Abby the Spoon Lady and I chatted on Facebook a few weeks ago. She mentioned a news story about some train hoppers who’d been killed in an accident in Alabama. The rail riding community is a close-knit crew, and since Abby has logged her share of miles on trains, she was trying to find the names of those who’d died. Not their real names–train hoppers all use nicknames.
Hoping to help, I looked up the story online and found an interview with one of the survivors (you can click here to view it). Steve McCoy, whose train name is “Reggie,” ended up in the hospital with a crushed foot. He was fine, though somewhat traumatized. Understandable, considering he’d just witnessed three young friends get smashed to death by sliding steel beams as they slept inside a boxcar.
The reporter gave the details of the tragedy, sharing a little of Reggie’s sad background and briefly describing the lifestyle of those who ride the rails. He concluded with a warning about the dangers of train hopping. At the end of the interview, Reggie said he planned to return to the lifestyle he knew, traveling the country and making music, entertaining people on the streets in exchange for occasional tips. “I’ve got the opportunity to make the world better,” he said.
The story was sadly sweet, two point five minutes of information that not only recounted what happened, but humanized the riders. My heart went out to the kids who’d died, and to Reggie, who’d lived such a hard life, yet found comfort in the fact that he was giving something back to the world.
Then my eyes were drawn to the comments at the end of the article. There were only two. One said this:
“…Now the taxpayers and/or hospitals get stuck with an expensive bill and that is exactly why healthcare costs have sky-rocketed over the years…This Reggie cat ain’t nothing but another loser and drain on society…”
The next one echoed the first person’s opinions:
“Well it looks like the taxpayers get to foot Reggie’s bill. Return to the lifestyle? CSX (the railroad) needs to press charges…”
My jaw dropped. Had we seen the same news story? Didn’t they just watch a video about three dead kids? Did they not just listen to a homeless guy pour his heart out about a devastating loss? Did they miss the fact that he was dealt a bad hand? That for some, life is so cruel that living on the streets and sleeping in boxcars is a preferable alternative to what they face at home? Is that what they came away with–that this guy was nothing more than a “loser and drain on society?”
It’s been weeks now, but I can’t get those commenters out of my head. If I thought they had the capacity for human compassion, I’d want to tell them this (I went back and deleted the cuss words).
The Reggies of this world must figure out how to survive. They have no loved ones to guide them, no safety net, no one who gives a shit. They’re often shuffled through the foster care system, and we’ve all read horror stories about that set up. Think about how horrendous a kid’s life must be to make living on the streets or hopping a train seem like a good idea.
There wasn’t a word of sorrow or empathy in your comments. Not a shred of compassion for three dead street kids or their friend.
When you look at another person’s suffering, and all you can think of is your own wallet, you’re in pretty miserable shape as a human being. Because sweetheart, it’s only the luck of the draw that got you where you are. Reggie’s way of life might not be your way, and it might not be mine. I can guarantee you that it isn’t the easy way. And in the grand scheme, he hasn’t asked you for much at all.
When Abby tells the story of her marriage, and the reasons she hopped her first train, I doubt there are many who could listen to the tale and blame her for her decision (you can read about it here). If you search for her on the Internet, you’ll see comments from all over the country, written by people whose lives were made better by a rail rider who learned to clack two spoons together, a woman who taught herself a skill because she didn’t want to ask for handouts without offering something in return (and boy, does she have a lot to offer).
That’s what Reggie’s doing. That’s what those kids did before they were killed. They traveled, they made music, they harmed no one.
The number of harsh, cruel online comments seems to be increasing every day. People rant about poor people. How they drain us. How they take advantage of the system. How ObamaCare is going to suck us dry and force employers to shut down. I believe it’s bull pucky. I believe we’re being played, big time.
We Little People are being pitted against each other. We’re forced to compete for jobs that pay too little in order to make it. We struggle to keep our children fed and roofs above their heads. A burst appendix or a carburetor gone bad could turn the shaky ground we stand on into a sinkhole. We’re stressed, we’re tired, we’re cranky. It feels complicated and hopeless to scream at those who reap the rewards of our labor. Besides, we depend on them, because they’re the ones doling out the paychecks. So we blame the people a rung below us on the socioeconomic ladder. We post hateful things about them on Facebook.
I picture the millionaires and billionaires of this country sitting on thrones like Roman emperors, gleefully watching the working class and the poor duke it out and rip each other to shreds. They laugh as we fight and argue and lash out at each other in resentment. It’s so amusing when the Little People blame each other for their problems.
