In early January, I started a position with a new company. Day one, I received a flurry of emails, instructing …
(originally published September 24, 2016 on Quora)
Last night, not enthralled with the movie my husband had chosen to watch, I logged into my smartphone to check my email and scroll through Facebook.
The large picture window in the living room window of our Mount Vernon house faces north. We can see the lights of Burlington, WA, which is a few miles away across the Skagit River. The river, which meanders west before a hairpin turn to the south, divides the communities of Burlington and Mount Vernon. Our house is a short walk from the Skagit, and no more than three miles, as a crow flies, from the Burlington commercial area.
When I turned on my phone, I was greeted with a news alert. There had been a shooting at Burlington Cascade Mall. The pieces quick fell into place. The helicopters I could see from our window, circling over Burlington, were no doubt part of the effort to find the shooter.
It had been less than two hours since the shooting so there was little information, except the location – the cosmetic counter at Macy’s – the injury and death toll, and a blurry picture of the shooter, a young, possibly Hispanic man, carrying a rifle in dark shorts, dark shirt, and presumably sneakers.
My husband and I, each equipped with a smart phone, scanned the news sources and social media, looking for another tidbit as to what happened. Presidential candidate Donald Trump had already arrived at the conclusion the shooter wasn’t Hispanic, but Muslim. Some of the Twitter-sphere had also arrived at the same decision, espousing their hatred of Muslims and 2nd Amendment Right to carry their arsenal of guns.
Their projections and xenophobia was infuriating.
Mount Vernon and Burlington, located in the Skagit Valley, are primarily farming communities, blessed with good weather and extremely fertile soil, which turns tubers and seeds into fields of tulips, daffodils, irises, peas, potatoes, corn, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and 70 or so other crops. The region is responsible for growing 50% of the world’s beet and spinach seeds. And 95% of the red potatoes grown in the Washington State come from the Skagit Valley.
Every fall, tens of thousands of snow geese and trumpeter swans descend on the area, waddling through the muddy fields in search of seeds, bugs, and other goodies, left from the harvest season. As the sunsets, they fly to protected wetlands and small bodies of water for a cleansing swim. They stay in the area through February, and can be seen in the fields, including along the main corridor, I-5.
As with many farming communities, there’s a large Hispanic population. Although, I suspect most aren’t migrant, having living in the area for decades, starting families, opening businesses, and becoming highly respected, and valued workers.
Mount Vernon and Burlington are like a mullet haircut. Both branch off from the main thoroughfare, Riverside Drive. Mount Vernon has a charming, historical downtown with a river walk to the west, and a gentle mountain to the east, lined with picturesque turn-of-the-century homes. In the past few years, several microbrews, restaurants, a chocolate shop, and several boutiques and antique shops have opened in downtown. At one end of the town is the historical, refurbished Lincoln Theater. Guest musicians play the theater’s original pipe organ before art films and events.
On weekends, the farmer’s market, along the waterfront, is packed with buyers, and local merchants and farmers selling produce, flowers, honey, breads, cheeses, meats, and handicrafts. On summer night, the downtown is full of people, eating at restaurants, listening to live performances or enjoying the ambiance.
The overarching issue is dealing with the large influx of visitors during the month-long Tulip Festival. On clear days, traffic is backup on I-5 with people trying to get off, and weave through the miles of country roads to get a glimpse of fields of red, yellow, purple, and other vivid colors.
Burlington, on the other hand, is a hub of box and grocery stores, fast food restaurants, a small outlet mall, and several miles of small, local proprietors, selling everything from appliances and flooring to quinceanera gowns.
One of the busiest places is a large produce store towards the end of the town with crates and displays of gorgeous local produce, including a large wooden crate of pickles with stacks of garlic and stalks of dill in a bucket of water, neatly stacked cardboard boxes of large scarlet-red tomatoes, waiting to be canned, piles of orange pumpkins, squash of every size, and bumpy and striped gourds, melons from eastern Washington, and plums, apples, nectarines, peaches, and apricots from local farms. Most notably, cabbages, the size of human heads, yearning to be turned into sauerkraut.
