.


 (“Back in my day, we had to walk FIFTEEN miles to work, work for FIFTEEN hours, and only get FIFTEEN dollars for the day. Then the boss spit on my face FIFTEEN times. You don’t know how good you have it!”)

It was there that I got my first taste of the Working Class Culture (and Attitude) that’s prevalent on Staten Island. I could probably write TEN posts on this topic, but for now, we’ll starting by tracing its roots, beginning with:

The Immigrant Heritage and Its Influence

In 2015, places like Manhattan and Brooklyn are filled with many people from other states (and countries) who are highly educated and work in the financial field, but that wasn’t always the case. Go back a hundred years and you’ll find that most of the jobs were ones that helped BUILD New York City: the bricklayers, the stonemasons, the builders, and artisans along with many other positions that required “unskilled labor.”

So throughout the late 19th to early 20th century NYC got built and with it finished, the other areas of the job market flourished, attracting more skilled laborers and driving up the rent. (Another factor for the high rent is the government putting its hands in the housing market in the form of rent control and public housing, but that’s a whole post in and of itself.)


(“I DOUBT occupying a 4 bedroom Manhattan apartment for $300 / month has any effect on homelessness, PROFESSOR. Why do you ask?”)

So what happened to those unskilled laborers? Well, some stayed in Brooklyn despite the increasing cost of living, but many moved to Staten Island. ESPECIALLY when the Verrazano Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island opened up in November 1964.

Back in the 60’s all the land was up for grabs. It was cheap, and allowed large families living with many kids (such as my mother, who is one of FIVE daughters) to move out of their cramped apartments and into a proper house and live like human beings and not rats.

Rats hanging laundry

 (“I hear that in Staten Island the streets are PAVED with cheese, girls.”)

So in the decades following the opening of the Verrazano, Staten Island filled out, and being on an isolated island away from the prying eyes of New York City proper, the descendants of the original immigrants (bricklayers, etc.) set up shop either by opening their own small businesses or working in the public sector (cop, fireman, sanitation, bus driver, so on).

But the descendants of the immigrants watched what was (at the time) necessary behavior in their parents and must have internalized it, because Staten Islanders still espouse immigrant sayings and model their ways. This is because they’d see their fathers come home after working 12 hours (sometimes with a hearty commute to boot) and become filled with admiration and pride. They thought to themselves “I’m gonna be like Pop. I’m gonna work hard and be a big man like him.”


(No. Not THIS Pop. The Pop I’m talking about wouldn’t be caught DEAD reading.)

But the problem is that Pop’s era is over. New York City is built. It’s done. Sure the buildings need maintenance, and it seems like there’s nothing but construction all over Manhattan, but it’s done. There’s no reason to “be like Pop” and work 60+ hours a week year round because it’s “honorable” or “that’s life” or “a real man works until he’s too dumb to pay attention to his government looting him!”

There are guys who’ll walk into a job (even if it’s a cushy office position!) and take the attitude of, “Let me at ‘em! LET ME AT ‘EM! I’m ready ta work from sunrise ta sunset! Premature aging, high blood pressure, and dissatisfaction leading to depression and suicide as a result? Fuhgeddaboutit!”


 (“Ah. Working a relaxing 6 am to 6 pm shift on this bully day. BULLY!”)

I know what you’re thinking now: “How dare you sneer at working class people, ya lazy mutt!” Hey, if you want to work 60+ hours a week to pay for a house you spend almost no time in, miss all of your kid’s plays / sporting events, and be far away when your wife is cheating on you in your own bed, because you take the attitude of “I’m tuff! I ain’t no sissy boy takin’ it easy! I’m tuff!” while you get fat due to lack of exercise, than be my guest. It’s totally your life to do what you wish.

Really. I’m not judging!

