Obscured American: Manon the Aspiring School Counselor

Before interviewing 33-year-old Manon, I had never talked to her.  She only bartends at Friendly Lounge one day a week. The joint was completely empty when we started at noon.  Folks can hardly afford a beer anymore.

An hour into our conversation, Tony the cook came in to take his midday break, then a stranger appeared.  An El Salvadorian, he said his name was Joseph and a cook at Little Caesars.  Though friendly enough, his English was belabored, so it wasn’t easy to chat.  He did convey that Philly is a joke compared to NYC, where he spent 13 years.  Before that, Joseph was in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Though Manon said she couldn’t drink on a shift, Joseph kept offering to buy her a shot.  Shoving three bucks into the jukebox, he then tortured us with nine Bee Gees hits.

Eventually, more people came in. Someone played Johnny Cash singing “One Piece at a Time,” which made me think,  Hardly anyone writes songs about working class life anymore.

Well trashed by then, Joseph got up to leave, but for some reason, he couldn’t open the door, which made everyone laugh.  This infuriated the stocky man unexpectedly, so I got up to calm him down.  Manon then opened the door for Joseph, which pissed him off even worse.

Terrance grinned, “Adios!”

That was the last straw.  Turning around, Joseph growled, “I speak English!”

“And I speak Spanish,” Terrance retorted.

Beaming a lethal stare, Joseph spat, “Chinga a tu madre!”

After Joseph left, I said to Terrance, “His machismo was hurt because he couldn’t open the door.”

“Yeah, he couldn’t go through!”

I told Terrance and Manon about my friend Jerome Robinson.  Poet, painter, tattoo parlor owner and a member of the Wheels of Soul motorcycle club, Jerome was killed after a teenager had been asked to leave the bikers’ clubhouse in West Philly.  Minutes later, the kid returned and shot up the place.

Maybe Joseph will come back to put us in our place?  Sure enough, the dude did return, but only to get more sloshed.  Glazed eyed, Joseph was as cheerful as ever, with Terrance three stools away.  It was no fun to peel myself from such groggy fellowship, but I had to weave home to type up what Manon had said, so here it is:

I was raised in Bensalem.  Both of my parents were middle school teachers.  My mom was an art teacher.  My dad was special ed.  They’re retired and winter in Sarasota.  My mom does a drug and alcohol prevention program up here, and she casually does art.  She just had an art show in Sarasota where she sold a couple of pieces.

I had a pretty stable, middle class upbringing.  I’m an only child.

From elementary through high school, I went to private schools.

I was raised Jewish.  I had my Bat Mitzvah and everything, but we weren’t overly religious.  My parents are reformed.  We’re culturally Jewish.

Admittedly, I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in going to college, but it was a route that I thought might be interesting.  I wanted to study English, but my parents convinced me I’d never get a job unless I wanted to teach English or be an academic.  I was a really mediocre student in high school.

I love reading.  I was really interested in poetry and music.  I got into Kurt Vonnegut in high school, but I suppose that’s the age where people get into Kurt Vonnegut.

I thought psychology was a viable career option.  I was thinking that with a bachelor’s degree, I would come out and be a world renowned psychologist.  I had no idea.  Ha, ha!  I was completely naïve.

I’d have been content to go to community college to figure out what I wanted to do, or working or going abroad, but my parents were convinced that if I didn’t go to college immediately, I’d never go, that I’d be a vagrant wandering around the country or something.

From my freshman year in high school, I’d go to punk shows in Philly.  It was a weird and, ah, integrated scene, and there was a lot of politics involved which sorta inspired me to go into a social justice field.

I was drawn to reproductive rights, and that remains a major focus of what I want to do.  There was a big community of anti-racists.  It took a couple years for me to figure out that there were not enough people of color involved in punk at the time, in Philadelphia.  It was a predominantly white male, hetero kind of patriarchal scene.

As a young woman who was starting to become aware of feminist issues, it was challenging to be in the punk scene, because there were all these dudes who thought you’re just hanging around to be someone’s girlfriend, and you can’t be a part of the music.  I’d like to see more women involved, people of color, anyone who’s marginalized or left out.

I’m in a band now.  The Cats.  I sing and write most of the songs, nearly 40 so far.  We’ve done two full length albums.  We did a small tour of the East Coast, and we’ve played in West Virginia, New Orleans, a bunch of places.

I was fortunate enough that my parents were able to pay for my undergraduate.  After getting my bachelor’s from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, I worked for seven years before going to graduate school.

