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This is America, Right?

   Posted On: May 28, 2014  |    Posted In: Random  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

Six hours into a babysitting shift, the bright screen of a text message caught my eye. I reached down to pick my phone off the couch and already sensed what was coming. The clock was dangerously close to midnight and a text from my employer could only mean one thing. She wanted to stay out later.

I swiped open my phone and saw her emoji-riddled text message. “Can you stay until 1?” (smiley face, hearts, smiley face).

“Sure,” I started typing back while looking over at her extensive DVD collection. “But could I also get cab fare home?”

In seconds she’d responded, “Of course. When it’s this late, I’ll always give you cab fare.”

In my early days of babysitting, I never asked for cab fare but would gladly accept it and then pocket the extra $20 and take the subway home. I babysat in safe areas and never felt threatened walking to or taking the subway home at night.

Even on nights when I’d have to be up only five hours later to work an opening shift at Starbucks, I would take the subway and risk taking an hour to get home (late night trains are infrequent) instead of the 15 minute cab ride. In those days, $20 was a lot of money and worth an hour less of sleep.

These days, I value my time enough to flag down a yellow cab and get home in 15 minutes instead of the hour it could take with late-night trains. I also don’t need to babysit to make ends meet. I still babysit because I truly enjoy the family I work for, I completely set my own schedule and I put the money in my “fun fund” so I can loosen up my purse strings a bit.

When 1 AM rolled around, the mother strolled in from her night out on the town and, as promised, paid me my wage plus cab fare.

I walked out of the apartment building’s doorman-guarded entrance and onto the silent streets of the Upper East Side. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but the residents of the UES certainly shut down pretty early.

7271575262_ec57225631_zIn the interest of getting home quickly, I walked a block down to an intersection and flagged a yellow cab.

Settling myself into the backseat, I gave the cabbie my address in Queens (yes, they will actually go there) and dialed up Peach to have our routine “good night” phone call.

12 minutes later, the driver was approaching my street. I gave him a few directions about where exactly I lived and he pulled up to my row house apartment. As I pulled out my credit card to pay, the cab driver inquired, “What had you out this late?”

To most cab drivers, a 20-something woman coming home on a Saturday night at 1 AM would seem rather early. But given that I was clearly not intoxicated and had flagged him down on the almost suburban-like streets of the Upper East Side, he curiosity was piqued.

“Oh, I do some babysitting for extra money,” I said nonchalantly.

I caught a glimpse of him smiling in his rear-view mirror.

“Ah, yes. You must hustle,” he said. “But this is America, right?”

Nodding, I got out of his car with those words ringing in my ears.

This is America, right?

In the wrong context, that sentence could certainly be some sort of mantra for the Tea Party or fanatical groups dedicated to keeping America from opening her boarders to immigrants.

But to my cab driver, an immigrant, those words meant that America was a land where one must work hard to survive and live the American Dream.

There has been so much talk over the years about the disappearance and reinvention of the American Dream.

Truthfully, I’d never given much thought to the “American Dream.” I spent my formative years happily living outside her boarders. I didn’t focus on a white-picket fence version of my future with a husband and 2.5 kids. Frankly, my “American” Dream was/is to eventually find a way to live as an expat again (with a lucrative paycheck). I claim American citizenship simply because I’d had the fortune to be born here. And I do mean fortune.

America is far from perfect. We have poverty. Disease. Political tension. Racism. Sexism. Abuse. Crime. And yet, people from around the world still flood into America in search of a better life.

No, America is not a magic land where hard work alone can move you out of your circumstances and into another tax bracket. There are scores of hardworking men and women who simply can’t catch a financial break and stay trapped in a cycle of poverty. But for some, America is a land where hard work and perhaps more importantly, luck, can drastically change their circumstances.

For me, in that moment of the early morning, America was a land where a young woman of privileged background and a cab driver, who immigrated to this land, shared a moment of understanding about what our shared country was founded on and what it takes to survive.

After all, this is America, right?

Image taken from Flickr

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48 responses to “This is America, Right?

