Who Do You See in This Picture?

Posted inCreative Voices

Yesterday I skimmed one of my favorite Instagram feeds, Humans of New York, and came across this woman. She reminded me of the tough-as-nails older executive assistants from my early days in advertising, the women who truly ran everything, knew everyone, commanded all the respect. They had names like Marie and Rose. Sometimes Rose-Marie.

They were terrifying. They were beloved. They were salty.

They knew where all the bodies were buried.

I skimmed this woman’s story, then quickly shared the post to my IG story with the caption “I love her” and walked away for a while.

I came back to a whole lot of people who agreed— and a whole lot who didn’t like that take.

We’ll get to that in a sec.

First, if you’re not familiar with HONY, for 13 years, photographer Brandon Stanton has captured street portraits around New York, sometimes beyond, and shared a quote or short story from each person. Their quotes may meander (I presume he captures their stream of consciousness and shares unedited) so you have to dig through some of them a bit to understand their intent. But I always find them to be an interesting look at, well, the humans who I share New York with every day— how they think, what they’ve been through, how they see the world.

The lesser appreciated aspect of the HONY social accounts is reading the comments— which also shows us how people think, what they’ve been through, how they see the world.

Here’s what this woman said:

“I worked as a legal assistant for 50 years. And I’ve always been lucky to work for honest, kind, brilliant attorneys. All that paperwork might seem boring to other people. But I never even took lunch, that’s how much I loved it. I loved the law. It’s very precise. My work needed to be exactly right. And there was a lot of pride there. But something seems to have changed in the culture. So many of my coworkers would rush out the door at 5 o’clock. With important, unfinished things on their desk. In law you have to get things out quickly, but it’s like they just didn’t care. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’m older, I’m 77. So maybe there’s something I don’t get. ‘Quiet quitting,’ and all of that, I just don’t understand it. If it’s just a paycheck to you— if you’re getting by on the minimum, and not trying to be perfect, or God forbid, if you’re screwing it up on purpose— why are you even going to work? Save your pennies and quit. Find something else you can take pride in. If you’re spending eight hours a day on something you don’t take pride in, it seems to me that somewhere, deep down inside, you’re a phony. Maybe not a phony. But you’re deluding yourself. It’s going to spill over into the rest of your life. And there’s not enough money for me. Well, $20,000 a week maybe. But otherwise there’s not enough money for me to not take pride in my work. I couldn’t do it. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I can’t. You know how people text, and there’s like spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes and everything? Not me. I’ll reread everything. I’ll go back and fix it, I’ll put in the comma. That’s who I am. You either have it or you don’t, and less people have it now. I think it was the digital revolution. When I first started working there were typewriters. If you made a mistake, you had to redo it. You had to be careful, you had to get it right— until the computer came along. I remember my boss was so excited about the computer age. He said: ‘It’s going to be great! We’re going to have a paperless office!’ I knew better. I told him: ‘There’s going to be a lot more paper, actually.’ Because you can reprint everything. And nobody’s going to care anymore.’”

The comments were filled with a lot of pushback from younger readers, and my DMs were similarly polarized along generational lines. I’m going to paraphrase a few.

Here’s what I read:
Wow, she loved her job so much she didn’t take lunch or sometimes stayed late to finish work. What a great feeling to have. I’m glad she found that.

Here’s what others read:
She didn’t take lunch? She thinks people shouldn’t leave at 5? That’s messed up. Her generation had no work-life balance and maybe that’s even screwed up all the generations that came after her. By the way, law clerks don’t get paid enough these days for that. Employers need to step it up and take care of their people.

Here’s what I read:
—Take pride in what you do, whatever it is, no matter how small. Correct your typos on your texts. Little things matter.

Here’s what other people read:
—No wonder she worked so many hours. She focused on the little things that don’t matter. What matters isn’t typos on your texts— it’s what happens at home, with your family and friends when the day is over.

Here’s what I read:
—If you don’t feel good about what you do in your job, if you don’t take pride in it or mess it up intentionally, it’s hard to live with yourself. That resentment will spill into the rest of your life at some point, so try and find something you can take pride in, whatever it is.

Here’s what others read:
—Not everyone has the opportunity to like their jobs or even find new ones. The system has failed us, housing is unaffordable, salaries suck, and we have no pensions or job security. Sometimes you just have to work for a paycheck, and pride has no part in that at all.

Who’s right?

We all are.

(Well, except for the “OK Boomer” commenter. There’s always one.)

What I “loved” about this woman was someone who seems to have taken pride in what she did all day, understood that whatever it is you do, there’s an opportunity to do it well and feel good about yourself in the process.

What others resented about this woman was that her life seemed out of balance, but more so, that she expected others to live the same way— probably without a fair paycheck or the benefits she received herself.

It’s like I wrote recently: we don’t see people as they are— we see people as we are. And I’m grateful to those who thoughtfully shared different perspectives with me.

One last thought: I do wonder how much the photo influenced how she was perceived by different readers. Would we have thought the same about her if she looked like one of these women?

I don’t know. But those are my own retirement goals right there.

Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.