Steven C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
April 6, 2005
|STEVEN C. DAY'S ARCHIVES|
This is the second part of Episode 32. For the first half, click here.
Last Chance Democracy Café
Brad wasn’t nearly as strong a person as Maggie. Actually, he wasn’t all that strong by any measure.
If he had been stronger, he might have listened to that inner voice -- the one that kept screaming at him to run like hell every time he thought about marriage and fatherhood at age 17.
Running away would have been an act of cowardice, of course. But then, given the way he felt, so was getting married. There were, after all, other options. Abortion was out, given Maggie’s religious views, but adoption could definitely have been considered. A good home for the baby. A real future for both Maggie and Brad, with the chance to chase their dreams: Her in architecture school; him playing football in junior college.
In better times, Maggie’s mother would have insisted that the two kids at least slow things down -- take a deep breath, maybe two, before rushing into marriage. But she was too sick now to put up a fight. And, in any case, she was terribly afraid of her daughter ending up alone with the baby, with her not there to help. So she tried to put the best face she could on the marriage. “Who knows,” she whispered to herself, “maybe they’ll beat the odds. Maybe they’ll make it work.”
Brad knew better. He could sense the disaster stretching out ahead of them so clearly he could almost touch it with his hand; he wasn’t ready, and he knew it -- not for all this. But still he went along without even voicing his concerns. For better or for worse that’s Brad. Just a log floating wherever the tide takes him.
So when Maggie, unable to see past the humiliation of unwed motherhood, proposed they marry, he agreed without objection. Later, when, determined to be the perfect Catholic in atonement for her premarital sin, she rejected birth control, again he went along.
People vary, of course, in how well they handle exceptional burdens. Some thrive. Others, like Brad, melt like a Popsicle on the surface of the sun. And every year he and Maggie fought more. And every year he spent less and less time at home. And every year his conduct became more self-destructive.
Some train wrecks come as a shock. Others, when viewed in retrospect, seem to have been almost inevitable. Brad’s came in January of 2,000, when he was busted for selling a few grams of cocaine to support his own habit. He was sent up for 10 years under the state's mandatory drug sentencing law, a cruelty that went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, which, after all, had its own business to attend to.
As a result of drugs being seized on the premises, drugs Maggie knew nothing about, she and the kids were thrown out of the public housing unit where they had lived for the past four years.
* * *
Molly, as you might expect, was living in a very different sort of a world. She entered the new century as both a college graduate and a happily married woman.
A not entirely obscure East Coast university by the name of Harvard granted her political science degree -- magna cum laude, if you’re in to such things. Graduation came right on schedule in 1997. No surprise there. Her next move did surprise a lot of people, however -- almost putting poor old Dad into the hospital, in fact. Turning aside scholarship offers from a number of top graduate programs and law schools, she decided to get a taste of the real world instead, spending the next two years working in an urban ministries program, helping the homeless find medical care, or at least trying to help them find it.
Molly met David, a medical student, at Harvard. A lot of people found that part funny. She’d worked so hard distancing her life from that of her parents, only to end up marrying her father.
Following the wedding in June of 1999, Molly went to work for Al Gore’s campaign. “Something about Bush scares me,” she told people. “I really think he’d be the worst president in American history.”
I’d like to say this observation proves Molly a genius, but let’s face it: It wasn’t that hard a call.
* * *
Sometimes it’s the quiet wars, the ones fought through subterfuge, that are the most damaging.
For over 30 years now, the political right has been waging a propaganda war against poor people. And for the most part, no one has even tried to fight back. The poor themselves, of course, lack the power to do so. And as for their traditional champions in the political left, well, in far too many instances, they’ve been otherwise engaged.
And make no mistake: It’s been a brutal attack. A war of belittlement, designed to redefine poverty as sin. And not the type of sin you might expect -- that of a wealthy society that tolerates poverty among a shockingly large number of its citizens, but, instead, the sins of the poor themselves: People now successfully redefined, in the view of a large percentage of the population, as lazy, irresponsible loafers, predominantly black, of course, feeding at society’s trough.
That little of this carefully constructed stereotype is true (many more whites than blacks are poor, a very high percentage of America’s poor work, among those who don’t work a very high percentage are single mothers) is beside the point: The bottom line is -- and when we talk about poverty, it’s the bottom line that matters -- the slanderers have won. And as a result, the concerns of the poor have largely been relegated to the political dustbin.
