On the advice of a great friend I’ve decided to start sending out email updates about my life. If you’ve received this email it means that I like you and that I want to get these updates. Congratulations!
I plan on sending out an update about every six months to a year or so, so if you’d like to not receive these updates anymore please let me know. If you do, I will also then cross you off my list of friends forever, which I keep in my desk at home. Just kidding. Anyway, as of 45 minutes ago, I am now 25 years old. I guess that’s good. I don’t have to pay an underage fee anymore if I want to rent a car.
It has been an eye-opening few years for me that has changed my life forever.
My last semester in college I started volunteering at UNITE HERE local 11, the Hotel and Garment Workers’ Union in Los Angeles. I had read a lot about organizing in college and I thought that I knew a whole lot. I wasn’t there long before I actually found myself yelling at someone about not keeping those members arrested in an act of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience informed about their legal status. One of the organizers yelled at me in response and I went outside to the parking lot. Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt awful. Like I didn’t really fit in at college and now I didn’t fit in at the union. I dried my eyes the best I could and then I went back inside to finish my research. My eyes were still pretty red though, and I put my face close to the computer screen to hide them. A weird skinny guy named Paul, who I had heard previously talk about not eating for weeks, went over to me and insisted that I go out for coffee with him.
We went to a shop close by and talked about all kinds of important stuff, basically everything that was going on in my life. School, women, friends, and student organizing. He was more open about his own struggles and frustrations with me than anyone I had ever spoken to before. At the end of the conversation I agreed to start going to therapy once a week, which I hated the thought of, and to read a book, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck.
I read most of the book, and it was good. I went to therapy once, basically told this woman that everything in my life was absolutely perfect for an entire hour, and then left and didn’t go back. I kept volunteering at the union though, about 10 hours a week despite my class schedule.
After a few weeks I went out to coffee with Paul again and he convinced me to really start going to therapy. I started going once a week.
When I graduated college there were there were 2 options I was considering.
The first was that I could become a teacher in LA and make 36k immediately and 43k in 18 months.
The second, I could get a regular job in a hotel for the experience and do some work for the living wage movement on the side. This was the option I chose.
With a lot of BS about my dream of working my way up the corporate ladder into hotel management, I got a job as a Front Desk Agent at a nice hotel in LA.
It was a terrible job.
I would arrive at work at early in the morning or in the afternoon and for 8 hours would shuffle back and forth between computers and cheerfully deal with “guests” that were sometimes disrespectful. I wasn’t very mature and sometimes I got pretty angry at the guests.
It was kind of like this video game from the 1980’s called “Tapper” where you have to serve glasses of rootbeer to 4 different lines of customers, except in my job, and unlike in the game, occasionally these customers whine about trivial and/or absurd things. Then you have to personally apologize and pretend to empathize with their situation. Also you also have to play for nearly 8 hours at a time and at the end of the day your feet hurt. Also, for the workers but unlike me, they lose if they or their kids get sick because most of them can’t afford health insurance and a lot of them are undocumented immigrants so getting another job would be really hard. If you win though, you get $9.50/hr. minus taxes. You can play it online here and see what I mean. (www.tripletsandus.com/80s/80s_games/arcade.htm)
I didn’t last long at that job. It was almost 3 months before I was fired. My boss said she didn’t like the way I dealt with the guests. I was very upset. I felt like I had let the workers down.
That night I didn’t know what to do. I talked with some good friends I had made in the Union and decided to go to law school. The next day I got some books about the Law School Admission Test and started studying for it.
It was early November though and law schools have a school year that starts in August. I started looking for jobs. I was really downtrodden. I even got involved in this horrible pyramid scheme for awhile. I tried to sell people on this travel club program. I really didn’t know what to do with myself and I felt kind of hopeless.
Also, I got evicted from my house for a variety of reasons. I started looking for an apartment and I was just about to sign the first month’s rent over to a landlord when she raised the rent by $50 a month. I thought I would act tough and pack up my stuff and leave. She didn’t lower the rent immediately though so I drove off and went to Paul’s apartment, (The same Paul I had talked to at the union almost a year earlier.) He had called and said he wanted to talk to me about something.
Paul told me that he wanted to start an intentional community, like one of Gandhi’s, that would live in voluntary poverty and serve the poor. He told me he wanted this community based on the traditions of the Catholic Worker movement. I wasn’t Catholic, which he said was okay, and when he explained the traditions they sounded good but demanding. He said that if I joined we would both receive room, board, and $200 a month from the center’s funds. (Paul had donated all $8,000 of his money to the “center” to start this project.)
