Category Archives: Education

I forget sometimes

I forget sometimes that every day he goes to work in a machine that treats children like cogs.

I forget sometimes that every day he goes to work and loves children who don’t have enough to eat, who have parents who’ve been deported, who suffer the brutality of the life of the working poor.

I forget sometimes that every day he goes to work in that machine and puts his own body and soul into the gears to protect those children from being mashed and discarded, so they know that someone believes in them, so they know that someone—a white man no less— sees how brilliant they are, how much they have to contribute to this society.

I forget sometimes that he does all that for too little money, and so also shoulders the ridiculous burden of feeling like he does not provide well enough for his family.   And then he comes home to be a father and a husband.

I forget sometimes that he isn’t just “at work”—-

he’s on the front lines of one what is quite possibly the most important thing.

 

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Filed under Change, Education, love, stories

Last week, I visited the Northwest Detention Center.

On a cold, grey-sky January morning last week, I packed the diaper bag and made myself some tea with lemon and honey, since I was fighting a cold. In our bedroom, I scooped the baby warm and sweat-damp out of sleep and changed his diaper before he’d finished his waking up stretch. By the time I’d dressed him and bundled him into his carseat, his eyes had fallen closed again. I drove south from our neighborhood in south Seattle, past the sprawling concrete runways of Sea-Tac airport, to a trailer court near my husband’s school where many of his students live.

I was looking for the home of a brother and sister, one a current and one a former student of my husband’s. They and their younger brother needed a ride this morning, and I had offered to drive them. I followed a map my husband had drawn on a piece of scratch paper until I found their trailer. Their mother, a small, pretty woman with dark hair, welcomed me inside, exhorting me to come out of the cold, and I sat with the baby in an armchair near the door. Their home was cosy and dark with the heavy curtains drawn over the windows, likely to help keep out the cold. The parents’ wedding picture was framed over the television, which was tuned to a program in Spanish. The mother moved quietly around her house, finding jackets for her daughter and sons, who sat next to me and played with the baby. Their father wasn’t home. Back in early December, he’d been apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he’d been detained and awaiting deportation ever since. His wife and children hadn’t seen him in over two months. I had come to drive his children to his deportation hearing.

Their mother couldn’t take them because she’d be asked to show her papers, and she didn’t have the proper ones to show. As I sat in the armchair by the door holding the baby, an older gentleman who was a friend of the family gave the kids a brief set of instructions in English. “When you see your father, don’t talk to him. You can’t smile or wave or stand up. Just sit quietly. If you make the judge angry they could decide against your father. Do you understand?” The kids nodded.

Outside, their mother had her car warming up for me to drive. I pulled the baby’s carseat out of my car, and she installed it in her small four-door sedan with brisk efficiency. She was wearing a fleece jacket and a black skirt, and thick pink socks over her tights. I imagined her getting out of bed early while the house was still cold, dressing in an extra layer and turning on the heat. I wondered if she made herself tea or coffee and sat with her hands wrapped around the mug in the quiet, thinking about her husband, before waking up the kids and making their breakfast. I thought about how once you have children, feeling sorry for yourself is a luxury you don’t really have time for. I thought about her daughter, who’d been one of my husband’s students in his first year of teaching at this school. Exceptionally well-behaved and kind, perfectly bilingual, insightful, thoughtful, and intelligent far beyond her grade level, she’s a critical thinker, acutely aware of the systems that surround her. At the age of nine, she and another student staged a day of silence to protest injustice after learning about Mahatma Gandhi in fourth grade. She made such an impression on me I named the heroine of a children’s story I wrote after her. I wondered how much of her and her brothers’ comportment was the result of having had such a stable home life up to this point.

The kids climbed into the car and buckled their seatbelts, and we got onto the freeway heading south. The oldest, the girl, sat next to me in the front. Her brothers sat quietly in the back, the older one focused on entertaining my son in his carseat. I tried to make conversation, but none of us had much to say. We passed the Federal Way waterslide park in the rain, and I asked them if they’d ever been. The daughter brightened. “No, but a friend of my parents said maybe they’d take us this summer.” We lapsed back into silence. I followed the family friend’s car off the freeway just north of Tacoma, and we made our way through the industrial section of the city to the Northwest Detention Center. It’s what’s known as a “Contract Detention Facility,” which means that a private corporation is getting paid for each person detained here.

