Mid-Life Crisis Trip

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Entry 23: Our first week of work

Sun, Aug 27, 2006

11:30 am

One of the reasons that VISTA volunteers make minimum wage is that we're supposed to experience first hand what the folks we're working with experience. They're broke, so if we're broke, we'll begin to grasp what kind of difficulties they face.

(The fact that this also saves Uncle Sam a ton of money is a pleasant by-product, but not the stated goal.)

Robert inadvertently joins the ranks of Salem's homeless as he locks himself out of the apartment. He could call a locksmith, but Laura is due back from Seattle at 5:00 pm and a locksmith would be $25 to $50, which is a lot when you're making $5.15 an hour.

On the bright side, we now appreciate how secure our apartment is. Usually, when you live someplace, you know a way to break into the place (a rear window with a loose screen, a lock that can be jimmied with a credit card).

The only windows Robert can get to are tiny, and are perched 15 feet above the ground. The back porch is a good 10 feet up, so it's out. Yup, pretty secure. Too secure.

So, Robert will just have to find someplace to hang out for five and a half hours.

There's a coffee shop down the street that turns out not to be too busy for a Sunday, so he hangs out there. For a while he chats with Maya, the 10-year old daughter of the manager. They talk about animals (Maya has several horses, and wants to grow up to be a veterinarian), school (she hopes she gets Miss Harris and not Mr. Grom), her friends, her pet figurine collection, drawing comic books, math (which she loves), science (which she doesn't, but Robert points out that vets gotta know science), grammas (she likes the grandmother who still knows how to be a kid), religion (her other grandmother is very involved in a religion, which "has God in it a lot"), and a few other incidental topics.

Sadly, the coffee shop closed at three, so Robert has to hit the hot (92 degree) streets of Salem. He remembers what other homeless guys have told him, and heads for the local mall (good air conditioning). But there's only so long you can hang around looking at things you have no interest in buying.

Frankly, Salem on a Sunday afternoon isn't a real happening place. Especially when you left the house without a book (and the library is closed). It's hard to imagine people living this way full-time, which would really (really) suck.

While all this is going on, Laura's on the bus to Salem, sleeping, reading, and eavesdropping on conversations among three recently released miscreants comparing their petty crimes and the accommodations at various jails and detention centers they have visited.

Greyhound has not improved in the decades since she has used it—hard to find a seat, armrest, and footrest that all work, and the drivers rely on the passengers for directions to the bus stations.

This week was our first week at work. Because we're not working together (even though we're both VISTAs), we decided to split up our work sagas. So "Robert's Week" and "Laura's Week" are covered separately.

Robert's week

Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Robert is nervous, because it's been 20 years since he's had a real job. With a boss and everything.

Fortunately, his boss isn't an early riser and there's no office to go to at this point (they're still trying to find a space to rent). Dave, Robert's boss, agrees to pick up Robert at 10:00 am to head into the temporary office so Robert can do some "job shadowing" and maybe figure out some ways he can help.

It's a lot like the first day of school, which always over-stressed Robert. "Do I have pencils? Erasers!! Do I have erasers? What about paper? Do I have enough? What if I draw a tank battle and use up all my paper but there's a homework assignment I have to write down? Aargh!"

Add to this list: "Will I lock myself out of the apartment again???"

With no office, Robert doesn't technically have a "desk" or a "stapler." But Boss Dave's got an office in Tigard (a town just south of Portland, about 40 miles north of Salem), so they go there to chat with another Economic Development guy. Well, they chatted and threw around acronyms like EDA, TA, RDI, and SBI while Robert sat around looking befuddled.

Now he knows how other people feel when he talks about TCP/IP, DNS, and IP addresses.

He also finds out that Boss Dave is getting paid only a 1/3 salary, although he's working full-time. He's (understandably) not too happy about this and might be moving on in another couple of months, because he has no shortage of job offers.

The branch Robert's working for kind of imploded last year and went from seven employees to none when they ran out of money. They had several offices, including one in Seattle, and there's paperwork scattered all up and down the West Coast. Because everybody's new ("everybody" being Robert and Dave), they have no idea what's going on and they're trying to piece things together as they go.

They head up to Portland to the Main offices of ATNI (Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians). Robert had thought ATNI was some kind of umbrella organization that employed dozens of people and had several branches (of which the EDC—where he works—was just one).