    1. Haha, thanks Will. I tend to be more of a storyteller in how I write. Blame (or thank) the journalism degree!

      1. Agreed with that, you can tell you have a journalism background. It’s interesting that you’re still babysitting even though you don’t need the money. $20 an hour is really nothing, especially in NY, but if you love it then it’s a hobby that you get paid for. That’s great to have.

  1. It’s great that you are working a little extra on the side hustle and I completely agree that if you work hard enough and are persistant you can accomplish some great feats…….America

    1. Side hustles are important! I do freelancing writing to make the “real money” that actually goes into my savings account instead of fun fund.

  2. So much luck involved in this world, it’s actually one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life. Though I still believe in hard work, so you can take advantage of the luck when it comes your way.

    ps. I almost always take the subway after being given cab fare too 😉

    1. Sweeping declaration: I will never stop believing in hard work! But I can imagine that in your industry it can be a bit discouraging about how much can do with luck.

  3. I feel really blessed to live in the city (and country) I do – but you need a heck of a lot of money to get by. On a slightly different note, I was just reflecting on what needs fixing in Auckland in yesterday’s post, and while the good thing is these are issues solved with money and planning, the bad thing is there doesn’t seem to be anyone at the top levels with the motivation or vision to take action.

    1. Maybe you need to run for office to help make some change!

      There seems to be too much bickering in our higher levels of government to allow anything to get done…

  4. Beautiful post!

    I remember the days when I opted to walk just to spare cash.. and in retrospect it wasn’t always the right choice safety wise or to get enough sleep.

    Never stop hustling.

    1. Yeah…I probably put myself in potentially bad situations to save money. Glad nothing ever happened!

  5. I love his comment. I actually had a conversation with my dad this weekend about how it’s really immigrants who you see “hustling” nowadays. Even just a few generations removed, people don’t want to put in any extra work, but when you first get to America from plenty of other places in the world, it really can still seem like a land of opportunities as long as you’re willing to put in long hours. That doesn’t stop being true, but we do seems to be getting much lazier as a whole.

    1. It’s is nice though that this country has a constant influx of hustlers! Makes the rest of us up our game.

  6. That’s an awesome story!

    I think that most people who work hard for living can relate to each other in that way. And who knows, maybe the cab job was his second job of the day too.

    Nothing wrong with hustling!

    1. It really could’ve been his second job — but I hope he isn’t driving too tired!

      I’ve noticed a lot of Uber drivers do it as a second gig. If I had a car, I’d join up too.

  7. Awesome post, this is indeed America and I love it here. Sure, I’d love to live somewhere else one day, but like you, I was privileged enough to be born right here.

    I do have to disagree a bit though, hard work in America really can make all of your dreams come true. I remember growing up, I said a racist slur about gas stations. My dad nipped that right in the butt saying…”You know why foreigners own gas stations?” of course, I responded with “Why?” He said…”Because as Americans, we grew up with privileges that very few countries have. These guys running gas stations know what it’s like to have it rough. So, they save, they come here…they eat $.50 cheeseburgers and live in a garage until they can afford to invest in something. When it’s all said and done, they find the American dream. But you son, you didn’t have to work for this…it was given to you” OK, so I don’t know the exact words, but that speech changed my life. I did what any good foreigner would do and today, I own companies as well!

    1. Nice sentiment from your father, but I disagree because there are many people in this country that work incredibly hard but don’t have the circumstances to pull themselves out if it. It’s hard to say to a single mother of three who works multiple jobs that if she just “worked harder” she could change her situation. Part if comes down to knowledge, access to the proper tools and I’m going to stick with it – a dash of luck.

      But, I do agree that American affords people far more opportunity to change their stars than other countries. Some immigrants may have been stuck in a caste system in their native countries but here they have opportunity to own their own business or get a top-notch education.

      1. Well, now that you put it that way, I can see how resources could be limited for some. However if you’re not a single mother or going through a time that could be just as hard, you do have the ability to work harder, conserve more, save, and live the dream at some point. Yea…my dad rocks by the way!

