With a hint of fall in the cooler air, let’s rise early for our daily walk.
Coming by my love of the morning naturally, I gravitate to others who are facing the day at sunrise, getting an early start. Even with traditional work responsibilities in the rear view mirror, I still choose to begin the day with a walk when much of the world is throwing off its bedcovers and throwing open the windows. The possibilities for the moment, for the day, for life are clearer as I put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
I see others up with the sun, including some familiar faces. Like Carter, the 68-year-old gentleman sitting in his wheelchair outside Ace Hardware. With his radio playing and Carter spreading smiles and sunshine, he is ready to get his Covid booster shot and do his part to help the community. There is the young man striding through downtown, listening to a podcast on his headphones while sporting stylish shorts made from the much-loved design of the Maryland flag. Or our neighbor Ed, who — as his retirement project — is training a young English Labrador on various aspects of good dog behavior. The lab also looks sharp, sporting a well-groomed pale yellow coat.
First encounters when stepping off the stoop will invariably be with those, like Ed, on labors of love: dog walkers, for instance, or parents strolling their children to the day care center. While their canine and human charges are eager to meet the day, the adult parts of the tandem display every state of being from catatonic to highly caffeinated.
Several city blocks separate me from my morning shot of caffeine. At Kaldi’s Social House there’s a warm and welcoming “hello David” waiting as Betty, Jo, Kadiato, Rhianna, and Sahr begin to make my favorite summer drink (cold brew with oat milk) before I’m ten steps into the shop. The conversation ranges from the changing seasons (Rhianna, from Saudi Arabia, has never adjusted to the cold of winter) to fashionable glasses (Betty owns more pairs than I do). From school (“Whatever possessed me to sign up for a class that ends at 9:40 at night when I have to be up and out to work at 6!”) to smiles (Jo says she can see them through the masks by looking at the eyes). From health care (dental coverage seems to be a luxury for many) to sleep (no one ever gets enough).
One of the hardest jobs I ever had was waiting tables, so their cheerfulness early in the morning while serving a steady stream of customers is a treat I cherish. Labor Day is an especially good day to acknowledge, appreciate, and admire all those who make our day better.
Face-to-face with the 21st century labor force
Living across the street from the Metro station, I encounter people heading to their labors. Prior to the pandemic, many would be dressed alike in the professional Washington uniform — which is key context in making the 100-foot-long Penguin Rush Hour mural at the station so deliciously delightful.
The professional classes and knowledge workers have their own set of issues, but Labor Day is a celebration of those who work with their hands, their backs, their full bodies, and — yes — their brains. Among those millions of workers are the morning people I see on my walks — those of the underpaid labor class who are up early to make sure the rest of us can function.
Besides the crew at Kaldi, I see a range of those working early and long hours for much less pay than the men and women heading to Washington’s gleaming office buildings. People with names and jobs that matter.
Like Jorge, one of the numerous street sweepers and trash collectors who turn the space in front of Georgia Avenue’s bars and clubs from a mini-version of New Orleans the morning after Fat Tuesday into a welcoming space for the day.
Plant whisperers like Emilio, who move heavy hoses, watering trucks, and wheelbarrows full of mulch around to keep downtown lush and blooming.
Farmers like Elda and George from Barajas Produce who work seven days a week and drive up to two hours on a Saturday morning to bring juicy peaches, striking red and yellow sweet peppers, creamy milk, eggs with yolks bursting with flavor, delectable honey, and rich goat’s milk cheese to fill our refrigerators and freezers.
Small business owners like Kim and Young, who open their dry cleaners at 7 a.m. with a smile (Kim) and a quip (Young) to ensure that on the increasingly rare days when I need a suit and dress shirt, mine are cleaned and pressed.
Recognize the humanity
Inevitably old school in nature, I always try — at a minimum — to smile and say hello when I pass the people who inhabit my mornings. I thank the street sweepers and plant whisperers. I say a word to admire the handiwork of the construction crews. I connect when the Ethiopian immigrant setting up the outside tables at Whole Foods urges me to “seize the day!”
