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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Behold the Dreamers, and Behold, Those Hot Dogs!


Its regurgitation in newspapers of record and blogs of repute would be another reminder why the American society as a whole could never call itself highbrow, why its easy availability of stories on the private lives of others was turning adults, who would otherwise be enriching their minds with worthwhile knowledge, into juveniles who needed the satisfaction of knowing that others were more pathetic than them. - Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue

Before entering the secure and not lucrative world of public service, I spent the first ten years or so of my career working for a private consulting firm. It was a good place to start and I did crazy fun stuff in some pretty amazing places. I worked in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada (more or less in order of how exciting those locales were). I flew in helicopters and stayed in a fishing lodge once where we were served prime rib and fresh dungeness crab once a week.

A view of a hawk's nest from a helicopter



The hawk baby's view, maybe?

When things were going hot in the American economy, I was hopping and things were looking pretty great. For someone who was willing to try anything, it was as good a place to get a career start as I can imagine. I got my fingers into every plum the environmental permitting world had to offer, skipping through baking hot oil fields, collecting overtime and saying, "what a good boy am I."

Pictured: A good good boy

On one job I would do burrowing owl surveys in the morning, starting around 4:30 AM. Then I'd survey for cactus for 10 hours. Then I'd finish with an evening of burrowing owl surveys. Another job saw me doing owl surveys all night and then a breeding bird survey at sunrise before trying to sleep the day away in a too-hot cabin surrounded by enormous ponderosa pine trees and noisy California quails. 

I accrued enough frequent flyer miles and free hotel visits to take my family to Oregon to visit my sister, and we stayed in the nicest hotels I'd ever seen. I grew up either camping in KOAs or going from Motel 6's to Motel 8's and sleeping on a roll-away bed that was too short for me, and I knew at the time that this gravy train would someday stop, and that my kids would be ruined forever by good hotels and top-notch complimentary breakfasts. But I didn't care.

"Our people say no condition is permanent... Good times must come to an end, just like bad times, whether we want it or not."

That's where I was when the sub-prime crisis hit. And for a while, I weathered it. It almost looked like I'd get through it without a scratch. I graduated with "just" a bachelor's degree and had a job in my field pretty much on day one. A couple of years later, I was helping review resumes for a temporary field tech job that I had been doing while I was still a college student, and was a little humbled by the quality of the candidates. This was for a job that literally consisted of walking back and forth and looking at the ground. The year before we'd been hiring river guides and snowboard instructors and now I was looking at resumes from people with PhD's who had owned their own companies. 

I was looking like a genius and eating crab in Alaska while the folks who went on to grad school when I hit the workforce were trying to get jobs that I'd had when I was a junior in college, and they weren't even getting those. Things were getting a little tighter, sure. It used to be there was always work in the oil fields when my day-to-day office work was getting old, but that dried up. That was fine, though, because the hotels there were gross and wind farms were where the fun work was anyway.

But then the wind farm subsidy went away. And a project we'd won that was supposed to keep us busy for the next ten years dried up. And then things got scary. Like best-friend cats who turn on each other when they can see the bottom of their food bowl, we started getting a little punchy among co-workers. When one's ability to pay their mortgage hinged on whether they were put on a project or not, we became hyper-aware of who was busy and who wasn't, and came up with all sorts of nefarious reasons.

Decision-makers who were overworked would still hoard their projects in fear of finishing too early and working themselves out of a job. Clients started paying very close attention to every line of the contracts and started asking that experienced biologists get pulled because their billing rates were too high, or refused to pay for travel, instead asking that we hire local temporary workers instead of keeping full-time employees busy. 

Full-time employees started resenting temporary employees, and established staff started resenting the new, cheaper folks. There was a bit of we-were-here-first attitude. And also some main-office-employees-should-get-work-before-satellite-offices murmurings (I first wrote "murmurations," but when I looked it up found that it only applies to a flock of starlings, which is awesome). It wasn't the new people's fault that they lived closer to the projects, and they needed work, too. 

At the end I was working about 24 hours every two weeks with a few hours of office work here and there in between and we were going to lose our house. It was really close, you guys. I was sending out 4-5 resumes a week without a single interview. I was super lucky to find a job in time. It certainly didn't get easier overnight, and things are tight still, but also infinitely better.

Last day of work smile
In America today, having documents is not enough. Look at how many people with papers are struggling. Look at how even some Americans are suffering. They were born in this country. They have American passports, and yet they are sleeping on the street, going to bed hungry, losing their jobs and houses every day in this…this economic crisis.
There's a PTSD that sets in after something like this, and a lot of us have it. Not too long ago I sat down with my grandpa while he was interviewed about growing up during the Great Depression. He lived in a boxcar and they were lucky to have it. Like a lot of grandparents of kids of my generation, I would sometimes laugh at him. He had a great job and a wonderful retirement and hasn't had to worry about money for decades, yet he still relentlessly scoured the swap meet for brass antiques, which he would turn around and sell by the pound for a minor profit to a guy who would melt it down.

