One autumn evening several years ago, I needed to blow off steam after a stressful day at work. I was fed up the way employees often are in their jobs. You know that toxic feeling when your superiors are overpaid while contributing little to the effort other than gratuitous criticism, while those on your pay grade won’t bust a nut to get the job done because they know you will? How often have you felt that way? I felt underpaid, under-appreciated, was mad as hell and ready to drown my anger in beer. It was self-pity really as plenty of people in this world had it far worse than me but I wasn’t in a perspective mood.
So I walked about forty blocks south from my day job in mid-town Manhattan to clear my head until coming across a dive bar with sports on television and hardly any patrons. Perfect, that’s just what I wanted. Typically, I’m not the sort to talk with strangers and certainly wasn’t looking for any conversation this night. Somehow, I became engrossed in a three-way conversation with two middle-aged registered nurses. We talked about how friends, families, communities and countries gloss over pain and misdeeds through symbolism and empty platitudes.
The alcohol flowed as one of the nurses with a thick Brooklyn accent reminisced how her parents physically abused her, made her feel worthless but still celebrated her birthday every year. I was inebriated too but recall her venting,
“What kind of sense is that? For 364 days a year they beat me up, told me I was no good. But on my birthday they were nice as can be with presents, cake and hugs? I could never figure that out. I always wanted to tell them, presents on my birthday won’t make up for when you beat me up again tomorrow.”I think that’s what she said. In retrospect I wish I had written down everything she said when I got home.
I find myself thinking about her today this Labor Day weekend. We’re supposed to “honor” working people this weekend with a holiday. Well I would surmise that a whole lot of working people out there are thinking,
“A holiday doesn’t make up for my not having health coverage. A holiday doesn’t make up for the money-lenders fleecing me out of my income. A holiday doesn’t do me much good when I have to work anyway while the super rich vacation in the Hamptons. I don’t need a holiday. I need the law to let me declare bankruptcy so I can pay health care bills for my elderly parents who can’t afford it and I can’t help because the money-lenders swindled me out of cash for a home in this ‘ownership society.’”And then you have the war. The corporatists who seized upon the aftermath of 9/11 to rationalize constructing an American Rome by sacrificing the blood of people from poorer urban and rural communities. And those that survived often return home damaged after serving as the instruments of torture and death for the Iraqi population. Meanwhile, those who speak platitudes about “supporting the troops” are vacationing this Labor Day weekend and not giving them a second thought. And why should they? After all they’ll receive top-notch care at Walter Reed just as children without health coverage can always go to the emergency room. But let’s revel in this holiday when we “honor” working people with backyard barbeques.
And this September 11th we will “honor” the victims of terrorism as we continue to kill Iraqis, causing more “collateral damage” in Afghanistan while accomplishing nothing and needlessly shedding more of our own blood. But at least we can feel better with a moment of silence and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will surely deliver some nice platitudes to “rally” us.
So what if Giuliani wanted an emergency “command center” at the same site targeted by Islamic radicals in 1993 and his advisers urged him to put it in Brooklyn instead. The man needed it to be in walking distance of City Hall while carrying on an extra-martial affair with Judith Nathan. And this September 11th he will wrap himself around the symbolism of the moment while pursuing the nomination of the family values and national security party. Good for him.
And do any of the top tier Democratic presidential candidates have the guts this Labor Day weekend to lament that America’s biggest growth industry is corrections? Are Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama willing to say that an honest days work for too many Americans means sustaining the prison industrial complex that has two million citizens incarcerated? Want a job with benefits then help guard young minorities guilty of possession while wealthy whites vacation on their Labor Day weekend with expensive alcohol.
Meanwhile, it is also two years after the city of New Orleans was liquidated from a hurricane due to gross incompetence and rebuilding it has become a ponzi scheme for the rich. All of this together and it’s hard not to feel this Labor Day weekend that my country is slowly dying. No holiday "honoring" working people can make up for that. But I'll happily settle for a genuine progressive reformation starting with next year's election. We have much work to do and I'm not ready to give up on my country yet.