* * *
I first met Maggie in the latter part of 2003. As I described in episode 3, she worked for the janitorial service that cleans the café. At first, she didn’t get started until 30 minutes after closing time, which was our agreement with the service. By that time, I was generally the only person still there, finishing up with the paper work and inventory. After a few nights, I noticed that she always seemed particularly harried. I asked her what was up. She resisted telling me at first, but eventually confessed that she had a very tight schedule between finishing up at the café and getting to her second job, waiting tables at the all-night pancake house down the street. She also had a day job cleaning rooms at a cut-rate motel on the other side of town.
We cut her a little slack, letting her get started with some of the less intrusive cleaning an hour or so before closing, so she could get to her next job with less of a panic. Of course that meant that our employees and the regulars got to know her.
From the start, Maggie had a knack for pasting a cheerful smile onto a face that otherwise screamed out with overwhelming fatigue. Only 29-years-old, she looked more like 40, with deep worry lines and large black swatches below her eyes. Her thick blond hair, you remember, it was her proudest feature back in high school, was now cut short. There just wasn't the time or energy needed to wash it often enough, let alone to make it up the way she wanted.
A person who works as hard as Maggie shouldn’t be poor. But, of course, shouldn’t doesn’t always mean isn’t. And even working three jobs wasn’t good enough to raise her family of four above the poverty level. Three jobs, yes, but three crap jobs, paying crap wages, with crap hours and crap benefits, actually no benefits. And crap times three still equals crap.
Maggie had at one time received a little help from the government for things like child care, housing and medical insurance for the kids. But when the money got tight after the Bush tax cuts, the recession and the related state budget shortfalls, the eligibility requirements were tightened up. From then on, aside from occasionally visiting the food bank, she was pretty much on her own.
I’ve always thought this particularly sad, because being poor and on your own in today’s America also means being afraid – a constant, numbing, sleep robbing fear: Fear of getting sick, of losing a job or even just of having your car break down. Almost any unexpected expense, or loss of income, can bring the whole house of cards crashing down, leaving your children hungry and maybe even out on the street.
And against all this, Maggie labored on, day after bone crushing day, trying to provide for her kids in the only way she knew how.
We tried helping out a little here, things like giving her a $200 gift certificate instead of a fruit basket at Christmas, but beyond that her pride wouldn’t allow her to accept much.
* * *
Maggie and Molly’s lives finally crossed last year. David had recently started a two-year fellowship in vascular surgery here in town; Once it was finished, he planned to move on to another fellowship, this one in transplant surgery, in another state. Two years just didn’t seem like enough time for Maggie to get a career going, so she started taking some graduate courses in political science, as well as continuing her charitable and political work. But money was tight and when a part-time job (two nights a week) opened up here at the café, she took it.
Molly and Maggie hit it off from the beginning. It was actually sort of inspirational watching the two of them -- the doctoral candidate and the “cleaning lady” -- laughing together as they sped around doing their separate duties during that last hour before closing. Sometimes Molly would stay to help Maggie finish up, taking the opportunity to talk. They also started getting together some on weekends, when Maggie might have a few free hours and, with David always tied up at the hospital, Molly would generally be available. Molly sometimes took Maggie and her kids to places Maggie could never afford to go herself, like the children’s theater and the amusement park.
* * *
Here are a few fun facts about people who are down on their luck, or, if you prefer, people who lack virtue, in today’s America (many taken from God’s Politics by Jim Wallis):
And what is our ever-so-publicly-Christian president’s response to this dismal -- no, let’s say it plainly -- this ungodly state of affairs? Well, in his proposed 2006 budget he heaps even more tax cuts into the pot for the wealthy, while proposing steep spending cuts in health, education and a wide variety of other programs that provide assistance to poor and middle class Americans.
* * *
It should come as no great surprise that after a number of months, when Molly and Maggie’s friendship was well in place, Molly went to work trying to find a way to get Maggie off the treadmill she was on. About a week ago, as part of this project, she talked to me about giving Maggie a fulltime job. There was nothing available, and given the kind of benefits our employees receive, together with their ownership interest, there was no way we could add another position. But one of our servers was planning to leave town in about five months, our first fulltime opening in two years, and I told Molly that Maggie would, of course, have the inside track.
Molly also started encouraging Maggie to try to somehow find some time to work on getting her GED, so that maybe, when she finally got a higher paying job and could cut back her hours a little, she could to start in on some college classes. Molly refused to accept that even Maggie’s dream of architecture was beyond the range of the possible.
