Lessons From the High and Mighty

My daughter worked away from home for the first time this sum­mer, teaching tennis at a private club in Grosse Pointe, Mich., one of the richest suburbs in the world. “It’s an offer too good to refuse,” I advised her. “You’ll learn a lot.”

On occasional phone calls, I heard discouraged tones about how work was going. She felt her boss and his young assistant were getting some pleasure in ordering her around, never saying please or thank you, sometimes even snap­ping their fingers and pointing.

“I feel so degraded,” she said.

“Tell them you like to be asked instead of told,” I suggested.

“I feel too alone right now,” she said.

I was planning to visit Michigan sometime this summer anyway. Upon arriving at my daughter’s lodgings, I was happy to learn that she’d already passed the cri­sis at work. She’d refused to run for a sandwich for the young as­sistant, who’d then told the boss on her, all of which resulted in a staff meeting where her com­plaint was recognized and re­spected.

The trip was far from wasted, however, for I soon discovered an­other deeper crisis. She’d learned her boyfriend back home had been seeing his old girlfriend in her absence.

“Maybe this is a good thing,” I suggested.

“How can it be good, Dad?”

“If he still has thoughts of her, won’t they grow more if he doesn’t see her than if he does?”

“But I’m too vulnerable up here. Yesterday a kid laughed at my old bicycle and I just started bawling.”

“It’s good to be on your own sometimes, without a lot of exter­nal support,” I said. That’s how a person discovers her inner re­sources, and builds them up. If you never go outside what you know, your comfortable routines and circle of friends, you become shallow after while.”

“You don’t know how confused I feel, Dad.”

“Do you want to come home?” I asked.

She didn’t answer. That evening we took a drive around Grosse Pointe. Crossing the city limits into the east side of Detroit, we found the contrast from extreme wealth to intense poverty shock­ingly sudden: abandoned, falling­ down houses, blocks and blocks with boarded-up businesses, no­thing functional but liquor stores with iron grates on the windows.

“How would you like to live over here?” I asked my daughter, noticing her lock her door as we stopped for a traffic light. A growing crime in Detroit is car theft at stoplights, gas stations, etc. I locked my door too.

“This is grim, Dad. Do the black ladies who work in the club kitch­en live over here?”

“Where else?”

We drove back and forth be­tween Grosse Pointe and Detroit a few times, stunned by the con­trast, getting a powerful visualiza­tion of the collapse of the middle in America. From Third World poverty in one side of the street to stately homes, dainty boutiques, lush parks, Cottage Hospital in a grove of shade trees, on the other side.

My daughter wanted to show me where she worked, so we drove down Lake Shore Drive, past the Ford and Fisher man­sions. A uniformed gateman stopped us at the club entrance. I said my daughter teaches tennis here and wants to show me the place.

“Employees are not allowed on grounds during off-hours,” he said, smiling officially.

“Is that so,” I said, feeling sud­denly on the line in front of my daughter. “Then perhaps she won’t be anemployee here tomor­row.”

The gateman blinked and looked confused. He said to wait a min­ute, and stepped into his booth to make a call. “All clear,” he said, writing out a pass.

“We won’t need that,” I said, driving forward.

“How humiliating,” my daugh­ter said. “That shows who I am here.”

“It’s good that you see this con­descension,” I comforted her. “As long as you are serving the weal­thy at minimum wage, you are welcome with big smiles. Just don’t come on the grounds after hours.”

“I have the same status as the ladies in the kitchen.”

“True. You are only a slightly more visible servant, like our friend the gatekeeper.”

“And they are the only ones who are really friendly to me here. You should see some of the members’ noses up in the air. Even the little kids I teach try to boss me around. They refuse to pick up the balls after lessons, un­less I practically force them.”

“It’s good to see these things firsthand,” I said. “You will know something from this summer that you can’t learn in a classroom.”

“But is it worth it?” she asked.

“Do you want to quit?”

“No,” she said. “I can do it.”

A father’s work goes on and on, I sighed to myself, thankfully.

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