pleat hooks and parent trap

I was walking through the arts-and-crafts store over the weekend, wandering down the upholstery aisle, admiring printed fabrics and wondering if I had anything that needed a facelift. I didn’t. But as I wandered, looking at all the various hardware and interesting devices, my eye fell on pleat hooks. Pleat hooks? you ask quizzically. Or maybe you know. Yes, I answer enthusiastically. Pleat hooks.

I have no need for pleat hooks, as I have never as an adult chosen drapes designed to require them. But I knew what they were, because my mother taught me how to use them. When I saw them in the craft store, I was suddenly flooded with awareness of things I know about, not because I have degrees, but because my parents told me. Because my parents had time to tell me. Mother taught me to sew and hang drapes and mend things, how to “put up” peaches and get out stains. Dad taught me how to use tools, how to tell the difference between screws and bolts, and how to choose the right washer, and how to countersink the head of a finishing nail, how to change oil and plugs and plug wires. I know about wood grain and selvage edges because Mother’s sewing cabinet and Dad’s workbench were both open for my imagination, with generally only one rule: put it back where you found it. I am thankful for that.

It was a good moment, there in the craft store. I am a generally well-rounded adult (disclosure: that is a self-assessment) with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

It came back to me later, as I was on my back under the kitchen sink, replacing the sprayer on the faucet. I thought about parents who don’t have sewing cabinets or workbenches, who don’t have time because they spend it all at multiple low-wage jobs, with little energy left for their kids when they get home, little resource for anything besides meals, maintenance and a bedtime prayer that somehow, against all odds, tomorrow will be different. Exhausted, stressed and less-healthy-than-average adults who constantly are blamed for their “failures” as parents. They are the people who make our world work, and they are the ones we continually deprive of the riches they more than others work to produce.

I’m telling you this because Nanette wrote a letter this week to the newspaper.

“All the school tax increases, social services, ‘tough on crime’ voters and ‘war on drugs’ money will not make a dent until each parent takes responsibility for his or her own children and raises them correctly.”

(And Nanette gives the impression she knows exactly what “correctly” means.) She goes on:

“It is not the government’s responsibility to feed your child breakfast, lunch and dinner… to read to your child, to stress the importance of education, respect for others, discipline and civility… to provide a stable home environment…. Get yourself up and out of bed every morning, feed your child, use decent language, turn off the TV and video games. Give them structure, routine and discipline. Pay attention to the human being you’ve created. … When each of us does what we’re supposed to do as parents, there will be more than enough room in the jails.”

Wow. Nanette has some strong opinions, and perhaps some anger. But she shows little evidence of understanding. In fact, if all “those people” were to stay in bed next week all on the same day, Nanette would be up a creek. Her life depends on them going to work despite whatever else may be compelling.

I invite her, and you, to enter into someone else’s world for a little while. To put away your presumptions and gain some perspective. Is there an epidemic of lazy, self-absorbed parents who don’t love their kids? Or is there an economic system that operates like a hamster wheel, forcing even the most well-meaning parents to run in place rather than get anywhere? (Shameless plug: UrbanSpirit will help you figure it out.)

Responding offhandedly that “no one helped me and I’m doing ok” is the least helpful approach. Even if that were true (and I’d argue that it is impossible), no one of us can paste our experience onto someone else’s life and assume it is accurate – or even relevant. Entering someone’s reality means honestly, diligently asking and hearing what the barriers are to good parenting and economically healthy households. Then, confessing our complicity in devastation — and pledging to be better neighbors, to do something to change the system.

For those who claim faith, this is really a no-brainer: nearly every faith tradition has sacred texts asserting the importance of upholding the dignity of workers and caring for the poor and vulnerable. Likely including yours.

tipping out

Did I ever mention I used to work in a bar? When I was in school, I was a busser and barback at Petticoat Junction in Austin. I mostly enjoyed the work. I met strong and beautiful women, learned to two-step, and was quite entertained by closing-time Patsy Cline impersonations when Philip, the bartender, would stand on the bar and let it loose.

Life as a barback is about washing glasses, slicing limes, making sure the liquor rack is always full; in my case, it included recording tax numbers off empty bottles to keep Texas ABC happy. The pace can be unrelenting. I was paid minimum wage, but each evening the bartenders would thank me by sharing their tips – “tipping out.” They each put 10 percent into a pile, then divided it among us who didn’t get tipped. It was rarely more than $5-8. For me, it afforded the luxury of joining the other employees for breakfast at Katz’s Deli after closing time. (“Katz’s Never Kloses.”) For others, it was bigger, a few gallons of gas in the car or making the rent.

I mention this, not because I’m feeling nostalgic, but because in Louisville, the practice of tipping out has been in the news. Servers at iconic Lynn’s Paradise Café claimed they were fired for refusing to bring large amounts of their own cash to work, cash that they said they were required to share with bussers, food runners and others. Today the news is that servers at another place, Doc Crow’s Smokehouse and Raw Bar, have filed a lawsuit claiming they were forced to share tips. For the record, Kentucky law prohibits restaurants from requiring this.

It is ironic that this issue is arising among the lowest paid workers in the country. According to a 2012 special report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, food workers face higher levels of food insecurity than the rest of the U.S. work force, and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the workforce. One in 6 Americans works somewhere in the food industry, and 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs are in direct food service.

“I earned it myself, I’m keeping it” is a myopic epidemic in America, but it hardly is about waiters. We are regularly reminded that those with wealth earned it all by themselves. Truth is, everything we do, every bit of low level work performed by the untrained or unlucky or unwealthy – or those happy enough to wash glasses and slice limes, or to order doughnuts for the next board meeting, or type, file, guard, repair, stock, sort, deliver, drive or clean – every bit of it contributes to the wealth of the wealthy.

Perhaps business owners could take a look at their own ledgers. Instead of insisting on profit-sharing among those at the economic bottom, instead of enjoying the fruits of regressive corporate tax policies or employment laws, they could engage in profit-sharing WITH those employees,.

I applaud Kentucky Jobs with Justice and the Service Workers for Justice for bringing this issue to light. There’s a lot of sharing that needs to happen; let’s not be deluded into thinking it should begin with the ones who work for tips.