Thirty years and counting

The day was overcast, which made for gorgeous pictures, filled with lovely fall colors and very little glare. The priest had a golf game scheduled, but he performed an entire mass. That wasn’t my idea, or my fiancé’s. It’s what my mother-in-law-to-be wanted, a full mass, not just the exchanging of vows. She was very Catholic, and we loved her, so we did the full mass, and then gave Father Burke a wad of bills that he probably lost to other wagering priests on the golf course, due to his vicious, incurable slice.

I’d been living in South Carolina for a few months, a new job as sports editor at a newspaper in Camden, about 30 miles up the road from Columbia. And she was willing to follow me there, this young woman who’d only been south of the Mason Dixon line twice before, and never for very long. Now she was going to leave New York and live with me in a state that had an unofficial tongue-in-its-cheek motto at the time, “hey, at least we ain’t Mississippi.” I’d have been an idiot not to marry Jane Giacomotto, and though I’ve been an idiot plenty of times since tying that knot, at least I got that part right.

We held the reception at a bar in the middle of our native land, Long Island (seriously, it was almost the geographic center of the island), rented it for the evening and partied with reckless abandon, like marauders on the eve of battle. It all hung out. There was so much food – Italian food, of course – but I don’t think Jane or I touched it. We drank and danced. We danced slowly to Since You’ve Asked, a song written by Judy Collins, but performed in our story together by Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg, a song that begins with the lyrics, “What I’ll give you since you asked is all my time together,” and holds images of hills and water and winding paths and places we’d been to and loved. And we also danced crazily to the Curly Shuffle.

It was a hell of a party, our transition from couple to soul couple. But it wasn’t the mass or the priest or the vows or the party that made us a soul couple. That’s something Jane believes happened before we were born, and I have no proof to the contrary.

Our kick-ass wedding and party was just a way of recognizing what the two of us knew, it was a way to celebrate the fact that in all the universe, we managed to find each other, and more than celebrating the Jane-and-Jerry entity, it was about lavishing love and respect and thanks and booze on our families and friends. Jane-and-Jerry was going to happen (or had already happened) with or without a wedding and a marriage.

So, we partied and we left early, which is what newlywed couples do. The party went on. We met my parents for breakfast the next morning then flew off to the Magic Kingdom, two kids starting their own little sanctioned big bang, their own new universe of possibility that keeps expanding.

In 30 years together as a married pair, we haven’t quite figured out what “marital bliss” means, exactly. There isn’t a thrill ride to describe the twists and turns, highs and lows, we’ve experienced together through the years. But we’ve always tried to do what Judy Collins wrote in her pretty song, “taken off the days one by one, setting them to breathe in the sun.” And my greatest wish is for many more days and breaths in the sun with my wife, Jane. I’m greedy like that.

Inbox Inspiration

I don’t know John Kremer. Never met him. Sure wish I had his drive and determination, though. Wish I had his guts. Maybe I’d be king of something or, at the very least, earning a better living. Found this in my inbox this morning, from the Navy Office of Community Outreach:

Good morning! Please consider this opportunity to share a great story about Buford, Ga., native Petty Officer John Kremer with the story below and photo attached. He is currently competing in the 2014 Invictus games in London. The Invictus games are a sporting event for wounded, injured and sick service members inspired by the American Wounded Warrior Games. The event will feature teams from 13 nations including the U.S. For more information about the Invictus games, please visit:

So, I’ve considered the opportunity and I think Mr. Kremer’s story is definitely worth these pixels and a lot more. The note in my inbox goes on to say:

Retired Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD) 1st Class John Kremer, from Buford, Ga., grew up on Whidbey Island – which is home to a large naval air station – and sometimes would hop on his bike with friends to watch EOD Sailors train. He would hear explosions and see the service members parachute into the water, and he was hooked; he knew he wanted to join the Navy one day. Kremer is married to Gabrielle, and they have a daughter, Adalyn. Kremer enlisted in the Navy in 2003, about a year after he graduated high school. After multiple tours, he was injured while deployed with EOD Mobile Unit 1 in September 2010, after stepping on a land mine. He lost his right foot and part of his left foot, and he suffered additional shrapnel injuries. After his injury, he was enrolled in Navy Wounded Warrior — Safe Harbor, the Navy and Coast Guard’s support program for seriously wounded, ill and injured service members and their families.

