Life at the Bottom
This week’s post is dedicated to Leon, Kris, and Nate, who took me in when I was at the bottom. I can’t begin to thank them enough.
I’m one of those poor people Mitt Romney doesn’t give a damn about. Some years back I had no choice but to work three years for a temporary labor agency. That whole experience was instructive in ways that college can’t duplicate. It was a chain called Labor Ready, and well named, too. When you go to them, you’d better be ready for some labor. They did me right, though. I had learned good work habits as a young man, and dependable workers are good business for them and their clients. I also had a car, another advantage, so I always had plenty of work.
The place opened at Oh! – 5:30 am, and you’d better be there if you expect to go out to work. The first time I came in, I was struck by the size of the crowd, maybe twenty or thirty, all looking to go out. I thought I was poor until I worked saw some of these people. Many had drug or alcohol problems, or criminal records, and about half were minorities. There were old guys like me, too. Try to find a job when you’re over fifty. The common thread among us was that we were all, for one reason or another, pretty much unemployable. I’m ashamed to admit that at first I felt a little superior to them. I had a college degree, I was smarter than probably anyone else there. Then I asked myself if you’re so damned smart, then what are you doing here? That calmed my sails.
The sheer variety of jobs was both refreshing and unsettling. Think about this: starting each day having no idea what you’ll have to do to get paid for that day. All you know is that it’s minimum wage. If you wanted to be paid cash each day, you’d come home with about $54. It’s not much, but there were guys who had child support deducted, so an eight hour day for them was closer to $32. One time I went out to a job, and a guy greeted me with the five words that strike terror into my heart — “How are your lifting skills?” I replied “See ya!” and politely informed him he needs to be more specific in his work order. I always went out though, because I had a car, which also made me a minority, of sorts. Some jobs were long term, and you could get a weekly time card. That was sweet, because you only had to go in to Labor Ready once a week, to get paid and get your next weekly time card.
Yeah, it was a crap shoot every day. And yes, some shovel technology was involved. There was one job, though, that everyone wanted to go on. It lasted a couple months, paid above minimum wage (rare), and it was easy. All you had to do was pick through the trash. No, really. Some company that recycled plastic shopping bags had been having problems with fires in the machines that melted down the bags, so they’d commissioned a study. They thought the trouble was paper receipts left in the bags, and the only way to find out was to look through a large quantity. We’d stand around tables as a cube of compressed bags was brought in by forklift, and start going through it, bag by bag. We found lots of receipts too, along with less savory stuff, like maggots and such. As it turned out, all this plastic was from Canada. We were going through Canada’s garbage.
I got really lucky, spending most of the time at the shipyards. I was a firewatch, or welder’s helper. I was sort of like a squire to a knight. was one of the most fun jobs I ever had. I loved these big ships. Everything was super-sized, like in the land of the giants. Pipe wrenches five feet long that I could hardly lift, six-inch hex head bolts holding the massive engines, processing areas that looked like they’d been designed my M.C. Escher, it was amazing. The people I worked for down there were terrific, and I made many friends. I still miss them, and I miss those ships, too. You’d walk out onto the top deck on a beautiful day and see a harbor seal hopping through the water, porpoise style. The seagulls would be everywhere, shrieking.
I could say much more, but that’s for the book I have to get back to. I want to tell you more about the other people, my minimum wage co-workers. These people don’t want free stuff from the government, as Mitt Romney and other assholes think. They want to work, they want to lift themselves up, but they’re stuck. Right now some of you are thinking, “I’ll bet they’re all on food stamps!” Oh yeah, I can hear your thoughts, and my response is, “Yes, this is what food stamps are FOR, you idiots!” Health care? Sure, Labor Ready covered any injury you got on the job, but only if you passed a mandatory drug test first.
I was astounded to learn that many of my co-workers lived in a seedy motel down the street, where they paid about $30 a night. That’s $900 a month, far more than apartment rent. But they can’t save up the first and last months rent, plus deposit. So they’re stuck. Some couldn’t afford the motel and lived in their cars, if they had them. I can guarantee you that the Mitt Romneys of this country have no idea these people exist at all, because they’re almost literally invisible. They’re part of a permanent underclass, at the bottom of the social ladder, with little if any hope of rising out of it. Psychically, it’s like one of those levels of Hell from Dante’s Inferno.
Let’s see, $54 a day, minus the $30 for the motel. You don’t have a bank account so you have to go to one of those rip-off check cashing places. There are no cooking facilities so you have to eat out, somewhere within walking distance. That part of town is a food desert; the nearest real grocery store may be miles away. So you grab a couple beers at the quickie mart to drink back in your room later. Maybe you get some junk food for dinner, because it costs too much to eat in even the modest cafes dotting the urban landscape. Now all the money is gone till tomorrow, assuming you get work tomorrow. I can assure you that this is not a healthy lifestyle. Bootstraps? What bootstraps are you talking about? I would guess that the life expectancy of people at this down here is probably ten to twenty years less than that for the rest of us. It’s barely better than homelessness.
I still think about them, many were good friends. I wonder how they’re doing, if maybe they got hired on permanently somewhere, which does happen. And I wonder how many millions of others there are in all the Labor Ready, LaborWorks, and other such agencies around the country, barely getting by, in the richest country in the world.