I worked in an after school program, a pre-school program, then I was a substitute teacher for three years before I found a job with Philadelphia Women’s Center.  It was an abortion clinic.  I did counseling and bookkeeping there.  I realized how much I liked working and how much I cared for universal access to abortion and reproductive healthcare.  In Pennsylvania, there are significant barriers to getting an abortion.

I get 5 bucks an hour at the Friendly Lounge, which is more than what most bars pay.  I take shifts when I can get them.  I’d never bartend before.  I was just a regular here.  A friend of mine was working, and he broke his leg, so I filled in for him.  This was three years ago, so I worked here for two years while I was in school.  I left when I had a full time internship, then came back after graduation.  I literally don’t know how to bartend if I were to be put in a position elsewhere.  I don’t know how to mix drinks, but it’s easy enough here, because this is just a beer and shot bar.

I like working here because the regulars have embraced me like a niece or a granddaughter.  It’s nice.  If there was ever a concern over me working in a bar that’s exclusively men… older men, I’ve never had a problem, because everyone has been protective.  They treat me like family.

One time, I had to physically restrain a small man, because he was bothering another customer.  They were the only two people in here.  I actually had to pick him up and move him out the door.

This place grounds me.  I don’t need formal counseling skills to work here, but this place has exposed me to a lot more people, regular working people.  Instead of being in academia, I now have the experience and ability to talk to people, so I’ve developed that part of myself.  Though I’m OK as a bar patron, since I’m happy to talk to anybody, as a bartender I’ve learnt how to adapt to other people and their behaviors, and being able to read people more.

Coming to a bar is inherently a social thing.  It’s a legitimate way to socialize, especially if you’re working, and you don’t have an outlet anywhere else.  It’s totally fair to come into a bar and become a regular and meet people.

It really challenges me to remember names and remember specifics about people.  It’s a great exercise, especially for a counselor.

Eight years ago, I went into Ray’s, had a couple beers.  I became somewhat regular, but I didn’t go in there again for a couple of years.  When I came back, Pauli was like, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while!  Do you want this beer, the same beer?  Do you want a lager?” I was so impressed, like I can’t believe you remember what I drink.  What with all these people.  You’ve seen how crazy that place is.  I’ve always admired that about bartenders.  After I started bartending, I realized how much you absorb from everybody, and how you have to be aware of everything that’s going on.  You have to compartmentalize things about people.

I’m getting by on the money I saved from my student loans.  I owe probably 50 grand, yeah.  Holy Family was a pretty reasonably priced program.  I haven’t started paying it back yet.  I don’t know how much it will be a month.  I try not to think about that.

People are having a lot of difficulties, and people my age are having a lot of difficulties.  Even for myself, looking for a job five years ago as opposed to looking for a job now, it was a lot easier.  By going back to school, I took myself out of the job market at the wrong time.

Since graduating three months ago, I’ve sent out maybe 70 applications altogether for a job as a school counselor.

I don’t think we’re in good shape.  The job market sucks.  The economy sucks.  As far as reproductive rights, there are all these subversive laws that are trying to get passed that will put up more barriers to abortion services.  There is so much discord between people, and it’s being illuminated with the election, between Trump supporters and Bernie and Hillary supporters.  I compliment Trump for bringing all of these people out of the woodworks, for exposing all of these horrendously bigoted people, but I don’t know what anybody intends to do about that, or how to address basic issues like healthcare, education and immigration.

I would welcome people for citizenship, for those who are already here and those who want to enter the country.  I don’t think it would be an issue except there aren’t enough good jobs available.  Personally, I don’t see what the issue would be to just allow people into the country, whether they are refugees or not.  I guess outsourcing is a problem.  If we can get more jobs back into the States, that might be a solution.  Economics is not an area of expertise of mine, so I don’t want to talk too much about that.

I believe in an open border, so that anyone who applies can go in, and even those who enter illegally, I don’t have a problem with that either.  There’d have to be some rationale for them to want to come here undocumented.  Whatever that’s going on in whatever country, there has to be some incentive for them to come here, instead of staying there.

I have my own issue with Bernie Sanders supporters, as in the paternalism, as in, Oh no, he knows what’s best for you.  Growing up in the punk scene around these guys, you know, these white guys, they have the answers.  It’s frustrating to be a woman.  The buzz word is mansplaining.  I mean, I’ve found it here too, in the Friendly Lounge.  You find it everywhere.

Bernie Sanders, I like his policies.  I really think it’s ideal.  I think people do have a right to healthcare, that people have a right to education.

All of my friends are Bernie supporters.  My dad supports Bernie, while my mom backs Hillary.  My dad is more left than my mom.  He started me on thinking about reproductive rights.