(Image by Alex Stonehill, from http://www.prx.org/pieces/52448-expanding-the-northwest-detention-center)

The Northwest Detention Center is a dismal-looking place. Razor wire spirals around the fencetops, and there is no visitor parking. A few spaces are provided for lawyers’ and employees’ cars, but those who are here to visit the incarcerated have to park on the street. There were lots of people there that morning, and I had trouble finding a spot. After I’d carefully tucked the car in a space near some sort of shipping yard and unloaded the kids and the baby, a man in a hard hat came outside to yell that he was going to tow my car. I gave the baby to the eldest girl to hold and moved the car to a spot in a nearby alley.

The family friend led us across the railroad tracks and inside, past the line of waiting families. He had been here before, and knew that we could bypass the line since we were here for a court date. A brusque official signed us in and ordered us to leave our coats and bags and cell phones in a locker. I was informed I could take only “one diaper, one wipe” for the baby. As we stowed our things in the locker and shepherded the kids through the metal detector, I heard this instruction barked at subsequent mothers waiting in line. “One diaper, one wipe!” “One diaper, one wipe!” I crossed my fingers the baby didn’t have anything in the works that couldn’t be handled with these minimal supplies.

We were buzzed from the waiting room into a hallway, where the kids found their dad’s name amidst three or four dozen other names on a court roster, taped to the white cinderblock wall. A security guard told us there would be a long wait. We took our seats. There wasn’t much to look at. Lawyers passed through occasionally, checking in at a glassed in desk. A portrait of Barack Obama in front of the American flag hung on the wall opposite us. The family friend made brief conversation, asking me about the baby, and telling me that his kids were grown, and that he worked the night shift last night and had not yet slept. The kids kicked their feet restlessly. I thought about playing “I spy” with them, but gave up on the idea since there wasn’t much to spy. In the hopes of staving off a courtroom meltdown, I turned toward the wall and breastfed my son under my sweater.

A mother who looked to be about eighteen came in with her baby, another woman, and two children. The baby bumped his head while playing on the floor and began to wail, and the young mother scooped him up and pressed his forehead to her lips, whispering words of comfort to him as she rose to bounce him in her arms. She did so with practiced efficiency, moving around the room until he fell asleep, and I felt a physical kinship to her, having done the same thing many times before.

About thirty minutes later, we were escorted by a guard into another hallway. We sat together on a long wooden bench and waited some more. Dozens of men in blue or orange prison jumpsuits were escorted in and out of the three courtroom doors while we waited. I watched the kids out of the corner of my eye, and wondered what it felt like for them to know they were going to see their father dressed as a prisoner. I wondered if they were reminding themselves of their instructions, not to smile or wave or speak to the father they hadn’t seen in over two months.

After another twenty minutes of waiting, the guard led us into the small courtroom. The detainees sat on the left side of the room, their families on the right. A Spanish-language interpreter sat at a desk before the judge, and a lawyer representing the federal government sat at another desk. In the center of the room, there was a third table with a microphone and a pair of headphones. We stood as the judge entered. She apologized for the delay, then proceeded briskly to the matter at hand. It took her approximately seven minutes to hear each case. Each detainee put on the headphones to hear the judge’s comments translated into Spanish.

Some of the men were in court for bond hearings, while others were being considered for deportation. To each of the potential deportees, the judge put the same set of questions. “Are you aware of your right to be represented by a lawyer?” If they did not have one present, (and only one of twelve did), she asked “Do you waive that right?” Most answered “si.” Through her questions, small details about these men emerged. Most had American-born children. Most were in their mid-twenties, and had been apprehended for traffic violations. Most were from Mexico. Several admitted to being afraid to return to their countries of origin, citing “the violence in Mexico” or “the violence in Guatemala.” Their answers seemed to matter little, and the judge authorized the deportation of nearly every one of the men.

