Not so easy to set tea candles free

The summer before coming to Northwestern University as a freshman, I lifeguarded at the Muttontown Club, a prestigious golf and country club on Long Island’s north shore. I didn’t particularly like the job but one evening I discovered something redeeming.

One of the wealthy families at the club had rented out the pool area for a party. As lifeguards turned cabana staff, we were charged with setting up along with some other full-time employees.  My job that night was to put tea candles on plastic plates and float them in the pool. I was working with a woman named Marija (pronounced MAH-shah), who was the receptionist at the main house.

I guarded at a few country clubs on Long Island during high school, and it seemed to be a common practice for them to hire staff from abroad. The clubs would provide them with food and a place to stay on the property as part of the compensation for their services. Marija was part of this system.

She came from Russia, though I’m not sure where, which I suppose is testament to how insignificant I thought this all was at the time. She was in her late 20s or early 30s and was working and living full-time at the club. It wasn’t an arrangement that I’d ever really given much thought to because the lifeguards tended to stick to themselves. This also meant that I never interacted with Marija prior to that evening, and rarely spoke to her again afterwards.

We were sitting at the edge of the pool trying to light candles in the wind and then set them free across the water without getting them wet. It was a lot more challenging than it sounds, but also mundane so we struck up a conversation. I asked her if she liked working at the club and if she missed her home, family and friends. She said that the work was alright, but that she really did miss home and everyone there. She explained how difficult it was to live away for a long time and to not have your family and friends to help boost you up when you were having a bad day.  She also talked about how tiring it was to live and work in the same place. This arrangement afforded her almost no separation between her employment and her private life. In fact, she explained that beyond her co-workers, she didn’t really know very many people in America. It got me thinking.

Every day when I went to the Muttontown Club, I would drive there with a sense of dread. Every day I would tell myself that that was the day I would quit. But I never did. At the end of the day I would get in my car, search for something on the radio to get my mind off how frustrated I was and head home. I would get to decompress and see my friends and family before starting the cycle over again the next morning.

After talking to Marija, I realized how lucky I was. I may have had a job I resented, but I didn’t have to stay there forever. Marija on the other hand, never really had an opportunity to leave. And even if she did, she only knew people at the club, so off-premises didn’t really open up anywhere for her to go. At the end of the day when all of her tasks were done, she would go back to her room at the club.

I was lucky enough to get to have people outside to keep me positive, and at the end of the summer to have the opportunity to move on. Marija was stuck without her support system in a job and place she wanted to move on from, just looking and hoping for something better in the land of opportunity.

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