The math sets you free

August 28, 2009

This morning as I stepped outside to leave for the Produce Center, I ran into Manny. Manny’s nearly 80, vanilla cocoa colored with impeccably trimmed frosty facial hair. Sports a Scally cap, speaks his mind and spits when he talks – he’s earned the right to. He waddles behind an old-man gut, but his waddle has more swag to it than most young G’s can muster on payday.

“Morning Mr. Manny, how are you?”

“Good morning kid!” he answers.

It is, a sunny & breezy late summer day. I remember my manners.

“Do you want a cold drink?” Manny often asks for a surplus soda on the way to the bus stop.

“Nah, I’m going to the doctor’s. Gonna see if I can retire. Man I’m tired of this shit!”

Manny’s been a maintenance man at McClean mental institution in Belmont far longer than I’ve been alive. He’s repaired a thousand air ducts, mopped a million floors and seen shit that would widen your eyes at night.  Takes two buses then two trains every morning and evening – a three hour round trip. He’s also the broad epitome of that old American dream – came from nothing, worked hard, found a wife, worked harder, and sent three kids to college from the ground floor of a triple decker in Dorchester. Still works because he just had his rent raised, again.

“I hear ya,” is all I can muster, even though I know I can’t even begin to imagine to

Sensing my quiet awe, he points to the dump truck down the block. “Looks like they’re tearin’ up the streets again!”

Street-tearin’ is a seasonal event in the ‘hood. The mayor’s buddies  (Susi Construction, Feeny Bros. and other campaign contributors) get sweet contracts to dig up sidewalks and re-pave roads every couple of months. For proof, visit the mess disguised as an intersection at Dorchester Ave. and Hanock St.

“Look at that,” I respond. “Guess somebody needed a raise.”

“HA!” (spit) “They didn’t give me one! How about you?”

“Nope,” I laugh. “Working more for less these days, really!” And it’s true – most days I earn about four bucks an hour.

He gets serious, which is to say louder. “Hey aren’t you a college kid? What the hell you do this for anyway?”

His question catches me slightly off guard.  Without thinking I thump my chest and say “I guess it’s where my heart is.”

“Well it’s not like college gets you anything these days, with how things are going!” He winks, and starts to waddle off. “Have a good day kid!”

“Hope you make it alright!” I yell back

“Oh I will! I will!”


I didn’t see Manny tonight so I don’t know if he’ll be able to retire. But I certainly had a good day.

The inimitable Larry Law-son and I picked up over 3,000 lbs of good, fresh produce that would have been otherwise thrown in a landfill. We distributed it for a dollar a bag to hundreds of people at seven stops around town – in the South End, Roxbury, Dorchester and Kenmore Square. We hit up three elderly buildings, three housing projects and a middle school over the course of 12 hours.

For a dollar, our people got three pounds of potatoes, two large white onions, a pound of French string beans, five stalks of celery, three limes, a grapefruit (or two oranges or four bananas), and two heads of Boston lettuce. I’d imagine all this would retail for 10-15 bucks, easy. At about 10 lbs/bag, 3,000 lbs translates into $3,000 worth of food – which we distributed for a cost of about $300. Thus, Larry and I saved the people of Boston at least $2,700 today. That dough can now be put toward mortgage payments, bus fare, day care, back-to-school supplies, or ten thousand other things that will improve the quality of life in our city and stimulate the economy. And today was a light day.

Extrapolating today’s figures, we save the people of Boston $675,000/year – and that’s the minimum. On the flip side, our entire Fair Foods staff, full time and part time, doesn’t even make $75,000 a year combined. So among the four of us, we give away at least $600,000 a year. Not bad for a bunch of poor, working folk.

Manny’s right – going to college doesn’t necessarily get you a high salary, a car, or even an IPhone. I’m walking proof. There was a time when I was embarrassed by the fact that I earn less than minimum wage despite my expensive bachelor’s degree, and I often found myself getting defensive among middle and upper class company. But these days when people ask me what I earn (the question that usually follows “what do you do?”), I simply respond “Oh, I gave away $200,000 last year, and will probably do it again this year. How about you?”

Math, it sets you free.