Last Thursday was going to be an aus­pi­cious day for me. There was a major snow­storm in the fore­cast, and I was look­ing for­ward to the oppor­tu­ni­ty to leave work ear­ly and spend the rest of the day and Friday work­ing from home.

My wife and I work at the same loca­tion, on the north side of Lexington. We are both for­tu­nate to have jobs that can be worked remote­ly for the most part, if required. During the first ten months of the pan­dem­ic, she worked 2–3 days a week from home, and I was able to work almost entire­ly from the con­fines of our cozy home on Winchester’s west side. We’ve been back at the office full-time for near­ly a year, so the chance to return to in-home work for per­haps a day and a half was antic­i­pat­ed eagerly.

About mid-morn­ing on Thursday, I had just picked up lunch for my wife and me at a Subway near our offices. We had planned to head home short­ly after lunch, and I was antic­i­pat­ing a more relaxed end to my work week. You could say I was sort of excited.

woman in white coat walking on road during daytime

I was obliv­i­ous to the poten­tial hard­ships the loom­ing storm would have on many peo­ple. I was more like a kid antic­i­pat­ing a snow day.

After order­ing our lunch, I began chat­ting with the young woman behind the counter at Subway. She seemed upset, so I asked her how she was doing. She relat­ed how the man she had served before me had “gone off” on her — because she was out of the kind of bread he want­ed for his sand­wich. She was the only employ­ee in the store; some­one else did­n’t show up, and she could­n’t get her man­ag­er on the phone. And she was wor­ried about get­ting to her sec­ond job at Burger King that evening because of the storm.

I felt ashamed. For me, the com­ing storm was a pleas­ant break from the dai­ly office grind. For her, it was impend­ing doom. Her tears scarce­ly hid the fear in her eyes. 

I take a lot for grant­ed. I nev­er have to wor­ry about a pay­check, or whether my car will start, or if I can spend the evening with my fam­i­ly rather than head­ing off to anoth­er job. I enjoy the priv­i­lege of a reward­ing career doing work I love and get­ting lucra­tive com­pen­sa­tion for doing it – occa­sion­al­ly at my home office, in sweatpants.

It wasn’t always that way. In the ear­ly years of our mar­riage, we strug­gled might­i­ly. I knew the pain of work­ing mul­ti­ple jobs, of liv­ing pay­check to pay­check and still com­ing up short, of avoid­ing doc­tor vis­its and rou­tine car main­te­nance because we couldn’t do those things and still put food on the table for our chil­dren and us.

If not for our par­ents, I don’t know where we would have end­ed up. We learned ear­ly on the les­son of gra­cious­ly accept­ing help from fam­i­ly and have passed that down to our adult chil­dren. They know they can count on us when they need assis­tance with finances, a loan­er car, or a place to live when they’re down and out.

But not every­one has par­ents or oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers with the means or the desire to offer such assis­tance. What do they do? To whom do they turn in bleak times?

I left that young woman at Subway a nice tip, but she needs so much more. She needs job secu­ri­ty and a liv­ing wage. She needs health­care and per­haps child­care. Reliable trans­porta­tion. A decent place to live. A chance to enjoy the bless­ings of life, lib­er­ty, and hap­pi­ness – some­thing that is dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to those strug­gling just to sur­vive each day.

Many of us look down on peo­ple like that young woman. Many of us think that it’s their own fault for their predica­ment. If only they pos­sessed the same for­ti­tude, indus­tri­ous­ness, and resolve that some of us have, they wouldn’t need any help to thrive.

The truth is much more com­pli­cat­ed. Surely, we do con­trol our des­tiny to some extent.

But some of us got a sig­nif­i­cant head start in life. Some of us were blessed to have been born into com­mu­ni­ties of priv­i­lege. Born into fam­i­lies of means, or at least fam­i­lies that were sup­port­ive, encour­ag­ing, and able to help us when we need­ed it. Some of us attend­ed good schools and had suf­fi­cient sup­ports to enable us to thrive aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly. Some of us got lucky breaks in life.

I received a lucky break many years ago – if not for that, I could be much like the woman at Subway, even today.

I believe that every per­son deserves bet­ter. America can do bet­ter. We must do bet­ter. It’s shame­ful that life must be such a strug­gle for a large part of the pop­u­la­tion of a pros­per­ous nation such as ours.

But what can we do – as a nation and as individuals?

I’m going to be talk­ing more about this in future columns.

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.