  8. Beautiful! I would have taken a cab at that hour too. This is America, the land of dreams to so many. It’s still a place to foster dreams, even though they may come true at different times or in different ways.

    1. Thank you, Melanie. You just never know how your dreams can come true, but at least we have the opportunities to make it happen here.

  9. Hey Erin, this was really great story. Very cool how you choose to show the similarities between yourself and the cab driver rather than focus on the differences.

    I also agree with your sentiments, that most often, people in low socioeconomic statuses are not able to get pulled up. It depends on situations and education and job opportunities, you know?

    1. Education seems to play a huge factor and it doesn’t like that low-income individuals are often pushed into bad public institutions with low retention rates.

  10. As so many others have said, great post. I always have a ton of conflicting thoughts about America, but the general theme is that we are flipping lucky to be here. It’s worth the hustle.

    1. We are absolutely fortunate to live here. It isn’t PC to say, but even the poverty situation here compared to other countries is night and day. I have the images of slums around the world burned into my brain from various trips, and it always made me grateful for being fortunate to be born into both my family and with a US passport.

  11. Nice story. Being from an immigrant family myself, it is common to hear about someone starting as a cabbie and becoming successful by opening their own business or becoming a doctor etc. It really does take a lot of hustle to make it, especially for immigrants.

    1. I think most Americans come from an immigrant family at some point, but mine was many, many generations ago. The post was about focused on my interaction with a recent immigrant. But yes, they do have many things to keep up with.

  12. Awesome story and epic quote! “Ah, yes. You must hustle,” he said. “But this is America, right?”

    My wife continues to work at the YMCA in kid’s stuff each Saturday morning (and sometimes all day) despite having a full-time job and many, many other things she could be doing. It’s extra money and she’s gotten to know the kids and families throughout her nearly decade of employment.

    1. That’s awesome! I’m sure part of it for her must be the social experience and feeling a sense of community and accomplishment. Its nice to have those feelings AND get a little extra money.

  13. This is so beautiful! I think all the time about how fortunate I am to be a US citizen. There is so much horror in the world, and I feel so lucky to have been raised in a time and place where first world problems seem big to me. And blessed to have been reared in a way that showed me that if that’s what’s big to me, I’m pretty damn lucky.

    1. American citizens are extremely lucky. Even our lower quality of living in this country is far better than equivalents around the world. We certainly have issues that need to be worked out, but it’s still a better situation than many impoverished nations.

  14. Thanks for taking me back in time. I too kept babysitting for one family long after my “sitting days” were over.

    When you love what you do AND you get paid for it, why be in a hurry to quit just because it’s no longer a necessity? The freedom to choose is where the fun begins. Good for you.

    1. Thanks! It’s a mutually beneficial situation. I like the family, they like me, it’s only a few hours a month and it’s easy money. Win for everyone!

  15. A girl after my own heart! I’m an attorney and I still babysit. However, I’m super selective and arguably very expensive 🙂 But it’s the extra saving or spending money that really makes a difference. I have the time and until I am debt free (student loans, wah), there’s no reason not to. Love it!

    1. Great mentality! I love that you have such a high-powered day job and don’t see babysitting as “beneath you.”

  16. It is crazy how different America is to immigrants and non-immigrants. There’s no debating the fact that immigrants on average work much harder than us native Americans. They see what we have and they want it, it’s only natural for us to get complacent.

    Btw, who takes a cab these days? Take an Uber, Lyft or Sidecar and save yourself some money 🙂

  17. I completely agree. I just got back to the USA from 4 months in Java, Indonesia. The USA has a lot of problems, but it does a lot right too. And I’m not just talking being able to take my first hot shower in nearly a half year. While I still plan to do the ex-pat thing again, for the moment I am grateful to be back in the USA.

    1. I spent a lot of my life as an expat (also in Asia) and did a lot of traveling, so I also look at the US with a different set of eyes. Seeing poverty elsewhere in the world really puts things in perspective. Glad you like the expat gig and plan on continuing with it!

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