Angry Prophet of the 21st-Century Economy
I've written about my friend Sandy Woodthorpe before. She's been a writer for years, and a fine one. She even published a remarkable op-ed essay a few months ago in the Boston Globe about her hunt for work, the occasion of my last entry about her. But it perhaps wasn't until today, when I visited her Survival Dance site, that I really understood what a powerful pen she wields. This piece is haunting in its rawness and disgust with our culture's myopia. With her indulgence, I've decided that rather than simply linking to it, where you may not find it as she adds later posts, I'd reprint it whole. I invite you to read all of what follows. And then I challenge you to go back to your life, ignoring its message. I, for one, find that impossible. She titles it "Wooden Ships":
I got a job. It's part-time, temporary, on contract. But I got a job. Many people out there don’t have jobs. Or they got jobs and they can’t even make ends meet. If you are working all day, you don’t see these people. I notice them less and less, but when somebody arrives on your doorstep . . . well, there they are.
Tonight as I was walking back to the house after dumping kitchen scraps on the compost pile, a guy was walking up the driveway. He met me by the side door. Did I need the gutters cleaned? He’d do them for $35. He explained he was out of work and in need of cash. Knew who lived in my house years before. He dropped a lot of names I didn’t know and quite a few I did. He did a fair job of describing credentials without showing any. He was persistent.
It was starting to get dark. I said I didn’t like the idea of him going up on a ladder. He didn’t like the idea of the wisteria about to pull down the gutter on the one side of the house. I said I had been working day and night last year and it got away from me – I could take care of that after it blooms this year. How about if he did something I couldn’t do myself. If he was careful, I finally said, he could unclog the downspouts on the West side of the house. We came to an agreement on the price, and he promised that he wasn’t going to break his neck on my property.
His wife was waiting in the van on the street. He told her to pull into the driveway, then he got his ladders off the top. While he worked, his wife and I talked. They lost their jobs 3 years ago – their companies had moved operations elsewhere. At ages 44 and 51, they are candidates that few companies will consider, even if they could find openings for jobs like the ones they lost. (She was a top-earning telemarketer in a call center for OfficeMax and he was a toolmaker and machine shop repairman.) Between the two of them, they used to make around $50K.
Life changed drastically when they were suddenly let go. They applied everywhere, but couldn't find jobs that paid anything near what they were earning. They had married young and had a small family, now grown up. It was just the two of them and they had finally been able to enjoy some comforts. Faced with a mortgage and the household bills, they did what I did - cobbled together income from a bunch of jobs. They took anything that came up or anything they could dig up.
But they couldn’t keep up. They lost the house. They relied on friends and relatives to put them up. Three years later, they are living in a converted garage in Fairport. The van has all sorts of mechanical problems that Mike can fix – when he can afford the parts. They didn’t say much about what they now call home. But they are determined to get out of this trouble. They aren’t sitting there waiting for a helping hand. They’ll do any kind of work that pays. Yesterday, in the rain and sleet, they distributed 1000 flyers for a new coffeeshop - for $20. I found one rubberbanded to the door knob when I got home from work.
Mike and Kim seemingly appeared out of nowhere. But they aren’t strangers to this town. They have roots here. They won’t disappear. They are neighbors that live a few blocks around the corner from me. I paid Mike in cash and got his address and a phone number where I could leave a message if I need more stuff done.
When I was looking for laid-off workers to speak at my free trade presentations last fall, they were busy hustling income. Too busy, probably, to come speak, even if I had met them back then. They are part of the “other” Ohio – the one that Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney never inquired about when they visited the Buckeye state last year. No, no. Optimistically, they made grand proclamations about the economic recovery and cried alligator tears for the unfortunates taking the brunt of their ill-conceived trade and budget policies. People like Mike and Kim don’t exist in their world, or in their consciousness. Even regular people can't relate. If I go to the job and tell my coworkers about this tomorrow, they’ll give me the glazed look. They may comment sympathetically. But this hasn't touched them personally. Yet.
This experience may never touch everyone at the same time, and the extent to which it touches people will depend on many factors. But I believe it's going to happen everywhere. It’s going to happen sure as shit because as jobs flow to foreign countries and we let in more foreigners, and we keep importing more than we export, it couldn’t not happen. Christ, it's just insane. The whole damn country is in debt - the governments, the financial institutions, the people (except for the ones raking in the stock options while they languish in prison without gourmet dinners – sorry, Martha.) Oh yeah. A gnarly global hairball is about to get coughed up. Yet people go about their business as if nothing is wrong.
Well, it is wrong. And, the sooner the moralists (who are more worried at the moment about a dying woman’s feeding tube) wake up and admit it’s wrong, and admit they were wrong to put their faith in these SOBs who are stealing us blind, the better chance we'll have. In fact, they had better pray they wake up in time to turn things around.
I filled out a survey recently that asked what sorts of jobs this area needs the most. I clicked on “jobs for non-college educated workers, manual labor.” Screw the technology crap. You can own all kinds of geeky techno-gadgets, but if you can’t pump water, heat and light your home, power factories and hospitals – you are up shit crick. Forget the paddle. Start rowing with your hands.