How $8 Changed Me

When I moved to Minneapolis in 2013, I went with a good deal of confidence in my professional skills and abilities. I have a masters degree in counseling and student affairs, and I had worked in increasingly responsible positions in higher education administration, crisis response, judicial affairs; I had excellent supervisory experience. I was fairly certain that, even though I was making that move without having already secured my next position, I would find a job that utilized my skills and offered me the opportunity to engage with my community.

There were tons of job for which I was qualified. I applied, I made phone calls, I received assistance and introductions from friends. Nothing materialized. When it became clear that I needed an income even if it wasn’t from an ideal position, I looked for an hourly job that would ease my financial worries while still allowing me the time and energy to continue my job search.

I found a part-time job (which quickly became full-time) at an upscale grocery store, as a barista in their Starbucks kiosk. When I was offered the job, I was told by my new supervisors that they understood where I was in the job search process – both of these managers were also women with excellent backgrounds who had found it difficult to get professional positions. They hired me, primarily, because they had empathy for me – and I was grateful for the opportunity.

My starting hourly wage was $8.00 an hour.

I had been poor before, but it had been nearly thirty years since I had truly been poor and not just “cash strapped” periodically. Being poor takes skills, and you lose or forget those skills if you are not called upon to regularly use them. You don’t exactly forget being poor – rather, you forget just how truly wearing it is on your psyche. If you live for very long in the relative luxury of middle class, your experiences become anecdotes of your scrappy past, rather than painful stories of survival. At least, that’s how it was for me.

My fellow baristas were a font of information for me on how to get by, how to recover my skills for living small. First, they found out that I was paying $800 a month for my COBRA insurance, and it was eating up my savings in giant gulps. My coworkers informed me that I likely qualified for county healthcare assistance (this was just as Obamacare was coming into being, and I ventured onto Minnesota’s health care marketplace and discovered that my colleagues were right). I entered the rolls of public assistance for the first time in my life.

Coworkers told me about the best food pantries – where they would go to get actual meat once every two weeks, or fresh produce that was still really edible. I didn’t use these resources, because I could supplement my earnings with some money from savings, and I was suddenly viscerally aware of the very real people working side-by-side with me who were trying to raise families on their $8.00/hour. I didn’t want to take food that a family might need.

I liked my job. But it meant eight hour shifts on my feet and I could never afford shoes that met dress code AND were comfortable on my feet. It meant closing one night and opening the next morning, on way less than eight hours of sleep. It meant working weekends and evenings; never two days in a row off, never a set schedule. I had a hard time adjusting, difficulties juggling my own life needs around the schedule. I missed out on a lot – and, again, I just had me. Many of those I worked with were juggling their families’ needs as well. Working in food service, we were supposed to call in sick if we had any illness that might be communicable. But we had no sick leave, no PTO. If we missed a shift, we didn’t get paid. I began to understand how e-coli spreads in fast food restaurants – diarrhea is not always a good enough reason to miss a fifth of your weekly pay.

The other store employees were unionized, we were not. They received scheduled pay increases, benefits. We did not. It was a very strange dichotomy within one store – everyone assumed that we had the same deal they did. To compound this, customers and coworkers alike kept complimenting us on Starbucks’ “generous” benefits – which we didn’t get because we were store employees, not Starbucks workers. Also, like baristas everywhere, we listened patiently to our customers complaining about their days – wealthy people complaining to struggling ones about the cost of the private schools their children attended, or that insurance didn’t pay for their cosmetic surgery. Many days, I left work feeling the strangest kind of dissonance – grateful to get back to my neighborhood and grab a coffee at The Boiler Room, where the general shabbiness felt welcoming and unpretentious.

I developed some of the skills necessary to survive earning so near the minimum wage: I learned what stores and shops had specials when; I never walked past change lying on the ground; I became a connoisseur of the best cheap toilet paper (and I shopped for it regularly at the BP gas station next door to my apartment). I rode my bike everywhere I could – and I enjoyed it – to save money on gas and vehicle maintenance. I managed when my apartment had no running water or no heat (and when it did have mice) – the rent was affordable and it wasn’t a horrible place to live, in spite of these occasional hardships. I learned to cut my own hair, or to go to Cost Cutter on the days of their $6 specials. I said goodbye to pedicures, to having facial hair waxed, to television, to shopping. I waved a fond farewell to artisanal cheeses, charcuterie boards, movies, theater tickets. I had internet, but only because I lived close to downtown Minneapolis and could use the city’s subsidized service.

