I have mixed feelings about Whole Foods. A co-founder and former CEO, John Mackey, put corporate weight behind opposition to health care reform and unions. On the other hand, there are worse places to work, and they do what they do very well. And my schedule strands me in a wireless desert in Cranston with Whole Foods the nearest oasis.
So I’m hunched at a table eating out of a biodegradable box when I realize I’m being cruised by a guy in an electric wheelchair. Our heads are at about the same level. He’s younger than me, well dressed, his speech is slurred and his eyes a little unfocused.
“Can I ask you something?” he says.
I really want to concentrate on my food, but okay.
He goes into a rambling joke about the president, and the vice president, that I figure out is intended to be a shot at Barack Obama’s right to hold the office.
Some people might have been impressed with the man’s condition, which I guess is MS. But I’m a nurse. So I cut the guy zero slack.
“I find that offensive,” I told him.
“Well, he wants to raise our taxes and give away all our money,” he said.
I looked him right in the eye and told him I knew that the only way he could get through the day is with the help of a lot of good people. He conceded that was true. “Don’t they deserve a living wage?” I asked.
He asked how much they should get. “What’s fair,” I said. He nodded, as if he was seeing the faces of the home health aides who must be a part of his daily life.
“I know how hard you have to work to get through the day,” I said.
“Me, and my wife,” he said.
He took it all in good humor, he was smiling as he left.
There’s a good expression for the human condition –‘temporarily abled’. I don’t know what misfortune robbed that man of his power, maybe some immune system misfire, or car accident. I do know that it could just as easily be me. We don’t know what the next moment might bring.
We can recognize our interdependence, and build a safety net that anyone of us might need some day. Or we can blame the poor and cry about taxes and pretend that the home health aid lacks ‘individual responsibility’ when her labor is so poorly paid that she has to use food stamps to feed her family.
A level playing field doesn’t just happen, anymore than a baseball field maintains itself. Building on solid ground, taxing fairly and investing in education, infrastructure, health care and other aspects of the public good is the American way. If we settle for a gated community as our model, subversion will come in through the servant’s entrance. No one gets through life without the help of other people.