High Desert Journal
Witness to the West
The Dignity of Work by Charles Finn
We work in factories, on farms, in blazing sun, and on the sides of the roads, in forests, in ditches. You see us in shipyards, apartment buildings, under your cars. Ask us our names: We’re Alex, Rob, Peter, and Hank. We’re Sally, Susan, Deborah, and Pam.
What do we do? We bring home a pay cheque, fibreglass in our lungs, and have a few beers. We’re what people call working stiffs. We feel that way. We have strong backs, set minds, dirt under our nails. We look you straight in the eye. It’s no joke, we say. We have bills to pay.
The other day I was standing in a drugstore looking through a rack of greeting cars. My greasy overalls and thick fingers confirmed I belonged to the dented pickup outside. Turning the carousel, my eyes fell on a black-and-white photo of a well-dressed man and a woman standing on the corner of a busy city street. They were holding a cardboard sign that read, “Will work for latte.”
The card got an audible chuckle out of me, more of a snicker really, but my amusement was quickly followed by a very real sadness. It seemed to me the card was exposing a general callousness toward the plight of the poor, and I felt a slight embarrassment because of my filthy clothes.
Still holding the card, I looked around at the other casual but well-dressed customers. I’m not poor, I wanted to tell them, just trying to get by. Then I thought of how many times I’d been to urban centres and walked past the homeless, putting a few coins in their cups but avoiding their eyes. Such uneasiness, I believe, is an indicator of an increasingly harmful society; the accumulated buildup of guilt, silent, yet a subtle crippler of soul.
There was also an undercurrent of classism the card hinted at. Although fictitious, I could hardly imagine this couple accepting a minimum-wage job as a high-school janitor or letting themselves sink to the status of a construction labourer like me. It was Thoreau who said, “No person ever stood lower in my estimation for having a patch in their clothes.”
The knees of my pants were testimonies to what Henry David would probably have viewed as frugality. These days it’s called hard luck, and it goes along with the attitude that to work with your hands implies you don’t have the wherewithal to work with your head. The assumption is if you sit at a computer you’re more
useful than if you mix cement for a living.
To her credit, my mother has always supported me no matter what occupation I’ve tried, even as a banger of nails, but there are friends who continually ask me when I’m going to get a real job. I’d like to ask them how real is the mechanic that fixes their car when it breaks down, or the nurse who empties bedpans for a living? A doctor is a vital part of any community. So, too, the man who comes every week to haul away garbage.
Still in the store, I realized it’s not the odd greeting card, or the media as a whole teaching this classism, it’s adults. Too often we’re not proud of ourselves or the job that we do.
We think people with degrees and white-collar jobs are the only ones worthy to hold their heads in the air. Don’t become a farmer, we say to our children. There’s no money in that. with this subtle form of bigotry, our children are growing up believing the lower classes are lower beings. We’re teaching them a person’s worth is gauged by economic, not moral, success.
I didn’t buy that card. I went home and reheated some chili. In the shower I scrubbed the tar from my hands and looked down at my feet. Chips of sawdust were being washed out of my hair and sliding past my toes. Each one represented a skill I’d learned and a few pennies earned. Looking in the mirror I was proud of my working-class tan and before going to bed, I fixed my lunch for the next day and set the alarm.
Then for the hell of it, or maybe in defiance, I made a large decaf latte and read for an hour in bed. I told my partner I’d had a good day.