In Poverty with The American Dream

Settling into a culture and among a “demographic” both of which are completely new to me and my husband, I decide to enroll in a short, eight-week budgeting course hosted in a local church a few blocks away.  Hoping to learn about the people of the region and local economic circumstances, I figure it may be a real boon if the course also serves to uncover a way in which we might further economize.  Our relocation in 2010 came on the heels of the economic recession and both of us come from families that value frugality and modest living.

The budgeting class is telling—shocking really.  I learn that poverty is a way of life for the majority of people of this region.  I also learn that there are families going without regular food in order to afford cellphone coverage and internet services.  Some employers—especially if a class participant has a slightly higher paying organizational or clerical job which involves company communications—are requiring their employees to purchase and maintain phone accounts and internet services so that employers have 24/7 access to employees via telephone, voice mail, texting and email.

“What are they thinking?” I walk through the door of our house addressing my husband.  “How are these people supposed to budget when there is nothing extra at a minimum-wage position?  And, if the pay is slightly higher, what I am hearing is that any possible “extra” income is immediately taken up by an employer’s requirement to have the employee purchase technology, rendering the employee accessible at all times and via as many communication methods as possible.  What happened to the forty-hour work week?”

Spirituality
Spirituality

Over the next eight weeks, it becomes apparent that the budgeting course’s materials are outdated.  Wages are assumed too high, rents too low and the cost of food in the exercises has not kept pace with current prices—then factor in the issue of needing to be technologically up-to-date—and the economic picture presented in the class does not match a family’s current economic reality at all.

The exercises, instructional in a pedagogical sense (we should all practice our math regularly), are not reflective of people’s present circumstances.  When asking the program coordinator about updating the curriculum and its materials, I am informed that there is not enough money in the budget to make that change.

The course is taught at locations throughout the community.  I am further informed that the course was originally created because some members of the community saw a need “to help those who are economically disadvantaged or less fortunate learn how to handle their money properly.”  I receive this information as a quiet aside because my speech patterns define me as someone “other” than a typical attendee.

In American culture, I bump up against this conceit with amazing frequency:  Poor people are poor because they don’t know how to manage their money.  True in some cases?  Yes.  True in most cases? No.

“What money?” the question comes flying out of my mouth as I walk through the door of our home after class one night.  I find the statement about teaching the economically underprivileged of this community how to manage their money especially ironic when I run across the program coordinator’s annual salary while looking for part-time positions online.  Unless there is something in the program coordinator’s past, about which I do not know, I wonder what an individual earning almost five times more annually than the course’s target audience could possibly offer to the people in these classes—to those living at or below the poverty level in real time?

Though the program coordinator may hold the belief that she is there to help the under-educated and the economically disadvantaged (the program does help some people uncover unwise spending habits), she is really there to collect a hefty paycheck, grow her own 401K, enjoy health benefits, manage her own money properly and feel good about working her I-serve-the-poor job.

This is a field report about earnestly striving human beings, who may be poor or homeless or under-educated and next to whom I have learned and sat.   After basic expenses are paid and technology requirements are covered, there is little to no opportunity to get ahead because there simply is not enough income or money left over to save, invest or otherwise be managed. There is no extra.  And, we would all like to be able to manage our own money—to receive a viable paycheck—or at the very least an adequate one.  We would all like to afford a place to call our own–to participate in The American Dream.

Homeless with the American Dream

“Dude, I can help you with that,” one man is leaning over another seated man filling out an online registration form for homeless services at one of the public library’s computers.

At the adjacent computer terminal, I drop into a chair to check email.  My skin is prickly from the long, hot walk to the library, and I am looking like a boiled lobster while trying hard not to overhear the conversation next to me.

“I got it bro,” the response comes.  “But, thanks for the help.  Hey, man, you know about this place?” the seated man asks gesturing to the screen.

“Yeah, they got a ten-o’clock curfew.  That’s alright.  What I don’t like is the showers and beds and sh*t. They’s all communal.  I ‘m real clean.  I can hardly stand to shower there, let alone sleep.  I got to get me a job, so I can have my own place—my own shower.  You hear me?  Family sent me ahead, ya see?”  (There is a formal recounting of all of the immediate and extended family members relying on this man’s ability to find and retain employment.)

“Yeah, yeah.  I hear, ya.  Who’d ya say was hiring?”

“There’s that warehouse.  They’s taking applications.  Do you need me to help you with that?  I can help you.  I got me a bar of soap and found a stream.