As umbrella organizations go, this is one of those little paper ones they put in mai tais. It turns out ATNI is two women who put on three main conferences a year and a number of smaller gatherings. The main purpose of ATNI is to gain consensus of Northwest Tribes (in the form of resolutions) and then publish them. ATNI doesn't do anything to enforce the resolutions, but they do pass them on to national Indian gatherings.

Tues, Aug 29, 2006

While walking back from the apartment mailbox, Robert chats with Mr. Can Man. This is a guy who collects cans and bottles from the trash and turns them in at the Safeway for money (they have an automated recycling center and it pays a nickel per can or bottle). He tows a small trailer behind his bicycle as he makes his way around town.

Lots of folks just put their cans in the recycle bin, because at only five cents a can, they don't feel it's worthwhile to trudge over to Safeway to collect on them. Mr. Can Man comes by, pulls them out and cashes them in.

Robert finds out that Mr. Can Man has a regular route that he rides ("three routes, really," says Mr. Man) and that he takes in about $70 to $90 per day.

"Not a bad wage," says Robert. Not a bad wage at all. In fact, it occurs to him, that's about TWICE what I'm making right now! Hmmm...maybe there is a future in recycling...

Today Boss Dave and Robert meet with some folks from the Rural Development Initiative who would like to do some developing in "Indian Country" (this is what it's called by the Indians), much of which is also rural. On the Indian side is Boss Dave (a Cayuse indian) and Antone, who looks like a Central Casting Indian.

They find out later that Antone is, in fact, a Central Casting Indian and was in a Jeff Chandler movie (The Great Sioux Uprising) where he was a stunt Indian, riding bareback ("We was sore for two days afterwards," he reports).

Next, a meeting with an actual BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) agent!

Apparently, the BIA is falling on hard times, because tribes can now choose to bypass the BIA and deal directly with the Federal Government. Given the past history of tribes with the BIA (generally not good), a lot of them are choosing to do this.

The BIA guy seems pretty sharp, and Boss Dave is actually wearing long pants and a jacket for the meeting (as opposed to his usual shorts and polo shirt).

Who knew that meetings were such a big part of economic development?

Wed, Aug 30, 2006

This afternoon Robert and Boss Dave meet with the Oregon Tourism folks. This is because the ATNI published a magazine-style guide called The Travel Guide to Indian Country in Oregon and Washington editions. (There's supposed to be copies on the State Ferries, and at various Tourism locations.)

They're here because they want to talk about maybe working with the Oregon tourism folks on it (and tying in with their web site).

In the course of the conversation, they find out that the Washington Tourism folks aren't doing too good. Seems they dreamed up an ad campaign using the slogan "Say WA" (get it?), which everybody thought would be a killer slogan.

As you (a normal, thinking person) might think, it flopped (say WA?). The Oregon folks were taking great delight in this, so Robert had to mention that the Washington tourism folks didn't have to be as organized, because there were things in Washington that people wanted to see, such as Bill Gates's house and the Fremont Troll.

They got all huffy and said, "Well, does Washington have Crater Lake? Huh?"

"Washington has got so many damn lakes, we build bridges on top of them to try and cover them up."

Naturally, when Robert left, he got loaded up with about 10 pounds of Oregon travel guides (Home of the World's Largest Wooden Building!).

Thurs, Aug 31, 2006

Reading the paper pays off!

Seems that there's a guy who wants to do a presentation to the tribes offering cheap oil from Venezuela. Boss Dave is a little nervous because he thinks that Venezuela didn't always agree with the Bush administration about things.

Which is kind of an understatement—the US and Venezuela are at each other's throats, with the Venezuelan leader (Chavez) regularly dropping by to see his good buddy Fidel and the US regularly trying to overthrow Chavez' government.

Of course, the US gets a good chunk of our oil from Venezuela (about 15%) and they sell most of their oil to us for specialized refining, so it's not a simple relationship.

So Robert got to quickly assemble this information and pass it along to the folks involved, so that they can understand how "cheap oil from Venezuela" might be a mixed bag.

Laura's Week

Monday, Aug 28, 2006

Laura's greeted with a lovely bouquet of flowers, fully stocked desk, up-to-date computer, front door key, and parking permit. Then follows the usual tour of the office and introductions to everyone (the Training and Economic Development—TED—center houses several Chemeketa Community College organizations and the SBA-sponsored Small Business Development Center).

