The Halfway House
October 15, 2012
1. The Situation at Hand
For six weeks in the summer of 1994, I worked at a halfway house. Mr. Erickson, the department director, warned me during my job interview that the clients—he called them “members”—were demanding. When they came to the snack counter for refreshments, I would have to serve them quickly so they would not fall behind in their scheduled routine. Getting them upset had serious consequences.
“Can you handle the pressure?” he asked me, and leaned back in his leather chair behind the large mahogany desk, arms folded behind his head.
“I think so,” I replied. I didn’t want to make any guarantees. I had never worked with this population before.
“Great,” he said. “You can start next week. Go downstairs and get fitted.”
The hourly pay was a few dollars above minimum wage, so I was willing to swallow my pride and wear the 100% polyester white uniform with the nonprofit organization’s logo embroidered over my left breast, and a plastic tag with my name affixed over my right. When I dressed for my first day of work, I realized how little the fabric breathed and applied an extra layer of deodorant. I didn’t want to offend anyone as the day progressed. Upsetting the members, I remembered, had serious consequences.
I borrowed my parents’ Oldsmobile to drive to the sprawling property. As I walked toward the white main building from the employee parking lot, my mind raced. While I had to be pleasant to customers in my previous job at Blockbuster Video, it seemed that keeping people with special demands happy was of extra importance here. Conformity was essential to their operations. I was a cynical eighteen-year-old trying to earn some extra cash before I headed off from the conservative Chicago suburb in which I’d spent my whole life. I styled my long brown hair in pigtails tied with green satin ribbons. I liked to wear plaid shirts with striped trousers. I looked forward to the freedom I’d find when I began my freshman year at New York University in the fall. Could I really work in such a sterile environment?
There was no one else at the service entrance when I arrived. I let myself in and wandered through the winding back hallways until I found the Human Resources office. Mr. Erickson was already waiting. He wore a black suit and red tie. His hair was gelled back and his forehead gleamed in the fluorescent lighting.
“You’re right on time,” he said and smiled, revealing a row of teeth the shade of a fresh snowdrift. “Excellent start. Follow me to the kitchen.”
I trailed him back through the maze of behind-the-scenes passageways. “New members sometimes get lost,” he told me. “If you ever see one of them back here, gently guide them into the main facility.” I nodded.
The kitchen seemed to be the size of my parents’ modest split-level house. I supposed it had to be so large in order to prepare so many meals for the members. In addition to two snack bars on the property, there was also a formal dining room. Mr. Erickson led me to the industrial refrigerator. It was the width of a king-size bed.
“In here are all the ingredients you need to make sandwiches,” he instructed me. “Be sure to put together a variety platter every time.”
We pulled out containers of chicken salad and tuna salad, heads of lettuce, pre-sliced tomatoes, and turkey, ham, and chicken cold cuts. We dipped into tubs of mayonnaise and mustard. I made two of each sandwich, one with wheat bread and the other, white. When the sandwiches were ready, Mr. Erickson smiled again. But his expression fell short of his watery blue eyes, which seemed to distrust me.
“Ready?” he asked.
Ready as I’ll ever be, I thought. Instead I said, “Sure.”
I carried the sandwiches out of the kitchen, through the back door leading outside. Mr. Erickson sat in the driver’s seat of a golf cart. I plopped myself next to him and gripped the heaping sandwich tray. Dropping it would be a fatal error, I suspected. I took a deep breath. He turned the key in the ignition and we drove across the manicured grounds to our destination, just beyond the ninth hole, at the midpoint of the golf course: the small wooden halfway house, with a screened-in porch.
I grew up on the wrong side of the Edens Expressway, in an otherwise ritzy northern Chicago suburb. My father was a Certified Public Accountant, but not a partner in his firm. My mother had a teaching certificate, but worked part-time as a classroom aide. Once, when a new friend visited my house for the first time, she asked me how it felt living in “a Cracker Jack box.” At the grocery store, my mom often discovered that our cart contained more items than we could pay for. Her head hung as she directed the cashier to take back a gallon of ice cream or container of frozen orange juice concentrate. At dinner, my younger sister and I drank fruit punch that came in cans with white labels and black stenciled lettering. Vacations, as they were, involved stuffing my parents, grandparents, sister, and me into our rusted blue Cutlass, then driving four hours to a resort in Michigan filled with elderly Jews and mold.
While I was keenly aware that we were better off than those who lived in the crime-plagued housing projects that flashed across the evening news—sites of shootings and rapes—I often observed my father hunched over the dining room table, sorting through bills, the corners of his mouth turned down. My mother had had breast cancer when she was thirty-three. The medical expenses never seemed to end.
