Is this really the usual?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation... Stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work."

That bit was written by a fellow named Thoreau a long while ago, but it sounds a lot like what is going on in our town and our country today.

I was reading about Maria today. You won't have heard of her, she wasn't famous or gorgeous or rich. The usual.

Maria made a point of paying for coffee and doughnuts for a homeless man at the little shop in the bus station where she worked, even when she fell behind on the $550 monthly rent for her own tiny basement apartment. How do we know that? Because the homeless man came to her funeral to pay his respects.

You see Marias every day. You might well be one. You would have liked her, if you had noticed her. She never complained. She smiled warmly as she handed out lattes or bags of fast food across the counters to an endless stream of people who probably never registered her face, at the three jobs she worked every day. Eight bucks and change an hour -the usual. In between shifts, she dozed when she could at a fake-wood cafe table.

She was a daughter of immigrants. Loved Michael Jackson songs. Doted on her little chihuahua. Wanted to lose a few pounds. Fed part of her daily bagel to the birds outside her place, and dreamed of saving the money to go to cosmetology school. The usual.

But, as a newspaper article after her death noted, dreams don't pay the bills.

Just the usual American experience. Right up to the last day of it.

A full night of sleep was something Maria could only dream of. Sometimes she didn't get home at all. A shift at one job would run a bit long, she had to get to the next on time or risk losing her modest income. She would rest for a sweet hour or two in her car. When the weather was cool, she left the engine running, and carried an extra can of gas in case the tank idled dry. Her boyfriend nagged her, telling her that it wasn't safe. But she had to get to work on time above all else - even with three jobs, she was falling behind on her rent. The usual.

They found her in her 13-year-old Kia, still in her coffee shop uniform. She had tried to catnap for a bit, parking behind a department store between her shifts. The can of fuel in the back seat had accidentally tipped and leaked. The fumes had made her froth at the mouth before she breathed her last.

Gas didn't kill Maria. The economy did. A little of that old American Dream thing died with her.

At the time of her funeral, the bosses of the chain coffee shop helpfully labeled her "a model employee." The eight bucks an hour model. The usual.

The gap between haves and have-nots has yawned alarmingly wide, alarmingly fast.

Ask people at our local charity food pantry. Do you think it's welfare loafers coming in to ask for a loaf of bread or jars of baby food to keep them from hunger at the end of the month? Think again.

It's working people, almost all of it - people who work hard, quite often at more than one job every day, who run out of paycheck before they run out of month.

The price of everything goes up, but for many, many people, pay does not. The usual.

A generation ago, it was common for people to "work their way" through college. I did. For my kids today, it would be impossible. You have a choice between skipping education and hoping to claw your way out of entry-level labor someday, while struggling to pay your basic bills, or going to college and emerging with in many cases a six-figure debt it may take a lifetime to try to pay off, with no promise these days that a bachelor's degree will earn you more than entry-level pay anyway.

All of the axioms Americans have always lived by are starting to wear thin. "Save for a rainy day" - in a savings or checking account that earns .2 percent interest while grocery prices seem to rise every month?

"Everyone who works hard can get ahead." Sorry, no. The CEO gets way ahead. Some fortunate people will climb the ladders, with pensions and good insurance. Others will be Marias. They will work hard and endlessly, get a night job to try to get by, maybe another on the weekends, decide each month which bill to leave unpaid, and continue the pace until they break down.

None of the wealthy politicians have any solution, and probably can't even grasp the reality. The usual.

Here's the truth - we're a town on the edge. Maybe the whole county is on the edge.

There's talk of a homeless shelter for Storm Lake, and it is a kind-hearted idea. Such a project would struggle to raise involvement, because we don't see people sleeping in the park or begging on the street.

What we do have is people - a lot, I'm afraid - on the brink. One paycheck away, one layoff away, one industry slow-down away, one medical bill away, one car breakdown away. People living several families to a small house. Immigrants subletting a bare room in a basement or a mobile home, with no options. The usual.

And boy do we have Marias. People working two jobs, maybe three or four. Decisions on school dismissals in this town are now made with the consideration that middle school or high school age children may be the primary caregivers for younger children as parents work multiple shifts to get by. Sleep, and health, are not top priorities when your family's cupboards are empty.

More Marias, all the time.

You can't get ahead, when you are constantly falling behind.

"Lives of quiet desperation..."

The usual?