Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Lesson on Pursiung One's Own American Dream

The tale of the woes of the Little PDX Pillow Factory, and our personal woes by association, makes me fightin’ mad.  Still, I can hear readers grumbling out there:  “What is she whining about?  He didn’t lose his job like so many other Americans have.  They didn’t lose their house, or even their credit rating.  There’s still a roof over their heads and food on the table.  She should be thanking the Universe for what they have rather than complaining about what they don’t have.”

This is all true, to a point.  Most Americans who find themselves in the same position we are in right now—not starving but unable to get ahead;  going backwards, even—are of my generation or slightly younger.  We were brought up with a somewhat more inclusive world view than subsequent “It’s-all-about-me” generations.  We were taught to be grateful for our blessings, and consider those who are less fortunate than we are.  And if the  predicament in which the hubs and I find ourselves were the result of some act of god—like the flooding of New Orleans, for example—I would be prostrate with gratitude that we have what we have.

The problem is, it is not the Almighty which has its hand planted firmly on my forehead pushing me backward with all its strength.  It is people.  People who have way more than I could ever hope to have, but who will not be happy until they get ALL of it.  People who themselves cannot be content with the whole, steaming, savory pie on the plate in front of them, as long as they can see the saucer of three rancid crumbs in front of ME, and know it isn’t theirs.  And who count on my compassion for the person who has no crumbs at all to keep me silently, guiltily content with whatever crumbs I can contrive to keep.  So, really, I believe anger is an appropriate response.  It is righteous anger aimed at unmitigated greed and avaricious power.

The past ten years presented other lessons besides the one I recounted in my last post.  Yes, we learned that hard work, loyalty and dedication to a job/company/industry were not the keys to lasting success because there were larger more sinister forces powerful enough to make collateral damage out of us and our life in their never-ending quest for All The Money.  But we also learned that those forces not only covet our plate of crumbs, but are going to see to it that we don’t get uppity and go off and try to make our OWN pie.   

Even though hubs had retained his job at Little Pillow Factory for a decade, we never expected that he would stay there for the rest of his working life, then go off into the sunset and live out his days on a great pension supplemented by the Social Security benefits he had been paying for since he was eighteen years old.   We were wary enough not to rely too heavily on THAT “happily ever after” (in your dreams) scenario.  When Social Security and Little Pillow Factory both looked to be heading for a dirt nap at the same time, we didn’t stand around, wring our hands and wail, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” We regrouped.  We made alternative plans.  We scraped together our resources and lined up The Next Thing.  The thing that we hoped would keep a roof over our heads and provide a retirement nest egg at the same time.  We bought our own business.

Our plan made sense, or we thought it did at the time.   At our ages, we knew we were approaching unemployability (actually, that boat had done sailed for me several years earlier…) With nearly half a century of restaurant experience between us, it wasn’t  like we were a couple of wet behind the ears kids deciding that we could make a killing serving up grandma’s old meatloaf recipe.   A killing is the last thing we expected to make.  We hoped for a living…nothing more.  Not even a rich living.  Just enough to keep the wolves from the door.  We would buy the restaurant; I would hold down the fort until the husband’s job went away—which we anticipated would take no more than a year or two.  And if the Universe smiled upon us and did not let us fail in the initial stage, we’d keep the place for ten or fifteen years, until we were ready to retire, and then sell it.  If we got back only what we had paid for it to begin with, that would be $90k in our pockets to jump-start our retirement.   

A neat plan.  A do-able plan.  A not-too-risky plan.  And we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

We struggled and bled and sweated for five years.  And in the end, we failed.  And though I knew many of my problems were self-inflicted, it was demonstrated to me almost on a daily basis that the economic deck is stacked against small businesses.  There was no supplier—not ONE—with whom we dealt or tried to deal that was interested in courting our tiny account, nor in going out of their way to provide us with more than the most meager sham of service if they DID condescend to do business with us.  Time after time we suffered the indignity of being summarily dropped by suppliers—not because we didn’t or couldn’t pay our bills, but because our account was too small to bother with. 

The only suppliers who would do business with us did so because their pricing system was such that small accounts paid more for the goods than large accounts did.  Buy less, pay more.  Buy more, pay less.  This was insanely frustrating.  It was obvious to me that there was an intentional plan in the works to put the little guys out of business, against which I was helpless.   (On top of this, my small-town customers subscribed to the seriously delusional line of thinking that I had no right to charge “Portland prices” because we were not in Portland.  Sigh!)  Paying usury prices for supplies, and then not being allowed to set our menu prices high enough to create any income was not a recipe for success.  When it came time to renew our lease, we just said "no." 

As a final fillip, the economy conveniently tanked in the middle of our tenure, so that when the time came (slightly prematurely) to implement our "exit strategy,"  we couldn't GIVE the business away.  We had invested something north of $100k, and five years of sweat equity.  In return, we got to walk out alive.  Period.  And had we been less experienced, cautious and just plain stubborn, we would have walked away with less, I have no doubt.   

Now that the dust has settled, I can look back on the hurdles we had to confront as a small business, and see them as part of a bigger picture of big fish swallowing up little fish in just about every aspect of American business.  For all that the President would like us to believe that the US economy rides on the backs of small businesses, that is just not the case.  Or maybe it is...  After all, we provide a constant source of nourishment for Big Business, because they WILL consume us.  With restaurants, the big players just need to hog all the supplies, services and workers, and the little guys croak before they become much more than plankton.  In manufacturing, it seems that a business can only attain a certain size before it attracts the attention of the Big Guy that “owns” that particular market.  And then…small business, look out!