"If God cuts off your fingers, He will teach you how to eat with your toes."

The Great Recession left me with milder scars. I don't rinse off aluminum foil to reuse it yet. But it messed me up a little. I still don't want to buy a house, because I don't want to have to sell a house. I worry about losing my job. I worry about my wife losing her job. I see coworkers sometimes as trying to undermine me. I worry that I'll be replaced. I blame other people for my problems even when I know that I lost work at my old job because I didn't do good enough work the first time.   

Imagine that on a nationwide scale and you can start to see where some of the political unrest we're dealing with comes from. When there was a lot of work at my consulting job, we loved each other. We loved the revolving cast of seasonal employees we met (except for the gross ones), and there was always more work and hours to go around than people to fill them. I loved mentoring new people and finding them opportunities. There were some paranoid people even then who didn't like to share, but it was pretty apparent how wrong they were. We needed to train up the people who would replace us before we went on to run the world.

I rebounded OK, and even though things are tight and sometimes we have to figure out how to feed a family of five with a combination of leftovers and our last $5. We are still eating. That's not the case for a lot of people. And for whatever reason, whether it's their fault or not, they want to blame someone. It's wrong and it's gross and I hope that we can all accept this while simultaneously recognizing that wrong or not, that blame usually ends up with immigrants.

We love the immigrant story when things are going gangbusters. Anyone not named Mike Pence who can afford to see Hamilton sings gleefully along (hopefully in their heads, because you guys) at the phrase "Immigrants, we get the job done." That's pretty easy. It's tougher to root for someone who has way fewer advantages than you but seems (from the outside) to be doing better. Why should they have a job when I don't, you may find yourself saying. They shouldn't even be here.

It's like being angry that someone is getting that sweet 1.50 hot dog and soda combo at Costco and you know they don't have a membership. There's nothing that makes Americans angrier than someone who looks like they are flaunting the rules and having a great time doing it. We assume the worst, because that's the narrative that makes us feel the best. You see someone parking crappy or speeding by themselves in the carpool lane and you wish you were driving the Condormobile with lasers and rear-mounted flamethrowers. When you or I park crappy or speed, it's always, always for a good reason though.

Here's the thing about all of that stuff: I've never seen Costco run out of hot dogs. And there are almost always more parking spots. I was near apoplectic when I found out that I couldn't get an SNES Classic preorder because scalpers were using a bot. I couldn't believe the unfairness. They weren't following the rules and were getting rewarded for it. But when I got an email a little later saying that a few more preorders opened up and I managed to snag one, suddenly I was pretty zen about it. Like, I was still mad because other folks weren't getting one and my heart hurt for them, but I wasn't that sad.

Even when they are following the rules, sometimes we find reasons for resentment. In Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers, Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant trying to get a green card via asylum laws. He's in New York legally with a work visa, but it's set to expire. He works as a cab driver while sharing an apartment with four other immigrants until he saves enough money for a tiny, cockroach ridden apartment and can bring his wife and child over, his wife on a student visa. In other words, they've done everything right so far. But this American Dream is like the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's very aesthetically pleasing, but look at the bones.



Jende gets a job as a driver for the family of a big time Wall Street executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende is making four times what he was as a cab driver, and the work is easy. Pleasant, even. The Edwards live in a perfect penthouse apartment and have a mansion in the Hamptons. As first Jende and then his wife Neni get to know the family, they see cracks in the perfect facade. They begin to see how precarious their livelihood is, and how the whims of these rich white people who they love but also fear can mean an end to their American Dream.

The year is 2008. There are bad days on the horizon for Wall Street executives and their drivers.
My advice to someone like you is to always stay close to the gray area and keep yourself and your family safe. Stay away from any place where you can run into police-that's the advice I give to you and to all young black men in this country. The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh.
Like Jende and Neni, Mbue is from Limbe, Cameroon. There visitors are welcomed with a sign that says, "Welcome to Limbe Municipality, the Town of Friendship." In New York City, the message is mixed. Today, immigrants are an easy scapegoat for unemployment in the United States, but we also hear that in two California counties, $13 million worth of crops rotted in fields due to a labor shortage. Even when farmers offered salaries above minimum wage and a 401k plan, Americans weren't willing to do the job that migrant workers did before immigration crackdowns made it too difficult. In my own work, we're facing abnormally high prices for habitat restoration work for the same reason. Costco is not running out of hot dogs, you guys. We just don't like hot dogs enough.

I don't know if that metaphor works but man, those hot dogs are too big for one person to eat. That's my main point.
People in this country, always worrying about how to eat, they pay someone good money to tell them: Eat this, don’t eat that. If you don’t know how to eat, what else can you know how to do in this world?