There is also Cascade Mall, a bit dejected with vacant stores and few visitors. Earlier this year, Sears, an anchor store left, leaving Macy’s and Penny’s as the only large department stores. At one end of the mall, the Children’s Museum of Skagit County has taken over several stores. In the middle is a chapel for worship and wedding, along with a recently opened T.J. Maxx. At the other end is a cinema, which is usually very busy. Extending past the mall, is Target, Red Robin, Popeye’s Chicken, Sleep Country, and other national brands.
Several months ago, my husband and I visited the mall on a Friday night. We scarcely saw more than a dozen people. A small train, which children could ride, wove through the empty mall, the teenage conductor, tooting the train’s horn in hope of a child, breaking free of its parent’s grip and becoming a passenger.
It’s incomprehensible a shooting occurred at Cascade Mall. As with many cities, located along a main highway, and less than an hour from larger cities like Everett, Seattle, and Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Burlington aren’t immune to crime. There are the occasional shootings, a product of bravado, booze, and anger. There are assaults, theft, drunk driving, and other malicious acts.
But a person, carrying a rifle, walking into a lightly trafficked mall, and shooting is incomprehensible. It makes no sense. It’s an act of violence, perhaps of unrequited love. Terrorism seems too big of a word, too out-of-place for Burlington. Too far-fetched for the cosmetic counter of Macy’s with only a handful of people anywhere within fire shot of the perpetrator.
My hope is they catch the shooter in the coming days.
In the meanwhile, I’m not going to bolt my doors, rush to buy a gun, or start pointing fingers at groups of people.
Who could have predicted the spectacular racist comment by Donald Trump about Mexico sending criminals and rapist to America would result in enthusiastic cheers from right-wing supporters while much of the country gasped in horror?
Even more astonishing Fox New blatantly validated his remark by trumpeting the murder of Kate Steinle’s in San Francisco by serial felon and illegal alien Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. Fanning the flames, litigator Heather Hansen wrote on Fox News “Looking for justice? Move to Mexico. When it comes to looking to the U.S. courts for protection, you may have a better chance if you’re from south of the border.”
There’s no denying Lopez-Sanchez shouldn’t have been released from custody. However, any repeat miscreant – whether white, black, brown, legal, illegal, male, female, young or old – will likely commit another crime once released.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of the 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison. Over three-quarters had been arrested within five years. Prisoners who had previously committed violent, property or drug crimes were more likely than other released inmates to be imprisoned again for similar crimes.
The tragedy of Steinle’s death isn’t minimized by applying the actions of one man to millions of undocumented workers, labeling them as lowlifes, and rallying for their deportation. The hypocrisy of Trump’s hullabaloo is he most likely depends on illegal immigrants to tend his golf courses, build his Taj Mahals, and clean his opulent penthouse and luxury properties. The Trump Tower escalator, he famously descended the day he announced his candidacy, was probably buffed by an illegal alien an hour before.
Perceptions from Early Age
I’ve tried to soothe my ire over the ignorance and intolerance I heard coming from the maw beneath Trump’s comb-over, but it won’t be soothed. My opinion about Hispanics and illegal aliens was formed when I was young, before I became conscious of the differences between people.
My father had a factory on Santee Street in the heart of the Los Angles garment district. He was a subcontractor for the clothing manufacturer, Fred Rothchild of California. He produced high-end dresses and pantsuits. Polyester was the rage at the time, and I recall racks of lime green, powder blue, and pink (along with lots of black, brown, and off-white) dresses being wheeled out of his fourth-floor factory, loaded onto a freight elevator, and pushed through the streets to a wholesaler.
The building his factory occupied is now upscale condos. When I was a child, it was a dusty with lint from the garment factories that occupied nearly every floor. In the winter, it was cold. And in the summer, it was sweltering. There was the constant sound of sewing machines, whoosh of giant pressers (irons), and clicking from machines used to sew-on buttons or vacuum off loose threads. Mixed in with the industrial noises was conversations between women from Latin America, Czechoslovakia, Asia, and the United States.
