Isabelle spent her childhood and early youth in one of those tiny towns that exist throughout the Appalachia. For the moment she resides in Ithaca, NY and pre-covid spent most of her time and energy working as a bartender. Currently she is anxiously unemployed, rested and finally has some time to write.
I like to show without telling and write what I know.
it was the wheelbarrow
grasping wooden rungs everyday
movement of rock
hands that tore earth apart
earth that tore hands apart
cracking of skin releasing the faint lava of blood below
clutching for your hand
revealed the softness of my own
I started working for a catering company servicing the greater Pittsburgh area when I was fourteen. It was family owned and operated--a small business with a widespread, positive reputation. I’d work private home parties for Birthdays and Bat Mitzvahs, celebrations for “You Turned One!” and wakes for You Just Died. By the time I was sixteen I had attended more weddings than I ever imagined and carried more milk crates of porcelain dishes than I cared to know existed. By seventeen, grown men in tuxedos had slapped my ass while slipping me a hundred dollar bill as a show of appreciation for good work. Grown women in gowns had tried to hand their children off to me (in one case a newborn) and at my hesitance exclaimed, “Well! Aren’t you supposed to be the help!?”
I was paid under the table, off the books, by hours I wrote down in pencil. We’d leave shop in grease stained t-shirts with gas station snacks and a carton of smokes. Upon arrival we’d have to ensure our clients that we would be changed into uniform (black pants, black leather shoes, pressed white collar shirt and pinstripe apron) well before any guest arrived. I never thought anything of this anxiety---the brief moment in which every client needed assurance that we would not be seen in our street clothes snackin’ on friotos. But I think they needed those white collars and pinstripes as assurance their invited guests would not mistake us for anything other than the hired help.
As a child worker, it took me a long time to understand that this small business had been performing well outside of its means for years. We’d bring cascading hors d’oeuvres of imported cheeses and cured meats in an attempt to keep up with the corporate companies that had undercut us from our well paying showroom gigs. On more than one occasion I saw Chef trade slices of cheese, leftover filet mignon, bottles of past-prime champagne, french wines...anything he could to hold off a purveyor from bringing in a lawyer or debt collection agency.
At some gigs there could be 15 people working but only three on the books. An easy way to skirt around minimum wage, and given any one shift could last 14 hours, labor laws such as breaks and meals--ironic considering we were serving our elite clients far more than they could ever eat. I once drove a Uhaul carrying $15,000 dollars worth of food to a wedding without a license because the general manager was on a 70 hour work week and needed some extra sleep before the job. A blip in the history of worker violations.
When the company finally closed its doors, I was owed over 90 hours of pay. I sent emails, left voicemails, physically showed up to the office, all while feeling as though I was doing something wrong by demanding the payment for my labor. I felt like I was asking this family to give me their bread instead of letting them take it home to feed their own. Eventually, they stopped answering and I stopped calling.
I cannot think about the American identity without thinking about wealth. Who has it and who doesn’t? What do the wealthy look like? What do the poor look like? Why?
When I was a kid I thought wealth was an inground pool in your backyard, or owning a catering company, or wearing a tuxedo to your wedding. I thought it was parents who were always working or a new binder from K-Mart to start middle school. I thought it was zucchini casseroles and one working car. Wealth was making just a little too much income for food stamps. It was being able to buy a few scratch offs for a birthday card. Wealth was almost always white.
As an adult, I’m finding that I still don’t know what wealth is. I’m told it looks like Jeff Bezos but I cannot understand what 186 billion dollars is when I’m thrilled to receive $1,200 to live on for 6 months during a pandemic. How am I supposed to understand what 1% means when 99% of us are busy fighting for scraps? What is the worth of my labor, when even with a label like “essential” I am still not eligible for basic human rights?
I can no longer write love poems to callused hands in a world where there is no love for the working. I’m done romanticizing poverty because there is nothing romantic about being uninsured, in debt, on the brink of eviction, hungry, unsanitary, and tired every single day. I’m done trying to pull myself up by the bootstrap when I was born without a boot. I’m done being angry at old chefs who took advantage of my child labor because they too had no boots. And if being American means to work until we die, then I’m done with that too. I want soft hands.