Tuesday, January 11, 2011
I took my place in the back seat of the rust stained white station wagon next to a nervous and foul smelling sheep dog. I had a suspicion that the brown stuff matted into his fur with burrs and small twigs was not mere dirt. Fortunately for me, he did not move about the car at all but instead was working intently on removing all of the interior plastic and foam from the door on his side of the car. The middle aged couple in front of the car was friendly even if loudly opinionated about everything and nothing in particular. Mrs. Pheasant, a gray haired dumpling of a women whose eyes rarely focused on anything but just sort of rolled around lazily, produced a paper bag containing a bottle of gin from the floor of the car. We were only 20 minutes into our hour and a half trip to the cape and already she was offering a swig to her husband who was driving. By the time that we reached the ferry in Hyannis both of them were pleasantly inebriated and ready for the jolly ferry ride to Nantucket.
When I was 17 years old and a recent high school graduate from a small farm town in Ohio, my mother dropped me off in Marlboro, Massachusetts, with a friend of her friend who owned a summer home at the far end of Main Street in Nantucket. The plan was that I would be able to live in a safe environment with cheap rent while I found a summer job so that I could make money for college. I never told my mother that the sweet couple, the Pheasants, who picked me up had 15 kids jammed into their little house all paying $50 a week in rent. I shouldn't really say that I stayed in their house, my bed was in a shed similar to one that you might find at the Home Depot that looks like a tiny little barn. Three girls shared this space. Two were in bunk beds that fit perfectly to the depth of the shed and my bed completed the L to theirs along the length. At night, my suitcase would go on the floor and in the morning I would put it back up on the bed so that we could get to the door.
I loved it! I was independent, surrounded by kids from all over the country. I worked at least two jobs a day, sometimes more, and often bathed in the ocean in between jobs because there was only one bathroom for everyone. I rarely saw the landlords, who had usually passed out cold long before most of us returned from our jobs during the day. And, I made plenty of money to take to school with me in the fall.
Flash forward 20 years. I was visiting a young woman whom I had originally met in Nepal. She was working for a hotel on Cape Cod. I was appalled to find that she was living in a hotel room with 5 other girls. Each one of them was paying $100 a week rent to the landlord who was also their employer. Just about all of the money that they made cleaning the rooms went to rent and food. After the airfare round trip to the US from Nepal, these young women would have less to take home with them than they had at the start. At first I was furious that they were being exploited this way. I was sure that it was not legal. But the young woman asked me please not to say anything to anyone. This was her chance. If she could demonstrate that she would play by the US rules, she might have the opportunity to return to a different job in the US someday. After a few moments reflection, I could understand that what she was doing was really not very different from what I had done at about the same age.