One of the curious things about our society is that the rich and the poor often have a lot more contact with one another than any member of the middle class usually has with either group. I will illustrate this point with a couple of anecdotes.
Years ago, I was in desperate need of a job, because my unemployment insurance had run out. I applied at this party rental company for a job at their warehouse. I was hoping to get a clerical job, but instead they offered me a job as a “helper”, meaning I would set up tents and tables and other party equipment at various events, as well as unload trucks at the warehouse. The job only paid minimum wage, but I had no other offers, and I was running out of money. The company catered to private companies, as well as doing events at USC and UCLA, but it also provided supplies for private parties.
One day I was sent out with another employee, who was designated as a “driver”, to deliver supplies to a house in Beverly Hills. Some of the older neighborhoods in Southern California have these wide alleys that you can drive through behind the houses, and this place was in one of those types of neighborhoods. There was a gate in the fence behind the house, and the driver pressed a buzzer to have a house servant open the gate. There was a swimming pool in the backyard. The place wasn’t much bigger than the house I spent most of my middle class childhood in, but in the living room there was a large bronze statue of a naked woman with her arms raised in the air. Anyway, when we first arrived in the back alley, the driver went in first, because he had to get the customer to sign some paperwork before we could bring in the rental items. He told me to wait by the truck, which I did. Shortly after that, a middle-aged woman carrying two bags of groceries came walking by. She stopped and asked me if I could do her a favor. She said that further up the alley was an abandoned couch, and a homeless man who lived in the area would sometimes lie on this couch. This man would sometimes say rude things to her when she walked past. She asked me if I could go up ahead and see if this man was there.
I agreed to do this. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it was just a latent sense of chivalry in me. Anyway, I walked quite a ways up the alley before I finally saw the couch. There was no one there. I turned around, and as I walked back, I found that the woman had followed me part of the way there. I told her that the homeless guy wasn’t at the couch. She seemed relieved and grateful, and she thanked for me for checking for her. I told her it was no problem, and I started walking back to the truck. I suddenly realized at this point that I had actually devoted quite a large chunk of time to this endeavor; I worried that the driver may have come out to find that I was not where I was supposed to be. When I came to the truck, I saw the driver standing there. I was afraid he would be angry at me for wandering away. Instead, he asked me in a mildly curious tone of voice where I had been. When I explained to him as best as I could what had happened, he simply nodded and motioned for me to help him start unloading stuff from the truck. I can only assume that what happened to me was a normal sort of occurrence in this neighborhood.
But that’s not the story I really want to tell. Here’s the story I actually want to tell you. Most of the people who worked in the warehouse were from either Mexico or El Salvador or Honduras. Most of them spoke only a limited amount of English, and some of them spoke barely any English at all. However, there was this one guy who was from Belize. He was so unique in this respect, that the other workers would sometimes call him “Belize”. (I can’t remember his name, so I will call him Belize as well.) As you would expect from someone from a former British colony, he spoke fluent English. His job was maintaining and setting up gas grilles. The company would sometimes send me out on assignments with him as his helper. I would basically be an extra set of hands for him in case he needed them. I liked talking to him, partly because we had similarly critical views of the way the company was run, and partly because he always seemed wound up in a way that I found vaguely amusing. He was always complaining that the company was making unreasonable demands on him and making him work long hours and so on. He once told me that he had a wife and daughter in Belize. He hadn’t seen them in a long time, because he had to work so much in order to support them.
One day the company sent him and me out on an assignment in Bel Air. A couple of grilles had to be hooked up for a private party there. It was fairly late in the day, and Belize immediately began grumbling that it was going to take a long time to drive out there and back in rush hour traffic. (The warehouse was in Inglewood, near the airport.) He pointed out that the event wasn’t scheduled for a couple more days, so he couldn’t understand why he had to hook up the grilles right now. The management would not be moved, however, so off we went.
When we arrived at the address, we found a long concrete wall facing the street, with a gate in the middle of it. Belize and I got out of the truck, and we went to the gate, where Belize spoke to someone through an intercom. After a moment, the gate opened up, and we walked in. There were trees in front of us, and the driveway curved to the left. I couldn’t see any house. Belize and I walked along the driveway, and we came to a large shed. There was a man there who was apparently the person who had spoken to Belize on the intercom. He told us that a vehicle would come to take us to the house. After a few minutes a large golf cart came, and Belize and I climbed in the back. The cart took off down the driveway. We suddenly came out of the trees, and there was in front of us this vast lawn, on the other side of which was a building that looked like a palace. The driveway skirted along the right-side of this expanse and went past the house. The cart stopped when we arrived at the back, and Belize and I got out. We walked up this brick path until we arrived at the back porch. It was semi-circular, and about about half the width of a football field. There were enormous glass doors on the mansion that opened out onto it. One the other side of the porch, a steep hill, with a staircase in the middle of it, sloped down about 300 yards. At the bottom of the hill was a large rectangular swimming pool, at one end of which was a semi-circular portico, supported by Roman-style columns. Inbetween the columns were marble statues. Workmen were in the process of covering the pool with a temporary dance floor.
One of the glass doors opened up, and a man came walking out. He had an air of authority about him. He was dressed in a blue pastel dress shirt, a blue pastel necktie, and blue pastel dress pants. He came up to Belize and me, and when he spoke to us, I immediately detected a French accent. My thought at the time was “Oh boy, this guy is going to be an asshole.” Yet he turned out to be pretty reasonable. He told us what had to be done, and he said that if we needed anything we should just ask him. Belize then set to work. There were two grilles that needed be hooked up, one on either side of the porch. Belize did the first one without any problem, but he had trouble getting the second grille to work. The man in blue pastel was patient with us and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Belize eventually figured out what the problem was, and he got the grille working. The man in blue pastel shook our hands and warmly thanked the both of us (although I really hadn’t done much). He then called to have the cart come to pick us up. Belize and I walked back to the driveway.
When we got back to the truck, and we had climbed in the cab, Belize suddenly realized that he had forgotten to get some paperwork signed. He told me to wait in the truck while he went back. It so happened that only a few hundred feet up the road some workmen were chopping down a large tree. A long flat bed truck pulled up, presumably they were going to load the felled tree onto it. One of the workmen came over and through the driver’s side window told me they needed to position the truck along the side of the road and our vehicle was in the way. He asked me if I could back it up. I explained to him that company did not allow me to drive the truck, because I wasn’t designated as a “driver”. I then told him the driver had gone inside and he would be out in a few minutes and that he would be more than willing to move the truck. I expected this person to be sympathetic to my situation, since he must have known that companies usually have strict rules about the handling of vehicles. To my surprise, he got angry. He demanded that I move the truck. I once again explained to him that I was not allowed to drive the truck, and I once again explained to him that the driver would be out in a few minutes and he would move the truck. This just seemed to make him more angry. The two of us shouted at each other for I don’t know how long. Another workmen came up and began shouting along with the first guy. They eventually seemed to get tired of this, and they walked back over to the flat bed, where they conferred with some other people. While this was going on, Belize came back out, hopped in the cab, and threw the paperwork down beside him. He started up the truck and pulled away from the curb. He was completely unaware of what had just happened. I thought I should tell him, so I did. I assumed he would be impressed that I had refused to cave in to those guys, but instead he just seemed to get angry. “You should never drive the truck,” he said to me in a harangueing tone of voice, even though I had just made it clear that I knew better than to do any such thing. He then went on about how if I had damaged the truck while moving it, he would have been liable for it. Which seemed to me be completely unnecessary.
That was the credit I got for doing my job right.