See, that’s where I would have given up. Well, let’s go back a little further. I wouldn’t have been in a war zone to begin with. Not a soldier, never have been, never wanted to be, so let’s get that part out of the way. But if I had been, if I’d suffered injuries like Kremer, I’d have thrown in the towel and retired to the couch with my trusty remote, a bag of pretzels and lots of beer, or something stronger. Not this guy. To wit:

Kremer always has been active in sports – before his injury, he enjoyed wrestling – and adaptive athletics has been critical to his recovery. He currently is trying to earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Biathlon team. He won a gold medal in shooting at the 2013 Warrior Games, and the Navy wheelchair basketball team also picked up a bronze medal during the competition. Kremer has been selected to compete on the U.S. team headed to London for the inaugural Invictus Games, an adaptive athletics event for wounded warriors from 14 countries. The event will take place Sept. 10-14, and he will participate in sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.


I think Mr. Kremer and all of his fellow athletes in the Invictus Games are incredible people, superhumans who are certainly inspirational. But I’m not sure if I’m inspired as much as I am in awe. I’d like to meet Mr. Kremer one day, maybe thank him for his service or applaud his courage or do something else that would probably just embarrass the dude, who just wants to do what comes natural to him. More than likely, I’d just shake his hand and fumble for the right words and hope that a little of whatever he has rubs off on me.

Two things about John Lewis

On the occasion of the 51st anniversary of the March on Washington, here are two stories about John Lewis, a great American and the only surviving speaker from that amazing day.

Congressional Conscience (2005, Georgia Trend)

Since he was very young, John Lewis has dedicated himself to causing trouble for all the right reasons. It’s part of his engine, what he lives for. The struggle. The push. To uproot something, you have to dig, stir up dirt, commit.

“The other day I told about 300 interns from the House and Senate – Democrats and Republicans; I told them they must have the ability to get in the way,” says Lewis, 65, who is serving his ninth term in Congress. “I was inspired by Dr. King to get in trouble, get in the way. I told the interns how important it was to speak up, to get it out there.”

In other words, have guts. That’s never been an issue with Lewis, who was a nationally recognized leader in the civil rights movement before he was 23. He was jailed dozens of times, beaten countless others, including a vicious clubbing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Lewis was leading a peaceful march for voting rights in March 1965 when he was almost beaten to death by white police officers. He was causing trouble.

“I honestly didn’t think John Lewis would survive the ’60s,” says political columnist Bill Shipp, who covered the civil rights movement. “He tops the list of the bravest men I’ve ever covered.”

One afternoon late in October 1985, 20 years after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and a few days after Lewis won a second term as Atlanta City Councilman, he had lunch with Julian Bond, an old pal and fellow peaceful warrior from the movement, and state senator at the time.

“A very interesting meeting,” Lewis muses. “We’d just heard that Congressman [Wyche] Fowler was going to give up his House seat and run for Senate. We started talking about our future plans and it was downhill from there.”

That’s because each man announced to the other his intentions to run for Fowler’s seat as U.S. Representative of the 5th District in 1986. “It was a very quick lunch,” says Lewis, who upset the popular Bond in what was undoubtedly the most talked-about House race in the nation that year. “It was a very close, very difficult election, and we’d been friends for so long. Very tough. I never want to go through anything like that again.”

Lewis has breezed back into office eight times since and has earned a reputation as the conscience of the Congress. He’s a thorn in the side of what he calls “the most secretive presidential administration I’ve associated with,” campaigning to preserve individual civil liberties, which he says have eroded in the name of national security; advocating for peace, the oppressed, the millions of Americans who don’t have health coverage. Lewis isn’t young, but he plans to keep getting in the way.

“In a sense, I feel like I’ve been fighting for 45 years without stopping,” he says. “I don’t think there is any time to rest, or look back, because the struggle to create what I like to call a better society is not a struggle that lasts for a few years. It’s the struggle of a lifetime.”

