By the standards of the service industry, my mother would have not passed muster with many restaurant servers. She was demanding, her manner brusque and impatient. And she didn’t tip.
Well, she tipped. But sparingly, to say the least. If the bill was $20, her tip was maybe $1. The five percent tippers of the world are rarely welcomed back.
My mother was smart, well-educated and she spent much of her adult life working to help foster educational opportunities for minority women. She was an accountant and taught business in various night schools in Chicago. Her politics were progressive, and her sense of justice was easily bruised by the unfairness she saw visited upon some people. Somehow, her empathy for all mankind seemed to fall just short of including the people charged with serving her.
There were many times when I would leave something at the table just so I could return to augment my mother’s miserly tip.
Mom had never spent even an hour waiting or busing tables. She never worked behind the counter at a deli or bakery. She never made beds and cleaned guest rooms at a hotel. She never pumped gas or picked up trash on the side of a roadway. She wasn’t in the armed forces nor did she work directly in the war effort.
I spent fourteen years in the restaurant industry as a manager and then as chef-owner of a small Italian eatery. I had never worked so hard. The 16-hour days were stressful, and the job demanded intense concentration and attention to detail. It made me keenly aware of the needs of others and of my own failings. From waitstaff and back-of-house workers to the customers whose only ambition was to have a pleasant dining experience, the concerns and efforts were great.
We hated it when a customer would under tip. The servers felt cheated, and so did the cooks. It offered no validation to our efforts.
America changed dramatically with the crash of the stock market in 1929. The Great Depression brought high unemployment and financial ruin to countless thousands. The economy had failed, and the public looked to the government for financial salvation and steadfast leadership.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the American people a New Deal that included the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration that put workers directly on the government payroll, keeping the struggling economy afloat while also expanding and fortifying the infrastructure of the United States.
Those times saw our government grow dramatically while echoing Abraham Lincoln’s notion that we should have only the government we need, but have all the government we need.
The WPA paved roads, built bridges, and constructed Camp David and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But it went beyond these physical public works to enhance America’s human infrastructure via Federal Project Number One, which employed writers, musicians, and actors. The Federal Theatre Project, part of Federal Project Number One, funded live performances and acting classes.
Carl Reiner—the actor, writer, and director who died last week at age 98—was a recipient of the training that was offered through that program. He credited FDR with his success in comedy.
As a country, we’re at a new crossroads where there is ample opportunity to employ new approaches to dealing with the highest unemployment in our history. There were many factors behind the Great Depression, including a lack of public faith in the market, failure of the banking system, and a drought that turned much of the Midwest into a dust bowl. Our situation today has been created by a pandemic that the current administration ignored until it was well out of control.
As if to buy forgiveness from the American people, the bumbling Trump and his troupe of toadies, in its protestations of what it thinks the Democrats are doing to advance socialism, gave away a few trillion dollars in the forms of a one-time payment of $1,200 to tax-paying citizens, and “bail-out” funds to those too-big-to-fail corporations, and the mega-churches that don’t pay taxes—not even on the private jets that seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for evangelical charlatans. Maybe a Gulf Stream brings them closer to God than Delta can. (Can’t wait until the KKK finds out Trump gave the Catholic church a few shekels.)
Oddly enough, nobody has to repay the government for this “stimulus” package. And more might be on the way.
Republicans love to paint FDR as the poster boy for socialism. Just whisper “New Deal” and many will wet themselves. But please note that the WPA paid its participants to work, as did several other New Deal programs. There were no free lunches. No welfare. (If you happen to find the funding of the arts to be frivolous or non-essential, just remember what goes into creating our favorite television shows.)
Many countries on this planet have required service stints for each of its citizens, regardless of gender or position. We would do well to look to their examples and follow suit.
I’ve long thought that a two-year gap between high school and college or trade school would allow for one year of public service in the armed forces or other public services established by cities, counties, or states. Except for those opting for military duty, the second year could be spent walking in another’s shoes as servers, maids, valets, bartenders, cab drivers, sky caps, care givers, nurse’s aides, et cetera.
Many of those jobs may not necessarily be pleasant but they are essential, and by learning first-hand what’s involved in the performance of those duties will maybe provide a new appreciation. Empathy, if you will.
Currently, Congress is proposing a big idea for the next stimulus package: a bi-partisan proposal to expand national-service programs to create jobs, help contain the coronavirus pandemic, and begin to unify a greatly divided country. In what sounds like a first cousin to FDR’s WPA, it is called the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act. It would provide $16 billion over three years to double the number of AmeriCorps positions to 150,000 in the first year, and then increase to 200,000 and then 250,000 in the second and third years.
AmeriCorps programs, coordinated through the Corporation for National and Community Service, exist in all fifty states. The newly commissioned national-service volunteers could work at anything from building houses through Habitat for Humanity to feeding hungry people through the Agriculture Department’s Anti-Hunger Corps.
The bill’s co-sponsors are Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Mississippi Republicans, and Senator Christopher A. Coons, a Delaware Democrat. It’s up to them to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to heed the call of this legislation.
National service isn’t a cure-all for what ails the nation, but it would go a long way toward solving some of the challenges during this time of the pandemic and help overcome our divisions and revisit the notion of serving a common purpose.
Racial and economic injustice will not be eradicated by any single act, effort, or program. Service to and with others, however, is a start. It may help more Americans to work together for the sake of the republic. Though I would urge that such service should be mandatory, it at least should be introduced as an expectation.
There is much to be learned from the examples set by our military, first responders and front-line health-care workers. Their sacrifices are great, and we would do well as citizens to emulate their efforts.
It couldn’t hurt.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Summertime is a great time for cold soups. Gazpacho originated in Andalucia in southern Spain. Some people like their gazpacho pureed, which is traditional. I prefer it chunky.
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled
2 red bell peppers
1 English cucumber
1 medium sweet onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
black pepper, to taste
5 cups tomato juice
1 tsp. Tabasco, or to taste
Trim and seed the vegetables. Cut into 1/4-inch dice. Combine with vinegar and pepper. Let rest for 5 minutes. Add tomato juice, hot sauce and 8 large ice cubes. Chill for at least four hours.