Sable Makonnen (62) came to the United States in the late seventies as an immigrant from Ethiopia. After losing her job in New York, she is about to move back to the D.C. area. She is moved to tears about what happens to America and she participated in a Black Lives Matter protest because she could not just do otherwise.
Sable! Long time no see. What’s up?
I’ m packing, Moving back to D.C.
The bridal store at Macy’s where I worked went out of business. They gave us a choice between transferring to a different department or take a severance pay. I took the severance.
Where will you live?
For the beginning I can live temporarily with a friend in Springfield, out in Virginia. She has a big house and the daughter is in college and stayed on campus. This gives me time to look for an apartment and for work.
What will you do?
I don’t know yet. I don’t want to go back to cooking and catering – what I did before I moved to New York. It’s too hard.
How did they treat you as an employee?
Macy’s is unionized, even for private stores which lease space, like our bridal store did. They could not just get rid of us like they did with our colleagues over in New Jersey. Me and three colleagues in the New York store were doing leftover work, like orders that still came in. But there was not really a lot to do and after three months Macy’s decided that they would not just pay us for not working a lot. So, they gave us the choice.
Why did the bridal shop go under? People are still getting married.
They do, and the guy who owns our store still is doing wholesale bridal, but he gives up the shops for customers. People nowadays get their stuff in other ways than going to a store. Other bridal stores closed down, too. The young people buy online, or directly from China.
That’s where our gowns were made. With the Corona crisis we also had problems getting orders to come in.
How much was the severance pay? In places like Germany a long-time employee like you would get a handsome sum, like months and months of salary.
Not here. It is not much. For every year you worked you got a certain amount of a weekly salary. Half of it went to taxes. I hope to get some of it back next year
How long did you work for the bridal store?
About fifteen years.
Are you a member of the union?
No. At the 34th street Macy’s we were under the union contract even though we worked for a private company leasing space.
How do you feel to leave New York City?
I’m kind of disappointed with New York, in a lot of ways. It’s not the place to be any more. Now it is loosening the Corona restrictions, and people will take the trains and buses, standing close together. It is not healthy. And apartments are so expensive. New York City is good for multimillionaires but not for ordinary working people.
You think Virginia will be better?
New York is actually not bad for workers who have work, because a lot of jobs are unionized. But if you try to find an apartment you are faced with very shady ways of doing business. You know, I moved from New Jersey to the city and what I experienced while apartment hunting was unbelievable. Rental agencies and such charge you whatever they want, and they sent me to neighborhoods where I did not even enter the buildings. In this way, Virginia is better. There is more control by the government. Of course, you would not know – you had a posh apartment and never made the experiences I made.
Aren’t you sad?
I am sad about what New York has become. It will never be the same again. When I walk down those huge avenues, all empty, all the way down to Times Square, I am in tears.
You live up in Washington Heights, do you see a lot of the protests?
Every day. It is amazing. In normal times I would be out every day, but I am scared because of the virus.
You never protested?
I did. Two weeks ago, I was down at Union Square shopping…
Wait a minute – you took the train?
Yeah, the A train and the 14th street bus. The buses are free now, that’s one good thing about the Corona virus. The train and the bus were empty, and as we got close to the Square the driver stopped and told us to go out. When I came out of Trader Joe’s 14th street was teeming with people marching. I could not but join them. Had I not marched with them; I would have felt terribly guilty. I could not ignore them. So, I marched.
Who were the protesters?
Young people, eighty percent white, thousands of them. I asked a girl where we were marching, and she said Washington Square. There it got really packed. They gave away masks and gloves, but I was scared. There was music and some speakers, but I could not understand what they said anyways. So, I left.
Were police there?
In the side streets. They were just hanging out. They did not come near. It was in the afternoon. The harder confrontations are in the evening, particularly in Brooklyn. I don’t go out of Manhattan anymore. But even here there are protests every day. It is unbelievable.
You are a black woman. Are you scared of the police?
No. I see them. Yesterday they were on the train, minding their own business. Maybe they were looking for people who did not wear masks.
What do you think of the killings that trigger the protests?
Everybody knows that the police are rough in the rough neighborhoods. But I cannot get out of my head what happened to that guy in Minneapolis. He was literally murdered by a policeman and a 17-year-old girl filmed everything with her phone.
And other policemen stood by watching.
Yes. But now it comes out that there were complaints, police dispatchers complaining and asking to stop the action. I am sure this happens all the time. People know.
Why are the protests so large now, and so persistent?
Because of Trump. People are so unhappy with this country. And also because a lot of people cannot do anything because of the virus, no schools, no work. What’s unbelievable is that the protesters don’t get tired. And most people pay attention now because they are stuck at home, watching the news. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it is unbelievable. I feel bad for the country. This once was the country the world looked up to.
Tell me what happened to your cousin in Minneapolis. I hear his office was burnt down in the riot.
Yes, it was. I talked to him after it happened, but now we cannot reach him. He has a travel business and his office was burnt down. The whole neighborhood where he lives was burnt down. He still has his business and works from home.
What does this tell you about the protests?
Most of the protests are peaceful. But this is an old phenomenon. When people get angry enough, they start burning cars and houses down. This happens mostly where they live. They do it in own community, they are not going to Park Avenue. Although on Fifth Avenue all stores are now blocked by big wooden boards. Even Macy’s got looted a while back and for a while was boarded up along 34th street. Things like this give a bad name to the other protesters. And of course, the right concentrates on that.
What do you think of the New York government?
I watched Governor Cuomo’s briefing every day. He is what you expect from a political leader. And the people here really follow the rules. You would think New Yorkers are arrogant, but they keep the distance, wash their hands and wear their masks. If somebody in the street does not wear it correctly, somebody would say: “That’s the way you do it”. Even the men do it, not just the women.
Do you still follow what’s going on in the old country?
Not really. I talk to my brother-in-law who has a lot of contacts.
How are they doing with the Corona virus?
In the beginning they had very few cases. Now I hear that it is getting bad, people are dying in the hundreds I hear. But for some reason Ethiopia is not as bad as other places in Africa. Maybe it is because the Chinese donated a lot of masks and disinfectant and stuff like that. The Chinese are much better in Africa than the Europeans ever were. They are not just grabbing the resources like the Europeans did, but they invest in our countries.