The Lasting Influence of John Lewis (Jan. 2014, Georgia Trend)

John Lewis left the cotton fields of Alabama and became the conscience of a nation at war with itself. The scars still visible on his head are tangible reminders of an American hero’s courage, determination, defiance and grace, a hard life well lived, with intention.

Inspired as a teen by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the radio broadcasts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis felt compelled to fight, through nonviolent protest, for the cause of common humanity.

For his trouble, Lewis was beaten and injured on a number of occasions and arrested dozens of times, but he also helped plan the 1963 March on Washington, where he was a keynote speaker, and became a leader and symbol of a national struggle. Since 1986, he’s served as a U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District with the same spirit and sense of responsibility he displayed during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I’ve tried to do my best for the people of my district, of Georgia and of our country,” Lewis says. “My goal always has been to leave society a little better than I found it, leave the world community a little more peaceful, to do what I can to inspire people to stand up for what is right and fair, and what is truth.”

Lewis pushed through Congress a proposal to designate the highway from Selma to Montgomery a National Historic Trail, to commemorate the 1965 voting rights march (when Lewis and about 600 peaceful protesters were beaten by Alabama state troopers). And in 1988, Lewis introduced legislation to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Congress finally approved it in 2003.

At 73, he remains a vital progressive force in Congress, still sharply focused on the cause of human rights.

“The most prevailing, serious issue we’re confronting today is comprehensive immigration reform,” he says. “We have 11 to 12 million people living in the shadows, and we must set them on the path to citizenship.”

This one got to me

Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.” Today, it’s definitely dark. Really dark.

I didn’t know Robin Williams, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But I’m not ashamed to be part of the mob that says, “this one got to me.”

I can understand a little of what Robin Williams must have been going through, I think – the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.

I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.

So, 11 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.

It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.

The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.

“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. It’s more than that. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.

Anyway, the lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.

Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on another person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately). Often, it’s quite the opposite – there are plenty of depressive narcissists walking around in their wide-awake nightmares, blaming the world and everyone else, including other depressive narcissists (which describes a lot of narcissists) for their pain and sorrow.

That article from long ago ends with the contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”

It only occurred to me today, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t meant it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything.

I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ Misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is life.

It’s heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as Robin Williams, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be so incapable of drawing hope from the big love and admiration that surrounded him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …

That’s why this one got to me.

Babe as Babe: Nobody does it better

This is one of those things that I would’ve written when I was sports columnist on deadline and hadn’t done any actual work and needed something fast to fill that slot on the left side of the page. And those were usually my favorite columns …

“Sue baseball? No, kid, that would be like suing the church.”

  • Williams Bendix as Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story

“I didn’t mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.”

  • The real Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was the Jesus of baseball: a hero born into rough and humble circumstances to become a superstar, the idol of millions, saving the game after the Black Sox Scandal, visiting sick kids at their bedsides, promising to hit home runs for them, performing baseball miracles, eventually falling from grace to become the target of fan and player derision, but suddenly rising from ignominious career death to triumphantly belt three home runs in his last day as a player, before dramatically removing himself from the lineup for the good of the team – nay, for the good of the Game. And as he lay dying, he volunteered to be a guinea pig and test a new serum that would likely kill him, or be used to save millions. He did it for us. The Babe. Thou shalt have no other gods before him.

That’s the Hollywood version, anyway.

Couldn’t sleep late last night, so I fired up the old Mac, and found The Babe Ruth Story on YouTube. Figured it would be timely, since I’d read something earlier in the day about this being the 100th anniversary season of the Babe’s big league debut. Hadn’t seen the movie in years, always enjoyed it, even though it might be the worst baseball biopic ever made. Is it the Plan Nine from Outer Space of baseball films, or the Babe Ruth of bad baseball films? Doesn’t matter. It’s too easy to pick this movie apart, since it’s mostly fiction that hit theatres a few minutes before the real Babe died from throat cancer. So, I’ll take the coward’s way out and just throw this movie into the mix for a quick and easy ranking of movie Babe Ruths.

