Saturday, July 13, 2013

Assumptions of the Rich and Powerful

The El Tovar is the best hotel in the Grand Canyon area—and I’m not just saying that because I grace the front desk. We’ve hosted famous actors, businessmen, and eight of the last dozen Presidents. Last week Joan Rivers stopped by our front desk. Though most of our clientele are still middle class, I come in contact with more wealthy and powerful people than I’ve ever rubbed shoulders with before. What I’ve found is not that these people are consciously snooty or prejudiced. I’ve found they simply make assumptions about other people—assumptions, I’m afraid, that I may be guilty of as well.
Last week a woman rushed up to the front desk in a panic, asking if she could have an iPhone charger. We don’t keep phone chargers on hand, of course, and I told her so. “You don’t have any back there?” she asked impatiently, furrowing her eyebrows in disbelief. “You won’t even let me use yours?”
I’m sure it didn’t occur to her that she was speaking to a front desk full of people who make $8.25 an hour. Not only don’t I have an iPhone, I don’t have a phone at all. But when I told her I didn’t have a charger she could use, she assumed I was simply being selfish.
It’s a certain sort of irony, that the people who work in such a fine hotel generally aren’t able to afford it. This woman didn’t sense it, but I do occasionally see flashes of that realization in people’s faces. Sometimes they’ll ask me what I prefer in the dining room where meal charges regularly run over $100. When I confess I’ve never eaten there, they become temporarily embarrassed, stumbling over words.
People will complain when their air conditioning doesn’t work. “Can you imagine how terrible it was in this heat?” the martyrs gasp. I sympathize because that’s my job—to shake my head, apologize, and “poor baby” them. But I can do more than imagine, I sleep every night in a tiny corner of a room with no more furniture than a single bed, dresser and a porcelain sink. I don’t have the luxury of a fan and certainly not an air conditioning unit.
But even though I’m living in that situation, I cannot separate myself from the offending tourists. I am, in a sense, a tourist myself here. The fact that I borrow and work myself through college makes me feel separate from other students I know, for whom the way is paid in full. But though I’ll quip and banter about being a “poor college student,” I know that I could run home in a moment and be fed and clothed and comforted. I have more than I need, and I know where I could get more.
Coming to work in the Grand Canyon was a voluntary choice based more on the promise of ministry than necessity. I probably could have found work elsewhere and made more money, but I decided to make the adventurous choice. Co-workers here, by contrast, have defeated homelessness, divorce, and every tragedy imaginable. Many have nowhere else to go. And though I share for a summer the public showers and threat of bedbugs, we don’t share much more than that.
Perhaps because we come from different backgrounds, I find I make my own assumptions about my neighbors here in the park. Though I don’t think that everyone has an iPhone or can afford different luxuries, I find I do make assumptions about things like hope.
I’m enormously hopeful, a blind optimist. I was raised under the rhetoric that if I worked hard, I could do anything I wanted. I still believe it. I’m in school, and doing well, and when I graduate I’ll do something I love to do, something that matters. I bristle around negativity and pessimism. But I’ve come to realize that in many cases, assuming that others share these attitudes makes about as much sense as assuming that the housekeeper you’re yelling to hurry up has an iPhone. Some people have never been given the opportunity to hope.
I’m amazed by the opportunities that I’ve been handed. I had loving, intelligent parents who pushed me and challenged me. I benefited from passionate and helpful teachers. I’m surrounded by bright, motivating friends. Of course I’ve worked hard as well, but these things have given me advantages that I can’t assume others share.
One cannot equate hope or ambition with wealth, but there is a disheartening correlation. When a child grows up unable to control where her next meal will come from, she may grow up feeling there is little else she can control. Initiative, in many ways, is a learned skill. It must be observed to be imitated, and so many people here lack models.
I’m leaving in a few weeks, and I won’t look back. Others have worked for five years or ten, in the same entry-level position. Some might brand these people failures, but that’s making an assumption that comes from a place of, well, wealth and power. I don’t have bright plans for the future because I’m better, or smarter, or more diligent than anyone else. I’ve been taught. I’ve had dozens of people invest in me and encourage me, teaching me that there is no such thing as a dead end in life.
Rather than assume that everyone has what I have—whether this be material possessions or an outlook on life—why shouldn’t I offer it? Give encouragement, share opportunities, lend hope: I have plenty of those things behind the front desk, if the woman had only asked.

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