A Short Essay
Max Miller • Oct 07, 2019
Recently, for a class I took on multiculturalism, I had to write a paper on our backgrounds and when we first discovered the concept of diversity. I wrote about my post-collegiate time living in Millburn. Though there's a lot I'd like to add at some point, here it is, in handed-in form.
In early 1992, my parents faced a choice. They had just turned 30, were five years into their new careers as lawyers, and were living in Park Slope, Brooklyn with a 1.5 year old son. Both of their families were from Brooklyn, and they felt a strong connection to that borough. However, my mother’s parents had just moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and she wanted to be close to them, especially with a young child and perhaps another one in the near future. So, in June 1992, they pulled up to a white house with dark green shutters on a quiet, dead-end street, their new home for the next 24 years, where they would raise their two children. By the end of 1996, my maternal grandparents were both dead, and our reason for having moved to New Jersey extinguished. I often think about the alternate universe Max that grew up in Brooklyn, what he would have been like, how his childhood would have gone. But instead, I’m Max Miller, from Millburn, New Jersey.
Millburn is a suburban town of approximately 20,000 , nestled in the southwestern corner of Essex County. Located in the Hobart Gap of the Watchung Mountains, it is a median point between the urban core of Newark and exurban Morris County. It was incorporated in 1857, and it became popular as a bedroom community of New York City in the early 20th century with its spacious homes and easy rail access to the city. If you ask any young couple why they are moving to Millburn, the answer will inevitably be some variation on, “Well, we’ve got one kid now and another on the way, and we just want them to have the best education possible.” Indeed, Millburn High School is consistently ranked amongst the top public schools in the state and the nation . There are also at least three private K-8 schools within its borders. To go along with the schools, Millburn is year-in year-out listed as one of the richest towns in the state. NJ.com reported Millburn as the wealthiest town in the state for the year of 2019, with a median income of $202,862 .
Millburn is split into two sections: “true” Millburn, consisting of the elementary districts of South Mountain and Wyoming, and the hamlet of Short Hills, with the districts of Glenwood, Hartshorn, and Deerfield. Millburn, along with the Glenwood section to a lesser extent, is filled with very nice suburban homes, replete with yard space and basketball hoops. Short Hills, for the most part, is populated by unimaginably large mansions with sloping estates and vacant guest rooms. Being from Millburn was a point of pride for me to some extent; sure, my family was well-off, but at least we weren’t “Short Hills rich.” This was the spectrum of wealth for me at this time in my life. Of course I knew that there existed people with less wealth than I, but I had no meaningful relationships with any of them.
Essex is a county of great contrast, also containing Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. Newark was once a successful mid-sized industrial city, and was the primary manufacturing center in the area for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries . It got its start producing leather, at one point producing 90% of the nation’s patent leather, but branched out to iron, beer, plastic, billiard balls, and much more . Its location made it a key shipping hub via both railroad and sea. Newark is still economically important to New Jersey, but it has been wracked by decades of political mismanagement, deindustrialization, and white flight. Now, nearly one third of Newark’s residents live in poverty . Newark’s population is approximately 160,000 residents lower today than it was in 1930, representing over a third of the population at that time . In 1950, Newark was 82.8% White and 17.1% Black ; sixty years later, in 2010, Newark was 26.3% White (11.6% Non-Hispanic White) and 52.4% Black .
Most Millburners live their lives separately from and ignorant of Newark, despite the 9 mile distance between the two downtowns. Some, however, are all too aware. As a way to rid the town of the tax burden that is Newark, an unsuccessful campaign for Millburn to secede from Essex County into richer Morris County began around 2002. A particularly tone-deaf quote from a leader of the cause: “‘I work hard, my husband works hard,’ said Shala Powell, a Millburn gift boutique owner.... ‘Why should we have to pay for people without jobs?’” 
It’s worth noting that throughout the early 20th century, towns like Millburn were made inaccessible to Black people who wanted to move to the suburbs through practices such as redlining . This practice, effected by bankers and real estate agents to exclude people of color from suburban neighborhoods while Whites fled from cities, allowed major swaths of the country to de facto resegregate, including Essex County. I have only anecdotal evidence of this, but the South Mountain section, where I lived, was at its birth a “no Jews, no blacks” neighborhood. Clearly one of those restrictions, at least in practice, has persisted.
My friend group in high school was largely Jewish, almost entirely male, and definitely nerdy. We went to expensive liberal arts colleges throughout the U.S. (thanks to our parents, most of us debt-free), our destinies white-collar jobs with six-figure salaries. After college graduation, I was the only one of us without any kind of plan for the future. Millburn High School graduates do not move back to Millburn, at least in my social circle.
Nevertheless, in May 2012, that’s where I found myself. My parents allowed me to stay in their home, but with the requirement that I get a job. A short while later, I found myself working in Tinga Taqueria, a casual Mexican-American restaurant I had often frequented in high school. I ended up working there for just under a year, a year that was instrumental in helping me understand my previous naive two decades in Millburn.