The real Babe Ruth demonstrates his grip to the fake Babe Ruth, a considerably smaller William Bendix.

William Bendix, who played the Babe in The Babe Ruth Story is my personal favorite, for nostalgic reasons. I first saw the movie with my dad, who was a sucker for this kind of schmaltz. And it’s a fun movie to watch, with just the slightest hint of authenticity – Bendix was a Yankees batboy during Ruth’s prime years in the 1920s. In the movie, his over-the-top, obstinate pointing to outer space (as opposed to center field) before hitting the famous 1932 “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the World Series is hilarious. The pitch Bendix hits comes down like a slow-pitch softball floater, and his uppercut would have made Mike Tyson proud.

Half of the movie is spent in various hospitals or at various bedsides – an injured dog, a sick kid, a dead Miller Huggins, a dying Babe Ruth – plenty of opportunity for Babe to bare his soul against a backdrop of drippy music. Plus, there’s a drunk version of Ruth dressed as Santa Claus lurching into an orphanage so he can tell a bunch of kids about “the three bears that were all Chicago Cubs.” And he gets the girl. The filmmakers completely ignore Babe’s first marriage, which ended tragically (his estranged wife died in a fire), so the love story within the story is a contrived version of his relationship with Claire Hodgson (a North Georgia girl, by the way – I’ve seen her girlhood home, it’s right here in White County).

Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth's orbit around the sun.
Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about the other Babe Ruth movies, so I’m completely unreliable as a critic of the films, but I remember the actors. Love John Goodman, but he was too fat to play the egg-shaped Ruth in The Babe (1992) in my opinion. He totally captured what I imagine Ruth’s character to have been like, but Goodman was about 40 when he played the Babe, and he looked 50, and his waistline looked like something that a moon might revolve around.

Stephen Lang, a chameleon of an actor, is about the same age as Goodman (both born in 1952, thank you IMDB), and played the lead in Babe Ruth, a 1991 TV movie, and probably the least-seen of the bunch. But you know, Lang really nailed it. The makeup people did a great job – he looked like Ruth, by God. He’s athletic. Plus, one thing I remember from the movie that stands out – Pete Rose plays Ty Cobb. If you can find this one, give it a look.

Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!
Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!

Even though he was the least seen, Lang might have been the best film Babe Ruth. But he wasn’t. The best was the Babe, who played himself in Pride of the Yankees, the Lou Gehrig story. Not surprisingly, Babe has the look and mannerisms of the Babe.

The Babe consoles "Lou Gehrig" (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in "Pride of the Yankees"). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.
The Babe consoles “Lou Gehrig” (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in “Pride of the Yankees”). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.

He’s certainly the most authentic. So, he wins. Of course, it isn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as watching Sophia Loren play Sophia Loren (dude, it’s Sophia Loren!). But, there’s no argument here: Babe Ruth is the Babe Ruth of actors who have played Babe Ruth, and he always will be.

There, I’ve called my shot.

Ghent Redefining Sacred Steel

AJ Ghent had no idea who the bearded white dude in the beanie hat was, even when the dude walked up and introduced himself.

“I didn’t have a clue who Zac Brown was,” says Ghent, whose eponymous band was dressed in its typical black and white formal attire, rolling into a midnight set of originals on a Thursday last summer when the Grammy-winning Brown entered the mostly-empty Dixie Tavern.

After the gig, Ghent and Brown hung out all night, talking plans. They didn’t leave the tavern until seven the next morning. “We clicked right away,” says Ghent. Since then, the AJ Ghent Band has opened for the Zac Brown Band across the country, introducing audiences to the evolution of an African-American musical gospel style, “sacred steel,” which was basically invented by Ghent’s great uncle, Willie Eason, grandfather, Henry Nelson, and father, Aubrey Ghent Sr.

“They’re like the kings of sacred steel, but I didn’t want be defined by what they’d done, or be stuck inside the box of a church environment,” says Ghent, 27, who moved to Atlanta from Fort Pierce, Fla., in early 2012, developing his chops and a regional following while playing with bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton, the influential Socratic chameleon of southern jam rock.

