Bailout talk in the prison waiting room

I want to wave my wand and put impeccable Suze Orman in the film ‘Trading Places’
Barbara Amiel

My TV screen is awash with silver-haired men talking about the U.S. government’s bailout bill. As far as I can see, there was easy credit taken up by credulous people with speculators standing by to make money on them. The bubble burst. I listen to talk about what’s good for Main Street and Ordinary Americans and I wonder what planet these silver-hairs live on.

The women I sit with each week in the waiting room at the Federal Correctional Institution know all about Main Street. That’s where they window-shop. So when I watch impeccable Suze Orman, TV’s best-known personal finance expert, say “these are deep problems,” referring to the fiscal mess, and she’s right of course, all I can think about is you’d never ever see such a glorious medley of blond, blush-gold and marigold on Main Street.

When Suze opens her caring eyes so wide you can see her sclera without a single blood vessel marring its perfect whiteness, and tells a caller asking if this mess will affect her disability benefits and welfare to “Wake up! You should have thought about this long ago. No one is going to look after you but yourself,” I want to wave my wand and put Suze in the film Trading Places. I’d have Suze and the perfectly thatched silver-haired men trade places with the women sitting with me at FCI. “Wake up!” Suze says. These women never get to sleep. All that yatter yatter yatter on TV about what to do with your stocks or 410 (K) retirement plan is fine—if you’re a caramel TV blond or a thatched silver-haired male.

Donna Lee is in her fifties, white working- class. Her dad was a small-time tobacco farmer in Kentucky. She was the last of seven children—all of them dead now, one in Vietnam, one with spiral meningitis, three with cancer. “What do you do?’” I ask her. “I was a servant, ma’am, all my life,” she says. Her big ambition was to work as a servant in the White House but her husband, a car salesman, “made a mistake”—his first offence—and now he’s on suicide watch because he can’t get the medicine for his psychiatric condition in prison.

Donna Lee had colon cancer, now she’s got liver cancer, and the chemo has given her bad osteoporosis and she can’t serve “no more.” She wants to work but if she earns more than an extra few hundred dollars a month, she loses her monthly $950 disability payment. You can see she was stunning once, back when she was working at the “top” as a cocktail waitress in the Holiday Inn.

When she got the American Dream she made sure they had a fixed-rate mortgage. The government forced the sale of the house when her husband got into trouble—they got 30 days to sell or face foreclosure. The house sold for $99,900 and there was $473.47 cents left after the mortgage and the real estate agent, the legal bills and the new roof the lawyer that bought it said it had to have. “My first home. Broke my heart,” she says. Now the government has sold the apartment building she’s in and she’s waiting to see if the new owners will let her stay.

Her prize asset is a 42-inch TV and she watches all the talk about the bailout. “It stinks,” she says, which is pretty much the view of the entire waiting room. “Barb,” she says, “the U.S. taxpayer is paying for the mistakes of those top CEOs and it’s the working people that pay the taxes and keep the country running.” I think she’s wonderful so I’m not going to tell her that 60 per cent of the taxes are paid by the top five per cent of Americans because it is the working people that keep American productivity so high even if it’s the CEO class that pay most taxes.

Tricia comes to the prison straight from night shift at a factory. She’s got two kids, her mum stays at night, Tricia looks after them in the day when visiting ends. The factory is cutting back because they can’t make the payroll, which some bailout bill might prevent. Latasha teaches chemistry at a high school. She wanted that townhouse for her and her two daughters, and her boyfriend was set to marry her but then he got into this trouble over marijuana and now that ARM (adjustable rate mortgage) has ballooned in her face. She borrowed from family but can’t tell them he’s in prison in case the school hears, so “they think he’s left me and I should find myself someone else.”

There are millions of these women trying to survive while their man is “inside.” They’re ashamed and afraid of losing jobs. The government takes away most every little thing they had one way or another during the prosecution process, reduces them to rubble, and in a victim-oriented society they don’t count because they’re hitched to a victimizer—though one-third of their men are probably innocent.

These women get off their asses. But here’s the thing: their view of this fiscal crisis is what CNN’s Lou Dobbs tells them. Government money is just a “bailout” for rich banks and rich Wall Streeters at the expense of little taxpayers. America is run by the Saudis for the Bush family. These women are cynical and street-smart and you’d think they’d have a bulls–t detector. But they’re in the sandbox with the chattering classes.

They don’t see how a fiscal meltdown affects them—they’re just pleased the big guys are going under. The government chased them out of homes into trees and now they themselves are cutting off the branch they sit on. Going through a searing experience, it seems, provides no special insight nor wisdom—nor exemption from the human condition.