In fourth grade, the principal at my school told my parents I was denied admission to the enrichment program because all the seats were filled. The next year, a girl who moved into a castle on a private lane immediately gained entry into the closed ranks of the gifted. From then on, I resented rich people. Moneyed kids acted as if they earned their privilege by wisely selecting the family into which they were born. Their parents cruised the community in BMWs and Mercedes as if they had special claims to the roadways, and they gave their offspring their own luxury cars when they turned sixteen. In preschool, I had learned to share. It was a lesson they apparently missed. They hoarded resources.
I, on the other hand, was proud to be of The People. My goal was to destroy the stacked system so everyone had a chance to succeed. To further the cause, I tried to found a socialist club at my high school, but no faculty volunteered to serve as sponsors, and the administration shut me down. The indignity burned deep.
The halfway house, I discovered, was hot. The screened-in patio allowed for breezes to cool off the members who sat at the two tables to enjoy their snacks. But this fresh air only made a small dent in the heat generated by appliances that jostled for space in the narrow area behind the counter. There was a refrigerator into which I placed the sandwiches, a soda fountain, and a hot dog grill. Extra deodorant be damned, I began sweating as soon as I stepped behind the counter. My body odor later mingled with that of the hot dogs left on the rollers all day.
Mr. Erickson walked me through the snack bar set up. In addition to preparing hot dogs, doling out sandwiches, and filling drinks, I was to be sure the condiment containers which lined the front of the bar were filled with crackers, peanut butter, horseradish, and bacon bits that members could nosh while waiting for their food. Caddies, with permission from the members, could also get snacks. They would line up outside at a window on the side of the snack bar. As soon as I served the members, I could give these second class citizens their treats. Every order would be tallied on a ticket, which the members signed. They would get a bill at the end of the month for all expenses incurred at the club in the preceding weeks.
Again, Mr. Erickson reminded me, service had to be fast so the members could get back to their games and not back up the parties behind them. I nodded. I got it. He departed with the golf cart and I waited for my first client.
It didn’t take long. Two tanned men with silver hair pulled up in a golf cart. I watched as they untangled their long legs from the small vehicle. The driver had a designer polo shirt and navy shorts. He wore a white visor to protect his forehead, but the sun was free to beat down on the thinning patch of hair at the top of his head. His companion dressed similarly. They could be twins—lankier, elderly versions of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, I thought, and tried not to laugh. As the men entered the halfway house, the caddies scrambled to the side window and stood quietly, waiting for their turn.
“I’ll have a chicken salad sandwich,” the driver said, “and a half-and-half.”
“A half-and-half?” I could not fathom that he wanted a cup of the cream my grandmother added to her coffee.
The man leaned toward the counter, scrutinizing me. “Oh, you’re new here.” He smiled. His perfect teeth cut through the darkness of the room. “Welcome! A half-and-half is a glass half-filled with iced tea and half-filled with lemonade.”
As he said this, his partner began constructing a cracker sandwich. It consisted of everything – bacon bits, horseradish, and peanut butter. It seemed like a crazy combination, something the residents of the other kind of halfway house might concoct. You sure can’t buy taste, I thought, while I mixed the drink.
“Want anything, Burt?” the driver asked cracker man. “I got it this time.” He slapped Burt on the back. Bits of cracker and horseradish sprayed at me. Burt choked for a few seconds then said, “Well, if you’re buying, I’ll take a tuna.”
Clearly tuna is a good accompaniment to horseradish and peanut butter. Who knew this job would prove to be so educational?
When I handed over their food with the ticket, the driver gestured toward the window. “Be a dear and give each of the caddies a hot dog and Coke, would you?” I hustled to get the guys their food, which they gulped down so they would be ready when the golfers summoned. When the men were finished, they exited through the screen door, letting it slam. I slipped out from behind the counter to collect their paper cups and plates and throw them out.
Beads of sweat dripped from my brow and onto my lips. My shorts stuck to the inside of my thighs. It was going to be a long day. I helped myself to a cup of Coke, let the cold fizz tickle the roof of my mouth, and leaned against the refrigerator.
4. The Nation at Large
Before college, I believed that wealth and income were the same things. Rich was rich, I reasoned. When I learned that they are closely linked, but distinct, I was surprised.
In fact, a person may have a high income, but a low level of wealth if they do not use their earnings wisely. Income is what people actually earn. This money may come from work, dividends, interest, and any rent that is paid to them on properties they own.
Income is increasingly unequally distributed in the United States. In 1994, the top one percent of Americans earned fifteen percent of all income, and the bottom eighty percent took home forty-five percent. Less than ten years later, the top five percent were reaping 21.3 percent of the nation’s earnings. By 2012, the top ten percent of households were taking home slightly over 43 percent of the total income. It’s not that the wealthiest earn their income from working, though: in 2008, the richest 13,000 households derived all of their income from activities unrelated to actual work.
