When I was 19 years old, my eldest sister was in the Air Force, stationed in Holland. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, she invited me to go there for the summer. What, are you kidding? Of course I said yes, with visions of jet setting around Europe dancing in my head.
Upon arrival, she mentioned that, oh, by the way, she had gotten me a job on the Air Force base. I was to mop floors and stock soda machines all summer long. I could hardly complain, could I? She had brought me to Europe, after all.
So, after pretty much zero training, I was sent off to fend for myself. And the verbal directions I was given as to the locations of the various vending machines was sketchy at best. To say I got lost is putting it mildly. That base was huge. A job that should only have taken a couple hours took me all night.
The next night, I was to mop the floors, using one of those metal industrial rolling buckets and a heavy stringy mop. I was a skinny little thing back then. At one point, I knocked the full bucket over in a hallway and flooded the place. I spent the whole night desperately trying to sop up the gigantic puddle. When my boss came in the morning he was furious.
I’ll never forget this. He called my sister and told her that I was “not cut out for grit labor”, and that was the end of that summer job. In retrospect I should have been a lot more insulted. At age 19, he was writing me off for life. And it turns out that the bulk of my career has been all about grit labor, so poo poo on you, bossman.
There were no other civilian jobs that I qualified for on base, and I had no work visa to work in country, so guess what? I traveled around Europe for the rest of the summer. It was great.
First, let me give you my “bonafides”. According to Ancestry DNA, I’m about as white as a human being can be. That always has, and probably always will give me a leg up in society. I won’t even try to deny it. I also won’t deny that I’ve done little or nothing to earn this leg up. I was born into it, and oh, do I ever take advantage of it.
I can go weeks, months, even years not having to think about pesky racial issues if I so choose. I can live in a white bubble and have absolutely no contact with any minority for days on end. I don’t have to watch “them” on TV, or listen to “them” on the radio if I don’t want to. I can simply close my eyes and clutch my pearls. If I so desire, I can shop exclusively at white-owned stores without putting forth much effort at all. I probably do without even realizing it. I have the luxury of not having to care one way or the other.
People assume I’m law-abiding and honest. People assume I’m non-violent. People assume that I’m supposed to be wherever I happen to be, any time of the day or night. I’m a harmless fat old white woman. I’m as likely to get shot as I am to be struck by lightning. Most people don’t even look at me. I can become invisible. I often feel invisible. It’s lonely, but it has its advantages.
No, I’m not rich. I’m barely middle class, and I’ve only clawed my way up to this precarious and ever-shrinking perch in the past 3 years. I know what it’s like to be down there in that bucket of crabs, where everyone is scrabbling to get out, and just when you think you’ve made it, the other crabs pull you back down. I was there for 50 years. It’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking. I understand that despair.
But here’s where you and I part company: I don’t assume that all the crabs that have been pulling me down are non-white. I don’t even bother to blame the other crabs regardless of their color. If you’re caught in a crowded, desperate bucket, it’s only natural to want to get your crabby butt out of there. It’s not the other crabs, guys. It’s the freakin’ bucket. There shouldn’t be a bucket.
That bucket was made by rich white people. It’s the corporations and the politicians and the institutions that are your biggest threat. It’s the military-industrial complex that is using you as cannon fodder and replaceable cogs in the machine.
Railing at your crab-mates is a mere distraction. Glorifying Confederates, who lost for good reason, and Nazis, who lost for good reason, makes you look like fools. Being violent because you’re angry does not further your cause. It will never bring you respect or support or dignity. It won’t get you out of the bucket. Fascism has never benefited the masses, and like it or not, we are part of the masses.
I know it sucks that we’ll never have a delightful and stress-free retirement. I know it’s scary that things are getting more crowded and therefore more competitive. It’s high time you realize that automation is a much bigger threat to your job than other humans are. And most of those machines, by the way, are owned by white people.
If you honestly think for one minute that your crab-mates are out to destroy you or your way of life, ask yourself this: why are all of us striving for the same things? We all want a decent, safe, secure life. A way to feed our children. A roof over our heads. Peace. We have a lot more in common than you seem to think.
Don’t you get it? We are all in this together. And together we are stronger. The very fact that we are a mass is the one thing we have that those bucket manufacturers do not.
The reason you have the day off today is thanks to the labor movement, a movement of the masses. We can do great things if we stand shoulder to shoulder rather than turning our back on each other, or even worse, locking ourselves into mortal combat with each other while the bucket manufacturers gleefully watch from a distance.
Turning on each other is the last thing, the absolute last thing, we should be doing. Don’t be a pawn.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the drawbridge where I work, gazing out the window at the much, much, MUCH higher fixed bridge next door. I have to say my heart is in my throat, because what is happening is there’s a bucket truck on that bridge, and the bucket is being extended out over the water, and down, down, down below the bridge structure. Apparently they’re inspecting the underside of the bridge or doing some welding or repairs or something. But that thing looks like a spindly little Tonka toy from here.
There are two people in the bucket, and they’re 182 feet above the canal. They’ve been at it for hours in the rain. The bucket goes under and they stay there for a looooong time. Then it swings back out, rises up, slides between the girders, and the truck moves further along the bridge. Then the process is repeated.
I’m sure whatever they’re doing is quite necessary, and I hope that they’re being paid quite well, but my gut reaction is that you couldn’t pay me enough to risk my life like that. It’s just not something I’d want to be doing on a Saturday morning, or any other time of the week for that matter.
When I opened drawbridges in Jacksonville, Florida, we often talked about a mishap with one of those trucks. The bucket arm gave away, and four people were left clinging to a sideways bucket, 200 feet above the St. Johns River. You can see footage of this scary event, complete with interviews with the people involved here. They all survived, fortunately, but what a scary experience.
It is a constant shock to me, what some people are willing to do to make a living.