The day Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment — the comment in which he accused almost half the country of being parasites who are so wildly entitled that they have the audacity to expect food and shelter — went viral, I had the day off from work. So I took my Prius to the Toyota place to be serviced.
The service guy, Ron, was a gregarious Vietnamese-American. I liked him immediately because when I asked him how much it would cost to replace my two missing hub caps he told me not to bother. He said each hub cap added a pound to the car, which then just ate more gas, and the hub caps don’t do anything for you either.
“Take off the other two and sell them on Craigslist,” he said, somewhat furtively. “Prius people will pay a fortune for that kind of stuff.”
As he was writing up my service estimate, Ron talked a lot. I learned that Ron, who is short, had been an actor in New York for 20 years and that he had lost a role playing alongside Melissa Gilbert to a six-foot-tall Chinese guy. I learned that he likes to save his customers money so he tries to wrangle the estimates so the service fee is on Toyota. He talked about how hard the economy is on people now, and tacking on a $250 charge for extra services that aren’t really needed is against his principles.
“I’ve been working here only nine months, but I already have forty customers,” Ron said. “People know I won’t rip them off.”
I was told it would be a few hours before my car was ready, so I sat on the bench waiting for the shuttle to take me home. That’s when I saw my neighbor, Vince. Vince is in his early 70s, I figure, and walks with a Clint Eastwood-meets-Robert Duvall swagger. He is lean, with a close-cropped white beard, and wears crisp white t-shirts and jeans. Even at his age, he exudes a working-class sexuality.
I had always found Vince to be taciturn, with a stand-offishness that is unusual in our close-knit neighborhood. In fact, Vince didn’t recognize me until I reminded him that I was his neighbor, and lived several houses down from his.
Vince apologized, then offered me a ride back in his truck. He worked for an electrical company, he explained, and had the day off. He surprised me by becoming chatty, in a Clint Eastwood kind of way.
He opined about the Kate Middleton topless photo scandal.
“Why does anyone care about seeing a woman without her top on?”
“I think it’s because she’s royalty,” I said.
“She puts on her bra like every other woman,” he groused.
He talked about Violet, the Hispanic toddler who had been adopted by my across-the-street neighbor Jane. Jane is a three-time divorcee who has decided she’s done with marriage.
“Why do I need a husband? I have a house, two pensions, and I don’t care about black lingerie anymore,” she once told me.
In her mid-5o’s, Jane is done with husbands but not with children. She adopted Violet two years ago, and then adopted Vince and his wife Clara as Violet’s surrogate grandparents.
“Violet stays with us for a couple hours every afternoon,” VInce said. “It’s the best part of our day. She is just so funny! She loves my truck but she can’t really pronounce it, she says tee-ruck!” Vince shook his head, laughing, as if this was the funniest thing ever, as only a besotted grandparent would do. “I think she’s the most incredible child. And she’s going to grow up to be a fine young lady.”
“Jane has done an amazing job as a single mother,” I said. “She seems unflappable.”
“Well…Jane has her issues,” said Vince. “But that’s because of how she was raised. I understand that.”
It was a sentence that begged for more. I waited, but it didn’t come. Vince dropped me off at my house and told me to walk down to his house when my car was ready.
“That way you don’t have to take the shuttle,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure. I’m not doing anything today. Except seeing Violet.”
As I walked up the steps of my front porch, I thought about Vince’s offer. I thought about how unusual it was for neighbors to help each other out like that. But then, that’s how it is in my neighborhood, a neighborhood full of people that Mitt Romney thinks are dispensable.
Where I live, people understand no one gets through this life alone, and unassisted.
* * *
When Ron called to tell me that my car was ready, I walked down to Vince and Clara’s house. Vince doesn’t make a lot at his electrical job and he and his wife mostly live on pensions. Although they have a lovely garden, almost all the paint has chipped off the exterior of the house.
Violet was running around Vince’s truck in the driveway, having giggle fits, and Vince was chasing her: “Where’s my Violet?”
Jane sat on the couch in the living room. Next to her in a chair sat Vince’s wife Clara, with Jane’s other child, an African-American infant whom she is fostering, on her lap. Clara is in her 70s, apple-shaped, as emotive as Vince is reserved.
“Have you met Matthew?” Clara beamed. “Isn’t he precious?”
“Yes,” I agreed, trying not to appear amused as I spotted Fifty Shades of Gray on Clara’s side table.
Vince ushered Violet inside. Jane called to me as I walked towards the door with Vince.
“What do you think of my little family?” she asked me, practically gaga with exuberance.
“Your family is wonderful,” I said.
