Sunday, May 3, 2009

A modest proposal

Bear with me here for a bit and I’ll get to it.

The “high season” is now behind us in Sarasota. The roads are clearing and restaurant tables are once again available. At times over the past month, the children’s department at the bookstore where I work, resembled the Tower of Babel. Not only could I go hours without hearing “American” English--of any dialect, but I often couldn’t make out the language being spoken. I find differentiating between the Nordic languages impossible. The decades I lived and toiled at the Jersey Shore, a Canadian “o” was as exotic as it got.

This gave me pause to consider why I choose to live where others come to play. The oft repeated phrase “another day in paradise” takes on a less than glorious sheen when you’re working--usually at a low paying service job--amid the smell of coconut suntan lotion and the echo of flip-flops. We are intimate with the upscale but the perennial outsiders, not a comfortable place, lacking the honorable service class history of our foreign brethren.

I used to dine out frequently with an affluent friend, one in a second marriage to a millionaire. She is in most respects a caring individual. And yet, I found myself so uncomfortable with her treatment of the wait staff that I finally had to say something.

One of those interminable emails making the rounds a while ago got on my last good nerve. It was one of those whinny pieces about customers doing all the work at check-outs (such as lifting their hand to swipe a credit card through a reader) while those of us behind the counter are goofing off—talking, chewing gum etc. Pleeease!

I am college educated, a former journalist with several awards to my credit. I’ve taught, written two books and once even earned well into the high five figures. The company says it takes two years to master selling books on its floor. Yet recently, a customer--irritated that I referred her to customer service when she interrupted me during story time--called me a “clerk.” The air of entitlement among many customers coupled with a general disrespect for those of us in the service field led me to this modest proposal:

Dear President Obama,

I would like to propose a new mandatory American youth service corp. Upon leaving high school—by graduation or dropping out—each and every one of our young people would spend two years in the service profession of his or her choice. The list of fields will include those of food service, retail, recreation (e.g. boardwalks, NOT Disney), health aide, farm work and the like. Corp members will be expected to live on their salaries, with any family support held in trust until their term is complete. Failure to live out the allotted term of duty will result in a dishonorable service discharge, a permanent part of a person’s record available to colleges, medical schools, employers etc. as is a dishonorable discharge from our military services.

The only exemption from this service would be extreme mental or physical disabilities—and this, too, would become a part of their record. If someone left the country, their service requirement would resume upon their return.

OK, I’m not naive enough to think this is perfect, or that the some of the wealthy and connected won’t find a way around it. They always do. Perhaps making the list of exemptions public would be some help.

But it’s time we recognized those “invisible” folks who tend to our needs. I suggest this in hopes a short walk in such shoes will have some lasting impact.

All honest work deserves our respect. Case closed.

Yours in the audacity of hope,

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