The childrens’ father was the second-to-last to go before the judge. He looked down at the floor when he walked past his kids. My stomach tightened when I realized there was no lawyer present for him. His three children obeyed the instructions they’d been given, and sat still as he walked past them and put on the headphones. As it turned out, he was actually here for a bond hearing, and he did have a lawyer, who the judge called and put on speakerphone. The connection was poor and it was difficult to understand the conversation. It turned out that because their father had already begun the process of appealing his deportation, this particular judge lacked the jurisdictional authority to grant him a bond, and his entire hearing ended up being nothing more than a bureaucratic shuffle. As he walked back to his seat, the guard asked the children, the family friend and I to leave, and the kids’ father flashed them the smallest and briefest of smiles.

We were buzzed through the two secured doors, and passed single file through the metal detector to reclaim our coats and the diaper bag. Outside, we stood beneath razor wire in the rain, and I asked the kids if they understood what had happened. The eldest daughter said yes, and I did my best to explain it to her brothers and the family friend, who confessed he was confused over the outcome. I told him that while nothing had really happened, it seemed that we should feel good, because he wasn’t under immediate threat of deportation, and there would probably be another hearing soon. He said he would be there for it, and I said I would bring the kids back again. “Well, I’ll see you then,” he said, with a small tired smile. “It’s a good thing you’re doing,” he offered as I began to shepherd the kids off the sidewalk. “De nada,” I told him, placing my hand over my heart.

A half an hour later, I pulled up in front of the family’s trailer. The oldest two children asked if they could go back to school for the rest of the school day, and their mother and I raised our eyebrows at each other and smiled. She thanked me, and I told her “de nada” like I’d told the family friend, placing my hands over my heart. I offered to give her son and daughter a ride to school, and they clambered into the car with their backpacks.

When I said “de nada,” I did not mean I thought it was nothing.
I meant its the least I can do.
But mi español es muy malo.

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Filed under Americana, basic goodness, community, culture.society.anthropology., Education, Family, fathoming, History, Homeland, love, migration, motherhood, Ordinary, politrix, stories, violence, winter

"All good comes to them that waitress."

I wait tables for a living.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a whole pile of black aprons, rolled in cylinders and tied with their own strings.
When I unroll one before a shift, I fill the pockets with ballpoint pens, a soft-shelled order book I’ve been using for six years (in its pockets: snapshots of Ryan and Assata and my liquor and food handlers permits), and a stack of coasters. Used to throw in a wine-key too, but I mostly serve beers these days.

Also in my pocket: an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree. (Yes, I keep the degrees in my metaphorical pocket). When customers get chatty and want to know what I went to college for, I tell them American Studies. I let them consider that for a moment, then deliver my punchline. “Which is why I’ll be your waitress tonight.”

They love that one.

I first put on an apron the summer I turned 19. Fresh from my first year at Evergreen State College, I showed up at Crater Lake National Park for a summer job in the gift shop a few hours after a server had quit in the dining room. That night, I was wearing my first apron and shadowing a server in the midst of a terrifying fine-dining dinner rush. I learned the ropes quickly enough and spent the summer as a Breakfast/Lunch server. I walked to work from the employee dorms at 5:30 every morning, along the rim of the volcanic crater as the sun rose over the 6-mile wide lake, a view I was lucky enough to enjoy all morning through the dining room windows. I spent my off-hours backpacking with dear friends, sitting around campfires, soaking in hotsprings, driving hours off-mountain to buy beer and swim in nearby lakes.

Weirdly enough, given that I’d always defined myself by my academic success, I began to take pride in my new identity: a Decent Waitress vagabond-type who was most at home in the mountains and on the road. I took it back to college that fall, and lived off the tips I’d made that summer for the academic year. The following June, Crater Lake alum Erin and I struck out for Mt. Rainier National Park, where fellow Paradise Lodge Dining Room servers quickly pigeonholed us as the “hippie waitresses.” We did two summers slinging food on the mountain, got ourselves written up a few times for insubordinance, began to shy away from the hippie label (it is ahistorical after all), embarked on a few wild early-20s adventures, and finished our respective BA degrees.

Eyeing the job market, we dug out our aprons again.
Erin waited her way from Eugene to Philly to the Oregon Coast. I schlepped my basket of aprons around the PNW, slinging Thai, Italian, and Mediterranean food. Eyed the GRE and a stack of graduate school applications uneasily for a few years, then finally dove in and scored a 2-year fellowship to study history at Utah State University.

