In the office there was a dry-erase board with each of our names. We had a 6:00 p.m. curfew, and every day at 5:59 the countdown began. All the kids in the living room counted backwards from sixty, staring at the door. At 5:59 and 45 seconds some young gangster would always come running in, make a dash to the dry-erase board, and place a check by his name.
I never went anywhere, so I sat on the arm of the couch by the door and counted down with everyone else. I was used to measuring my time precisely. I got up quick, at the first peep of sun, to silence the hammering of my alarm clock. I showered beside the ticking time bomb of an egg timer. I got dressed. I did my chores.
Foster care, two weeks—that’s all I thought I was signed up for. But I wound up living in group homes and various foster placements throughout Los Angeles for the next four years. I call this portion of my adolescence The Time of The Rules. There were rules before, but these rules were more specific:
1. Do all chores by 5 p.m.
2. Have room clean and ready for inspection by 8 a.m.
3. Treat others with respect
4. Do not use bad language, race talk, sex talk, or “mother talk”
5. No gang signs or actions allowed
Sometimes in the group homes there was a cool-ass staffer. That staffer would say something like, These are the rules. If you don’t like them you have two options. 1) Break them and accept the consequences. 2) Change them.
I met a bunch of kids who chose option 3: break them and get away with it. Boys filled sandwich bags with my clean pee, put the bag in a rubber dog toy called the Kong, and ran a long catheter through the Kong and down their pants. When the staff looked in on them and watched them piss, no one was the wiser.
I’m not sure if it’s naiveté or optimism that made me obsessed with the Rules, and then later with changing them. I’m not sure why I rarely tried for option 3. It’s likely that I knew I was never cut out for that, or born into a place where I could learn to be. I learned later that the wealthy, Wall Street, the banks—they all get to break the rules. But us, the poor, the people of color—we don’t. It’s only your proximity to privilege and power that opens the escape hatch of option 3. You can break the rules and get away with it, but only if you’re rich.
Four years ago, for example, I was a field coordinator on a campaign around bank-owned blighted homes in Los Angeles. What can I say about the neighborhoods where these homes were found? There were shattered street lamps, tennis shoes dangling on telephone wires, CRIPS FOR LIFE sprayed on the drywall. Vacant lots with rusty car parts, skinny girls with wobbly legs, the salted air of French fries. People fought each other in the streets in front of the liquor store or out by the elementary schools, and dogs darted about hunting for food. Everyone, even the dogs, looking of hurt.
But in these places, it was banks that made the worst neighbors. If a family was evicted then the bank owned the house, and that’s when the real trouble moved in. The pimps dragged girls in off the street—dragged them into the bank’s empty houses and raped them. Here was a place for sex trafficking, drug dealing, squatting. Graffiti all over the walls. Inside the homes, amid the damp piles of empty food containers, bottles, used condoms, there was also homework, long division. There were pants and orphaned heels. There was a closet door with the names of girls and their phone numbers. Little nervous eyes peeped out from a window across the street. The residents didn’t call the police. The police came and went but the squatters were here to stay.
The residents had rules to protect them, theoretically. Councilmember Eric Garcetti, who later became the mayor, penned the “Foreclosure Registry Ordinance,” passed in May 2010. The ordinance stated that any bank-owned home that was a “blight” owed $1,000 to the city each day it remained in disrepair. But these rules were not enforced. Who would report these blighted homes? Who would collect the money? No one, even though this was much-needed revenue for the city. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it?
Working on the campaign, I thought back to the staffers’ advice in the group homes. I still believed in rules. I didn’t want people to break them. I didn’t like that the blight rule was not being enforced. I wanted to change that. I invited four councilmembers from nearby districts who were running for mayor on a tour of all the bank-owned homes in South L.A. I invited media too. Everyone got messed up about it. They were angry. They too were wondering why the rule wasn’t being enforced.
And then it happened. We got the bill updated. One of the councilmembers started a summer jobs program with the conservation corps, training kids to report on the blighted homes. I was so happy. Wiggling my butt and sticking my tongue out at the banks.
There are guys over at the building and trades union hall in the San Gabriel Valley who sit all day and wait for their names to be called. I interviewed them when I was campaigning for healthcare reform in 2009. They waited and we drank coffee and ate donuts and they told me about why they chose to sit there for a union job: because they’d done it the other way before. Without a union. They were day laborers who sometimes worked a whole day and sometimes at the end of that day the guy who picked them up would drop them off and refuse to pay. Not just regular work either—hard labor. Sweat. Take all the bricks out the truck. Don’t mess them up. Nothing banged or boomed. And then, after it all, no pay: “Whatcha gonna do? Sue me? Am I gonna have any problems out of you? I can call immigration.” And maybe you’re documented but your brother who’s been working beside you all day isn’t—maybe your brother looks at you like please please please. You went by the rules. The bosses, they broke them.
This is wage theft. There are laws against it, but they aren’t enforced. Eighty-three percent of workers who hold a court-ordered claim to receive their unpaid wages never see a dime. In L.A., low-wage workers lose $26.2 million in wage theft violations every week. I’ve listened to janitors tell stories about not getting paid. I’ve met carwash workers who lived solely on tips—they were not paid wages at all. Carwash workers who were forced to sleep, live, in their cars.
Biblically speaking, there are two rules being broken here. There are sins of commission—when an employer pays a worker less than the minimum wage, or pays for fewer hours than were worked, or pays in cash to dodge payroll taxes (and workers comp and unemployment insurance). And then there are sins of omission—when senior managers, often of very large firms, pressure local store managers, branch managers, contractors or suppliers to keep costs low, without putting in place equally strong measures to prevent wage theft. (James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”)
But a neat thing happened this fall. The governor of California signed SB588, a bill that holds people who commit wage theft accountable. Makes bad bosses pay a fine, wear a scarlet letter, renders them unable to conduct business until they pay what’s due to the worker. When it was announced on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, that Governor Jerry Brown had signed this bill into law, I got to see all the carwash workers and janitors and home health care aides celebrate at a town hall meeting hosted by SEIU United Service Workers West. I thought, What a beautiful day it is. My heart felt lighter.
Then, tonight, as I wrote this, I came upon an article: “Two years later and not a dime has been collected on bank owned blighted homes,” it read. You can change rules so that they’re fairer, so that they’re better to uphold, and they will still be broken.
Reading this, I thought of J, who I met in 2001, when I worked in a homeless shelter. (Maybe I was the cool-ass staffer. Although it’s entirely possible I was the pain-in-the-ass staffer.) J was one of the residents, a young woman from Kazakhstan. She was blind in one eye from being beaten by her husband. She marveled at all the freedom in Hollywood, the queer people, the transgender people, the people from all sorts of backgrounds. People holding hands and making out and shoving each other against walls and dancing all night. She had an awful habit of staring, which she blamed on her thick glasses. She laughed hard and told self-deprecating jokes about her fat butt, her poor English.
But if someone tried to cut her in line or steal her spot she would call them out. She was not just some stupid girl who knew nothing. She was from Kazakhstan! She knew suffering. She knew hunger. One of the things that she did really well was work. She cleaned and laughed and sang, and then went to work at a restaurant as a hostess.
One day she came back to the shelter and reported she’d lost her job at the restaurant because the manager was stealing tips and she called him out on it. When she told me the story she rubbed the spot on her face her husband had pummeled. You could tell she was in shock, having realized that this was not the America she signed up for. Imagine dreaming of a place your whole life and then discovering it doesn’t exist. She discovered instead that this is a country for other people. A country with so many rules. You become an American when you realize that only with the right amount of money and the right amount of power, you can break these rules, or make them your own.
Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
This feature has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona