Amber Waves of Green

Guess what, compatriots? The gap between  the richest and the poorest among us is now wider than it has been since we all nose-dived into the Great Depression. So GQ sent Jon Ronson on a journey into the secret financial lives of six different people on the ladder, from a guy washing dishes for 200 bucks a week in Miami to a self-storage gazillionaire. What he found are some surprising truths about class, money, and making it in America

By Jon Ronson; Photographs by James Mollison

Maurose Frantz, worker at Capital Grille in Miami

CLICK HERE to read entire article on income inequality in GQ MAGAZINE!

How to Live on $200 a Week
A young man peers into a crack of sunlight that emerges from behind one of the sheets that block out all his windows. His name is Maurose Frantz, but he goes by Frantz. He can’t afford air-conditioning, hence the sheets, so it’s very dark and stuffy in here. Frantz lives with five other people—his mom, stepdad, grandparents, and little brother—and the entire house is the size of a typical suburban living room. As it happens, the view down the dusty, potholed street includes not only used-car lots but also self-storage facilities—the idea that made Wayne his billions.

“Outside is dangerous,” Frantz says. “One time someone pulled up and said to me, ‘Do you need a gun?’ He showed me a gun! I said, ‘I can’t hear you, man.’ Another time my grandpa—they jumped him. They took his wallet. They slotted him. He cried, he cried, he cried.”

Frantz is Haitian. His accent is very strong, and I’m constantly asking him to repeat what he said: “They did whatto your grandpa? They slotted him? Slattered him? Sorry?”

Slapped him,” Frantz replies. “Slapped.”

Frantz washes dishes at the Capital Grille restaurant, a posh steak house near the harbor in Miami’s financial district. He nets $200 for a twenty-seven-hour week and receives no food stamps or government assistance of any kind. That means he makes in an hour what I make in five minutes and Wayne makes pretty much every time he breathes in and out.

At the end of the week, Frantz gets an ATM card with his pay already loaded onto it. Sometimes when he clocks out at the end of the night, he says, he finds he’s already been mysteriously clocked out by someone else. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a restaurant workers’ advocacy group, launched a class-action suit against Darden—the restaurant conglomerate that owns the Capital Grille—for this and other alleged improprieties. Frantz says he’s repeatedly requested some kind of paper breakdown of how many hours he’s been paid for and how much tax has come off, but they never give it to him, so he’s stopped asking. He’s also stopped asking for a promotion to busboy. He says they told him they’d let him know, but they never did. According to ROC United, the Capital Grille regularly denies promotions to dark-skinned people. It’s possible for a black worker to become a busboy, Frantz says, but he’s never seen a black server. Darden, for its part, maintains that the Capital Grille pays its employees fairly and that the claims of discrimination are baseless.

Last night, one of Frantz’s co-workers threw away his shoes.

“I checked everywhere,” Frantz says. “I checked in the garbage, but I couldn’t find them. I called the sous-chef and I told him, ‘I put down my shoes. Somebody threw them away.’ He said, ‘Frantz, you know me. I’m cool with you. I treat you like a man. I give you all the respect you need. I talk to you about your life.’ I said, ‘I know, chef.’ He respects me, the sous-chef. He said, ‘I don’t know what happened to your shoes. I can’t tell you nothing.’ ”

Frantz talks a lot about respect and the opposite of respect—humiliation. It’s as if he’s lowered his ambitions to the level that he can take all sorts of awfulness as long as people talk to him with a little respect. It occurs to me that his life might be better if he spent less time worrying about feeling disrespected and more time actively working to improve his conditions, but then I realize he is doing all he can. Putting his head above the parapet to talk to me is a brave step. (ROC United asked for volunteers on my behalf, and he was the one to agree.) But I can’t see how his life will improve anytime soon. He’s so far down America’s financial pecking order he barely registers on it.

I ask Frantz to show me his neighborhood. He says there’s nothing really to see. He rarely goes out—only to work and to church and to play soccer. Everywhere else is too dangerous. When we head outside, I scurry from his front door to the car. A smashed-up police cruiser lies abandoned on the corner. We take a drive past the one place on earth he has some fun: the soccer field in the public park.

Six miles later, we reach the Capital Grille. Usually he catches the bus, which takes an hour. When he works late and misses the 1 a.m. bus home, he has to stand there until the next one comes at 4 a.m.

“Do you ever wonder what the customers’ lives are like?” I ask.

“I don’t know nothing about the customers,” says Frantz. “I’ve never seen them.”

I look at him. “You’ve never seen a customer?” I ask.

“Never,” he says.

“Do you know how much the steaks cost?” I ask.

“I never saw a menu,” he says. “They’re in the restaurant, not the kitchen.”

His last words to me, before I head off to visit someone who makes five times what he does, are “If I get money, I’m going to leave.”