It was a shithole.
It wasn't always that way. It was once a booming little city with ample opportunity. During the Great Depression my great-grandfather moved his whole family from a small farm in the mid-west to this little town in Idaho because it had opportunity. And in a great twist of fate that eventually led to my existence, my grandmother left the hustle-bustle of the East Coast to come to a small, funny-sounding name in Idaho.
What the fuck is Idaho? It didn't matter then. That's where the jobs were. "Go west!" they said, so Go West they did. And it worked out well for them.
Indeed, this was the place to be, back then. Living was cheap. Work was plentiful. The trains moved goods from one part of the country to another and this is where the trains were loaded.
The men and women worked hard. In fact, even when I was still young, the people worked hard and they were paid for it. They weren't rich, but they could provide for their families. The kids were well-fed, nicely clothed and somewhat well-educated. And every year they took a family vacation that they paid for in cash.
They weren't pissing money, by any means, but they were comfortable.
Then something happened.
It happened so recently, I vaguely remember it as a small child.
The railroad became less necessary. The plants on the edge of town were caught dumping all their waste in to the ground, where it eventually polluted the water that the nearby Indian reservation depended on.
And somewhere, someone thousands of miles away decided that wealth would "trickle down" if only the rich weren't taxed at such a heavy rate.
The sad part is, a lot of people bought in to that idea.
By the time my grandparents retired, the place was an absolute wasteland. As part of the "settlement" reached between the reservation and the plants, the plants would pay for clean up of the polluted water and employ the residents of the reservations.
That sounded good, until you realized that where my family members had been paid a living wage (about $19 bucks an hour, which is nothing to sneeze at in the nineties in Idaho), they would pay the Native Americans minimum wage. So who is the real winner here?
Not the Native Americans.
The plants also had a lot of trouble in other areas: inexplicably, the workers on pension were all suddenly being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Ooops. Guess they played with asbestos too long. So that got expensive. I grew up watching men who had done nothing but work honorably their entire lives suddenly grow thin and frail and then, eventually die.
Cancer. Lung cancer.
Only some of them smoked.
In my lifetime I watched this happen. By the time I was in High School, I was poor, living in one of the many trailer parks that surrounded the city, and I would watch every night as smoke poured out of the plants, less than a mile from where I was sitting. They obscured the sunset. They sent us all inside. They literally choked the life out of us.
I guess I have always been too much of a bleeding heart, because I distinctly remember watching the black fog slowly take over my neighborhood and thinking "at least when my grandfather and uncles were creating this, they were paid well."
Now, the people doing this job would still eventually be diagnosed with lung cancer but they would have no pension. They would still be drinking polluted water, but they would have no insurance to cover the illnesses that would follow.
And I just thought, if you're going to put a price on people's lives, why not make it a decent price?
I can think of few things more painful than watching my grandfather die of a tumor the size of grapefruit in his lungs. A man who smoked about two packs of cigarettes in his entire life. A man who, even at the age of sixty-three, before his breathing became too hard, still jogged ten miles a day.
He didn't deserve that. But, at the very least, when he signed on to the job he got protections. He was a proud Union member. He was able to not only provide for his family but treat his family to trips around the country, family vacations worth more than any yacht that can be built.
Truly, some of my favorite memories are of me sitting in back seat of my grandparents' car as we took the "long, scenic" way to Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California.
But when they took the jobs away, they took away our livelihood. And where we once live a comfortable, middle class existence, now were just just dirt poor.
I left the second I could. I had no prospects there, no reason to stay.
It wasn't easy. I was sixteen. I was sixteen and I was bound and determined to stay in Boise where I would still be poor but at least not desperate and confined to poverty. Here I could finish school, get a job, and make something of myself.
And isn't that all that anyone wants? Just to make something of themselves? Just to be who they are?
I was lucky. Like I said, it was NOT easy. I worked a lot of demeaning and menial jobs. I remember spending an entire year living off of a "family size" bag of cereal that I'd buy every paycheck.
I bought all of my clothes at a second hand store.
I walked two miles to work, three miles from work to school, then four miles home every day because I couldn't afford to put gas in my tank.
No one wanted to rent to me so I lived in a filthy, cramped party house where the rent money I gave to the person on the lease was usually spent on beer, so I'd come home to an eviction notice every few months.
But what could I do about it? By now I was seventeen- too young to sign my own lease and, if I didn't pay the rent again I'd be homeless. So whatever money I had saved to buy myself groceries would go to paying rent again.
I was living in an underworld and I had no legal means to NOT be charged twice for rent, power and water. What could I do? Who would listen to me?
It was hard but I got out of it. It took more time and determination than I think I have the energy for now, and that is what brings me to the point of writing this:
When I was sixteen and seventeen I was stubborn and convinced I knew it all, so I had the audacity to keep fighting and working and making my life better.
And by the time I was 27, I was a manager at a very successful company. There, we hired a lot of immigrants because we had offices in several different countries and we needed bi- and tri-lingual representatives.
I remember one day, I walked in to the break room for lunch and there was Lucy, who had just come from Brazil several weeks earlier. She was looking at her lunch ( a crappy TV dinner) and the microwave. Back and forth she went. Instructions on the lunch to the microwave.
Then she looked at me and put her head down in shame.
I said, "hi, how ya doin'?" like I did to everyone else, and she was silent for a moment.
I got my own lunch out of the fridge and went to put it in the microwave, then looked at her.
"Are you going to use this?" I asked.
She looked towards the door, to make sure no one else would come in, then whispered, in broken English "Can you please read instruction for me? I do not know what it says."
I took the TV dinner from her hands and read the instructions, then told her "Two minutes, then ready," and showed her how to put "two minutes" on the microwave.
Her eyes filled with tears and she asked if she could hug me.
Lucy always made it a point to thank me for being so "how you say.. patient".
And I always told her thank you for teaching me about your culture. Thank you for being so sweet as to think I'm doing something special. She gave me a big ego, basically. Every single time I helped her learn a new word or phrase she got tears in her eyes and thanked me.
And, you know, Lucy had a decade on me.
I was twenty-something and she was thirty-something, and for that reason I often felt awkward for her respecting me the way she did.
She felt indebted to me because so many people were more interested in her learning how to "speak good English" than helping her learn how to. They were more interested in getting nothing from her but cheap labor than they were learning about why she was so naturally kind and sincere (every single time I helped her with her lunch she tried to make me take half of it, which I never would).
What no one seems to realize is that I looked at Lucy and I saw myself. I am now the age she was at the time.
I moved from a land of desolation to a place where I had opportunity- that is what Americans do. We find out niche and we move to where the money is. And I did that a long time ago. I did it as a teenager. I had doors slammed in my face. I had people snicker at me for being poor.
But I am blond-haired and blue eyed, so it was easy for me to climb my way out of the hole. And it took so much work.
I was exploited. I was used. I was treated like shit the whole time.
At seventeen, I had the energy for it. I fought it and I won.
Lucy was older then than I am now.
I would not have the energy for it now. It is hard. It is demeaning. It is soul-crushing to try and force yourself in to an economy that was specifically designed to not be yours.
I couldn't do it now.
Lucy is now almost forty. She is still working at it, still learning a whole new language while trying to work and raise children and create a safe place.
And the only thing that makes her less valuable than I is that she was born several hundred miles south of where I was born.
The only thing that makes us different is that where I would have given up at this age, she was just getting started.
So if Lucy ever takes a job from me, I have to say, she is probably far more qualified than me.
No matter where either one of us were born.