Americana: Don’t Quit Molly, Don’t Quit
(Left) The author with his daughter, Molly.
In 1983 I walked into my manager’s office. He had told me he needed to see me. He closed the door and gave me the bad news.
“Bill, heads up. I am going to transfer some of your commission points to R___ K___. She needs them to make her sales quota for the year.”
“What? You’re kidding me! I made those sales! I earned the commission. You are taking money out of my pocket! You know how hard I work. Why are you doing this?”
“Sorry, but we need R___ K___ to make her sales quota and attend the Achiever’s Club. She’s black, and it will look better for our company’s Affirmative Action programs if she is there. What else can I say?”
“I’ll tell you what else you can say. You can tell her that if she learned how to write a business letter that didn’t begin, ‘I am sorry I am so late with this…’ she might actually make her sales quota—without you stealing from me. This is so wrong.”
In 1999, I had to make a decision: should I simply toss this Request for Information from Starbucks in the trash can or flush it down the john. I tossed it in the can. Starbucks had wanted to know about the “makeup” of our company, including our diversity programs and efforts to support gays and lesbians, before allowing us to compete for their business.
When did it become a crime to hire the best possible candidates? What would Starbucks have me do? Troll the gay bars for senior project managers? Try to guess if the person I’m interviewing is a lesbian?
I love California oranges but if the price is too high I will purchase a less expensive bag of apples. What’s this? I am in this grocery line behind a pregnant Hispanic woman and her two screaming kids. She is buying the expensive oranges. Oh no, wait, that’s not quite right. I’m the one buying the oranges. Without saying a word because she can’t speak English, she simply handed a wad of food stamps to the cashier.
The people in the line behind me leave for other lines. I stay. Every few minutes the Hispanic woman looks at me with this blank unapologetic expression. I am good at such things, so I return the look. She will never know what I am thinking. Twenty minutes later, the exasperated cashier and I exchange glances.
A few months ago, I learned the definition of a “baby-momma,” a woman who has a baby out of wedlock. Oh. In my day, that would have been considered a shameful event. I guess I better learn it. Half of today’s kids are born to baby-mommas.
How, pray tell, will these baby-mommas support themselves? Huh? Oh, sorry, right. God, I’m slow! Sure, yes, of course I will pay more taxes so that babymommas can get free day care for their kids and plenty of California oranges to eat.
Oh, yes, I understand the explosive discontent that led to the election of Donald J. Trump. Every white American over forty years of age understands the stories I have just shared, and could easily add their own versions. So when Mr. Trump comes to town and talks about the world of nice paying jobs and “taking care of our people first,” it strikes a cord with many, because that closed world was the world of the 1950s and much of the 1960s.
But it doesn’t resonate with all. A woman is crying but I don’t have time to talk to her since I am racing through the Atlanta airport, so I tell her I will call her back. Later, I retreat to my hotel room and return the call. “Dad, what just happened,” my twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Molly, wants to know. “How could this racist, sexist, idiot of a man be elected president? I feel so awful.”
“I know, Molly. The truth is, I am as shaken as you.”
Only one other event in my American life has been as troubling to me as the presidential election of 2016. At least on September 11, 2001, I know what to say to my then twelve-year-old daughter who knew that I was on a Delta flight when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
But what should I say to her now? She had invested so much of her energies in the 2016 election.
Molly is an Organizing Director for New Era, a nonprofit organization that helps encourage voter registration and supports social justice for the disenfranchised, such as members of the LGBTQ community, African Americans, or one of President Trump’s favorite targets, undocumented Hispanics.
The phrase “undocumented Hispanics” is an abstraction to many white people, but to my daughter, well, no. Some are her friends, and her friends are in tears.
So I shared with my daughter much of what I have just shared, and then a bit more. Told her that back in the 1960s and into the 1980s, our country felt as one, that even with our differences we would talk and listen with a mind to figuring things out. Today, we scream and shout, and if the other side doesn’t agree, we simply raise our voices.
David Brooks, a Republican, writes for the New York Times. A religious man, he speaks and writes about this widening gap that has formed in our country between “us” and “them.” The shared bonds that once allowed us to mix with each other—our neighborhoods, civic organizations, churches or synagogues— have become segregated, by class or interest. We need to regain our ability to listen to each other and solve our problems, he argues, and such things resonate with me.
In the last five years, I have traveled tens of thousands of miles on South Carolina’s paved and unpaved roads. Ask me what my purpose is, and I will tell you it is to photograph our state’s collection of historic churches. Ask me why I do what I do, and I will tell you it is because it takes me out of the all-white world that would otherwise be mine. Ask me what I’ve learned, and I will tell you that I can now see, clearly, the widening gap between my comfortable life, and the kids walking down an abandoned street in an abandoned town with underwear showing above their torn and sagging jeans.
But that is only what I see. More importantly, I feel their utter hopelessness. By virtue of my blessings in life, I also have a sense of moral and religious responsibility to help the disenfranchised, to meet them “where they are.”
“Molly, can I tell you something else?”
“You know I am a Republican.”
“Well, what you don’t know is that I have voted for a Republican to be president every year since I was first eligible to vote in 1972. But not this year.”
“Dad, you voted for Hillary!”
“Yes, but like many who voted for her, I held my nose so hard it took outpatient surgery to reopen the canals. Well, let’s not discuss my nose, because I would like to offer you some advice. I haven’t done that since your softball career, and that was in high school.”
“What is it?”
“The advice I offer is to forget Donald Trump and his ilk and focus on your own game. The era of the Baby Boomer is ending, and soon yours will be in charge.
“I am so proud of your work, you know that. You led the effort to register 50,000 new voters, and that is a terrific accomplishment. But most of all, I am so proud of you because you give a damn.”
“Thanks, Dad, I feel better.”
“You’re welcome. Now I’ve got to get back to work. Last week, I made some educated guesses and decided our company is now diverse enough to compete for some Starbucks business. So much is changing Molly, and so quickly! We need leaders to make this all work, and you are such a person.
“Don’t quit, Molly, don’t quit.”
Americana is a monthly column highlighting the cultural and historical nuances of this land through the rich story-telling of columnist Bill Fitzpatrick, author of the books, Bottoms Up, America and Destination: India, Destiny: Unknown.
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