By Adam Powell
As I wade in a steaming hot bath, one even too warm for my taste but in line with my wife’s command, I hear the introduction to Tarrega’s “Capricho Arabe,” both sweet and haunting as it bounces off the tiled walls. As the water settles over my body, I begin contemplating why I am here – in my bathtub on a Monday morning, listening to Tarrega with a notebook in my hand and a cup of coffee at my side.
My back has been rattled with a persistent and paralyzing pain since Thursday – I feel it when I breathe or speak; I feel it when I sit, lie or stand; I feel it when I lift my children or walk behind them as they make their way to bed. I feel it and yet I persist. Having never suffered such ailments of the spine – only the minor pangs that come with sleeping improperly atop an aging body – I was wholly unprepared for the way in which it alters every movement you make. But this pain in my back, and the words from Debs’ “Labor and Freedom,” caused me to consider much more than my plight, but the wider plight of the suffering masses who toil day in and day out. And yet, just as I do, they persist.
Each day the weary worker, whether crippled by occupational trauma to the legs, neck or spine or numbed by the mental fatigue begot by harsher conditions and longer hours, forces that tired and battered frame from the bed and plods through a darkened house searching for direction. The dawn has yet to break – the children are still nestled softly and warmly in their beds, as are most of the neighbors and nine-to-fivers, and the traffic hums by with little more than a whimper down the darkened streets and boulevards – but the worker is washing away the past day’s troubles in a shower that takes too long to heat up and retains that heat for only a short while. Drying a thinning and bruised body, the worker contemplates briefly whether to have breakfast or just drink coffee – the inevitable decision is always coffee, because the worker knows that breakfast only begets the need for lunch and there will be scant time for such pleasantries during the day ahead.
The worker steps outside, the deep-set eyes in a sagging face still growing accustomed to the morning, while darkness is still settled upon the neighbors’ homes – the car roars to a start and the worker plunges down the highway for that job which is required and not desired. The day begins – either with the hum of machines, the chatter of students, the clicking of keyboards, the grinding of metal, the turning of pages, the pounding of nails or the myriad cacophonies made by any factory, office or warehouse ensemble – and won’t end until the worker is properly defeated, both in the body and the mind, and set loose to return to the home and family for which the work is required, but not desired.
The same door which bid farewell to the worker in the morning now shines in the setting sun and just beyond it sits the warmth and light and laughter which pulls the worker from bed each morning. But upon entrance, first a face with a vacant stare upon a battered and wounded head, then the weary and downtrodden body which bares the invisible scars which will persist and grow with every day, there is little patience left for the gaiety which awaits. The eyes of the worker’s children glow, but the worker sees only the tattered, second-hand clothes, the lassitude which sits upon their rosy cheeks and the want for the things that the worker can not afford; the house around the worker is full of those things which labor begets – heat from the unit, light from the ceiling, food in the cupboards and refrigerator and meds for the ailments which plague each of us at every turn – but the worker’s eyes can only find the stained carpet and chipped paint and sagging ceilings for which there is no time or money to repair. What should be the worker’s joy – the return to a home full of those things which make life bearable – is yet still tainted by the crimes committed by the bosses, day in and day out in perpetuity.
Dinner is made but scarcely enjoyed; the children are bathed but scarcely are they cleaned; the family communes together but scarcely do they see one another; and the worker’s soul plunges deeper into despair – so the worker drinks, the one affordable escape which rarely fails to remove one from that which punishes them through all the dull and redundant days of labor. And once the children have been tucked into their beds – beneath hand-me-down comforters hardly fit for harsh winter nights, atop cracked and stained mattresses that can not be replaced – the worker readies for bed, but scarcely can sleep be found. The worker twitches and rotates upon a broken frame which can not be healed by rest alone and dreads the coming hours which will see the morning arrive and the same routine begin again.
This is what we are demanded to sacrifice if we hope to survive and carve out some notch of the “American Dream” for ourselves and those we love. One can work, just as I and countless others do, all of the days of their lives and yet not be afforded those things that are most important – my children are fed and nurtured, but I must surrender my most precious hours with them if I hope to maintain that sustenance; my home is warm and well-lit, but I must spend my days away from it if I hope to keep its roof and walls as protection from the elements. And what is done with the excess, the pieces of pennies left over once those items of necessity are acquired? Indeed there are none. More often than not, the worker’s paycheck is not even enough to meet the obligations which society pushes onto all peoples. The worker knows debt – the worker knows hunger and deprivation and that sorrow which comes from giving your most to receive your less. The worker knows desperation and humiliation – the worker knows the eyes of children who deserve more than they can possibly be given, the eyes of children born into poverty who will know that cursed disease for the whole of their days. The worker knows depression and disease, injury and illness, agony and apathy.
The worker weeps and I weep with the worker, for I am the worker and the worker is me.