I remember where they came from because they brought my family gifts, many of which I still have. A fabric doll, embroidered table cloth and napkins from Guatemala. Silver bracelet from Mexico. Cut-crystal ashtray from Czechoslovakia (originally given to my parents). From their kitchens and ethnic stores, they brought tamales, Chicklets, candies wrapped in rice paper, and pastries with sweet mung beans inside. They also sewed me a couple of outfits, including the dress to the right, worn when I was around 20 months old.
Within weeks of my birth, I was brought to my father’s factory. A rag bin became my crib. When I got older, I swung from metal clothing racks, tried on the employees’ work smocks (even though I was told to stay out of the dressing room), wandered among the sewing machines, helped my father sort and bundle dress pieces that had been cut out, but not yet sewn, and delighted in the racks of threads, boxes of buttons, and piles of multi-colored threads and lint that accumulated.
As I learned to talk, my vocabulary included interfacing, double-sticky Pellon, lining, bias tape, dart, gusset, piping, pleat, selvage, overlock, and hem.
Most of my father workers stayed with him for years because he was known for paying a fair wage (including overtime), and being a strict, but reasonable boss. Being mechanically inclined, he repaired the machines that broke and ensured they were always in good working order. He wasn’t opposed to ripping the seams of a garment that had been sewn incorrectly, and then stitching it back together.
I’m sure when my father secured a new line of dresses (after bidding against other subcontractors), he sewed the first dress, which his seamstresses used as reference for sewing others.
Nearly every Saturday, we spent at least part of the day at my father’s factory. My mother helped with sorting, did the bookkeeping and payroll. My brother was paid a quarter to sweep. I was responsible for cleaning the lunchroom, wiping down the tables, and putting the condiments in the center. To this day, I can vividly recall the vinegary smell of the pickled jalapeno peppers and vegetables, some of the Hispanic women used to eat with lunch.
Growing up in this diverse environment, I learned to be accepting and interested in other cultures. It never occurred to me that I should feel differently about a person who came from generations of Americans versus someone who crossed the border a year before.
I’m sure some of my father’s employees were undocumented worker. Whenever he heard immigration inspectors were in the building, he’d notify his employees. Some would quietly leave and return the next day.
Today, hiring illegal immigrants is frowned upon. But being a first generation American, whose parents came from Hungary before World War II, my father wasn’t one to say “My family got in. Now you get out.” He was sympathetic to the burning desire to harness the American Dream. Like his father — who came to America with barely more than the clothes on his back, and also started a garment factory in Los Angeles — he recognized a good-paying job enables a person to provide for themselves and their family, and also give-back to society.
Turning the Tables
While my father’s immediate family was able to relocate to America, others fled to Mexico and Argentina. I was told the ones in Argentina had visited when I was a baby, carrying expensive jewelry, which they could pawn should the economy collapse or they needed to “buy” their way to another country.
I remember the two people who visited from Mexico, Desiderio (David) and his son Esteban (Steve) Kovesy. They brought my brother and me sombreros along with Mexican clothing, a black suit with piping for my brother, and a red, embroidered dress for me.
They owned a silver and jewelry store in Mexico City. Below is a picture of Desiderio Kovesy and possibly his wife or daughter Rosa Kovesy de Erdely.
After my father died when I was nine, my mother didn’t retain ties with the part of my father’s family in Argentina and Mexico. All I have are a few photos, and a business card with Desiderio’s address. I wish I knew more about them, and how they’re related to my father.
Until effluence of hate spew from Donald Trump, I hadn’t given much thought to my “connections” to Latin America. I’m proud my father and grandfather opened businesses*, which hired people based on their skills, and paid decent wages so they could support themselves and their families. And I’m grateful that my father’s relatives found safe haven following World War II. They too found opportunities in their new countries, opening businesses, paying taxes, and providing employments for others.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me links to articles about how pensions are impacting the solvency of Detroit and Chicago. While the obligation to honor pensions – like paying the mortgage on a devalued house – could be perceived as a burden on city, state, and federal governments, each pension is associated with a person. Labeling pensions as the culprits solely responsible for jeopardizing the financial health of municipalities is akin to discarding the contributions of the people who earned them.