Millburn, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the type of place where those who work in the town can’t afford to live there. Therefore, my coworkers at Tinga lived in the surrounding towns. The kitchen staff, made up of Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants, lived in Maplewood and Irvington, the towns between Millburn and Newark. The waitstaff was mostly bilingual Latinx part-time college students from Newark. I was the only employee with a college degree, and my ability to use the point-of-sale system presumably along with my inoffensive nature as a white male allowed me to quickly ascend to assistant manager at Tinga. The clientele at Tinga varied from day to night. The lunch crowd was mostly white-collar workers, including storeowners, bankers, and teachers, who worked in Millburn but usually did not live there. Lunchgoers were noticeably more racially diverse, and generally kinder and willing to converse with the staff at Tinga. Contrastingly, the dinner crowd was mostly families from Millburn and Short Hills. These families, usually white, tended to be demanding, picky, and rude. Sometimes they let their kids roam free throughout the restaurant, and cleaning up after them was especially gross.
The image of Latinx people coming from neighboring towns to earn a living by (literally) serving rich white families had never struck me before working at Tinga. By working alongside people of a different demographic than me, both ethnically and economically, I was able to expand my worldview and think more critically about the place where I grew up. I made one lasting friendship at Tinga, a person who later in life led me to make a major life decision.* The friend group of Latino waiters who drove from Newark every day, sometimes just to make a measly $30 each in one night, provided a stark contrast to my friend group. I wouldn’t say my high school social circle necessarily worked less hard than the people I met at Tinga, but there was a distinction between the type of work each group did.
Before I officially became assistant manager, the owner of Tinga wanted me to work each position in the front of the house, so I knew what they all consisted of. This included the not-so-coveted position of busser. The busser brings food out to the tables, refills drinks, cleans up tables, and basically does whatever the servers request of them. I bussed on a weeknight, not an especially busy shift. I learned firsthand that night that bussing is extremely difficult work. The busser is integral to the operation of a restaurant -- new customers can’t be seated until the tables are cleaned. Everyone needs something from you, often yelling because of the stressful environment, and if anything at all goes wrong, it’s your responsibility. All this for minimum wage plus 10-20% of the servers’ tips. After the shift ended, I was prepared to tell my boss I was never bussing again, or I’d quit. Luckily for my Tinga career, that night I was officially made assistant manager. But contrast this with the normal busboy, Jaquan. He was a Black teenager from Newark, who never expected to do anything at Tinga besides bus. He complained occasionally, yes, but he always did his job quietly and quickly. There was little difference between us, besides the towns we were born in, the schools we went to, and how the world viewed us via our skin colors. Yet, our expected outcomes in life were worlds apart.
Conversely, the chefs at Tinga were immigrants from Mexico. Their names were Fernando, Alberto, Joaquín, Diego, and Cirino, and they barely spoke English. They worked harder than anyone I’d ever seen. Cirino would leave Tinga at 9:00pm on Saturday night, after having worked for 12 hours at Tinga, and go to his second job in Millburn washing dishes. They had to work hard to support their families, some of them paying for both a family in Mexico and a family here. Their expectations for life were so wildly different from mine, in more or less every respect. One night in winter, there had been a bad snowstorm, and the bus wasn’t running. So, they prepared to walk the four miles home at 10:00pm in knee-deep snow. I, the 22-year old white guy, had been gifted a car by my parents four years ago. Obviously I gave them a ride home, but the fact that they were prepared to walk home gives me pause as I reflect on it today.
Along with the younger waiters, Tinga had two veteran male waiters, in their 30s. They had been there since its inception, and had served me and my friends many times. Because of teenage social awkwardness, we had never asked their names, and thusly referred to them as “the guys.” This was a nickname given out of affection, but again, the image of well-off white teenage boys not bothering to learn the names of older men of color who are serving them is a troubling one. As an employee, of course, I was able to befriend them, learn more about them, and of course finally learn their names: Karim and Raydi. The next time I saw one of my old high school friends, I excitedly told him I knew the names of “the guys,” presuming he would like to learn them too. However, he exclaimed, “No!” and told me he preferred to keep knowing them as “the guys.” Depriving these hardworking people of a name, and keeping them in mind as “the guy” or “the waiter,” robs them of any identity more than just a waiter. This attitude is widespread throughout Millburn, the disinterest in learning that service people are actual human beings with actual identities and life stories. It’s an atmosphere that keeps relationships from forming amongst neighbors, a town from becoming a community.
My most Republican friend from high school scoffs at the claim that service jobs build character. This claim, often made by parents who want their spoiled children to be taken down a notch, is in my experience wholly true, as I can claim it has widened my social awareness of the place where I grew up, as well as of the people who lived vastly different lives from me less than ten miles away. Recognizing the effect my time at Tinga had on me did not happen overnight; the years following were filled with self-reflection, and I realized much later all that I had learned and witnessed. I consider myself fortunate to have worked at Tinga Taqueria for that year. Working there made me deeply reexamine my upbringing in Millburn, and has colored my politics as well as my social interactions. Unfortunately, Tinga closed in the spring of 2019. Honestly, the food was never that great, so I was actually surprised it lasted that long. Working there was not a choice I made deliberately, but I think it worked out well.
* This decision, while not exactly relevant to this story, was to quit (a different) job years later and move to Spain to teach English. My friend Lisa had done this and gave me the idea. Traveling, of course, is a great way to see the world and expand your worldview, which I first did here at Tinga.
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 - “See if your school made the list of the top high schools in New Jersey.” Hannan Adely, Northjersey.com. May 1, 2019. https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/new-jersey/2019/05/01/best-high-schools-in-nj-top-100-list-for-2019-bergen-academies/3633021002/.
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