Now, when he isn’t conjuring James Brown on vocals, Ghent makes the custom 8-string lap steel guitar hanging from his neck sound like a spectral woman singing praise to heaven, often harmonizing with the vocals of his front-line band mates, wife MarLa Ghent and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle.

Will Groth (drums), Seth Watters (bass), and Gary Paulo (rhythm guitar/sax) bring rhythmic funk to the band’s sweaty, bluesy rock, and they’re all at work on the group’s debut album for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label.

“I’d like to create the energy of a live experience with a studio album,” says Ghent, for whom the live experience has changed. “I knew small clubs and pizza joints. Then we played the Georgia Dome with Zac, and it was like adjusting your ears to the sound of a million people screaming.”

They Are Economically Essential

This one appeared in the February 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. It’s about a new and growing body of research focused on “the essential economy.”

Simona frequently is the first or last person you see upon entering or leaving Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. She’s got short, black hair and large, dusky eyes, speaks broken English with a dense Eastern European accent, and when you notice her at all, she’s never more than a few paces from a cart loaded down with cleaning supplies.

“I can’t get much different work right now, so this is what I do,” she says while sweeping the lobby area near the parking lot elevators, just outside the Emergency Room waiting area. “Maybe later, when I have time to go for English class.”

She had a clerical job at an accounting firm back in her native Romania, but says her educational credentials don’t match up with the requirements of an American firm. So for the past five years, she’s helped support her growing family by working in CHOA’s environmental services department. It’s not the kind of work she and her husband dreamt of when they came to the U.S., but it’ll do for the time being, she says.

“It was old story. Everybody was talking about America because, you know, America is … America is energy. That’s why we came,” she says. “For right now, work is OK.”

Simona’s work, tedious as it may seem, is a critical component on the universal job ladder – the low rung, a small but foundational element in the overall American economic machine. She and her husband (he installs kitchen tile), and about one quarter of the Georgia workforce – nearly one million workers – are the focus of new research by The Essential Economy Council (TEEC), a nonprofit organization aiming to reframe the state and national immigration policy debate by broadening the focus.

Former state senator Sam Zamarripa, who co-founded TEEC and serves as its co-president with another former state senator, Dan Moody, coined the term The Essential Economy (TEE) to describe an occupational cluster that includes cooks, crop pickers, dishwashers, housekeepers, janitors, landscape crews, nursing home aides, poultry workers, stock clerks and so forth – low-wage, low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs that often are held by immigrant workers.

“This is a big, big part of our overall workforce. These jobs don’t go offshore, and there’s only so much you can do with technology. You can’t outsource these jobs,” says Zamarripa, who served in the state senate from 2003 to 2006 and runs his own private equity firm, Zamarripa Capital Inc.

Now he and the council want to use their ongoing research to enlighten elected officials and business leaders on the impact of TEE.

“Lawmakers should be thinking about this as hard as they do the Knowledge Economy,” Zamarripa says. “We’re talking about a structural part of our economy that has never been understood in a useful way.”

Zamarripa, a Democrat, was the first Hispanic person elected to the state senate. He co-founded and chaired the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and has been an outspoken advocate for immigrants in Georgia. But he says the work of TEEC isn’t really about immigration. When he says it, you can almost see him winking.

“There’s not a discussion in America that doesn’t come back to immigration. Education comes back to it. Healthcare comes back to it. Transportation, driver’s license, security,” he says. “So, is this discussion about immigration? No more than those other discussions.”

Zamarripa says he isn’t being sly or ironic.

“No, I’ve bent over backwards trying to think this through,” he says, “because I’m not interested in debating immigration.”

Basically, TEEC is changing the discussion without really changing the subject.

“The elephant in the room is the immigration question,” says Moody, a Repub-lican. “But immigration is going to affect all sorts of sectors in our economy, from top to bottom.

“We’re a bipartisan research organization. We don’t have a policy agenda. We don’t have legislation that we’ve drafted. What we want to do is provide good information about an important sector of our economy that has been largely overlooked and not really understood.”

Moody and Zamarripa insist that they’re not out to change or repeal current immigration policies – they just want lawmakers to think a little deeper before leaping into something like HB 87 again.

Demand and Supply

Karen Bremer spent 35 years owning or operating restaurants and knew the lay of the land well enough so that she could hit full stride, with clear intent, when she became executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA) in the summer of 2010.

“The whole immigration issue is the first thing I had to deal with when I started as executive director,” says Bremer, a founding member of GRA who serves on the TEEC board. “We were the first organization to speak out against the proposed legislation. I definitely feel like I have battle scars.”

In the spring of 2011, her fight clearly lost as the Georgia legislature was giving HB 87 an enthusiastic thumb’s up, Bremer wanted to understand the possible impacts on the restaurant workforce and long-term growth prospects.

She asked for counsel from someone she knew, Zamar-ripa, who came to realize that the workforce supply issues facing the restaurant industry went beyond immigration policy, went beyond restaurants into widespread realms, like agriculture and healthcare, for example. These issues include, among others, an aging workforce, the cost and time associated with increasing government regulations, changing aspirations of the available workforce, and the difficulty of the work itself.

Zamarripa says the aging population is the No. 1 threat to maintaining the Essential Economy, because younger generations aren’t coming forward to do the work. He lists immigration no higher than fourth.

But one of the council’s economic advisors, Tom Cunningham (vice president, senior economist and regional executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), says, “Immigration is central in all of this. That’s kind of what it comes down to.”

And for the business and industry leaders who make up most of TEEC’s board, immigration is the reason they are involved.

“I’m interested [in the Essential Economy] because of the immigration topic, and specifically because HB 87 was put in place,” says Steve Simon, TEEC board member and a partner in Atlanta-based Fifth Group Restaurants. “There was already a workforce shortage before HB 87. In my opinion, the laws currently in place do more harm than good.”

There’s always a labor shortage in the restaurant industry. High turnover has been a chronic condition for decades. Apparently, low wages, meager benefits and long hours aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Still, about 10 percent of the total workforce (in Georgia and the U.S.) toils in the restaurant industry (374,000 people in Georgia, 12.9 million nationally). Nearly 30 percent of all workers in the $632-billion national restaurant industry are immigrants, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

“We can’t outsource washing dishes to China, we can’t outsource the hostess to India,” Bremer says.

One of the fastest-growing segments in the restaurant industry is contract feeding for medical facilities, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and other institutional settings – essential work for an aging population that is living longer.

“The restaurant industry is one of the most labor-intensive industries. There are many hands that go into putting that plate down in front of you,” Bremer says. “And the pool of workers is declining.”

Her fellow TEEC board member, Charles Hall, is seeing the same workforce issues affect his membership at the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, where he is the executive director. That’s why he’s thrown his hat in with the council.

“We’ve got to know how we’re going to fill these harvest worker jobs if U.S. citizens won’t fill them,” says Hall. “There aren’t many Georgians raising their kids to be cucumber pickers.

“So, if we’re not raising our kids to do this kind of work, whether it’s washing dishes, housekeeping in a nursing home or picking cucumbers in a field, we’ve got to figure out how to create policies that support growing [the Essential Economy]. The U.S. economy depends on it.”

Low Rung, High Impact

It’s a recurring theme, says Cunningham, the scramble to find workers to do the basic stuff that holds everything together.

“A lot of businesses just can’t find the workers they say they need, especially in the hospitality industry. If they can’t find the workers to support these hotels and resorts and restaurants, you’ve got a problem,” Cunningham says.

Cunningham, who travels the state visiting different groups and businesses on behalf of the Federal Reserve Bank, was struck by a recent conversation with a businessman in Brunswick.

“He told me that increasing the wage rate doesn’t even change their pool of applicants, a pool that shrank considerably with Georgia’s new immigration reform law,” Cunningham says.

“How we think about immigration and the economy in a deeper sense really matters,” he adds. “We’re not talking about high-skilled, high-wage stuff. It’s straightforward stuff, but if you don’t do these jobs, you’re really stuck. You can screw up the whole economy.”