Just don’t take it out on other people. And DON’T insist that your approach to work is the one and only way. Now, I don’t watch the HBO show “Girls” but I came across a blog that mentioned there was an episode featuring our forgotten borough, so I checked the episode out. While it didn’t portray us Islanders in a flattering light, there was a scene where the guy tries to return a lost dog to its owner, and the owner’s daughter gives him flack for not being at his job, despite knowing NOTHING about him.

(Anyone want to start the hashtag #PistolInMyPurse ?)

So yeah. Her immediate conclusion that he’s a worthless pile of trash because he has a SHRED of free time is an annoying viewpoint for sure. But in real life, away from the cameras and scripted acting, you can just ignore those people, right?


My real issue here is when pieces of her mindset seeps into the minds of the employer. The immigrant attitude leftover from Pop’s bygone era is probably why the Department of Consumer Affairs had to step in and make sick leave laws. All of this “We’re tuff! We ain’t need no sick leave! When my fadda was sick the boss said, ‘Hey! A knuckle sandwich is good for what ails ya, heh heh!’ so now you gotta work under the same conditions” is calling back an outdated set of beliefs that are useless and should be thrown out, but for some reason are still lingering. They’re vestigial, if you will.


(Vestigial: like the human appendix or the hind legs of the baleen whale.)

Because when you get right down to it, being an employer at a small business on Staten Island is really just a GRAB BAG of labor laws. Pick and choose whatever you want. “The NYC government? Mayor Deblasio and his welfare squads? They’re all the way across the poison waters! They’re not heading HERE any time soon!”

So take a look at some of the, uh…(not laws, per se, because that applies to the other boroughs) but SUGGESTIONS on how to treat employees and pick a few you like:

Lunch break?

The laws for New York worker meal times depend on how many hours the employees are working, and you can check the details out here. But of course, this should only be considered if you’re not TOO busy, el presidente!


How hard up are your employees for cash? How badly do you need them? The law says every hour after 40 hours worked should be time and half, but hey, it’s your call. Remember, all that extra pay going to the parasites will bankrupt your hot tub fund! TIP: Keep your staff small, so in case someone makes a formal complaint about breaking this rule you can single out the lazy freeloader.

Sexual Harassment?

More hippy dippy liberal arts school feminism rotting your legitimate business. I’m not even going to bother! How can you imitate Leo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street if you can’t fondle the hot broads on your staff? At worst, a nice slap on the tush is just showing Adrianna Francesca Bimbetti the love her father never had time for! What’s the big deal?

Tax forms: 1099 vs. W2 ?

Are the people working for you independent contractors (warranting a 1099) or full time employees (W2)? The laws on this are VERY specific. For a worker to be eligible for a 1099 they have to meet 3 requirements: a) be free from supervision, direction, and control b) be in business for themselves and offer their services to the general public, and c) set their own schedule, meaning they don’t clock in and out. So which tax form should you hand them come tax season?

Trick question! Just toss them whatever best serves your bottom line! SCHWING!


Your staff wants PAID vacation, PAID sick days, PAID maternity leave, and be PAID a year-end bonus? These are nothing but entitlements, and if they ever mention these unmentionables, don’t explain yourself for denying them. Simply quote Frank Underwood, the Reptile-in-Chief from House of Cards.


(“Let me be clear. You are entitled to nothing.”)

I bring these examples of dismissing the labor laws (and entitlements) up because another offshoot of the immigrant mentality is GREED. Because Pop was working all day and came home exhausted to a wife looking after a bunch of kids, the family was constantly in SURVIVAL mode and money was always at the forefront.

Stuff like philosophy, art, poetry, culture, beauty, and architecture (you know…the gay stuff) was completely outside of his reality. In fact, it could be argued that Pop viewed talk like that as a THREAT to his way of life, because it made him feel like an inadequate brute among the “Fancy Folk.”

