The Summer Help in the Office
The following story is a modern re-mix of a biblical parable originally found in St. Matthew's gospel: Matthew 20:1-16.
For Richmond, with love.
The kingdom of heaven is like a white teenager attending Collegiate School who started an internship on June 1st for a top-flight law firm in Richmond which handled immigration law for the Commonwealth.
“For the summer, I will pay your son $5,000” the lead lawyer had said to the teenager’s dad over Memorial Day weekend, while downing drinks at The Lucky Buddha in Shockoe Slip. “How does that sound? It’s good work; the days are often long.”
“Perfect,” the teenager’s dad replied, sipping on his single-malt 30-year Glenfiddich scotch. “My son would be honored to work in such an important office in this city.”
The lead lawyer picked up the bill and left a cigar – for the teenager’s dad – from his Rocky Patel Seasonal Collection.
In early July the lead lawyer realized the summer case-load was greater than he had expected. The office was buzzing and bustling with the energy of a big harvest.
Sometime after the Fourth of July the lead lawyer was driving through the North Side. He came to the stoplight at Chamberlayne and Azalea. At this intersection, over Memorial Day weekend, one black man had downed another black man with a .38 Special. The lead lawyer had read about it on some blog.
On this day, the lead lawyer noticed a group of young black men milling around the bus stop – hats crooked, jeans sagging. They seemed to have nowhere to go but up and down Chamberlayne, collecting time, he thought.
He pulled up to the bus stop, rolled down the window and said, “How would you like to make $5,000 by the end of August? You’ll learn how to work in my office. And afterwards, I’ll place you in a steady, well-paying job in another office. I have many offices in this city.”
The lead lawyer continued, “I guarantee you: you will not feel second-class in this job. I give you my word. It’s good work; the days are often long.” “One last thing,” he said, “your work in my office begins today.”
Of the five black high school dropouts, two stepped into the car; one smirked, turning around and laughing; one stared, cold as ice; and one flipped-off the lead lawyer and started walking back down the familiar street.
One day, in mid-August, the lead lawyer was planning an exclusive cookout for a collection of business and civic leaders as well as elected city officials. He wanted newly-harvested sweet Vidalia onions and late-harvest vine-ripened tomatoes for the gourmet bison burgers he would be grilling up, Bobby Flay-style, on his cedar wood deck.
From his downtown office he drove out to his preferred farmer’s produce stand near the Patterson Libbie intersection in the Near West End. After collecting the onions and tomatoes, he saw 10 to 15 Mexican men sitting in the shadows. They were resting in the shade provided by the large back canopies of the boutique stores called Shops at 5807.
As the lead lawyer walked in the direction of the Mexican men, they quickly began to scamper away down the back lot, desperately trying to avoid being collected. Figuring they were undocumented, the lead lawyer yelled, “Alto.”
“In between the berry season and grape season, right?” the lead lawyer asked, as he continued to chase them down. “Any chance you'd be interested in working in an office for two weeks? It’s good work; the days are often long.”
The Mexican men stopped. One of them, on behalf of the others, said in perfect English: “We know long days. But do you pay a fair wage?”
On August 31st, with summer winding down, the lead lawyer brought the white teenager from Collegiate School, the two young black dropouts and the undocumented Mexicans into his plush office in the city, which overlooked the river and which featured an extraordinary collection of original Yves Klein works. He opened a drawer in his desk and proceeded to pay his summer help.
First, he gave each Mexican man $5,000. They stood there, stunned; they were speechless, not knowing how to collect this sort of generosity. The office assistant showed them out, giving each of them paid-for bus passes good for the rest of the year.
“Damn!” the young black man whispered to his friend. “We’ll be getting more than that.”
But the lead lawyer gave both of them $5,000 as he had said when he picked them up at the corner of Chamberlayne and Azalea.
“What the…?” one of them shouted, motioning violently at the lead lawyer. “That’s not fair, man. And those are Mexicans.” They stormed out of the office with their money, brushing by the office assistant who was standing there with their bus passes good for the rest of the year.
Up stepped the white teenager from Collegiate School, grinning and confident. And the lead lawyer handed him $5,000.
“But sir…” said the teenager. “I worked my butt off for you all summer in this office. How could you give me the same as those losers? With all due respect, that’s no way to run a firm. You’re messing with the wrong family.”
The teenager turned around to walk out, but the lead lawyer gently grabbed his arm and said, "Hey, tell your dad this: In my office the last will be first, and the first last.”