Spirituality

Cleaner washing in that stream than some of those places.  I know they [the local Christian charities] mean well—but germs, man, I’m really funny ’bout germs.  Family is counting on me.  You see what I’m sayin’ bro?”

“Yeah.  I got it,” the seated man replies.  “Thank you, though.”

“I’ll catch you later.” The other man moves away, returning to perch on one of the library’s high stools facing the windows looking out onto the pedestrian traffic on the street.

Exhaling, I finish my computer session, grateful for the home I have.  Gathering my things together, I exit the building to breathe the hot, heavy air and begin my walk home.  I consider how alone the man with the extended family must feel,  I hope Grace keeps him safe.

The Kitchen Door Effect & the Spirit

“The monster on table six with his tight-wad wife and bratty kids doesn’t look like he’s going to tip tonight,” Tina’s smoke-seasoned voice cracks the peace of a smoothly running kitchen machine with her crude complaint.

The padded door, upholstered in leather, is still swinging between the kitchen and dining room.  I feel my heart seize with the harsh tone of her words and delivery.  My stomach follows reactive suit with the social inappropriateness and radical shift in her personality.  Moments ago, I stood two tables away from Tina as she billed and cooed over the same four people.

“What a little gentleman and young lady we have here,” she syruped over the children.  “How old are they?  You two look like you should be on a date. You can’t be old enough to have children.”

This is my third or fourth seasonal stint as a server.  Waiting tables is one of the best short-term positions for earning reliable money during college summers.

Spirituality
Spirituality

This particular restaurant is the most exclusive place I have ever served, featuring a full lakefront view and a classic American dining menu (e.g. steak and lobster).  The regulars are fewer in number, while the more pervasive, non-regular clientele comes to celebrate special occasions.  It is an event for people who dine here.  Tables with children are exceptions.  And, although I am accustomed to some degree of back chat in restaurant kitchens—where frustrated servers occasionally let off steam—this place raises the bar on contradictions when I consider my previous working environments.  It also has more “lifers”—the term applied to wait staff who are not using this form of employment to transition into other lines of work.

Looking to return to my internal equilibrium I think, “They are paying guests.  Don’t they deserve better treatment?”  There is no way for me to put this question to Tina or for her to hear what is going on in my head.  As a junior server, I am in no position to vocalize anything to turn the situation around.  So, I swallow what has been dished up, returning to the dining room while acknowledging, in compassionate fairness to Tina, the fact that she has been on staff for years.  I have not.  She is burned-out.  I am not.  Still, the environment is toxic.  I feel like an egg in a carton of cracked, borderline personalities.

Trying to keep things light in my internal world, I amuse myself with the following silent observation, “Maybe this is why I am now working next to the only padded  kitchen-to-dining-room door I have ever encountered in the ‘hospitality’ industry.”  The trained pedagogue in me would simply send everyone for a long counseling retreat.

Choosing to move on, I remain at the lakeside restaurant only a short time.  But, the experience gives me a clear picture of what I term the Kitchen Door Effect, where things are one way in the dining room (exterior) and another way in the kitchen (interior).  This phenomenon exists—to some degree or another— in virtually every industry, circumstance and personality I have encountered.  Additional life experience causes me to note that the more exclusive or carefully polished an exterior appearance is the greater the gap (or heavier the door) may be between the two realms.

I cannot turn the clock back to adjust working conditions at that restaurant.  Neither can I improve the mental health of the personalities I met there nor was it my place to do so.  What I do have the ability to address is the integration between the kitchen and dining room aspects of my own personality.  And, in terms of a single personality, there is far more than one door or two realms at play.

Doors are what separate us from our highest Light, the sacred Self.  In truth, our external world is only as unified in the Light as our discrete internal world.  This is one of the primary teachings that restaurant position provided.  To work on removing these doors, over time, is to become whole, gracious, kind and compassionate, while growing in the knowledge that each living creature possesses a divine Light of its own.  So, no matter what the external appearances, concerns, attachments, fiscal arrangements or social structures may be in a given situation, we have the opportunity to unify our personality around our highest Light.  This is a tall order requiring commitment, bravery and tenacity.

So, while I cannot change the falseness of certain social environments or the craziness in the kitchen environments of the world, I am focusing on “unhinging” my own bent toward duality and contradiction—searching out and removing my own doors—in favor of table-side food preparation with a full view of the Lake.