Many people who choose to be government workers – teachers, firefighters, police, clerks, judges, maintenance workers, administrators, and much-appreciated snow plow drivers (especially in Boston) – do so because they recognize the trade-off between earning less in exchange for contributing to and receiving a pension. Ten or so years ago, working for the government provided stability and good benefits.
My husband’s grandfather, mother, father, step-father all worked for the City of Los Angeles or the Los Angeles Police Department. They worked hard, receiving pensions when they retired. Similarly, my mother worked for the City of Burbank.
Pensions aren’t entitlements. They offer the promise of being able to retire without the worry of ending up as a greeter at Wal-Mart or asking people if they want fries with their hamburgers. They’re the rewards for working in fields that can be dangerous, physically exhausting or highly stressful.
They’re also not limited to government workers. My grandfather worked for Lockheed, and retired with a pension, enabling him and his wife to travel and comfortably live in their cozy Burbank, California bungalow until they passed away in their 90’s.
Stories abound of companies mismanaging their pension funds, and subsequently not being able to meet their obligation of paying out retirement benefits. Other companies saw the value of their pensions drop because of investment decisions. For instance, Portland General Electric, Oregon’s largest utility, was acquired by Texas-based Enron. When Enron collapsed employees not only lost millions in savings, but the dream of retirement.
An article appeared in the March 2015 AARP Bulletin about the decline in pensions, and how payments are being cut or sold to third-parties as annuities. Stores are emerging of retirees who are being asking to repay overpayments, resulting from accounting errors on the part of pension administrators.
The article showcased the plight of an Illinois Sheet Metal Worker whose pension fund had erroneously overpaid him and 588 others, starting in 1974. He was told he had three weeks to repay $66,000 or face steep cuts to future payments. Not only was his pension reduced from $1,300 per month to $800, but he was expected to repay $97,000 along with 7.25 percent interest, the amount overpaid to him over the course of nearly twenty years.
Another man, a New York City transit worker, had all but $5 per month of his pension applied towards recouping the monies paid toward him for the past 22 years. Evidentially, he wasn’t supposed to receive his pension because he was receiving worker’ compensation payment, after being shot and stabbed while on the job.
According to the article, in the early 1990’s, around 35 percent of American workers in the private sector were contributing to traditional pension plans. Today, just 16 percent can count of having a pension when they retire.
The passage of legislation in December, 2014 enables multiemployer plans to cut benefits to people under age 80. These plans primarily cover union workers or those in single or related industries. It’s estimated 1.5 million people are currently covered by these plans, which for many, and their surviving spouses is what depend on for basic housing, food, medication, and other necessities.
Closer Look at Detroit
Pinning Detroit’s and Chicago’s fiscal challenges on having to honor pension payouts is akin to blaming a heart attack wholly on a person’s weight, without considering their diet, lifestyle, gender, and heredity.
In the 1950’s, Detroit’s population was nearly 1.9 million people. Six decades, it declined to just over 700,000, a startling 62% decrease. A decrease in population translates to the deterioration of the economic base, and subsequent decrease in tax revenues from property, income, and sales taxes
There is a bounty of images and articles, showing and describing blocks of abandoned houses and businesses in Detroit, resulting from the dramatic decrease in population. As a result, property values have plummeted in Detroit, which now has the third lowest taxable value per capita of all Michigan Cities over 50,000 people. Only Flint and Saginaw are lower.
Not only are there fewer people paying property taxes, because of the massive exodus from Detroit, but the taxable value of properties has fallen. Individuals and businesses are often at odds with the tax assessors, disputing how much they own on particles of land and structures, which have lost most of their value and can’t be sold at any price.