I joined. I moved into Paul’s apartment and slept on Paul’s bed, Paul slept on the floor, that’s the way he wanted it. I started doing simple errands, trying to put a website together, building a list-serve, putting a newspaper together, and generally tried to help Paul get the logistics of the center worked out, kept the place pretty clean, and cooked simple meals of rice, beans, and salad. I also sometimes delivered food to the neediest families of hotel-workers, some of whom had been fired for standing up for a union. I also kept up a program of a therapy which Paul challenged me on and insisted I take seriously.
It was a beautiful struggle we were engaged in. The struggle to end poverty among working families in America. To me, it was the struggle of whether the hotel workers would be able to afford healthcare and anything beyond the most basic material necessities for themselves and their families or the hotel executives would be better able to compete in the accumulation-of-material-superfluities status game. It was about whether or not 40-hours a week was enough to earn a family a basic existence. It was whether or not the some the workers would be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. Whether the children of working single Moms would get an ice cream from the ice cream truck or whether the children of the executives would get a nicer car or pony or vacation or whatever. It was whether the workers would get a decent life and a decent opportunity to raise their kids in a decent neighborhood or not. It was a beautiful, beautiful struggle. And I will always be grateful to have something so wonderful and honorable to strive for.
I grew a lot as a human being there. When I first got there I was very angry at others, myself, and the world. I was kind of bitter and hopeless. Being there, and being pressed to open up and speak candidly, greatly helped me attain some understanding for myself and others and some happiness to alleviate the feeling of hopelessness. The anger dissipated to the point of not being present at all sometimes. I learned not to beat myself up. If you only knew me after I had this experience you would probably think that it is absolutely impossible that I could have been like that for a long time, but I was, for real. My life at the center was so simple and so materially austere but I miss it so badly. I grew so much from that experience and I miss the camaraderie I had with all the aspiring labor organizers there. We were bound together in struggle in a way few non-activists will ever understand.
Anyway, I eventually took the law school admission test, and applied and got accepted to some law schools. I chose the University of Akron because despite being in Ohio they had offered me what looked like a great scholarship but in reality I had to be in the top 15% of my class to maintain. Sadly, despite my best efforts I have lost it with flying colors but I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay.
I had doubts about leaving the center up to the point that I left and went to law school. It seemed that a lot of organizers that were really accomplished and respected thought the center was a great idea and one young successful organizer was even planning to leave his job in Boston and join it.
I wish I had stuff to talk about from my past year in law school but I really don’t. My life has been studying and going to class, sometimes hanging out with friends, and occasionally even going to the gym. I went home to California for Thanksgiving, Winter Break, and Spring Break. All my courses were prescribed my first year and when I got out I took Alternative Dispute Resolution in the early summer (basically how to negotiate well and reach a good settlement.) This summer I plan to volunteer at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission but I will end up volunteering somewhere. I need to stay in Ohio this summer to establish residency here.
December 17th, 2020
“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die …” — Ecclesiastes 3:1 “Surrender to what is dying, and become attentive to what is emerging.” — … Continue reading
December 27th, 2019
After being invited to Barcelona, Spain this fall for a chaotic tour of book talks, TV appearances, and radio interviews, I needed a place to recover from all the activity. And one of the greatest realizations of my life has … Continue reading
December 24th, 2018
As many of you know, I am a social justice geek. I compulsively read and think about social movements, and have been doing this for a long time, and am now considered a specialist in the field commonly referred to … Continue reading
January 18th, 2018
The election of Trump was like somebody threw a political bomb into the middle of a crowded room. For undocumented people, it meant fear of losing DACA and being deported. For labor unions and the working poor, it meant losing … Continue reading
January 9th, 2017
Many have asked how I am feeling after Trump was elected to President of the US. The largest natural disaster in my lifetime just hit my community. It reminds me of both the day after my father died in my … Continue reading
December 31st, 2014
Dear Friends, I started the Center for the Working Poor in 2006. I donated all my money and my car, and slept on the floor of my shared, cramped apartment with our first full time volunteer, Clayton Perry. We ate … Continue reading
December 17th, 2012
The Center for the Working Poor, (aka the Burning Bush Community), continues to share in the wonderful mix of serving the poor, communal living, prayer and meditation, and nonviolent movement organizing that distinguishes our beautiful home. In addition to delivering … Continue reading
December 15th, 2011
By Paul Engler Every once in a while, a rare and special moment comes when you realize that you are doing more than turning out for just another protest. Instead, you realize that you are in the middle of true … Continue reading