Hillary Clinton, I don’t support her.  I’m sure you’ve seen videos of how she interacted with people demonstrating at her rallies.  It’s like so outrageously dismissive.  I don’t understand… Actually, it makes perfect sense, that if you’re a career politician, you don’t know how to interact with an average person who comes to confront you.

I’m having a harder time with Democrats, but I’d never support a Republican!  I cannot vote for someone who doesn’t respect my reproductive rights.

Hillary’s so disingenuous.  She’s just sorta riding the coattails of Bernie Sanders’ messaging.  I don’t think she’s committed to the kind of progress she’s espousing at the podium.

I’m learning more about hers and Bill Clinton’s policies in the 90’s, as far as mass incarceration, and how their programs disproportionately affected low-income black Americans.  It’s upsetting to learn about that.

If Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, I will vote for Jill Stein.  I’m just learning about her.

I voted for Kerry, then Obama twice.

I just read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and working in the schools, I’ve started to figure out about the school to prison pipeline.  I have to know more, if I’m going to work in the school.  There isn’t a blanket solution for every person.  You need to meet the needs of the families, of the communities.

In Pennsylvania, education funding is a major issue, as in teachers’ pays and benefits.

Institutional racism is a big part of the inequity in the classroom.  You need to work with the students instead of just, you know, punitive measures, kicking them out or sending them to a disciplinary school.  Instead of suspending them, you need to work with what the students need.

With classroom overcrowding, teachers have a hard time dealing with that.  They’re closing all these schools.

Test preparation, I don’t think it’s good. If that were the marker of my achievement as a student, I wouldn’t have passed high school.  I know I didn’t test well, so I wouldn’t have been able to go to college.  I think that’s unfair.

The majority of time in the classroom is preparing for tests, and this doesn’t generate a lot of room for critical thought, discussion or creativity.  There is a lot wrong, across the board.

Right now, I’m reading a book by Doctor Carl Hart called High Price.  I think drugs should be legalized, absolutely, if there are ways to give people who are addicted access to the stuff they want to use.  We need clinics that are run ethically, where people aren’t stigmatized.  We need to run them as counseling and medical centers.  People shouldn’t think it’s a dirty thing to be addicted.  Obviously, I don’t think incarceration is the solution to addictions.

I find Facebook is a really good source to browse through news, depending on who you follow, and Twitter, I use a lot just because I’m able to curate what I can see.  I go to places like RH Reality Check, because it talks about legislations and reproductive health issues.  I go to Feministing.  The Root, I read.  It’s blackcentric politics.  I read Mother Jones, the Guardian, New York Times.

My boyfriend and I rent a house in Point Breeze.  It’s 950 a month.

I don’t have any intention to have kids.  Since I’m devoting my life to working with kids, I don’t want to take care of one of my own after I’m done working at school.  I just don’t want to have a kid in my house, for whatever reason, because I like sleeping, and I like a disposable income when I get a job, so, yeah.

I thought it kind of funny, and my parents thought it was curious too.  They didn’t want to believe that I wouldn’t want to have kids because I spent so much time working with kids, and all of my jobs have been related to working with people and with kids.

I don’t think that I could, with any good conscience, have a child.  I was having this conversation with a girlfriend the other day… I wouldn’t want to bring a kid into a world where the environment is so unstable, the economy is lousy and, you know, people are being killed by police regularly.  It just seems really uncertain, so the best I can do is work with other people’s kids.

Marriage, I don’t have a problem with, but I don’t see a reason to get married unless somebody is benefitting from it, as in health insurance or something like that.  It’s more of a financial concern, especially among the people that I know.  It comes down to a financial decision.

My boyfriend and I don’t have a lot of income, between the two of us.

I’ve never yearned for marriage, but I also had a string of bad relationships before this one.  I was never confident that those relationships would go anywhere, and emotionally, I wasn’t invested in them.  I broke up two long term relationships. I don’t want to… I can’t speak ill of them, but they bordered on manipulative and abusive relationships.  Getting out of them took longer than I wanted, but I finally did.  The impetus for leaving was, I can’t do this for the rest of my life, and if it continues this way, I would be stuck, so I better make a move right now…

My last boyfriend would have been pretty content to keep everything the way it was.  Both of them were assholes, but they didn’t sabotage the relationships.  I took the initiative because I knew I would be the one to sabotage the relationships.

Ten years from now, hopefully I’d be working in a school, and being with the same person.

Twenty years from now, I’d like to be doing the same thing, working in a school, and being with the same person, but hopefully with more money, so I’ll have the abilities to travel.

I guess these wishes are pretty traditional, yeah.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 24, 2016, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.

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