A decade ago, there was an estimated 81,754 vacant houses in Detroit. By 2008, that number had climbed to around 102,000 or nearly 28% of all residences. The average price of a house sold in 2003 was $97,847. In six years, the value dropped 87% to just $12,439.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the decline in the value of houses in Cleveland, noting the large number that had gone into foreclosure, and how a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, Valentino dress, and Gucci bag cost more than a 3-bedroom house in East Cleveland!
Nevertheless, in cities like Detroit and Cleveland, reduced tax revenues are expected to cover the same infrastructures, services, administrations, and pension when populations soared in the 1950’s. A drop in economies doesn’t translated to a reduction in the need to maintain streets, bridges, buildings, transit systems, police, fire, courts, public lighting, and other community services such as libraries and recreational centers.
Preaching the conservative anthem that reducing corporate taxes, eliminating regulations, and reducing government spending doesn’t appear to be the answer to Detroit’s and other large cities’ issues. It certainly hasn’t translated into job creation and economic growth.
From 2003 to 2012, the City of Detroit cut employment by 9,400 people, a 45% decrease. The Detroit Public Schools followed suit, reducing employment by 58% over the course of 9 years. As a result, nearly 24,500 people lost their jobs, benefits, and most likely, the ability to one day retire with a pension.
How did the public sector respond? The Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, and St. Johns Providence Health System are three of the largest employers in the area with a combined employment of 24,940 in 2009. In the subsequent 9 years, they’ve reduced employment by 1,337, which is an acceptable 5% reduction, conceivably the result of increased efficiencies of healthcare deliveries and fewer people seeking care.
The nearly 30,500 people who lost their jobs, between 2003 and 2012, having formerly worked for the City of Detroit, Detroit Public Schools, or Chrysler are a subset of the massive job loss and economic decline in Detroit.
Those who didn’t flee the city in search of other opportunities, found themselves with reduced earning power. Only Flint has a lower average household income than Detroit, where the average household income is just $26,253. With many of Detroit’s resident having low incomes, the demand for services is high from transportation to health care, food programs, and housing.
Five Years of Services Equals a Pension
When the topic of pensions arises, much of the focus is on people who need it the most, hard-working city and utility workers, teachers, firefighters, police, clerks, and those in trades and unions. For many of these people, their salaries didn’t afford them the luxury of socking away a sizable nest egg. Or maybe they didn’t envision their pensions could be reduced or eliminated.
There’s another side to pensions. Consider the pensions made available to members of congress. A congressman who is 62 years of age, can collect a full pension after serving just five years. Five years. If they were elected when they were 30, they can collect their pension when they turn 50.
The base pay for member of Congress is $174,000. Nearly half are millionaires, and the remaining aren’t doing too poorly. Fifty-five members have an average calculated wealth of $10 million. Obviously, few if any of these people need a pension. Yet, little is said about the silver spoon they’re bestowed in salaries, benefits, and pensions when they get elected.
Case in point, Republican Congressman “Downton Abbey,” Aaron Schock, who served just 8 years will be eligible, when he turns 62, to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded retirement benefits.
Nevertheless, Schock and other elected officials are the ones pointing fingers at the city janitor who barely earned more than $30,000 per year, and now with arthritis from 30 years of physical labor, is hoping to collect a humble pension that will enable him to live in a two-bedroom apartment, and purchase groceries and medications when needed.
Other pension programs, which aren’t widely critiqued are those offered to members of the military. No doubt, serving in the armed forces is stressful, demanding, and dangerous, especially if you’re serving in combat. However, in the past 15 years, military retirement costs have skyrocketed more than six-fold to an estimated $18.3 billion, which will be paid to military retirees in 2015. Costs are high because military pensions are at least twice as generous as the best private sector retirement plans, and officers and enlisted men can retire at half of basic pay after only 20 years’ service.
The typical nondisabled military retiree receives an annuity of $13, 226 which is fully indexed for inflation. Since the average retiree begins collecting these payments at age 43, he has plenty of opportunity to supplement them with second career private earnings and, eventually, Social Security benefits and even a second pension.