For the first time in her adult life, Maggie had an advocate.
Last Thursday I was still doing paperwork as she was leaving the café. There was a look of hopefulness on her face I’d never seen before.
* * *
The call came at around 11:00 the next morning. I’d roused myself at 7:30; I always try to get up by then so I can see the kids off to school and my wife off to her job. Then I collapsed onto the couch. The phone woke me.
It was Molly. She was crying. The police found her phone number among the contents of Maggie’s purse.
There wasn’t a lot to the story. Apparently after leaving the café, she ended up having to work a double shift at the pancake house. It was almost noon, by the time she finally started out for home, and God knows how long since she’d had any sleep. She was almost to her exit off the bypass, when, well, they’re guessing here, but the police think she fell asleep behind the wheel. Her 1979 Ford Pinto drifted through the grassy medium, ending up in the oncoming lane of traffic. She hit a semi truck head on.
It was like a steamroller running over a marshmallow.
* * *
So there I was in the church, my memories and emotions flowing together like two rivers conjoining along the path to the ocean.
And without even knowing why, I found myself replaying a phrase in my consciousness. “Actions have consequences,” the voice inside me kept saying. “Actions have consequences.”
This is a favorite saying among conservatives, of course; one they often use when talking about personal responsibility.
And they’re right. Actions do have consequences. For example, when we as a society take the action of making tax cuts for the wealthy our highest domestic priority, it has life altering consequences for people like Maggie. It takes food out of the mouths of hungry children, denies shelter to the homeless and steals quality medical care from millions of families. And when a conservative President and Congress refuse, year after year, to raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation, let alone raising it to the level of a living wage, this also has consequences. It drives more people into poverty, forces low income employees to work longer hours and robs children of the care and support of their parents.
I mean, my God, it would have taken so little to change Maggie’s entire world. Just a little help. A neighborly hand up. Perhaps even a chance, as many have proposed, to receive the work credit required for public support while going to college, instead of just when working at dead end jobs -- a real opportunity to move forward, instead of simply running in place on the treadmill.
It would have taken so little. So damn little.
* * *
A winding gravel road led through the cemetery to Maggie’s burial plot. It was in a wooded area. I was glad to see that. I thought Maggie would have liked it, although I didn’t have any real basis for thinking that. It was starting to get late enough in the day now that long shadows from the trees were mixing with the tombstones, creating a chaotic, almost Picasso like, pattern. The priest said his words: I didn’t hear them. You never do unless you’re right next to him. Then it was done.
We didn’t see her lowered into the grave. You usually don’t anymore. You just head out, leaving the casket hovering over the hole. The minimum wage guys then take care of the rest later.
As we all slowly worked our way back to our respective cars, Maggie’s kids, crying as you’d expect, were walking with Molly and David.
I guess I didn’t tell you that part of the story, did I?
That next morning following the accident, shortly after she called me, Molly walked up and knocked on Winston’s door. Her eyes were red, but she was done with crying. She had work to do. The two of them, the pretty young woman and the wrinkled old man, went to the courthouse together, where Winston, using his connections from his days as a judge, helped her to navigate the bureaucracy. Four hours later she emerged with a court order giving her temporary custody of Maggie’s three children, all of whom had been taken into protective custody and were staying at the county youth farm.
They’ve been staying with her and David ever since. As I heard the story, two days later, Molly looked David straight in the eye and said, “I’m not giving up these kids, you know. Maggie was my friend and I owe her that much. They’re not going to a youth home or into foster care. It’s not happening.”
Now, it won’t surprise me if David, a fellow who stands to start bringing down some serious bucks soon, doesn’t end up being a Republican some day. It won’t matter. To me, he’ll still always be The Man.
Without a moment’s hesitation, this young man, who had wanted to put off starting their own family until his practice was well established, looked back at Molly and said, “I know. We’ll do what we’ve got to do.”
It’s far too early to know whether Brad, the children’s father, will ever try to reenter their lives in any serious way, after he’s finally released from prison. But my guess is, come what may, Molly and David will always remain in the picture. At least, I know that’s what Molly intends. I know it because of three promises she told me she made to Maggie at the graveside.
She promised, first, that all three of Maggie’s children would have the opportunity to go to college, second, that they would each learn the meaning and importance of justice and finally, third, that they would always remember and honor their mother -- a woman who had always given them so much more than love’s due.
* * *
Read all the "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" episodes in the archives.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001