Friday, June 13, 2014

Just to keep up

June 23, 1980

My uncle Ted can’t be convinced of anything, he doesn’t already believe.
This is the youngest of five brothers and the one closest to me in age – and yet, we stand on different sides of a generational gap neither of us can or is willing to cross.
We each live by a different set of rules, his rules violating many of those things I believe in. He’s more conservative than even his father was, and yesterday, when I visited him, we argued over the right of a business owner – especially a small businessman – to fire an employee who gives two weeks notice.
He seems to have an adding machine in his head, calculating value of money over human value.
He and his brother, Harry, are very similar in that way, although Harry, older by about seven years, still has some measure of blue collar left, and respect for the little man.
I guess why these two brothers bicker so much and could not remain partners for long after grandpa died.
Ted was born in the middle of war, but aches for a post war success story he’s never been able to achieve. He often talks of Alice’s husband’s success on Wall Street as if it should have been him, and perhaps Ted was destined for a similar career when the draft grabbed him and sent him to Vietnam.
He worked at Pep Boys auto supply after high school and attended community college at night studying business.
Grandpa’s death brought him home, but saddled him with a small boat business and a way of life he hadn’t imagined for himself.
He learned capitalism the hard way, by needing to keep costs down. A great man with a great heart, he doesn’t see the need for government imposed social justice, while I do.
He might envy rich men, but he would not impose burdens on them, seeing their lofty salaries as just rewards for coming up with new ideas.
I think of him here at Two Guys when I hear the workers here complaining about how little they make.
“I just need a little more just to keep up,” Brenda tells me. “A quarter an hour more would do.”
And when the raises come, she might get it, but we all know the suit and tie men will get a lot more.
“Some people make hundreds of dollars an hour,” Bobby, the clerk, says, but he’s like Ted and envies them, and even admires them, and wonders just how he can become like them.
Each of them looks ahead to a time when they might “make it,” although I suspect that freedom as we all define it, is mostly for those who can afford it, and for the rest a mere illusion inspired by hope.
My other uncle Ritchie doesn’t believe a working man can make it rich regardless of how hard he works. But he distrusts the government as much as Ted or Harry, and lives in constant fear because he cheats on taxes. He also doesn’t trust banks and so keeps most of the cash he gets in big strong boxes he hides in other family members houses – this fact got me in trouble when I was younger when I stole money I thought was his and it turned out to be money Harry was holding for the mob. Fortunately, my uncles pooled enough to pay off the mob to keep the mob from coming after me, telling the police I stole their money instead.
Luck has more to do with getting wealth, or greed. Poor people tend to stay poor, and rich people tend to get richer. The system is designed that way, and unless you’re crazy enough to do what I did and steal it, or find some other way to get around the rules, you stay where you are – begging bosses for a quarter more an hour – just to keep up.

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