I’d had the thought before. My Aunt Imelda (Jean to many) in upstate New York sent me an email that asked a simple question. “Do you ever think of writing a column about the people who literally keep our country running. The people who never make the front-page news, never win Pulitzer prizes or any award for that matter.”
As I ran the idea through my mind, I continued reading. “I think that would be interesting and you must have come in contact with many during your life. None of us could do without these people. The home healthcare workers, teacher’s assistants, nursing aides, bus drivers, and garbage truck drivers: the list is endless. Many of these people work seven days a week and some work 70 to 80 hours a week.”
She brought up a matter that, well, matters. A lot. People cross our paths doing work deemed menial by many. As a wag once said of his job emptying and “reconditioning” portalets, “Hey, somebody has to do it.”
I thought some more about what my aunt said and people I’d not thought about in a long time reappeared in my mind. I saw old Jackson sweeping the bus station lobby in Athens. He looked more like Satchmo or some old bluesman from the Mississippi Delta. He kept the station’s restrooms clean and you could count on him for a wry opinion of the passengers. He possessed a rare kind of dignity when he went about his work.
I remembered the fellow who cut the lawn around the elementary school back in the late ’50s. I could see him in my mind, jouncing along on a lawnmower that could turn on a dime. Sitting upright and dignified, he cut the grass in a precise way. William Gartrell, I believe, was his name. I remembered people like Miss Lucille who long worked for Mr. Wengrow. She’d stand up front of the store, greet people, and help them find things. She was, in my mind, a forerunner to the Walmart greeter.
I kept reading my aunt’s email and other people long forgotten sprang to life. I remembered a man who his coworkers called “The Killer.” He earned his living at Mr. Talmadge Reed’s poultry plant where I worked during the summer of 1965. He sat at the head of the processing line cutting the heads off chickens as a conveyor belt carried the upside down, flapping birds past him. He worked with cool efficiency dispatching chickens with a smooth swipe of the knife. By day’s end he looked like a chocolate-covered cherry bitten in half … brown and blood red, all at the same time. Some times all you could see were his eyes. Somebody had to do it.
And then I remembered the man I wrote about back in the summer of 2008, “a man by the beautiful name of Moses Corley.” His job was simple. Sweep out the classrooms at a college where I taught. I wrote that “if every life is a song, then Moses’s life was a sad, sad ballad.” He’s the fellow who got fired from the best job he ever had for asking a few folks if he could borrow $10. From that point on, his life unraveled. His wife died and he lost his home, lost everything. His supervisor did not respect him nor his struggles. That was the problem.
My aunt’s email continued. “Most are uninsured,” she wrote, “with children at home and somehow they manage to have a ‘life’ of sorts. Some are still going to school trying to continue their education. Most have never been out of the country or on an airplane.”
How true I thought. How many people have I met who, while eking out a living, must also face medical bills. I’ve met many a waitress and waiter hoping to earn enough extra tips to somehow get a semester of college now and then. Traveling? Flying somewhere? Out of the question. Your lifework makes a lot of decisions for you. Automatically.
Those of you who read my columns know that my thoughts on higher education sometimes run contrary to many who laud higher education as the only way to improve your lot in life. I don’t deny higher education’s benefits, but what would we do without everyday people, our unsung heroes. In a world of egos, there are jobs most people simply do not want.
In my column, “The Work of Hands,” I wrote, “I hope we never run out of people who do true work with their hands.” Now I hope we never run out of unsung heroes. And heroes they are.
I worked as a waiter for two years while I was a student at Georgia. It taught me a lot about human nature. When you are a waiter, some people view you as a peon, someone far beneath them. Everyone should wait on tables. The experience will forever change how you treat waiters and waitresses. I once had a large, drunken party that kept sending food back no matter how many times the cooks and I tried to please them. Then they began taunting me, saying unkind things. None of this was missed by the restaurant manager. When one woman insulted me particularly well, he had had enough. Over to their table he went and the message was simple: “Get out of here. Now.”
None of the taunting got to me. Your sense of meaningfulness in work comes not so much from what you do as it comes from your belief that you’re a worthy human being. Without that conviction, any job you get can seem menial. A company president can suffer from this frame of mind as much as the wandering worker picking oranges down in Florida. Of course, the reverse is true. I read of an attorney who fled Poland in World War II only to end up in New York City working as a bellhop. Haughty, aloof, and condescending to his fellow bellhops, they stuck the nickname “The Count” on him for his snobbery. Let’s hope there aren’t many “Counts” out there.
Unsung heroes, however, are everywhere. Laborers, babysitters, folks who pick up trash, the much-maligned ditch diggers and people who make up hotel beds.
Now I’ll admit some jobs seem frivolous. In the city, you run across bathroom attendants, men who pick paper towels up from the floor and hustle tips for offering you a towel, cologne, or lotion. I’ve never felt such a job was necessary. It seems highfalutin, showy, unnecessary, but I’m sure the attendant needed the work, and I’m sure he had his own views on the hotdogs frequenting his restroom.
Unsung heroes see the world in a way others cannot. I read about a man who long worked in the fields and packing sheds. Though the work was backbreaking, he got a lot of pride from his efficiency. He never left marketable crops in the field. A lot of times he picked cotton for a living. And then along came automatic cotton picking machinery. One man who bought the machinery and fired his pickers was gleeful at his big step forward. “When the machines had done their work,” said the newly unemployed picker, “the fields remained white with cotton. What a waste.”
Sure there are jobs nobody seems to want, jobs that pay well but you need a strong stomach to do them. Garbage collector, sewer inspector, and embalmer. The money can be good but the conditions? Not for me. To each his own. That should be our mantra.
My aunt’s email concluded. “Wonderful people work hard and help keep me sane, and some days that is pretty hard to do.” She hit the nail on the head. Unsung heroes, the people who walk among us, near invisible, make life better for all, and yes, they help to keep us all sane, and they keep things running smoothly. They do an honest day’s work. It’s not asking too much to show them the respect they deserve.