The Working Class


So I’m sitting in a bar in St. Louis last week at a going away party for a friend. She got a new video editing job in another town, pays more, and she’ll be able to work on better projects. You can only edit so many fried chicken videos.

One of the guys sitting at the table, a local indie movie guy, who comes off a little cocky because he’s made a couple of movies that a few people liked, starts railing on the people who work at fast food restaurants.

“I always check the bag before I drive off because they’re so fucking stupid! I don’t care if it pisses em’ off or not! One time, just one time, I’d like for them to get my fucking order right!” He was practically yelling. Everybody at the table laughed.

It made me want to throw up. Those are my peeps, man. I spoke up, “you know, I just traveled all across the United States and I was amazed at how nice people at the drive up window are. And they don’t even have to be.”

I thought about this a lot on the road trip. I found myself relating more and more to the people in my world — the motel maids who’d say, “Don’t worry honey” when I’d beg for another half hour to check out, the desk clerks who’d be there late at night, with a friendly smile when I’d pull up needing a room for the night, the kids at the drive up who’d hand me my coffee or hamburger, the toll booth attendants, the gas station cashiers. These are just ordinary folks trying to make a living. I can not even describe how sweet they were.

When I came across Nate, who’s walking across America, (who, by the way, he’s supposed to wrap up in about two weeks and I’ll get an update) when he and I stood out on that hot Utah highway, we shared identical observations about our respective journeys. Both of us remarked that we could not believe how nice people had been to us.

Isn’t that wonderful?  Just think about that for one minute: a young man, a middle aged woman (if I live to be 110) had both experienced abundant human kindness. Course, if you expect people will be decent, and you treat people decently, it’s funny how it usually turns out that way.

My mother had a way of relating to people that was truly remarkable. She charmed babies and sailors. She could size up a person in a matter of minutes, without acting superior or inferior, she was simply empathetic. Her people were poor, they left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Her dad was a cook, her mom a waitress and she followed in their footsteps working in bars and cafes up and down the California coast, until she aspired for something better. Pregnant with me, she went to Western Union school in San Francisco to learn to be a teletype operator, which eventually got her a government job. This would put food on our table for decades.

She didn’t do all of this alone. She hired help. But, this wasn’t the fancy lady’s kind of help like the movie, where the white woman sat around and played bridge while the black woman raised the kids and kept the house. This was where the white woman and the black woman were separated by a narrow thread. My mother always told me, “whatever I make, I split with my help.” It was a necessity. She was working to take care of her family, she hired women who were taking care of theirs. They were sisters in arms.

Most people of a certain age remember where they were when President Kennedy was killed. We were living in Ft. Worth. My brother Don and sister-in-law Beverly saw him that morning at the Worth Hotel before the motorcade left for Dallas. When the shooting occurred, all of us kids were sent home immediately, told to go straight home, no  explanation. My mother had seen the teletype wires, she’d rushed home as soon as she could. It was an eery feeling for a second-grader, walking home, knowing something was really wrong, but not sure what.

Beverly Gene Waddell

Beverly Gene Waddell, Oklahoma, 1926

When I got there, my mother and our maid Agnes were standing in the living room, transfixed by the news on TV, both of them with tears streaming down their faces. Agnes broke down, my mother reached out, and Agnes turned around and buried her face in my mother’s chest.

My mother just stood their holding her, the pain in her face I will never forget. She knew for all the sadness she felt at that moment, a light of hope had gone out for all the Agnes’ of the world.

Such things leave lasting impressions.


My mother would have been 88 years old today. I thank her for teaching me how to be part of the human race. I thank her for showing me how to look for the decency in people and, more often than not, finding it.

Happy Birthday, Mama. God rest your soul.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Beautiful post and pic!

  2. Great tribute:) Troy and I have been traveling the past few weekends and we too have experienced the kindest people out there! Love you!