Unlike income, wealth is the value of everything a person owns—savings, retirement accounts, real estate, stocks, and bonds—that is easily converted into cash. To determine a person’s net worth, any debts, including credit card balances and outstanding mortgage amounts, is subtracted from the value of his or her assets. To really evaluate wealth, however, one should look at financial wealth, which is net worth minus the net equity in the house one occupies. Economist Edwin Wolff explains, “Financial wealth is a more ‘liquid’ concept than marketable wealth, since one’s home is difficult to convert into cash in the short term. It thus reflects the resources that may be immediately available for consumption or various forms of investments.”
In 1979, the bottom ninety-nine percent of the population owned almost eighty percent of American’s wealth, leaving a measly twenty-one percent to the top one percent of wealthiest Americans. However, by 1992, the top one percent of Americans owned thirty-seven percent of the country’s wealth, similar to what it was as the Robber Baron Age ended in 1922. As of 2011, that same group now clawed out 40 percent. The bottom half were down to a whopping 1.1 percent.
5. Sorting the Classes
Weekends were busier at the halfway house, so I often worked the snack counter with another person. Usually Mr. Erickson scheduled me to work with Jillian, a college sophomore whose entire family also toiled at the country club. Her father was the groundskeeper. Her mother oversaw the laundry. Her three brothers served as locker room attendants. One of her sisters was a lifeguard, and the other worked at the snack bar near the pool and tennis court, a job I was glad to avoid. While the halfway house was as hot as Mt. Etna during an eruption, at least the men who stopped by were respectful and even joked around with me sometimes. The mothers and children who used the other, albeit better ventilated, snack bar, treated staff like indentured servants who should be grateful they were allowed to wait on the women and children’s every need, such as extra cheese on nachos.
Jillian went to a local Catholic college, as did two of her siblings. She’d worked at the country club every summer since she was fourteen. The servile nature of this family business depressed me.
At the halfway house, Jillian kept busy even when no members were there, tidying the stack of tickets and evening out the level of bacon bits stocked in the container. (In my downtime, I read a book or magazine.) She assigned me small tasks, like cleaning out the refrigerator, a challenge since there was not enough room behind the counter for two people when the fridge door was open.
One afternoon, as I watched the skin of the hot dogs crinkle in their own juices—they had already been on the rollers for four hours—while pretending to clear crumbs from the counter, a man with ruddy hands and a large diamond pinky ring entered. His belly protruded slightly over his khaki shorts. I stared at him. He was my friend Sarah’s father.
Sarah was two years younger than me. We had worked on the yearbook together in high school; she was a photo editor and I was the editor of the student activities section. As we matched photos of clubs to the stories about them, we often chatted. I learned that her parents had once applied to a country club, but after their interview, the committee pulled her father aside.
“We’ll accept you into Caucasian Plains Country Club,” they told Mr. Doherty, “but we won’t be nice to your wife. We don’t like Jews.”
Isn’t it nice that the super rich can afford to be so honest about their biases? Her dad told them to go fuck themselves, and joined another country club. Now I knew which one.
“Hi Mr. Doherty,” I said when he approached the counter. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Sarah’s friend.”
The Dohertys had once taken me downtown to their university club for dinner and then the symphony. I loved the soaring music. On the other hand, my parents probably would have fallen asleep, so I harbored no illusions about going another time with them. The closest I came to that type of culture was when my aunt brought my sister and me to “The Nutcracker” when we were in elementary school. My sister had complained that there were no words, but she was only five, so I didn’t blame her for being bored.
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Doherty said, and narrowed his eyes to better read my name tag. “Suzanne, how are you?” Before I could answer, he remembered me and added, “Sarah told me that you are going to NYU soon. Congratulations! I’m sure you will do very well.”
It was Jillian’s turn to stare. People who worked in the country club did not socialize with members of the country club. She pursed her lips and filled out the ticket as I scrambled to get him a decent turkey sandwich on wheat—I had been extra careless when slapping the sandwiches together earlier that morning—and a hot dog for his caddy. Even though I was perspiring with the worker bees and considered myself one of them, a line was drawn between us.
Mr. Doherty grabbed a cracker. He liberally spread it with peanut butter, topped the peanut butter with bacon bits, and capped the whole thing off with a dollop of horseradish. I began to wonder if I was missing something essential about this popular snack. Maybe it was a metaphor for who we were as a nation, complicated and somewhat disgusting, but if mixed properly, the ingredients could add up to something larger than the parts. The peanut butter was the crucial base. I was proud to be the middle, the bacon bits. The horseradish made it special, but needed to be used sparingly, or the whole thing ultimately burns the eater.
Suzanne Reisman lives in Manhattan, but in honor of her Chicago-area upbringing, she insists on calling soda “pop,” and sneakers “gym shoes.” Her first book is Off the (Beaten) Subway Track. Her writing has appeared in Magnolia, A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature, New York Nonprofit Press, Metro New York, and City Limits Weekly. Suzanne has an MPA from Columbia University and an MFA from The New School.