Returning to my original premise. Every pension is associated with a person. Generalizing that pensions cost too much and jeopardize the financial health of a city, state, business or trade sounds good until you consider the impact to recipients. What type of society are we if we deny or severely cut someone’s pension who’s been toiling for 20, 30, 40 or more years? Someone who light at the end of the tunnel is the security of knowing they’ll have enough money to slow down, read the books that have been piling up on their shelves, spend more time with family, travel, sleep-in, take long walks, knowing they have nowhere they need to be, and enjoy what’s left of their lives without the worry of not having enough money for basic necessities.
Vice President under President Lyndon B. Johnson and long-time politician Hubert H. Humphrey once said, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Driving to work this morning, I heard on the radio that a man had fallen to his death from a Seattle freeway ramp. The police thought he’d lived at a homeless camp. The incident reminded me of an article I’d read last week about a 21 percent increase in the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets or in their vehicles in King County.
The annual One Night Count found 3,772 people camping along freeway overpasses, in campers and cars, in doorways, and under bridges. In addition, a 100 or so people were found, riding night owl buses to keep warm and dry. It’d never occurred to me that riding a bus all night was an alternative to being on the street or in a shelter until I read an article about The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority bus 22, which runs 24-hours, going from East San Jose to Palo Alto, California. Every night and into the early morning hours, the bus is full of homeless people, paying $2 for the two-hour, one-way trip.
They ride the bus all night, sleeping between the herky-jerky stops, and then disembarking at the end of the route, getting back on the bus a few minutes later, to go the other direction.
The increase in homelessness, at least in Seattle, is tied to soaring rents, loss of older, more affordable apartment buildings, persistent poverty, unemployment, and inadequate treatment of resources for the addicted and mentally ill.
Several years ago, I helped move residents from a tent city being hosted at a church in Redmond to a synagogue in Bellevue. I remember showing up, and seeing piles of pallets, on which the residents pitched their tents. While handled with great dignity, the tent city was a horrific existence, especially when it rained, when a trip to the porta-potty required putting on shoes, and slogging on muddy paths.
I made a couple of trips in my car, moving residents and their possessions between the church and synagogue. One man, with a British accent and a gentle manner, had a suit, shirt, and tie in a cleaner bag. I asked about the outfit. He said he used to be a programmer for a company in Seattle. He’s gotten laid-off and couldn’t find another job. He wore the suit when he interviewed.
It was a startling admission, and just showed how quickly someone can “fall” when they can’t find employment or as happened several years ago, can’t afford the mortgage on a house or condo. I wonder how many whose houses were foreclosed are still living in apartments or with friends and relatives. On a regular basis, the Seattle Times has articles about people being displaced when their affordable apartment was renovated and turned into more expensive apartments or sold as condos.
Even though people think of homeless people existing primarily in downtown Seattle, it’s in plain site on the Eastside. When I lived in downtown Bellevue, I remember seeing an elderly woman begging by the freeway off-ramp. After getting home, I gathered up all my change and bills, and walked back to the off-ramp. She was dressed in soiled, but tidy clothes, a safety pin held the collar of her shirt together.
She said that she took care of her mother until she recently died. She then found herself on the street. To this day, I wish I’d offered her the extra bedroom in my apartment. She could have taken a shower, and I could have purchased her clean clothes, and investigated social services the following day.
I was reminded of her a few weeks ago when I was getting on the freeway in Kirkland. An elderly woman, wearing men’s loafers (they appeared to be several sizes too large) and shabby, mismatched clothing was holding a sign, indicating she was homeless. The signal turned before I could reach for a dollar or two to give her.
A few hours later, at Pike’s Market, I watched as the women in the restroom step aside to make way for an elderly woman, also wearing men’s shoes, and pushing a cart, filled with her belongings. They seemed embarrassed by her, but I was embarrassed in an upscale town like Seattle there are around 8,000 people without shelter every night.