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Shrimp 'n Grits

“Just take the stickers off!”
Lee Walton

As I walked slowly east on Wentworth, I couldn’t help but notice the rusty wine-red hues of the Dogwood trees and the variegated yellows and orange of the Crape Myrtles lining the sidewalks as they shimmered in the early afternoon breeze. Pleasant warmth penetrated my jacket from the bright noonday rays of an Indian Summer sun that flickered between the shadows from the eves of the stately old homes lining both sides of the narrow streetscape typical of the Ansonborough District of Charleston. I approached East Bay Street, preoccupied with the heavy burdens of my struggling business, and was suddenly startled by the same homeless fellow that I had befriended at lunchtime a week ago. His broad grin was ringed by a weathered face obviously unshaven for days. “Hey buddy, can you help an old friend again?” Today, the Vote Obama, I need the money sign he proudly held before was replaced by a large piece of cardboard held in my face bearing a scrawled plea Viet Nam Vet – Will work for food. After gathering my thoughts and composure, I replied that I had a proposition for him if he was still on the corner when I returned from lunch.

As I continued down East Bay toward Market, I became preoccupied with the lingering thoughts of a conversation with my wife during breakfast several days ago on the Wednesday morning following the election. We both had shared the same fleeting hopes for a Republican miracle as we went to bed the night before, too tired to watch the returns any longer. The headlines of the Palter and Chatter, although not unexpected, were tough to swallow with strong coffee that morning. As I rose to shower and shave before dressing for work, my wife’s final comments cut to the quick of the matter – “Just take the stickers off. I don’t want to broadcast my politics any longer. Let’s just get on with our lives and hope for the best. The country is going to hell in a hat-basket anyway.” As I stood in the shower, my initial thoughts were to let that blue and white McCain/Palin sticker just rot off my bumper. Still, the more I thought, the more I knew my wife was right – as always. All of us just have to make the best of the election’s outcome and hope that an Obama Administration will govern from the political center and on a path that will turn the national economy around as quickly as possible before more people, including us, get badly hurt.

Entering the restaurant I often frequent for lunch, there was a subtle difference in the ambiance, but after a few moments the reasons became all too noticeable. The place was almost empty and unusually quiet; only about half a dozen tables were occupied with diners obviously more interested in sustenance than conversation. The host offered me a table, handed me a menu, and said he would return shortly for my order. Glancing around, I noticed that the number of wait-staff was far less than I remembered. The host returned and inquired if I were ready to order. Somewhat troubled by the obvious change in the pace of business, I inquired about the reduced staff and of the whereabouts of the bright young part-time waiter/college student that had served me a few times before. Obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed, the host murmured that things were tough, business was dropping off at an alarming rate, and they had to lay off all of the part-time wait-staff just to give the permanent staff an opportunity to make what money they could. Before I could respond, he asked again for my selection. I suddenly realized that he was now my waiter working for the same tip that I had denied my liberal-minded part-time student-waiter last week. As I finished lunch and asked the host for my check, I inquired again about the fate of the young part-time waiter. In an unexpected response of obvious compassion, the host said that the young man had been working his way through college with a heavy burden of government loans; now he was out of a job and didn’t have the money to register for spring semester classes. He had told the host that his only choices now were to either join the Army and hopefully finish college with the aid of veteran’s benefits or go home and live with his financially struggling parents.

Walking back up East Bay, I noticed the homeless fellow still panhandling across from the liquor store. As I approached, a young well-dressed woman had just handed him a few bills, which he quickly stuffed into a bulging, greasy coat pocket. Knowing that our office staff was in the process of consolidating space and moving several large file cabinets, I offered the fellow employment for the afternoon and possibly another day of part-time work at $10 per hour if he wished to follow me back to the office. To my surprise, he snapped back in a manner and tone totally unexpected. “Hey buddy - I don’t need your lousy job or your measly $10 an hour. I make four times that just standing on this corner asking for loose change.” So much for combining charity and work ethics - it’s like trying to mix oil and water!

Finally, back at the office, I pitched in to help my staff struggle to please an important client who had lately become very fee conscious and threatening to take his business elsewhere. Everyone in the office knew that there were lean times ahead. At the “all hands” meeting last week, they pleaded with me not to close the firm. No one was hiring, and they had families that depended on me for a living. After considerable discussion with each of them, I had agreed to keep the firm going only to the extent that they were willing to take the cuts in salary and benefits necessary to keep income above fixed cost. Otherwise, I would shut the door and retire early. I wasn’t going to drain the last dime from our dwindling cash reserves or borrow from my hard earned, barely ample retirement investments just to pay salaries, mandatory healthcare costs, and higher business taxes. They all understood the gravity of the situation and stoically agreed to my conditions. Fear of loosing one’s livelihood has an almost indescribable complexion – it’s the unmistakable pallor of simultaneous desperation and hope.

Scrooge has come early for Christmas at our office this year with no one to blame but nameless, unaccountable elected officials and financial managers in far-off places called Washington D.C. and Wall Street.