Many of those I meet are immigrants, and as I learned from my barber — a registered nurse before coming to the U.S. from the Republic of Georgia — they have often taken less “professional” jobs than their training and backgrounds would suggest. As Anand Giridharadas wrote in his book The True American,
“Selling Americans three tamales for a dollar was a strange landing for a twenty-seven-year-old who had trained to command fighter jets and qualified as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. But so it is with the many who leave their native soil and find that to rise, they must first sink into the fresh earth below. Rais was no longer a Bangladesh Air Force man. He was a Buckner Food Mart man.“
They are the ones doing work that many of us don’t want to do. They have the names that many of us mispronounce — or, in fact, dispronounce — which is a term for people saying names incorrectly on purpose, to ensure that immigrants know whose country this really is. Natalie Goldberg reminds us of the importance of names. They tell us that people exist. “Seeing names makes us remember. A name is what we carry all our life, and we respond to its call in a classroom, to its pronunciation at a graduation, or to our name whispered in the night.”
Those with names we forget or mispronounce are too often being used by our capitalistic system for our benefit, and we much too frequently overlook them in our rush to get through the day.
I see people every morning who remind me how much the quality of my life is enhanced by their willingness to sink themselves into the fresh earth of a new country, get up very early even if they are hurting, face the sunrise, and get to work. I think about the millions in factories, driving trucks, in hospitals, in Amazon warehouses, on high-rise construction projects I don’t see, who do the same. Rather than push back against people of color and immigrants, perhaps we could focus on all they have done for this country, welcome them, and help them realize their part of the American dream. We are all, in a fashion, immigrants.
Oligarchy and the American way
To see a way forward, we must first take a brief look back at America’s relationship to the people who build and take care of the things and people in our country.
For most of its existence, American capitalism has grown on the backs of cheap, disposable labor.
- Southern slaveowners ruled the country from its founding to 1860, supported by major commercial interests in the North.* To break the hold of chattel slavery it took the creation of an anti-slavery, pro-business Republican party and a civil war.
- Robber barons ruled the country from the 1870s to the 1930s with their repressive labor practices and outright theft of land, minerals, and life. To break their hold on power it took a country overwhelmed by the needs of the Great Depression, the creation of a progressive wing of the Democratic party, and leaders like Frances Perkins. It took the election of an administration and Congress that passed federal legislation in the form of the New Deal. Strong unions gave us the weekend, the 8-hour work day, the 40-hour work week, paid vacations, sick leave, and more. The New Deal and unions — though far from perfect and far from all-inclusive — nonetheless produced the country’s first true middle class. In the 1970s, we had no billionaires.
- That lasted until 1980 and the ascension of an anti-regulatory, anti-civil rights, anti-union, anti-voting rights, pro-corporate Republican party and the election of Ronald Reagan, supported by the conservative Supreme Courts of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and especially Chief Justice John Roberts. Regulations on business were slashed, taxes were cut, protections for the working class were weakened, access to the polls for people who did not vote Republican was limited, and income inequality soared. We are now in our third period of oligarchy, this time led by Wall Street, Silicon Valley, multinational business interests, and a corporate media. Income inequality has reached Gilded Age levels, with the top 0.1% of Americans taking in more than 196 times the income of the bottom 90 percent.
As in the previous two periods, this unfettered capitalism is built on cheap, disposable labor and the fostering of hatred between working classes.
A way forward
The top 0.1% is working hard to obscure the fact that it is in the best interest of 90% of Americans to seek out what Heather McGhee has called a solidarity dividend. To achieve their goal, those at the top want us to forget that labor is composed of human beings: real, breathing, loving people, striving to advance and meet their own American dream. But the deck is stacked against them as long as the top 0.1% hold the power of government.
Teri Kanefield has written that we have the power to change. “What we learned from getting out of our second oligarchy, the age of robber barons, is that federal legislation can solve the dark money problem and move us toward a fully functioning multi-racial democracy.”
We need to elect people to office who believe in the project to — in the unforgettable words of Langston Hughes — “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” We need to push Congress hard to pass laws to protect our democracy against the oligarchs and approve legislation so everyone can make a decent living. We need to tax those who for too long have taken a free ride on our backs and on our time and wealth. We need to make sure everyone can vote.
We also need to recognize the humanity of those who toil for our benefit. It becomes much harder to demonize someone you know. In addition to taking steps to make government fairer for all, Labor Day is as good a day as any to begin to take the time to stop, smile, talk, learn their stories, and thank the morning people in your life. You may be amazed at what you learn.
More to come…
*Almost two-thirds of the presidents before the civil war were slave-owning southerners — nine of the first fifteen presidents — and one more had strong southern leanings. Of the 21 four-year terms during that period, this southern group held office during 16 of those terms.