I’m in West Oakland, at the gas station on Market and West Grand. I am on my weekly sojourn out of the city. On my mind is the quiet that will soon greet me and the sad and disturbing memory of a week of two murders on our street. I pull into the station and put my car in position so I can pump gas. I get out of my car and go to the little kiosk between the pumps to pay.
A man stands looking at me while I put my card into the slot. He seems to be about my age, but I can tell it has been a longer, harder life for him than for me. His ebony skin is dull, his mouth is mostly bereft of teeth, and his face is worn. He’s distracting me from my task of paying for gas.
He says, “I can already see that smile on your face that says ‘I don’ have nothin’.'” It’s disarming, and his eyes shine. “I’ll pump your gas, even if you don’ have nothin’.”
Before I stopped for gas, I had passed one of the recyclers. There are a lot of recyclers in our neighborhood. That one had erected a tent-looking thing made out of blankets, and seemed to be creating a kind of protective nest for him and his bags of bottles and cans.
There is one familiar recycler who is herculean. I’ve seen him pulling six or seven shopping carts with cans and bottles. The carts have full bags piled high on top of them and fastened to the sides. His body is ripped: I can see the muscles through the tears in his shirt and pants.
I know that he’s spent at least a day or two, if not more, gathering those bottles, with great effort. He probably had to walk miles and miles. I imagine it takes me, a member of the creative class, one hour of sitting on my ass to make the amount of money in all of those cans and bottles.
I am brought back to the man, who is still waiting to hear from me. I reach into my wallet, and give him a dollar. He thanks me, and goes to pump the gas.
I say, “It’s alright, really, you don’t have to do that.” He insists, and I relent. He pumps the gas. As he’s pumping, he tells me a story.
“It’s been hard. My mother, she died of breast cancer, and I’ve been homeless since. My pastor—he offered for me to run this little halfway house he is trying to start there.”
I imagine the pastor—an older, upright and proud Black man, in despair about the state of our people. And I am in despair, as well, despair for all of this effort and willingness, going nowhere.
I’m not sure what to say, so I just nod. It is Thursday afternoon, the beginning of my weekend. I’ve worked four days this particular week, which is somewhat unusual—I generally work three. This is because in one regard at least, I won the birth lottery. I got a good education: private school through 4th grade, a suburban public school through high school, a small, private, elite liberal arts college, and finally graduate school. These have allowed me to learn a skill that is in high enough demand that I don’t have to work full time, but I can still make a modest living that one person can manage to live on.
Each one of us played the birth lottery, even though we seem to forget that we did. Some people lose big at that lottery, spending impoverished lives, and unable to make it better, no matter how much effort they expend. Some lose the birth lottery, but somehow, miraculously, in the face of growing up without intellectual or even actual nourishment, manage to eke their way out. It is, of course, those people we always point to when the others predictably fail. Some, like me, made out fairly well. Still others hit the huge jackpot, but most of those imagine that they did it all themselves. It’s kind of like winning the lottery, and insisting that it was the effort of buying the ticket that guaranteed the win. And, of course, they blame the losers for their lack of effort.
I think about the nature of work in this country. Here are three men, all Black, of course, who are just a tiny representation of the millions of men and women who lost the birth lottery, live on the fringes, and work as hard, or harder, than anyone else, and still are not able to get what most of us take for granted. They are invisible in our discourse about work and poverty. And I know they work a lot harder than I do.
The welfare queen is the one that is the most visible. That mythical being that rebelliously has children and lives off of the state, just because she has no “work ethic.” And her children who, in the minds of some, would be “OK” cleaning the toilets of the schools they attend. She is the straw (wo)man, the picture of poverty that so easily draws the ire of those who work hard for a living.
In my Thursday afternoon sojourns out of Oakland, there is not only the gas to get, there are groceries to buy. A weekend in the country would not be the same without a good bottle of Reisling, some goat cheese, and a loaf of crusty bread to dip into extra virgin olive oil, and the balsamic reduction I’ve taught myself to make.
As I shop for food for the weekend, I pick up a bag of grapes. They are local, and organic, and not so expensive. I’m happy for a moment. And then I imagine the woman who picked them. She might be a citizen, but she is more likely undocumented. The day she picked these grapes, stooped down, feeling the weight of the grapes in her hand, perhaps she wondered how her children were doing that day. Were they in school? With a neighbor? I imagine she knows she works this hard so that they can have a different life.
I spent $2/pound for the grapes, but it might have taken her two days to make what I make in an hour, sitting on my ass. Or, if I were one of my younger, more athletic colleagues, I could have been working on a standing or treadmill desk for that hour.
I exist in the hippie/activist/artist slice of the middle class, where most of those around me have found work they enjoy, and have some kind of meaning for them. And most of the people I hang out with are childless, or their children are grown and independent, so there is no need to work to feed more mouths, or house more bodies, than just ourselves.
Some people I know, like me, have found the right mix of things to do, combining efforts which provide income and creative or activist efforts which might not. A few people I know do full-time work they don’t much enjoy, but they seem to know that it’s on the road to something else; they know they won’t be stuck there permanently.
What I consider to be “my work” is not only the work that makes me a living. As a writer, my work is, by just about any standard, quite prodigious. And it earns me mostly self-satisfaction, and a few nice comments from readers, and enough money most months to buy myself a few lattes.
Most people I know are not especially well-off, and many of us live without things that most in the middle class find essential, like health insurance, retirement savings, or owning a house. But the truth is that all of us are doing basically fine. Certainly better than the man who is pumping my gas.
He says, “I said to my pastor I’m willin’ to do anythin’—just need a place to live. God is good, He workin’ for me.”
I smile. He seems like a very nice man, genuine, clear. He continues, “I know it’s goin’ to be alright, I’m sure of it. The pastor, he wants me to have a chance.”
Because my car windows are grimy from trips on the dirt road leading to the country house, he suggests that he can clean them off so I can see properly. I try my best to dissuade him, but he insists again, and goes out of his way to find some water to wet the towels he has with him. He makes the windows gleam. Of course, I don’t explain to him why the windows are so grimy in the first place. It seems embarrassing to admit to him that I have two homes, even if shared, when he has none.
We shake hands. He genuinely seems to have appreciated our contact. I’m sure he appreciated the dollar. I drive away feeling conflicted, and sad. This man is full of energy and effort, but all he can manage to use that for is pumping gas and cleaning windows for change. And there is so much more work to be done in this world—work I am sure he would be happy to do.