Sunday, October 13, 2013

Safety Nets & Coworkers

My first retail job was at Petite Sophisticates nearly two decades ago.  I shopped there frequently and one day the manager came up to me and said, "I like your style and we are looking to add to our staff.  Would you be interested in working here?"

The rest is my service industry history.

The assistant manager was a woman named Dorothy.  She was a retired nurse and this was her 2nd career- a welcome departure from the stress of caring for sick people.

One day Dorothy told me about her life.  She had five kids and was married to an abusive man.  When the abuse kept escalating she went to her parish priest for advice and counsel and permission to leave this man.  The priest said to her, "If you leave him you will become a divorced woman and you will go to hell."  She stayed until one day he kicked her down the stairs and held a shotgun to her head.  "That was the day," she said, "when I decided that my chances in hell were better than my chances with him."

Many years later I worked with a woman who was subjected to such verbal and psychological abuse at the hands of an ex-boyfriend that she would shake in fear when the store phone rang.

There are many other examples over the years of woman I have worked with that live on the edge.  Thankfully, the abuse stories are not the norm but the scraping by certainly is.  The ones who are consistently kept under forty hours week after week so the company doesn't have to pay them health insurance.  The ones who juggle several jobs to make their rent.

They are the woman who know that a car accident, an illness, a root canal or a cut in hours will put them under a pile of bills that they might never recover from.  They rob Peter to pay Paul and come to work sick because that is all they know how to do.

I have loved these woman and it has been my honor to work along side them.

One time I told one of my friends about a situation with one of my coworkers and she said, "Well, why doesn't she just take some money out of her savings account or get a loan from the bank?"

It doesn't work that way.

I have worked most of my life.  Getting out of the suburbs with the cars and vacations, the home remodels and relentless faux problems and into the real world was the best thing that has ever happened to me.  As my mom said years ago when we left the comfort and security of our Catholic grade school for an integrated high school that closed every spring because of racial strife, "Kids, you need to see how other people live."  For the time being, my retail career is over but I miss it and those women.  I miss their guts, their perseverance, their example of putting one foot in front of the other and praying your way through the latest crisis.

I miss their stories most of all because when you know the uninsured, the single mom and the underemployed - when you work next to them eight hours a day, week after week unpacking boxes, hauling trash, moving fixtures, steaming clothes, smiling and waiting on customers when their burdens are so heavy that they could sit and cry at any given moment..........

When you know all that you cannot hear one more time that somehow these are the people who have milked the system.