Reopening with caution and gratitude


“How ya’ holding up?” is a question I suspect you’re asked as often as I am these days.

“Grateful,” I always reply.

Grateful first and foremost because my family has remained healthy even though there are seven of us and every excursion each of us makes potentially exposes all of us to COVID-19.

Grateful I have a large, safe yard for my young children to play in and that the two of them have each other to play with.

Grateful because while I’ve lost more than half my income as an independent contractor, haven’t received any federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because Ohio’s software for processing 1099 employees has a yet unresolved “glitch” and my savings will only last one more month, I am not at risk of losing my home nor running out of food.

Grateful my son Hugo is also not at risk of being homeless because he has my partner, Max, and me as a safety net. Hugo did not receive the economic stimulus money because, as a college student last year, I declared him on my taxes. Until July, he must pay rent for an apartment he no longer lives in while three of his four jobs stopped on a dime in early March.

And I’m grateful to get my hair and nails done, luxuries for which I decide what level of risk I’m willing to accept. Most of the people providing these and other services, both essential and frivolous, are not in a position to avoid the risks of their jobs by staying home.

Income inequality has grown dramatically in the United States and elsewhere since the 1970s. Now COVID-19 has spotlighted what anyone who’s worked retail knows: store clerks and cashiers are essential workers, often poorly paid. Today, the risk of contracting coronavirus is greater for them than so-called professional workers because of their significant exposure to us, the public.

I happily follow any requirements businesses ask of me, from wearing a mask and having my temperature taken to sitting in my car with a head resembling a lion fish with tin-foil fins. The foil holds a bleach mixture to highlight my hair, which isn’t going gray, but weirdly dark brown.

A few years back, I admired a colleague’s nails and soon began my own bi-monthly visits to the same nail technician. My nails have always been as strong as shrimp peelings. Thus, I kept them short and unvarnished for decades. Now in my 50s, I love having blinged-out, mid-length acrylics.

However, during the two months nail salons were closed, it was the people I missed most. Nail salons function socially like urban barber shops — while nails are buffed, reinforced and lacqured, customers talk not just to their technician, but with everyone in the salon, often lingering after their manicures are finished.

My salon, Crystal Nails, is owned and operated by Tiffany Dao and her husband. We’ve watched each other’s children grow as my little ones sometimes join me, and Tiffany’s regularly stop by the salon. Sitting with our heads close together (now separated by a plexiglass barrier) we talk about everything from childrearing to insurance policies.

Last week, we talked about government assistance for small businesses.

The Daos were eager to reopen, but like so many businesses, their ability to generate revenue is now significantly limited due to required and necessary precautions. Before COVID-19, the bulk of their business was walk-in customers. Now it’s by appointment-only so as to limit the number of people in the salon at any one time.

In order to survive, a business like theirs need the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) monies the federal government created for small businesses. That ginormous and flush corporations such as the L.A. Lakers, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Braemer Hotels and Resorts and others (including at least one on the Fortune-500 list) applied for and received PPP money is just another sign of the inequality of our times.

The pandemic is exposing what many always knew was there: deep disparities in America. People from poor communities of all colors often work essential jobs in stores, typically at or near minimum wage. This now raises their risk of contracting COVID-19 while alternative income options are few, if not nonexistent.

I am aware of my privilege as a middle-class, educated white person and for this I am the opposite of grateful. Our country was intentionally developed to generously benefit people like me over people of color. Anyone who denies white privilege has not read much history nor closely knows many people of color.

Perhaps the attention currently given to service-sector employees who make our country run and small businesses that enrich our communities in all ways will translate to better pay, working conditions and support as we slowly transition out of this pandemic.

In the meantime, thank each person whose job it is to wait on you in any fashion.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 31, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Teach children respect and politeness for all

Where and to whom we are born is the ultimate crap shoot. No matter your circumstances, one human is not intrinsically better than another. Minority parents tell their children they are as important as their white friends. Working-class people also understand this. We are hard workers doing whatever we can to manage life well.

Neither of my parents have college degrees. When my father was old enough to collect Social Security, he quit his job of many years as a cashier at a Circle K. My mother worked as a waitress, a secretary and a baker. Both told stories of rude customers.

Modeled behavior is more powerful than encouragement or admonishment and my children observe me chatting with workers wherever I go. To further ensure my kids will never condescend others for their station in life, they have worked in the service industry.

Claude spent a summer at Chipotle and found it the hardest job he’s ever had. Hugo worked at Old Carolina Barbecue his last years of high school. And this summer Jules, who worked with biologists on bee research the past two years, has two retail jobs in Michigan.

These experiences underscore three important lessons.

Lyra and Hugo with our new friend, Matt Dean, who served us at Bitty & Beau’s cafe.

Number one: Acknowledge people. Ask your server or cashier how their day is going. Rather than asking an employee, “Where is such-and-such?” Start with, “Excuse me, can you tell me where…” or “Hi, how are you? Do you know where I can find…”

Even when employees are talking to each other, acknowledge them. At my Acme, many of the cashiers and baggers are high school students who banter with one another. I jump in and joke with them, too.

Get off your cellphone. When people talked on their phones while ordering barbecue, Hugo coyly annoyed them for being rude. “I’m sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” he’d ask over and over.

Number two: Give praise. Everyone, myself included, is quick to let management know when we have a complaint. But what if we were just as eager to share a positive interaction? An employee who made an extra effort to be helpful or friendly?

I often lodge compliments in grocery stores. Things can be hard to find (especially when they remodel your Acme), prices might ring up wrong or not at all. The employee who handles requests and issues with aplomb is an asset to their employer.

Positive feedback makes a difference with raises and promotions. Rightly so, as employers know few customers will stop to give accolades. So when they do, it carries extra weight.

Number three: Say please and thank you. Working-class kids know not to treat adults as servants. When learning language, I taught my children to answer questions with either “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

Children over 5 should not say to an adult, “I’m thirsty,” but rather, “Can I have something to drink, please?” When told the former, I raise an eyebrow like an old school marm and respond, “Is that so?” If they don’t catch my drift, I suggest they try asking.

Handwritten thank-you’s are priceless. I keep a box of cards in the console of my minivan. Before I picked her up on the last day of camp in June, I wrote notes in the parking lot to Lyra’s two counselors, telling them how much I appreciated their kindness and care.

Some professional jobs are also in the service sector, and these people, too, appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done.

My divorce cost my ex-husband and me about $100,000, mostly from our retirement funds. We once paid a highly respected mediator hundreds of dollars to help sort things out. When we left her office, my then-husband said, “See you in battle.”

Three years into the miserable process, we met with the Summit County Domestic Court’s mediator. I’ve seen only a handful of people who are as skilled at bringing contentious negotiations to resolution as Magistrate Deborah Smith Cahan. In an hour and a half, we had an agreement that stuck. And as part of my motion for divorce, it was free! If only we’d seen Magistrate Smith Cahan first…

Eternally grateful for her help with what once seemed irresolute, I sent Magistrate Smith Cahan a thank you. As one of the most stressful times in life, divorce court is full of good people behaving badly. I came to learn Magistrate Smith Cahan is widely respected for her magic-like mediation skills with divorcing couples.

Years later, I ran into her at a grocery store. She told me in all her years mediating for the court, she’d received just six thank you letters, including mine.

Life is never too busy to acknowledge the people who pass through your life and to commend those who make it easier or better. Nobody is too busy to say or write “Thank you.” Not only do these simple measures brighten the days of those you meet, but doing so will put cheer in your heart while also making you a few new friends. I guarantee it.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 14, 2019.