Case in point:  Ever heard of Steinfeld’s pickles?  Those pickles used to be made in a plant right here in Scappoose.  Like many small manufacturers, the company was bought out by a Big Guy several years back…with the promise that business would go on as usual and no jobs would be lost.  The plant is empty, now.  Jobs at the pickle plant are but a fond memory.  And I read that, recently, the new owner has decided to relocate ALL its pickle manufacturing plants out of the Pacific Northwest…leaving Northwest cucumber farmers up s**t creek.  Seems the company can get cucumbers cheaper from…wait for it…


This is the new American Dream—though for us in the disappearing Middle Class, it is the American Nightmare.  The Big Guy buys out the little guy, then shuts it down.  Not one crumb of concern is wasted on what will happen to the workers and the farmers and the economies of these small towns when the jobs go away.  Top priority is to control the competition.  And the marketplace.  And the economy.  And the world.

Oh…and then there is this other little trick the Big Guys have come up with.  It’s called “Commodity Roulette.”  At any given moment, with the flick of a press release (The US Pumpkin crop has failed!  There is freezing weather in Florida!  Coffee fungus has depleted the Andean harvest!) the price of some food staple jumps erratically.  Coffee.  Sugar.  Flour.  Cheese.  Rice.  Chocolate.  Pork.  Poultry.  Beef!  The café struggled through episode after episode of spiking costs for the things we needed for our menu every day.  Just so that some rich asshat, or group of asshats, could throw a couple billion into the vault before consumers got wise and forsook  the commodity altogether.  Then the price would miraculously drop like a rock and everything would go back to the way it was…almost.  There were always that ten- or twenty-cents-a-pound (gallon?) that stuck to a product after one of these episodes. 

Except for beef.  Beef prices soared and have continued to soar.  Looks as if the Food Barons have declared that beef will be the Meat of the Rich.  How about it, my fellow used-to-be-Middle-Class Americans?  Have you noticed how much restaurants like Applebees and Olive Garden are doing with pork and chicken these days?  How much beef do YOU buy at the grocery store to feed your family? At $8 or $9 or $15 a pound, I’m not throwing too many steaks on the barbie this summer, are you? It didn’t take long for the Food Barons to learn all the neat tricks of the Oil Barons, did it? 

So, yeah…  We made our contingency plan; we stuck our necks out, we took the risk.  And due to circumstances outside our control, we couldn’t make it happen.  We ended up right back where we started:  me with my tiny concession business, and husband clinging by his fingernails to his job at the Little Pillow Factory. 

And both of us staring down at our little saucer of rancid crumbs, and noticing that now there are only two left... 


  1. Beef and the price of a gallon of gasoline. It's all a scam, I think. Raise and lower and raise again the prices until we become desensitized to the high prices, because the extreme, the high where we stopped buying was the marker, and lowering prices a little from there, makes us feel like - well, at least it's not that bad - and gives the producer more profit.

    But the most egregious of all - the insurance industry. Pay your insurance premium for years (health, house, car), but when you really need it because - oh a hurricane destroyed it - sorry - you are not covered for this kind of destruction. Phewy.

  2. There's a little meat market on the corner of 7th and Main in Springfield. They carry really great all beef hot dogs. Eight to the pound and it's like 3.49 or so a pound. I was in Fred's Sunday and they had some Hewbrew National (who is owned by God knows who these days) 3.49 for a package of seven and it weighed ELEVEN ounces. Phooey is right. And the worst thing about the beef is that it isn't really that good.

    Bright Oaks has local suppliers, the prices are reasonable and even the ground beef tastes good.

    Cucumbers from India? Guess I won't be buying any more Steinfeld's pickles. What makes it really weird is that a lot of businesses relocate because frankly Oregon is a long way from the bigger markets on the East Coast. that makes some kind of sense. But, bringing in cucumbers from half way round the world. In the meantime forcing out subsistance farmers who grow their own food, turn them into wage earners who can't afford to buy decent food.

    And yeah, it pisses me off. Recomment the site Navdany and anything by Vandana Shiva on the push back by the small farmers and indigenous subsistance tribes in India. Real eye opener.

  3. I wish your voice could be heard by the masses Lisa. You tell the story in a way that so many could relate to. Angry?? You bet...and angrier with each passing day. As you know, we've been in our own personal downward spiral for over two years and are still falling. I think those of us who are living it get so consumed with figuring out our own situation that to look at the big picture creates an overwhelming hopelessness. It's terrifying that the Big Guys control not only business, but they have taken control of the government with lobby money and PACs. Money needs to be taken out of the political equation...but of course THAT will never happen. I wonder how bad it's going to have to get before the middle class finally grows a backbone and INSISTS on being heard. How do we start a movement that demands change? Like you, my husband and I have tried for 30 years to do it "right". It's looking more and more like it didn't matter and our American Dream is fading fast due to all the greed at the top. THAT makes me angry.

  4. It is really amazing how the life of a middle class American is pretty much alike the life of a middle class Turk. At the other end of the world, we seem to struggle with the same kind of problems.

  5. One thing that you experienced different from me is that you started with the assumption that you had a right to dream and a right to some expectations. I never had that.