The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


About twenty years ago, give or take, business was booming in my temporary help business.  We had, after a lot of work and a great deal of frustration, developed a core constituency of clients who ordered office help from us week after week.  These were major corporations like Budget Rent A Car and The Quaker Oats Company.  Not only did they order from us with regularity – we could depend on receiving payment for our invoices in a timely manner.  Naturally, we were appreciative of their business and bent over backwards to keep them happy – making sure that we filled every assignment with a qualified person.

Every so often they would throw us a “ringer” position.  Our specialty was in secretarial help – but from time to time they would request someone for the mail room or to do document copying.  We did not have a big bench of people with those skills as that was not the focus of our recruitment efforts.

One day, one of our best clients requested a person for a two month period to work in sorting and delivering inter-office mail (naturally this was long before email was in the extensive use in which we find it today).  The client indicated that if they were happy with the person we assigned, it might turn into a permanent position.

After combing through our files we called the few people who could handle the position and would be likely to accept it.  One of those, a young man named Jamal had worked on two assignments for us although it had been quite some time since we had an opening that was appropriate for his limited skill set.  But we called him and he said he was available.  That’s when I heard one of the most heartbreaking truths about poverty and the inner city.

“You know, I would like to take the job – sounds good – and I’d like something could turn permanent.  I been looking for permanent work for a year.  But, problem is, I don’t have the bus fare to get to work.”

I didn’t talk to this young man but my Sales Manager, Stephanie had the conversation with him and she came into my office to ask if there were something we could do to get him some money so that he had bus fare until he got his first paycheck.  I adored Stephanie.  She was bright, creative and I think most importantly, she had a big heart.  She handed me Jamal’s application and the first thing that I noticed was the he lived in the Robert Taylor Homes – one of Chicago’s worst housing projects.  It was so bad in this part of “the hood” that Chicago’s finest were nervous about responding to calls in “Da Homes.”

I got Jamal on the phone, asked if he would meet us in a half hour outside his apartment building and said that we would be happy to give him a cash advance so that he could get on the bus to take the job.  There was a brief pause when he heard this and then he emotionally said he would be downstairs and described the clothes he was wearing.  So I grabbed one of the guys in the office (without telling him where we were going) and we headed out to the projects, stopping at the bank to cash a small check and make sure I had some singles and quarters in the forty dollar advance as the CTA frowned on its riders who didn’t have exact change.

True to his word, Jamal was downstairs as we pulled up, navigating between the empty McDonald’s containers that littered the area in front of his building.  I handed him the details of the assignment, two time sheets and the forty dollars.  The Cheshire Cat had nothing by way of a grin that came over the face of this young man.

This is one of those stories that has a happy ending – well sort of.  Jamal showed up at our client on time and did a great job.  After the first week he came into our office and brought his time sheet.  He thanked everyone, starting with our receptionist, then Stephanie and me for giving him this chance.  The client apparently was very pleased with him and had told him that if he kept up the good work for the two month duration of the assignment they would make arrangements with us to hire him permanently.  Jamal was 22 years old and had never had a full time job.  And that is, in fact, what happened.

About two years went by.  Our relationship with the client grew and in a typical week we had more than thirty temps working at their corporate office.  One morning Stephanie came into my office, tears streaming down her cheeks.  I got up from my desk, fearing that something tragic had happened with one of her family members, put my arms around her and asked what was wrong.

“I just got off the phone with Vera Jackson.  (She was the lady who placed orders for temporary help for this client.)  Jamal was coming home from work on Friday and when he got to his apartment, he was killed in a drive by shooting.  Vera said that he had told her that he had nearly saved up enough to move out of the projects and into a safer neighborhood and was looking for an apartment.  If only he had found one a few weeks sooner.

I thought about Jamal yesterday as I watched the riots in Baltimore.  According to the news report, the thugs who had the accelerant and the matches burned 140 cars in one night.  They did their work in a poor neighborhood, burning down what little was there in the first place.  I thought to myself that those cars were the biggest asset their owners held, the way they got to work.

And I thought in light of this destruction, I hope these poor souls have bus fare.

Comments on: "BUS FARE" (3)

  1. There’s no question about the fact that the majority of this world’s people were not served a winning deck of cards. I’ve lived and worked in a lot of countries and had a chance to observe the way under privileged dealt with that situation. The majority are apathetic and feel that they have no recourse unless they either accept and die slowly or teach society a lesson by destroying everything they can find to destroy. I suppose anger is understandable if one is up against a system that keeps them down, but apart from Baltimore in opposite parts of the world I’ve seen people who burn the buses and trains that move them from place to place and trash the places where they at least get meagre wages and food. They then blame the government because there’s no transportation, jobs or food. So in a sense they do serious harm to themselves in their frustration. Not being a psychologist myself I find that hard to understand. But I’ve also seen those held down by religion as the lowest of low castes who’d be killed if they stepped into the higher caste part of the village. They were not satisfied with their role so moved to a safe place and somehow found things to do in spite of a hostile environment and in some cases by the time they were middle aged ended up with good jobs a comfortable life and a family. Two of those lowest of the low ended up with a PhD. My father came out of the great depression. He was dirt poor with no prospects but he fought his way up from poverty to a comfortable retirement because he was willing to do anything no matter how hard to earn his keep. What I’ve observed is that society is cruel, but it’s possible to get out of the role of the oppressed and be successful in spite of the cruel society. I think our liberal governments in the West discourage the spirit of trying and hand out money they don’t have to keep getting elected. We are repeating the classic “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and what we get in replacement will restrict freedoms we have to express our feelings and we’ll all find ourselves with an even greater social gap between the limited favoured group at the top and the great majority serving them.

  2. I thoroughly agree with your analysis and yield to your more global experience. The tragedy is that while the American system isn’t perfect, there is some discrimination based on a variety of issues – still, I seriously doubt there is a country in the world where a person has a better opportunity to make it big than here. Sadly, American blacks by and large have bought into the victim mentality, hook, line and sinker. Interestingly, blacks who come to America from Africa, I know of quite a few from Nigeria, do extremely well. They are grateful for the opportunities afforded them here – quite beyond what they might ever have received in their country of birth. Perhaps it’s a case of “familiarity breeding contempt.”

  3. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

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