It came to me in a flash this morning. I know exactly what formative experience I’m tapping every time I feel enraged by this Clown Administration, this collection of nodding mimes in the Senate and the House, or the cadre of lunatic robber barons called Governors across our land. And weirdly, it’s not exactly what is being said, although what is being said is disgusting and offensive in any age. It is more how it is being said. And how pitifully smug they think they are appearing while they deal below the table right in front of us. We are supposed to just smile and be grateful for whatever scrap is tossed our way and not only, NOT report them for outright crimes, but to ADMIRE them for their cleverness in dealing with a corrupt system. “I’m a great businessman.”
When I was fifteen, I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at the local country club. It only had a 9-hole course, but it was well-maintained. Our small town had about 10,000 people back then, so I’m guessing membership in the club was not strictly limited to the 1%ers, but generally, it is unlikely there were many outside of the top 5% of the social strata who could claim inclusion. And from my experience in the lower third of that system, it was clear that members wanted a bright and shining line between Members and help. Even inside the “help” categories, there was stratification. Top guy was the Club Manager, and oddly, the Number Two was the greens-keeper. He and his staff of one were on the payroll. All the golf-related jobs were off payroll. The Members contracted with the Pro for lessons and help and he supplemented that with a commission on whatever was sold in the pro shop. Caddies worked on tips and below them were the guys who worked in the fitness and shower areas. They worked on tips too. Odd thing. A caddie might get a $1 tip on nine holes of bad golf, or he might score $50 when your dad’s boss had a good round. Caddies were almost always the sons of Members and/or players on the high school golf team. Guys in the locker room were related to the cooks in the kitchen.
Those of us on the other side had a hierarchy too. Kitchen Manager (not chef!) was the boss. He was salaried. He worked in the kitchen. The bartender worked below him for minimum wage and tips. Waitresses, almost always came from among the popular girls in school but not often the daughters of Members. They were inevitably “cute and perky.” Those who cooked were, oddly for our nearly completely white community, usually Mexican, many of whom shared surnames with those in the locker room. Some of these men were so recently from Mexico as to be without much working use of English. I’m sure they were simply paid in cash, and not very much. Below all of the above was me. The busboy/dishwasher was the bottom of the heap. I could have done the job all summer, nonetheless, if I wanted to.
My pay was the lowest, minimum wage and no tips. I had to punch in and out. On Thursday (Friday was too busy), the Club Manager would hand me a check. As a “convenience” to me (and the cooks, I suppose) he would cash my check on the spot. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was kind of convenient to get cash on my way out the door. (In fact, my next job in town paid in cash too.) Not until years later did I come to understand that if the check showed the deductions to me and I cashed the check with him for the remaining cash, all he had to do was to destroy the check, void it out of the check register and it would be like paying me in cash below the minimum wage. I don’t know if he did that or not. But back then, not a lot of 15-year-olds made enough money in a year to have to file taxes. I didn’t know of any.
Fridays were the busy nights in the restaurant and bar. And it only took a couple of Friday nights to figure out the patterns that had probably been repeated since the place opened. Husbands bring the family in. It is not exactly subdued in tone. I have been in the kitchen for about an hour already making sure every glass, plate and piece of tableware is clean, dry and ready for delivery. When the first Members arrive, I am ready. I keep watch to see when to clear the first round of dishes. I have an appropriate looking outfit, complete with a white long-sleeved shirt and a bleached white folded towel tucked into the front of my belt. From that first clearing it was a steady rise in intensity in the busboy/dishwasher business. Clear, haul, spray, load, unload, stack…clear, haul, spray…. without a break until the dining room began to clear. The ones who lingered were always the ones who kept you from punching out for the night. And they were the ones who usually lingered over drinks. If they started on drinks before dinner too, well, there was no telling how long they’d hang around. And, they were Members so no one was about to tell them to go home.
Through the course of the night, my white shirt and bleached, folded towel always accumulated the detritus of the table as well as the splattering of the dishwasher. It’s why most respectable places won’t let dishwashers clear the tables. Some nights I would swap out the folded towel half way through my shift just to try to uphold some air of appearances. I didn’t on this particular night.