In the afternoon, she goes with her boss, Marcia, to a meeting of the Yamhill County Council, where we shamelessly beg for money to fund our program (training and technical assistance for microentreprise startups). They're enthusiastic and have the budget for it, so it'll probably go.

[Robert's note: She also has "decor" in her office. They're getting rid of a desk because "it doesn't match the decor." Sheesh.]

Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

Boss Marcia disappears for the rest of the week, and Laura quickly learns that practically everyone in this office keeps a really weird work schedule. Boss Marcia is in the office Mondays through Wednesdays, works from home on Thursdays, and is off on Fridays.

The reception desk is staffed by two women, one who works Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and the other who works Tuesdays and Thursdays, but either one of them will occasionally appear on days they're supposed to be off.

The Big Boss (Marcia's boss) is in only every other week, but each "week" starts on a Wednesday afternoon. And there are three or four other people with offices, who haven't appeared at all yet.

Laura is pretty much the only one who works 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday.

Fortunately, Boss Marcia is extremely well-organized and has prepared a series of appointments for Laura to meet with entrepreneurs who have completed the 30-hour startup training class and have launched their businesses. She has also made a list of stuff to read, staff people to talk to, and a work plan to develop.

First reading assignment is the participant's workbook for the 30-hour training entrepreneurs start out with. It's well-designed, thorough, and when the participants complete all the homework, they end up with a complete business plan.

Today's entrepreneur interview is with the owner of Moxie's Fun Foods—espresso drinks, elephant ears, and wraps. The place is charming and smells wonderful. She also sells hot dogs, so Laura plans to come back for a lunch.

Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

Laura spends the most of the day reading—history of MERIT, client files, resource organization materials. The first two VISTAs who helped launch the program (even before Boss Marcia was hired) did a fine job of documentation; only the important stuff, with sufficient detail to keep future workers from reinventing any wheels.

Just before lunch, she interviews another MERIT course graduate—a beauty salon owner with a two-year plan to open a cosmetology school. This woman is energetic and totally focused. In addition to running her salon, she's going to school for an Associate's degree (she quit school after 9th grade), and already planning to add four chairs to lease to other stylists. She uses family, friends, suppliers, and clients as sounding boards for all her ideas and plans.

She wants to open the school because she's angry about what happened when SHE went to cosmetology school. For $15,000, they showed her how to do toothpick perms and that was it. Everything else (braids, extensions, coloring, cutting) she picked up on her own. So she'll start her own damn school and do it right.

In the afternoon, the Big Boss, Jimmie, appears. She has the attention span of a fly, and is clearly a major player in Salem's business community. She writes a weekly column (with her picture) in the Statesman Journal, is on countless boards, and knows everybody who is anybody. A fine marketing mind and a great networker, she leaves at the end of the day with a promise that "we'll have a real one-on-one meeting sometime." Given their respective schedules, however, Laura expects this to happen around Thanksgiving.

Thursday, Aug 31, 2006

More reading. Another interview, this time in Woodburn, about 20 miles NE of Salem. This MERIT graduate is a counselor who is struggling to build a practice. Finding clients in a sparsely populated rural area is the biggest challenge, and she's preparing an introduction letter she'll send to attorneys and church pastors.

She taught special education students for many years before launching this enterprise and is fluent in sign language, which she hopes will give her an edge in the deaf community.

Friday, Sep 1, 2006

Today's interview is with an entrepreneur who represents the very bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. She works out of a one-bedroom apartment with every bit of floor space taken up with beds, boxes, bookshelves, and clutter. She makes plastic canvas and yarn doodads (crosses, bookmarks, coasters, wall hangings) that she sells to whomever she can find to buy them. She has a sweet and kindly disposition, but is clearly not able to effectively market her wares.

Laura ends the day by writing up her week's activities (anticipating the monthly report she'll have to submit), and heading out the door with everyone else at 4:00 pm. On Fridays before three-day weekends, the TED center closes an hour early.

As you can see, we had pretty wildly different weeks. Laura's workplace was very structured and organized. Robert's workplace is still pretty scattered and trying to find all the pieces. Laura has a desk, a stapler, and decor. Robert gets to ride around in Boss Dave's SUV a lot (it's a Cherokee with a built-in GPS—so much for Indian tracking skills).

Robert & Laura
Mid-Life Crisis Trip