And it was. An unlikely assortment of people had come together to form a family. A bygone-days kind of family, with different generations living on the same block. An if-Mom-is-sick-Gramma-can-run-over-and-watch-the-baby kind of family.
* * *
On the drive back to the Toyota place, Vince opened up about his upbringing. His dad had wanted to be in the Navy, but had lost a leg somehow, so he ended up in the Merchant Machine, where he was a cook. When he died, he left his wife with four children. Soon after, Vince’s mom ended up in a “sanitarium” for four years, and he and his siblings became wards of the state.
“We were in different foster homes for four years,” Vince said, without a hint of emotion. “Then my Mom got better, and got us all back.”
Vince joined the Merchant Marine, and met Clara where he was stationed. They fell in love and moved to the city where we live now.
“We’ve been married 51 years,” he said proudly. “Clara wanted a dozen kids. She had sixteen brothers and sisters. But she wasn’t constructed for kids, the doctor said it was a miracle she had any. We had four, until one died, and now we have three. Two boys, and a girl.”
“Do they live close by?” I asked.
Vince shook his head.
“My daughter lives in Florida. I miss her something terrible.”
Vince dropped me off at the dealership, and I watched him drive away. I understood now, why he was so attached to Violet, who had started out life in foster care. I thought about how you never know the damage people carry around from their past, and how nothing in Vince’s sure gait and All-American whiteness suggested the hell that his childhood must have been.
* * *
Ron handed me my service contract, all beaming and rah-rah like a Mouseketeer. He looked over his shoulder as he told me, on the down-low, that he had canceled out the services until the fee was nothing. “And I got you a car wash,” he smiled.
I thanked him as we waited for my car to be brought around. He asked me if I had kids.
“Two,” I said. “One’s 15 and the other’s ten.”
“Fifteen!” he exclaimed. “If you’d said three, I would have believed you.” Meaning I looked young.
“Thank you,” I said, from the bottom of my middle-aged heart.
“Fifteen,” he mused, scrunching his brow. “Fifteen is what grade?”
“He’s in ninth grade, but he should be in tenth. We kept him back in kindergarten.”
“Ninth grade?” Ron looked genuinely puzzled. “Huh…I think I was in eighth grade when I fifteen.”
“No, you would have at least been in ninth,” I assured him.
Then he explained his confusion.
“I was in a refugee camp for three years during the Vietnam war. Imagine, you have this upper-middle-class childhood, with servants who bring you breakfast, and the next day you’re eating bugs, garbage, anything you can get your hands on, because you’re hungry. You go from a full closet of European clothes to a couple pairs of shorts and some sandals. Then they kept moving us to different countries. Every time I got to a new country, they put me in 5th grade. So that’s why I can’t remember what grade I was in when I was fifteen.”
He said all of this with his same Mouseketeer smile. Like Vince, Ron’s excruciating past, a past that should have made him a stark-raving looney tune, was nowhere to be seen on his face, or in his demeanor.
“Wow,” I said, uneloquently. “I don’t even know what to say. But look at you now — you’ve done so well for yourself.”
“I don’t know,” he laughed, looking away, his first moment of disappointment, wistfulness for what could-have-been. “I was an actor for 20 years, and now I’m here.”
He motioned to his service stall.
“But I’d rather work in service. The sales guys, with their suits and ties, won’t talk to us, but I’d never want to do what they do. You’d be amazed at what goes on over there, the stunts they pull to sell cars.” He glanced over at the side of the lot that sells cars.
“Listen,” he said, in his trademark, I’m-going-to-let-you-in-on-a-secret way, “there’s a couple salesguys I trust. So if you ever want to trade your car in, let me know first.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, as my shiny red Prius pulled around the corner.
Ron walked me to the car, and opened the door. I thanked him profusely, then drove away. As I motored down the street, I thought about the things some of the 47 percent does to survive, things that would send Mitt Romney into a permanent fetal position.
I thought about what would happen to Clara, who’d had three surgeries this year, if there were no Medicare.
I thought about Vince, who was rescued from the streets as a child due to government-funded foster care.
And I thought about Ron, who had pulled himself out of the worst conditions imaginable, and busted his ass everyday at a job that would never land him a seat at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser.
I wondered how it is that the backbone of this country — middle-class people with a work ethic, and grit and astonishing resilience — are treated with disdain, while people born into affluence, who make fortunes gutting companies and leveraging debt and finding tax loophole,s are given free passes to continue raping and pillaging and stuffing their own coffers.
But most of all I was grateful for this day that I didn’t have to work, and got to know a few members of the 47% a little better.