As I neared the completion of my degree, I realized I’d had enough of academia, for the time being, and opted not to apply to PhD programs. I returned to the northwest, found a dear old house in a hilltop neighborhood with Ryan, who still had a year of graduate school in front of him, and pulled out my aprons again. Logged many hours as a cocktail waitress in a bar with some good beers and some good people and some wretched drunks. Made enough money to keep us above the water, help finance a month for us to backpack around Guatemala, and see us through the following summer. At which time: I gave notice without regrets, and we set out on a month-long road trip around the western states.

Returning to Seattle that fall, Ryan offered to support us financially for a year, so I could finish overhauling and expanding my master’s thesis into a book-length manuscript. When money became too tight in the spring, I found a waitressing job in a matter of days, at a solid local establishment with good product, a conscientious business model, and a stellar crew. I walk to work; I clear 20 to 50 dollars an hour, depending on business, I have a highly flexible schedule, and plenty of time to write (if I practice some discipline).

I’ve met some of my dearest friends via “the business.” One of them, Chrysta, would eventually introduce me to Ryan. A vivacious and extraordinary clothing and fashion designer, she’s been supporting her art with her aprons for years; while she’s very close to putting the aprons away for good, as Erin has, she embodies a reality I’ve encountered time and again in the restaurant industry. Your server isn’t “just a waiter”—there’s an excellent chance he’s an accomplished painter [T.S. Pew], a singular musician [Michael, Ebon!], or she’s a stunning photographer [Gretchen], or writer or gifted journalist [Erin]. Sara waited her way into the Art Institute: now she’s an associate at a successful Seattle design firm. Your server may well be a mom supporting her children, or a traveler who’s served food in 6 countries and 22 states who’d just as soon see the sun set over a new landscape a few times a year.

Servers witness moments most people miss. 5 years ago, I walked up to a table set for two where a single, middle-aged woman was sitting. There was an envelope on both plates, and a bouquet wrapped in paper in the center of the table. “Is it a special night?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “its my anniversary.” I asked her if I could bring her a glass of wine while she waited for her husband to arrive. She told me she would take the wine, but that he wouldn’t be coming; he’d died the week before, and she was honoring the reservation they had made. I remember every detail. The almost undetectable quiver in her voice. The two glasses of Ravenswood Red Zinfandel. The corner table she sat at, facing the door. The Blackened Salmon Caeser. I told the chef her story, and he comped her meal. When I told her there was no bill, she clasped my hands in hers, with tears in her eyes, and said “God Bless you.” She couldn’t have been more than 45. They had two daughters, she told me.

One woman took an interest in my background as I waited on her, and when I told her quietly I was quitting soon to go back to school, she tucked a fifty into my hand. When I cleared the table, there was a note scrawled on a napkin. “enjoy your new life.”

I’ve reached through raw, painful marital disputes to refill water glasses, and seen parents smack and shake their children when they thought no one was looking. I overheard a tiny woman wearing too many diamonds tell her friends that her husband upped her allowance five thousand dollars that month, since she’d dropped her weight to 115 pounds. I’ve watched teenage girls excuse themselves to the bathroom for longer than necessary and return to the table furtively wiping their mouths. I’ve scanned the faces of their parents for some sign of concern, and found none. I’ve heard rednecks joke about someone killing Obama while clearing their plates, and been groped by business-types while my hands were full of empty glassware.
I’ve walked home after a 5 hour shift with enough cash for the carpayment, wrangled weeks off in mere moments, and served hundreds of birthday desserts and thousands of really lovely meals.

Its a mixed bag. And while I am striving to create a career for myself based on writing, rather than serving, I do not regret a moment of my ongoing overeducated waitressing career.

Last winter, an exceptional journalist named Kathy Helms passed along a gem that someone passed on to her years ago.

“All good comes to them that waitress”

I’ve tucked it into that metaphorical pocket along with those college degrees.
So much good has already come my way, and the horizon is filled with unfolding stories.

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Filed under aprons, artists, Crater Lake, designers, Education, Mt. Rainier National Park, musicians, photographers, Waitress