The council claims the Essential Economy is exactly that – essential, to everything above it, like the Knowledge Economy (scientists, researchers, technicians and teachers), or skilled trade workers, specialized manufacturing workers and office workers. The agricultural, hospitality, construction, personal care and other workers in the Essential Economy are foundational to economic development, because no high-wage executive in the Knowledge Economy wants to move to a place where the hotels aren’t clean, the coffee is cold, hospital floors aren’t swept and the fruit rots on trees.

“The Essential Economy feeds our lifestyle. So if you don’t have it, you don’t have the amenities of the modern world,” Zamarripa says. “And the expectations around the Essential Economy worker are the same ones you have with your doctor.

“You want your coffee when you want it, you want the best treatment you can get, and you want it on time. You hold them all to the same standards. You don’t distinguish between the hourly wage earner and the person who has a degree from Johns Hopkins.”

That timely, hot cup of coffee, or that woman sweeping the hospital floor, or the guy washing dishes at the Olive Garden are all elements in an economic development campaign designed to grow something else.

“We often focus on the promise of the high-tech economy and focus our efforts on that singular goal without remembering that building a high-tech economy is a process,” says Jennifer Clark, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy and an economic advisor to the council, whose work “underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding the labor market as a whole.”

Clark, whose field is regional economic development policy, says policymakers often fail to appreciate the contributions of the Essential Economy when trying to attract “the creative class.” She thinks in terms of pathways composed of “ladders that provide opportunities for people to pull themselves from the bottom rungs to the top.”

Strictly Business

The data compiled for The Essential Economy Council by Clark’s Georgia Tech colleague, economist Alfie Meek, as well as early data pulled together by Boston Consulting Group, defines the substantive bottom rung jobs. Those numbers were given to Juice Analytics, who went to work making the data presentation user-friendly.

Now, Joe Legislator will be able to log into the council’s research and see how many people work in The Essential Economy in his district and compare it with other counties and regions, based on job numbers and wages and occupational clusters.

It’s a massive amount of information, much of it assembled together for the first time, and it’s anybody’s guess how or if Joe Legislator will use it, but according to Meek’s data, about 25 percent of the workers in Georgia – almost one million people – work in these bottom-rung occupations.

“In other words,” Clark says, “this is a considerable employment sector and one that passes largely under the radar when policymakers propose economic development strategies intended to serve the state as a whole.”

Zamarripa and Moody have taken their message on the road, to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House David Ralston, among others.

“The first order of business is just laying out the fact that there is this cluster of job sectors that have these characteristics, and it’s very big and it produces a lot of jobs, contributes a lot in wages and sales tax and GDP,” Zamarripa says.

When they visited Ralston, his reaction to their initial spiel was, “so what.”

Zamarripa explained further, showed off Juice Analytics’ work, the easily digested and organized information the council hopes legislators will use as a new tool for making constructive policy decisions.

He explained to Ralston that TEE work wasn’t going anywhere, that these jobs have to be done by people, and having enough people to do the work was both a challenge and also critical to maintaining an established American way of life. It sunk in.

“I’m very impressed with their research,” Ralston says. “They’ve looked in a comprehensive way at an important segment of our economy in Georgia, studied its characteristics and needs. I think it’s something that was long overdue.

“Any information that helps us understand the total economic landscape is useful and important, and I think it’ll be very helpful to the General Assembly.”

But Zamarripa does not believe the Gold Dome is a large enough toolbox. From the start, he’s had his mind on something bigger.

“I’ve always had national ambition with this work,” he says. “I think it’s creative, constructive, and I think it will help people make better decisions.”

The council raised about $800,000 through December, and the research so far has looked at the past and the present. Work continues on the Essential Economy forecast. Meanwhile, Zamarripa has pitched the Knight Foundation for support of a national study, and he hopes the council’s work will evolve into an ongoing research program with a permanent home at a university, maybe Georgia Tech.

Whatever becomes of this thing he started, Zamarripa still insists it’s not about immigrant people working on American soil – it’s economics, strictly business.

“The outcome of this work is not immigration reform,” he says. “The outcome of this work is an understanding of an economy that’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”