“Over here, Ben!”


The scene resembled a moment from The Graduate: a room crowded with middle-aged well-wishers who had come to honor a young Californian returned from his Ivy League university. The difference was that no one was telling Ben McKean to go into plastics. The 20-year-old Harvard social-studies major has spent the last two years shaking up his school as an organizer with the Living Wage Campaign, a group of students and workers that has spearheaded the drive to raise the minimum wage for roughly 2,000 campus employees to a minimum living wage tied to the region’s cost-of-living index. McKean had come here not to get career advice but to raise money for his cause.

The setting for last Saturday’s afternoon gathering was Farfalla, the schmoozy Los Feliz trattoria on Hillhurst Avenue. Ben’s mom, Judi Laing, was there, taking snapshots of the affair; so was the Times’ Ken Reich, and 90-year-old Laura Huxley too, in a salmon-pink straw hat. Cool jazz exhaled over the sound system as neighbors, union activists and McKean’s high school track coach congratulated the gangly, bespectacled kid. Attired in a navy-blue United Students Against Sweatshops T-shirt, black slacks and black-and-white sneakers, McKean was no casting director’s idea of a political rabble-rouser, but his affable, self-deprecating account of this spring’s 21-day occupation of Massachusetts Hall easily won over a crowd of about 55 — and their checkbooks.

Although the Living Wage movement may have its roots in New England Yankee rectitude, the genesis of the day’s fund-raiser was pure Los Feliz. Dr. Paul Fleiss, who years ago had been McKean’s pediatrician, recently spotted an article his old patient had written on the Harvard campaign for The Nation. (Full disclosure: McKean has written for the Weekly as well.)

“I said, ‘Hey, I know that guy!’” recalled Fleiss, a grandfatherly figure with gold-rimmed glasses. “I walk with George here” — here he nodded to fellow walker George DiCaprio, a bearded, outgoing man with flowing hair and tinted aviators who was standing next to him. “One day we were having coffee at Café Los Feliz, and I’m telling George about this great campaign Ben is involved in, when his mom, Judi, just happened to walk by.”

Before long another friend of the trio, Farfalla owner John Borghetti, agreed to put his restaurant at their disposal and laid out a wedding-party buffet for the event. They even found a union printer to do the invitations.

At the heart of the matter for McKean and his colleagues lies the question of whether or not Harvard’s janitors, drivers, guards and dining-hall employees will ever be able to afford to live and raise families in the Cambridge area. It’s a question that’s being asked all over the country, from Santa Monica to the Hamptons, as an increasing number of communities are becoming petrified with affluence, forcing day laborers into impossible commutes.

With school out for the summer, the Living Wage Campaign’s main objective has been fund-raising. “We have a lot of cell-phone bills,” McKean said. Some of the funds will go toward completing a documentary made about the occupation, a video clip of which he showed during his spiel.

Before and after McKean’s appeal, some of the old-timers talked about the golden age of protest in the 1960s, and watching him reminded the room of what that idealistic age was like when it first dawned across America’s campuses. There was no rhetoric or apocalyptic fervor in his presentation, only a goofy charm and good will that appealed to the best instincts of his listeners. “This is a wonderful neighborhood,” said Ben McKean, basking in his homecoming. “Generosity just seeps up through the floor!”

—Steven Mikulan


LA Weekly