Consider this for a minute. Say that Reggie, instead of hopping trains and peacefully going about his business, decided to work at McDonald’s instead. That he traded playing music and collecting tips for flipping burger patties over a hot, greasy grill. He’s a Working Man now, he’s legit. I’m terrible at math, but I tried to calculate how, financially, his life would change. Here’s what I came up with.
McDonald’s employees are paid, on average, $7.25 per hour. Let’s say Reggie is given 40 hours a week. This is very generous of McDonald’s. A lot of employers won’t give their workers over 35 hours, because they’d be required to pay benefits. But Reggie lucked out. He makes $290 a week.
23% of that is withheld for federal taxes, Social Security and Medicare. 23% of $290 is $66.70 (or 9.2 hours of his labor).
$290 – $66.70 = $223.30
Let’s fantasize that Reggie owns his own vehicle, that a magical fairy waved a wand and he has no car payments to deal with. Say it’s a mid-size, with a sixteen gallon tank and that he fills that tank once a week to get to work. Today, the national average for gas is $3.68 per gallon.
$3.68 x 16 = $58.88
He’s down to $164.42. Of course, he’s required to carry, at minimum, liability insurance, and the national average for that runs between $1000 and $1500 per year. We’ll go with the low end.
$1000 divided by 52 weeks in a year = $19.23 per week.
Reg has $145.19 sitting in the bank right now.
Because he lives in Fantasy Land, he’s found a dreamy little apartment and the best roommate ever!! The rent is only $400 per month, and he splits it down the middle. Wow! That’s about $50 a week.
$145.19 – $50 = $95.19
According to a recent Gallup poll, the average American spends $151 per week on food. But Reggie is not an average American. He is a frugal American living in Fantasy Land. Let’s say that he spends $7 a day–$1.50 for breakfast, $2.50 for lunch, and $3 for dinner, which comes to $49 a week.
$95.19 – $49.00 = $46.19
Good job, Reggie! $46.19 is nothing to sneeze at.
Okay, now we’re going to deduct his utilities and his phone, and on top of that he’s going to have to pay for medical insurance so that he doesn’t “drain” society. Let’s also figure in a little cushion, in case he runs over a nail or needs a haircut or a stick of deodorant, because you need tires and haircuts and deodorant to stay employed. Let’s say that he dares take in a movie or goes out for a beer once a month, to celebrate his good fortune.
Oh wait. He can’t do any of that, can he? We haven’t even figured in toilet paper.
McDonald’s made $24 billion in revenue last year. Jim Skinner, their CEO, made $8.25 million, or $158,653 a week. $22,602 every day of the year.
In 2011, the top five oil companies (who pay about 17.6% in taxes, compared to Reggie’s 22%) cleared $130,000,000,000 in profits. That’s $130 billion. I just wrote the zeros out because I was impressed by how many of them there were. Anyway, that’s $375,000,000 per day that they make in take home pay (after operating expenses). According to thinkprogress.org, that’s $261,000 every minute of every day. I wonder how much of this obscene amount of money goes toward improving the lives of the people they gouge.
I hate sounding preachy and opinionated here, but I truly believe we need to change our mindsets and stop blaming the poor for all of our ills. We have to stop scapegoating each other. We’ve got to show some compassion and love. We need to stop sitting in front of our keyboards and dumping our frustrations on those less fortunate than we are. Yes, we’re all struggling, at least most of us are. Yes, poverty is a problem. There will always be dumbasses out there– messy people with messy lives who bring babies into this world without having the brains or means to support them. There will always be those who take advantage of others, whether they’re the CEOs of major corporations or welfare moms and dads who’ve learned to beat the system. But there are also millions of decent people who simply plug along, trying as best they can to survive, and right now, that system is all they’ve got. It doesn’t behoove us to blast every mom with a shopping cart and a food stamp card. We don’t know their stories.
Reggie McCoy isn’t part of the problem. In a way, he’s a success. He figured out how to escape his circumstances and make his own way in the world, and until this accident, he seems to have asked for little more than a train ride in return. Rail hoppers typically don’t stay in one spot long enough to collect welfare, food stamps or unemployment.
In a kinder society, he and his friends would never have needed to run away in the first place. No child in this country should ever be in want of food, clothing, shelter, safety or love. In a better world, the shamelessly greedy oil industry profiteers would use some of their billions to help the people we keep blaming, to repair the broken social systems that fail us all. You know, to thank those who work their asses off to fill their gas tanks and, in turn, line the pockets of the 1%.
Reggie’s words keep ringing in my ears. “I’ve got the opportunity to make the world better.” Can you imagine? This guy who has nothing? This guy who’s lost so much? May everyone be so kind in spirit. My husband and I are happy to know that a part of our taxes might go toward his hospital bill. We wish him well.