I was standing in what felt like 3 inches of water, but in truth I couldn’t tell where the sweat running down my legs actually met the water on the floor. This was my first job after leaving the U.S. Navy. Washing dishes at the long since closed Chart House restaurant in the Condado section of San Juan, PR. Long hot hours washing dishes, covered in soap and other people’s food. Yes, it was gross. And every night I would leave work with 5 dollars or less in ‘tips’ from the waiters who never wanted to give tips to the dishwashers; smelling like old butter, soap and perspiration.
The job sucked. I made $3.35 cents an hour. I paid my bills and survived.
In Arizona I earned $2.01 cents an hour as a bus boy. I paid my rent and survived. The job sucked. Over the years I worked in many restaurant jobs, waiter, bartender, cook, host; but I also worked in sales, door to door, telephone marketing and construction.
It was construction work that was the most difficult in more ways than one. I was an unskilled worker, employed by a Canadian company at 5 dollars an hour, which was contracted to build the water slides at the also now closed Plaza Aquatica in Hato Rey, right across from Plaza Las Americas. Early summer in blazing heat, covered in dust and dirt and probably sweating a gallon or more a day. One day I was so hot, as I was drilling pilot holes into molds; I decided it would be a great idea to take off my shirt and worked the afternoon without it.
The next morning I realized my mistake as I woke up with second degree burns and blisters all over my back. Sunburn pain, like I never have felt before or since. I never went shirtless in the heat again. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part of it was getting on the bus at the end of the day. In those days I didn’t have a car, so I had to take the bus to and from work. In the late afternoon as late returning school kids, secretaries and nurses and others stuck on the city bus I would step on covered in mud and sweat.
It was the stares. The ugly stares. The disgusted stars and the way people would look away from me and sometimes even move away from me if I sat near them. I was working to save money to move to Arizona to live with some friends and chase a music dream. Needed the work needed the money; so I did what I had to do. What I could never understand is why so many people who claim to care about the working class, look down on the working class when they see them.
Those people who ‘work’ in Puerto Rico always seemed to be the lawyers, doctors and dentists. Those people who ‘sweat’ were of no value at all.
Along the way I searched for the right thing to do as a ‘career.’ I was a musician of course and my plan was to be Jon Bon Jovi. Turns out, that job was already taken. So I played a few bars, sang some songs and went nowhere musically. Along the way I realized I was tired of doing the tough and dirty work and would really like a job where I could actually get a paid vacation.
I decided college was not for me for a number of reasons although I enjoyed learning, I hated the structure and spent most of my time trying to feed and house myself. So I happened across a technical or vocational school for radio broadcasting. I loved music, so the idea of being a DJ at a radio station, even though the pay would suck; it would be better than construction.
So I went to the school and forgot another thing I loved: news and politics. While taking the course I was repeatedly told how good I was at news and talk formats and it didn’t take long for me to agree. After working short periods in TV and radio as a DJ, I went back to bartending and accidentally landed a job as a radio news reporter (and later talk show host) at San Juan Radio Station WOSO.
I’ve always considered my 5 years at WOSO to have been my ‘college’ years as I learned so much. Researching the news at a business and community oriented radio station that was not interested in counting bullet holes or chasing famous skirts in a major market was a perfect learning experience. I learned more in those 5 years about business, economics, law, politics, and partisanship than at any other time in my life.
Seeing close up (the studios were right across from the capitol building) what didn’t work went a long way to shaping how I see the world and how I see solutions for the issues confronting Puerto Rico. After that I worked at the capitol building as a Special Aid working on Federal Affairs for the President of the Senate. I later went on to do documentary work in public broadcasting and a short stint at a broken radio station in south (VERY south) Alabama.
During my time in the Senate there was an accident on Vieques Island and I was part of the staff team that participated in the investigation. Now this is sort of where I went full circle. I was hired by the U.S. Navy to be the Public Affairs Officer for Roosevelt Roads during the Vieques protests. I stayed in Public Affairs (later with the Army) until I retired a few years ago.
My story has purpose
Here I was a brown guy with no college degree, who somehow went from washing dishes to serving in the Senate (even helping to write and review legislation) to being the spokesperson for the largest U.S. Naval Station in the world. I did not attempt to live on minimum wage, but for a while there I had to. I was not ashamed of working in dirty jobs, although they were not my favorite. I was ashamed of how people treated me then.
I tell people today, especially in Puerto Rico to never, EVER be ashamed of an honest day’s labor no matter what others think. I also tell them that hard work at low level jobs does not have to be their ultimate destination.
We have lost our integrity as a society. So many drug dealers and criminals get respect on the street; and criminal lawyers and politicians get resect on the news. Those of us, who work for a living or have worked for a living and do not seek to live on other people’s money, don’t get the respect we deserve. We paid and continue to pay enormous taxes; and in exchange for exactly what?
When we conservatives and libertarians lash out at those who are perpetually and ‘professionally’ poor it is usually because we have worked and sacrificed and saved and endured. We are not believers in the ‘victim’ mentality. Government did not intervene to help us. We have been at the bottom of the rung. We have been poor; we know what it is like.
With very few exceptions, poverty as a child is a condition; poverty as an adult is a choice.
This is not to say that hard working people don’t run into health issues and have to stop working or at least slow down. I have personal experience with that. It does not mean that people who lose their jobs and ask for assistance (that they have already paid for with their taxes) are bad people. They are not. But no one can deny that there is a class of people who have made poverty a profession.
Government never made it easy for me
In construction, I had to get paid in cash because local law prohibited checks. (That law has since been changed) In restaurants I was paid what the law allowed, not what I was worth or what the employer wanted to pay me. In retail stores I couldn’t work overtime (even though I wanted too) since the owners openly did not want to pay double pay.
Government inhibits freedom. Government limits business. Government hurts the working class. Government ‘safety nets’ only perpetuate poverty. Government, especially in Puerto Rico; has taught people to stay on the government dole and only recently are democrats finally admitting that life on welfare must come to an end.
The new slavery, is slavery to government; slavery to condition. The class system is officially dead, but keeping the poor down is the determined point of socialism and statism. Government protection limits the free market, limits you and your opportunities. For those who live on minimum wage I have one thing to say: STOP! Stop assuming that minimum wage is your destination. It isn’t.
Government regulation stops competition. It raises costs for business and keeps them from paying higher wages. Open ended lawsuits and complaints can bring down a business and thus end jobs. Governments kowtowing to unions for special workers protections also keep businesses from paying more.
In short, the government is the enemy of the working class.
Less government, less regulation, lower taxes = MORE JOBS and greater mobility.
Do not let them keep you down. Choose to be the change you seek. Choose to step out of the gilded cage of government protection and open the door to the horizons of freedom.