And because of this fixation on money, Pop’s kids didn’t so much put stock in “the beauty of the mind” and its treasures, but in MONEY. Specifically, the dollar amount you had (the number) regardless of how it came into their possession. The dark side of this was the GREED that developed, and in my adult life I actually crossed paths with a Staten Island employer that was so greedy he’d do anything for money, no matter who he had to cheat or what he had to do. Let me put it to you this way: if there was suddenly money in NAZISM, he’d probably go into it, and not be above recruiting a few friends.


(“Y’Know, there’s a lot of money in killing Jews. If you’re interested, I know a guy.”)

But not all the kids of the immigrants went this route. There was a split, resulting in a second group. The first saw Pop coming home tired every day and put him on a pedestal. They idolized his work ethic, and wanted to be like him (even though greed was a common side effect to an otherwise laudable mentality). The second group was just the opposite, going in a different direction, which brings me to…

The NON-Working Class Culture of Staten Island.

This camp saw Pop coming home tired and complaining after a long day and thought “I’m NOT going to be like Pop. I’m going to find a glitch in the labor matrix!  I’m going to use cheat codes on the system, and ‘the man’! I will die trying to find a way around this ‘working like a dog every damn day’ crisis awaiting me in adulthood.” So what did they do?

They demonized work, and THEIR kids became “Street Pharmacists,” peddling prescription drugs to everyone from their high school friends to middle-aged men with a heavy bout of Peter Pan Syndrome.


 (“Welp, I tried going legit. Guess a lifetime of selling blues out of my car it is.”)

While the overbearing, hide-at-work-for-60 hrs-a-week crop of guys is a bit annoying, they’re nothing compared to the non-working class mentality here, which is a total PLAGUE.

If not for the simple fact that they’re so damn PREVALENT. They’re not like the workers who (although destructive to themselves and confrontational when instigated) are for the most part out of sight because they are WORKING and doing their part by paying taxes.

These non-workers are either taking up space at the mall, being obnoxious in public, or worse: being shady at the street corners. I for one can’t enjoy my neighborhood, because to be perfectly frank, drug deals happen all the time. I have a dog that demands I walk her, but I have to be careful about when I do so because there are all these suspicious cars that just park themselves in the back streets, wait for another car to pull up, do the illegal activity du jour, and then drive off. It’s BEYOND shady and obnoxious, it’s…


(So suspicious it’s delicious.)

Again, it would be nice if these non-working parasites kept this stuff to themselves, but one thing about Staten Island is that it’s the WILD WEST when it comes to rules, as we’ve established. Just as the business owner can pick and choose which labor laws he (or she) chooses to obey, the drug dealer and drug abusers can freely boast about their purchases and use because not only aren’t the police looking, it’s actually COOL to the point where if you’re not a pillhead (a charming colloquialism for a percocet fiend) you’re ostracized from the chic Staten Island Social scene.

But I don’t mind. Half the time when these pill heads talk I can’t understand what they’re saying, and when I do I feel BAD, because some of them are so far gone, they’re incapable of employment. Really. I’ve ran into a handful who got into prescriptions drugs in high school and over the course of a couple of years they’ve become unfit for work. The workaholic will eventually retire, but the pill head’s brain has been so CHEWED UP and SPIT OUT by the drugs that they can’t function in society properly and hold down a job. It’s becoming a growing problem on Staten Island, one that makes people reluctant to move here as well as eager to move OUT.

(Because not all of them are as charming and lovable as good ol’ Philly Dollaz.)

But in the end, the other group’s efforts to escape traditional work through drug dealing often backfires, and results in being a dependent for life. So maybe Pop was right after all?

Maybe. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.

Thanks for reading, and if you like what you’ve read please be sure to SUBSCRIBE BY EMAIL so you don’t miss a post. If you have a friend who might enjoy this, please SHARE the post. And of course you can always LEAVE A COMMENT below (I want to hear your thoughts as well!).

Next post is on March 21 and yes, the new bi-weekly schedule bums me out too.

See you then,

 J. F. Seegitz

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