A Privilege of Class
I happened to read two different obituary notices recently that got me thinking about the Shelter and people experiencing homelessness.
Richard Spinney (Dick, to us) spent some years with us on Main Street as a volunteer. With a sense of humor drier than a martini, Dick came up with stuff that was distinct and all his own. In the early months of getting to know him I’d find myself worried about how he might come across to others, especially elderly female volunteers or women who happened to come by to drop off a donation.
Example: When we’d play cards at the counter (cribbage, but spades especially) and things weren’t going his way, he’d magnify his very real frustration and turn it into a highly dramatic display. Then he’d say something like, “I wish there was a sniper across the street! I’d go to the doorway right now!” If a better mood struck him he might say, “I wish I was you so I could see me coming.” The elderly women? They loved Dick!
Dick had had a hard life before he ended up volunteering here at 263. While solidly embracing his form of recovery, he had daily struggles with anger and shame and thoughts of what might have been had he made different choices. He was also living with chronic pain and the creeping loss of his sight and his hearing. I think what he did here was admirable.
I read the other obit in my college alumni magazine. It stated that Oren Shiro had died several months earlier. Oren, along with his brothers Burton and Ted, had a well-earned reputation in Waterville. All were bright and went to good colleges, and all were sports stars, especially with basketball. Oren was club champ at the Waterville Country Club many times. But I knew Oren in a different setting.
One of the things I did during college was wait tables. Oren owned and managed a restaurant named The Jefferson. I’m guessing that it was his parents who established the business, but that is a guess. His mother (Ma Shiro) spent some time in the kitchen. I remember her pulling out a small, wooden step stool so she could get up to and open the lid and check the big urn of coffee that was always on. She told me that the secret to good coffee was a little salt in the grounds, to reduce the oiliness. I still put a pinch of salt in the coffee I brew.
The “Jeff” is where I learned to be a waiter. Oren was always around, sometimes in the kitchen but more frequently in the dining room (there were several) or the entry foyer. He loved chatting it up with his customers, and he harped about customer service, especially when it came to regulars.
One Thursday night (Thursdays were always the best tips), a regular, a businessman, was seated in his usual booth, a booth in my station. After I brought him his gimlet I offered to take his order. He said he wanted the Blue Ribbon Sirloin rare, a baked potato with butter and sour cream, and a house salad with Roquefort dressing. He knew that the Roquefort cost extra.
So a little while later I was in the kitchen, getting ready to time stuff so I’d be good to go when my steak was “order up.” I had retrieved a salad from the chiller and added a couple of tomato slices to the meager ones that were there, and then I had an inspiration—instead of one of the puny containers we used for salad dressings on the side, I’d show this regular, this man who always drank martinis and gimlets, who always had red meat and never ordered vegetables or dessert but who had black coffee and a cigarette after his meal, I’d show him real service! I decided to fill a pewter cream container with Roquefort dressing!
Salad and dressing on the tray, my steak came up and I put it on my tray and tray to shoulder, ready to push through the wooden dining room swinging door, when a paw clamped down on my left shoulder and a pissed off Oren Shiro spun me around. “Just where do you think you’re going with all that Roquefort, boy?!!” I reacted without thinking and tossed the Roquefort on his shirt and the front of his suit jacket, turned on my heel and went through the dining room and out of the restaurant for the last time. This wasn’t the first time I’d been yelled at by him, but it was the last. And it wasn’t the yelling—it was the arrogant, demeaning vocabulary and tone.
What’s the point? People who work in places like homeless shelters see a procession of poor, hurting, beat up and beat down people. I think it was Trotsky who termed folks like these the “lumpen proletariat.” We at BAHS are always “on” everyone we think capable of work to go find a job. A lot of the jobs are tasks like road flagging or shoveling snow, or working at fast food businesses. So I picture one of these young men, alone and hurting and desperate, getting one of these jobs and then being treated similarly by the boss. I cannot picture him doing what I did. It’s a lot harder to stand up when you’ve got nothing to stand on.
I was able leave the Jeff, angry (and a little afraid), and climb on my motorcycle and go on to what would be next, and I had options, a bunch of them. It’s a privilege of class. The people who end up having to go to a homeless shelter are out of options.
I don’t want to tolerate others being mistreated through abuse of power, including political power. We should be working together to make sure that people give and get respect, regardless of social position.