What I couldn’t ever get the hang of was trying to live this way and still maintain a sense of self-worth. I know I made choices, and those choices resulted in where I was. But it felt as if other people controlled my outcomes (the people who had no issue, for example, telling me they wanted to hire younger professionals despite the fact that age discrimination in hiring is illegal). And there were systems in place that felt actively hostile to my efforts to make a better life. For example, when I needed assistance to get signed up for health care, it took two days worth of navigating telephone call trees to finally talk to a human being – who informed me that I had the wrong agency. He gave me a number and I started all over on another phone tree. (Folks, I have a masters degree and worked for decades in higher education – if I couldn’t follow the convoluted directions successfully, I submit that it would be difficult for many others to do so!) Another example: the two years I made the least money of my entire adult life were the ONLY two years I owed federal AND state income taxes, to the tune of several hundred dollars. Thinking about the panic and anxiety that induced can still make my pulse race.

Why am I writing about this now? We are in a political season, and things have been ugly. In the process of all the mud-slinging and the intentional lie-telling on both sides of the political fence, I am afraid that many of the real issues that we should be paying attention to, even fighting over or for, are getting lost in the rhetoric.

I was so much better off than people who are truly living in poverty and struggling to make it. I had family and friends who could (and did) offer support in both financial and emotional ways. I had retirement savings that I could, if needed, dip into. I had some excellent, quality goods that I already owned prior to my downturn in fortunes that prevented me needing to find ways to purchase them (a car, a bike, good quality clothes, etc.)

And it still ground me down. The more I learned about how my coworkers struggled, the more I became convinced that change is needed. These people worked full-time jobs – some of them had other part-time gigs as well. Sometimes their children had special needs, and often these needs went unmet or only partially attended to. One minor setback – like a car battery that dies in Minnesota’s polar winter – could sink them into a hole it would take them years to scramble out of. Working their butts off the whole time. God forbid they should break a leg or get cancer and be unable to work.

Now, as I am vetting candidates at the local, state and federal level, I am listening closely to what they say. And I am reading their platforms. And I am asking them questions when I can. I want to know what they think about the minimum wage. I want to know what priority they place on making sure that every working American can feed his or her family. I want to know how they will ensure that people on a fixed income will be able to afford both food and health care. I met a local candidate the other day who said his goal is to eradicate poverty in our county within the next 50 years. That’s a goal I can get behind – but I want to know how he plans to start that ball rolling – I want to know it isn’t just a hook being used to get him elected.

I’ve heard so many arguments that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because nothing changes. Being poor for a couple of years in mid-life has taught me the lie of that response. Who holds office, who sits at the table when decisions are made, has a very real impact – especially for those who are at the bottom of our social class structures, those who are living in poverty, those who have been disenfranchised in some way. Safely ensconced in my professional, white, middle-class world, I am not as susceptible to the immediate pendulum swings. But the people at the edges feel every slice.

I have kept this piece intentionally personal, and I haven’t argued for one side or the other of the political heads/tails of our two-party system. What I am arguing for is the fact that our votes do make a difference. Being an educated voter, therefore, is crucial. I have always voted, though often I have been a lazy citizen, accepting what candidates have said without looking closely at what they actually mean – what programs and planks and platforms have their votes and ongoing support. Having experienced and compared different cities, counties, and states has taught me that real differences exist on the basis of how these communities have voted. Communities are made up of individuals like you and me.

Please, don’t fall prey to voter apathy and disenchantment; don’t believe the lie that your vote makes no difference. My vote is one drop in a vast ocean, I know. But an ocean’s waves are powerful, and they shape the shoreline. How you vote, how I vote, makes all the difference to people living at the water’s edge.

 

 

 

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A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.