The guy at the table had a name. I don’t need to name him now. He’s dead and I’ve gotten over most of it. But this guy happened to be an officer in the local savings and loan. And he was a drunk. He had come in and sat at the bar for a few with a couple of his work buddies while I did my kitchen prep late in the afternoon, left for a little while and came back with his wife. They sat at a table and had a couple before the meal, ate pro forma with a bottle of wine and then lingered over Manhattans until the room was empty. All the dishes were done in the kitchen. The cooks had shut down and left. The only staff left were the bartender, the waitress and me. So, I approached the table and asked if I might clear it for them. I suppose it was a clumsy way to try to prod them into leaving, but at 15 I had no better tactic.
When I asked, Mr. S&L froze in place. Visibly froze and held still for about 2 or 3 seconds just staring at the table. I saw a look in Mrs. S&L’s eyes as she waited for what she knew was coming. I didn’t know.
Mr. S&L turned toward me and it was the first time I had ever seen a grown man with fury in his face. I had seen plenty of men and boys and women and girls angry. Some angrier that others, but this was fury. And a look I cannot logically explain. I was standing by his right shoulder, he was still seated but somehow he was able to look down his nose at me with contempt and said: “If you interrupt me again, I will see that you are fired. I am a Member of this club and I sit on its Board of Directors. You will treat me with respect.”
I was dumbstruck. I finally sort of stammered something like, “Of course, Mr. S&L, I was only trying…”
“Enough! Go back to the kitchen and wait until we are finished here.”
I did. I didn’t say anything. I was embarrassed. These years later, I speculate that his wife may have been more embarrassed than he. Maybe not. Maybe she was used to speaking to the help that way. I wasn’t used to it. I wish I could tell you that I quit that job that night. Or that I thought about it overnight and I came in to quit the next day. What actually happened was I showed up for my shift on Saturday and the Club Manager informed me that I had been fired. Fired from my first job. That didn’t speak highly for my future. Clearly I was destined to live out my life on those lower rungs of the social and financial ladder. There was to be no “bootstrap” operation from busboy/dishwasher to Member in America.
This is precisely what I am feeling today on the national political scale. I feel like we have somehow awarded all the power and glory, all the money and voice to a bunch Mr. S&Ls with long noses and fury who can and will lash out at others under any provocation, real or imagined. Who will say anything they wish, whether it is true, or based on a story they heard, or a made-up narrative erupting like a boil from their fetid imaginations, or someone else’s fetid imagination in alt-right publishing.
Mr. S&L, I see your Mrs. with her eyes carefully shielded so as not to disclose any tic of emotion or even a shade of compassion. I see brief flashes of real fear in the faces of those around you. And I think I know what that reveals about your character.
I see your knowing looks and your secret handshakes with your cohorts. I see how you use coded language between each other so that you can claim that those of us drawing the sheet off the corpse of democracy can be dismissed as having misunderstood or misquoted or taken your words out of context. I hear you telling the people in the kitchen that the only people they can trust to tell them the truth are the people writing and cashing checks.
I see the look of desperate ambition upon those who are now in your elite club but whose starts were somewhere closer to the clubhouse kitchen. All of those men who have something to prove. In America we love drive, guts and determination. You see those traits in a few of your sycophants and nod in their direction to trigger actions that shape the lives (or the deaths) of hundreds or thousands. When they act, you praise. If they fail to act, you excoriate them. This is not the America I know. It is not the America I want to leave for my kids and grandkids.
In my America, drive, guts and determination are admirable character traits but they are not the goal of character development. In my America, a stronger union is formed on the back of ambition. Ambition is not best used in service to the self. It will take many ambitious Americans to stand up to the divisive politics used cleverly, if nefariously, by those in the National Country Club. We have found our ambition in resistance. We will resist your personal ambitions to transfer all of the wealth to the Membership. We will resist your narrow and very white version of a national culture. And we will keep spitting in your soup until it is over.