I have a story to tell tonight. This is an old story and one that I was reminded of this evening while chatting with my cuz about people and the world. This is a story that dates back to when I was only 14 years old and had wanted to work at a day camp during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school.
In NYC, in order to work legally at that age, you first needed to get your working papers, or junior working papers maybe they were called. Ok, let’s go! At the time I was a student at a top private school in Brooklyn and didn’t think I’d have a problem being granted my working papers. I remember my mother looked up where the Department of Labor was where I’d have to go in order to complete the paperwork in time for me to be able to start my new career as a day-camp counselor without a problem. I was super excited!
So one day, my father planned to take me to the Department of Labor on his way to dropping me off at school for the day. I gave myself several hours, I believe arriving before they even opened the doors so I didn’t have to worry about being late to school. We arrive…my father driving me there in his white Lexxus and I jumped out of the car to obtain my papers. (I’ve always been about doing everything legally.) When we arrive, I find that the line to get into the Department of Labor, wrapped around the building. No worries, as I said, I had plenty of time. I get on line.
From where I was standing, I could see that my father was able to find a parking spot right in front of the building, so he was good to sit and wait. I was shy back then, so I probably was not very chatty with those on line with me, but after a few minutes, I see my father get out to go into the building I was on line waiting to get into. Hmmmm… My father, in his Brooks Brothers suit, wearing his leather tassel loafers from Paul Stuart and sporting his watch from Tiffany’s…just brazenly enters the Department of Labor in front of the 100 people on line in front of me. I’m thinking…maybe he had to use the men’s room. 10 minutes later, a man comes out of the building, walks right up to me at the end of the line and asks me if I was Catherine. I said I was. He asked me to come with him. I followed him inside. He brought me to an office, pointed to a piece of paper and told me to sign here and here and then handed me a card and congratulated me on having obtained my first set of working papers.
I was confused, but I took it and left the building…with at least 100 people staring at me as I left the building. I went outside and got into my father’s car…asking, what just happened? My father informed me that he had gone inside and asked to speak to whoever was in charge who he informed that I was a student at that fancy private school and that I should not be expected to wait on line. Aren’t I glad he did that?
I have to be honest with you…I was mortified! I think I cried all the way to school…something my father could not understand. He kept trying to explain to me that I was not like the other people in line. I should be granted a certain level of courtesy. But didn’t he get it? I was just like everyone else! We all put our pants on one leg at a time. We are all human beings trying to be granted permission to work! That was all I had ever wanted, was to just be like everyone else. Nothing granted to me because of where I went to school or because I was white or American or a woman. If I wanted something, I had wanted to work for it, just like the next guy with no favors granted to me!
Now, 27 years later, living in Mexico, I see how people must consider me…una extranjera! She must have money…she must have a family in the States (or Europe…most people here do think I’ve European)…she is so lucky…the opportunities she must have had in life that never crossed my path. What resentment they must have for me. You know…they’re right! I am not ashamed to admit it, I was lucky. But let me explain the differences between me and all my former classmates and colleagues from the States. I feel for those who never had the opportunities I had. I get it! I know how difficult their lives must have been! And I don’t mean that they are not happy! I mean the chances that were at my front door everyday, having grown up in NYC, you get used to the fact that you can have everything at your fingertips.
But I respect them for having walked a different path…a path that must have been filled with obstacles that I could not even fathom! But I know that they must have been there for most people. I consider myself to have been so spoiled! Yet, somehow, I have always known how to “learn” a system to then make it work in my favor. Please…I’m living in a foreign country for over 7 years now and I will be capable of applying for my passport in only 10 more months! Plus I’ll say how one friend in particular, who is Mexican, has just told me how she considers me to be bilingual. (Me, who never took a Spanish class in my life, is considered to be bilingual by a native Spanish speaker! Who would have ever thunk!) Nothing could ever make me prouder than to say that about myself!
I come from a mixed background, considering myself to have been raised by Italians in a European fashion, surrounded by Italians my whole life (from my mother’s side), always having felt like a foreigner when surrounded by true Americans…feel as though I have truly found a home for myself in a foreign country where I can now be considered to be able to communicate in their local tongue! Having heard so many stories from my mother of her childhood and where and how she was raised, painted a different picture of the world than wherever my father must have come from, where just because of where I attended school meant I should be granted considerations that surpassed the common man.
I recognize how lucky I was to have grown up in NYC where, yes, I received a top education, both in school and on the streets. Where I learned how to be a human being, empathetic to everyone’s journey in life, not just the ones of those in my “inner circle.” I have always watched people…tried to figure out their stories…where they were from, what their jobs might be, what their relationship status was…maybe what their ambitions in life were.
This is my gift, granted to me by my innumerable of life experiences. My ability to be a chameleon, always somehow feeling at home, regardless of where life took me (random beach or dive site in Mexico, exclusive cigar bar or steakhouse in NYC, after hours club in Brooklyn…I mean I could literally make friends with a lamp post)…I was taught to always carry myself like I belonged places which has always given me the illusion of security against people who might want to think that I didn’t belong. I can honestly say that I am, and have always been, exactly where I had wanted to be in life because I was there due to the decisions I made…and good or bad…I always made it work. And that requires no arrogance on my part, only the self-confidence to believe in myself and the decisions I’ve made.
Amen to that!