  3. Great photo-love the colorized photo. Wonderful story.

  4. Very nice as always, one of your best.

  5. Talk about touching a nerve! It just infuriates me when I witness people who treat others with disrespect merely because of their perception that they are so far below them. Well I have news for those folks … we’re all one bad break from having to find a whole new way to pull it all together. If someone doesn’t have the decency to be pleasant to another person simply because they believe he or she doesn’t deserve it, shame on them. Everyone needs a smile, a thank you, an acknowledgment that lets them know they are appreciated … for whatever they do. This is one big soup pot we’re all in and a little kindness sure goes a long way.

    And kudos to your Momma!

    • See? I love this format! We get to hear how other people feel. I love that line, “we’re all just one bad break….” let’s pray for some good ones or the strength to weather the bad ones. Thank you for jumping in. This is why I do this.

  6. David Allen says:

    “My mother just stood their holding her, the pain in her face I will never forget. She knew for all the sadness she felt at that moment, a light of hope had gone out for all the Agnes’ of the world.” Wow. Jean, these two sentences (actually the whole paragraph is as good as writing gets), could be engraved on JFK’s headstone. No one has conveyed that sense of loss better. Ever.

  7. What a wonderful tribute to your Mom. I lived those days in Fort Worth and I remember your Mom trying to get Agnes’ husband to sign up for “commodities”. He told her he was too proud.
    Great writing, dear.

  8. I love how this is both an imporatnt statement, and a tribute. There are so many of us who forget that there are human beings behind so much of what we taked for granted: a clean hotel room or retail space or public toilet; a well-stocked grocery shelf. Your mom raised her daughter right!

    • Hi Alysa, how’s Paris? One of the things that struck me, especially in the west, were the highways and tunnels and the people who worked and many died literally paving the way for the rest of us. Good to hear from you.

  9. Annette Chartier says:

    Lovely, Jean, brought tears to my eyes. Explains more and more about why you are who you are. I wish I had gotten to know your mom better.

    Love you and miss you!

  10. Hello Jean and Libby, thank you for your journey and mission. I don’t know if there ever has been or ever will be a person to regret following their dreams. I have only just found your blog, but am so glad I did. I have been following Nate for some time and he mentioned you. My life has somewhat recently become about traveling with dogs and writing about it. Seeing what you have done and where you’ve been gives me faith and confidence in my own project. I live in Louisville, Kentucky and would love to host you if you happen by this way on your travels. Like Nate, my husband and I are walking across America next year. Like you, we travel with our dogs and the focus is on them and the journey. So glad that you and Nate ran in to one another. More beautiful people in a world full of unexpectedly beautiful people. Enjoy your travels and discoveries. I will enjoy reading about them. Wishing you the very best.

    • Hi Kait!

      So nice to hear from you and isn’t it a great world when someone can invite another person into their home whom they’ve never met? And I would take you up on it in a heartbeat, except you’d be pissed because Libby has fleas! We’re working on that. Meeting Nate out there on Highway 50, out in the middle of nowhere was kind of a powerful life affirmation for me. I would not have had the courage to do that just eight weeks earlier. All of the experiences that I had leading up to that moment told me it was okay to turn back around and go meet that fellow walking along. You should have heard me talking to myself about it:
      “I’m late, keep going.”
      “No, this trip is about taking the time to stop where ever and whenever you want.”
      “Just think of the signs you’ve already paid attention to…”
      “He looks harmless.”
      “You have to do this, don’t be a chicken shit.”

      As it turned out, he was this sweet,wonderful young man — the age of my daughter. in fact, I’d love to introduce them to each other. She’s beautiful and as good as she is pretty! Anyway, taking the time to turn around and go talk to that darling kid, and hug his neck and wish him well and he doing the same for me, is about as sweet and simple and profound a human exchange as you’d ever want to experience. Maybe some day we’ll meet too! Let me know about your travels, I will post information here about my forthcoming book. With sincere thanks. Jean