Bailout talk in the prison waiting room

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


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.


Bailout talk in the prison waiting room

  1. I hear ya, girlfriend. But Suze was a waitress and clawed her way out of poverty much like you and I did.
    Don’t you feel like you’re back where you started, Hamilton Barb? Talking to these women you couldn’t wait to abandon several decades ago, must feel like deja vu. You knew Conrad was no different than the slugs you grew up with and you still went along for the ride. You may have more in common with these women than you’re willing to admit.
    The question I often ask is, “How did I make it out, past the drugs, bikers, pimps and thieves? My only
    answer is that I live in a great country that offers student loans for those who want to change. I had a right to re-invent myself and not be ruled by my love life. What did the criminal element teach me? The first rule is, ‘You get greedy – you get busted. The second is, ‘Trust no one.’ I saw bankers as the new pimps last year and got out of the market, unscathed.
    As for Suze, I am sorry very few Americans listened to her on their big screen TV’s.

  2. What a lot of bosh Amiel writes! Her husband was well and truly convicted by a jury of his peers (although he probably wouldn’t consider them his equals) after a four-month trial in which he was defended by a legal team costing the annual GDP of some small countries. Amiel, who never had anything but contempt for the little people and opposed any form of social spending to help elevate them from poverty and poor educational levels, probably contributed to his downfall through he limitless greed. Now she is the washed-up “widow” of a convict, who got of much lighter than he deserved to and is probably counting his blessings, including being away from her. It’s a bit late in the day for Amiel to develop a sense of empathy with anyone other than herself. Time for her to such it up and just shut up.

  3. Don’t you dare our intelligence by equating yourself with ordinary Americans, who by and large are hardworking and victims of corporate greed having been screwed many times over by thugs who swindle money from the investors and rob them of their life’s savings. You on the other hand are the beneficiary of these hoodlums like your husband whose greed has no limits. You have no shame what so ever in still peddling you’re BS and it is shame that Maclean publishes your crap.

  4. Just can’t wait to see what Amiel writes about David Radler now that he is again a free man. No doubt she will pour upon him the kind of bile that only she is capable of and refuse to recognise that 1) he ‘fessed up when it was clear to him (as it should have been to the leader of that gang, Lord Blackula, as well) that the jog was up, thereby sparing the US taxpayer the cost of a lengthy trial (and lengthy incarceration). 2) He repaid millions of the money he stole and 3) did his time like a man. I’m sure he has learned his lesson and will not re-offend. Good luck to him.

    Because he respected his Canadian citizenship and did not spit on it like His Lardship did to take up a British comic opera title, Radler could transfer to a more congenial Canadian prison and qualify for favourable parole terms, whereas Lord Blackula still has five years or so to fester in his US prison. Karma be praised.

    How rich that Lady Morticia Blackula now feigns concern for the unfortunate prisoners’ relatives she meets at the prison! She is living in a $37-million mansion and probably has millions in cash squirrelled away, much of it directly or indirectly derived from His Lardship’s crimes, so why doesn’t she fork out a few thousand to help those unfortunate women with health problems? And is she now prepared to admit, at the age of 68, that she has wasted her life opposing virtually any programme or policy that might have lessened social deprivation and thereby indirectly reduced the prison population?

  5. What a hilarious rag from one of the biggest snobs to come out of Canada. To criticize Suze Orman…get real!

    Take a look in the mirror, go back and look at all those society page photos, logs of your private jet trips, bills from your personal staff, bills from your monthly clothing, hairdressing, and makeup expenses, the lifestyle you lived and still live that is probably not rightfully yours…then take 1% of that amount and make your new found friend friend comfortable for life, end her suffering right now!

    You have not earned the right to write this type of story. If you feel so strongly about these poor people, pull up your shirtsleeves, take off the jewellery and get out there and DO something. Or at least sign some really big cheques!

    Shame on McLeans for giving this socialite snob a tribune where she can pretend to be an ordinary person. It’s a slap in the face to ordinary Canadians.

  6. Fintan, Charles, L. Robert: It appears you haven’t read the article.

    Firstly, no matter how much you may dislike a person, your insults do not make you a better person. Grow some manners and dignity.

    In the article, Barbara does not attempt to equate herself with the ladies surrounding her. She is simply outlining her experiences.

    She is saying that those ladies may be pleased seeing the CEOs suffer, but they do not realize that the very same problems will affect them as well, and they also do not realize that the vast majority of taxes are paid by those same CEOs, not the working class. In fact, close to 50% of Americans pay no tax at all. And they have no idea about this simple fact.

    • So these CEOs pay taxes do they? Well, even if they paid 50%, at a modest CEO salary 0f $200,000 they would still have a hundred thousand to spend.
      My mother has been working 20 years to ring up your groceries and say she paid no taxes at all, she would have only $15,000 to spend.
      Her sisters clean your public washrooms and hotel rooms. No you don’t need a university education to do this but you would be shoutin’ “SHIT!” if , upon your arrival, they weren’t cleaned, right?
      So, which service would you rather have and what do you want to pay them for this service,hey?
      Merry Christmas and please do dropoff a box or 2 of Kraft Dinner at your local food box .

  7. Barbara Amiel reminds me of Ann Coulter.

    • Minus the sex appeal.

  8. Babs did.t claw her way out of poverty. That is inpossible to do in the pres by tear ian position

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