The Invisible

People living on the fringes of society are nothing new. The great depression (the one in the 30’s, not the current one), spawned the migration of thousands of people, primarily men, crossing the country as unwanted passengers on empty freight cars in a mostly futile attempt to find jobs and a better life. Hobos, they were called, would communally gather what they could find (beg, borrow, steal) and make a stew in a camp by the railroad tracks. Sharing was the order of the day (socialism perhaps?) My grandfather explained to me as a child that the difference between a “hobo” and a “bum” is that a hobo will do odd jobs for money.

Families made the exodus to the promised land of California as a result of the brutal assault unleashed against the agricultural heartland by the environmental change that was the dust bowl drought, as documented by John Steinbeck in “ The Grapes of Wrath”. California was less than welcoming to these economic migrants.

The 1940’s brought prosperity to the industries supplying the military, but death and misery to families of the soldiers. Overall, the economy prospered, unlike most others in the world that suffered massive devastation of their manufacturing base.

The human condition in this country improved considerably during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although taxes on the affluent were significantly higher than they are today, in general, those who wanted to work could find work, and often nearby. My father, grandfathers, and father-in-law all worked for the same employer for more than 40 years. Try to find many examples of that today. There was a degree of paternalism involved as well. Typically, companies would have summer picnics at local amusement parks for employees and families, providing admission, food, and ride tickets.

Things started to head south (both literally and figuratively) in the 1970’s. The crook from California (the first one, Nixon) followed by the clown from Michigan occupied the white house. Wage and price controls were imposed, gas prices soared, and toilet paper was in short supply so Jerry Ford whipped out his WIN buttons (whip inflation now). Auto companies, as well as OEM suppliers, began to cut their payrolls and move factories to the south for lower wages and legal systems hostile to organized labor. Displaced Michigan workers fared no better than the economic migrants from the dust bowl. Known as “Black and Whites”, identified by the color scheme of the 1979 Michigan license plates (no not race), Michigan economic refugees were not welcome in many of the other “United” States where they came looking for work.

As a graduate chemist in 1975 , I found my job prospects almost non-existent. I ended up moving back to my parent’s house and taking up residence on the back porch ( A note to the class of 2011: I feel your pain; I have been there; I wish I could help).

After sending out numerous resumes and getting a few unsuccessful interviews, I took the only job I was able to find, driving a pickup truck for my hometown supermarket. I picked up bakery goods at Wolfarth’s Bakery in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh and frozen foods at Charlie Brothers in Greensburg. I drove a early seventies GMC ½ ton pickup truck. I hate trucks. Do you know how nice it is to have the goofy locals come up to you and tell you how well their children and other relatives are doing in their new jobs while you are doing the best you can?

In 1976, I got a job at a small chemical company. As a member of the industrial elite, I got to supervise laborers who made significantly more money than I did. I learned about labor relations by defending myself against union grievances brought against me for the stupidest reasons. I had good relations with the union steward, but we both had to enact the kabuki theater required of labor relations. I had a title, but could not get a credit card (no credit history, not bad credit), and was barely able to pay my bills.

For me at least, the 1980’s and 1990’s were significantly better. Ronnie Raygun’s reign of terror stimulated the Military Industrial Complex,which was unfortunate for the rest of the world. Like Harold Camping having control of the nuclear football, Reagan terrorized the world. Whether he was trying to be a good poker player (I think not), just crazy (my theory), or that the dementia was kicking in early, he was one scary creature. Thank God, Allah, Buda, {insert your favorite deity here} that the leadership of the Soviet Union was somewhat sane.

During this time,I worked for the computer industry, followed by the defense industry. These were prosperous industries. I met some of the finest people working for the defense industry (But this was the east coast), amazing when you consider the nature of some of the weapons contracts. But in other parts of the country, and in other industries, there was a significant shortage of employment.

From there, I worked for the automotive industry. The auto industry was implementing changes that they fought against for years which provided jobs for technical as well as manufacturing people. Think electronic engine controls, air bags, and a huge variety of driver information, safety, security, and other enhancements. The same things that the auto companies fought tooth and nail against, they were now advertising as features of their products and were contributing to significant profits. The regulations the industry fought against turned to their own advantage. New plants and production lines for automotive components were being built, some overseas. Outsourcing was accelerating.

In the early 1990’s, my wife had the opportunity to transfer back to the Pittsburgh area where we grew up. I had contacts in the automotive industry, so I thought that I could make a go of it until I could find a permanent job. I set up a consulting business, and had done reasonably well for a while. I had done other things to make up for the slow periods. It was a great learning experience for me but, as expected, a good education comes with a cost, and within five years it became clear that it was time to close the business.

While I have described my own experience, this article is not about me. As a liberal, the years that my career went well I attribute, in large part, to being fortunate or just lucky. Those who struggled during the same period, I believe did so largely through no fault of their own. On the other hand, conservatives are sure that their accomplishments result from some combination of superior skills, good genes, and higher intelligence, with a dose of divine providence thrown in. They will not admit to the hubris, however.

Conservatives I have known will refer to the homeless as “bums”. Conservatives will walk past a homeless person on the street who is respectfully requesting a small amount of money, and justify ignoring the person by saying that they would only go out and buy drugs or alcohol. Conservatives believe that a homeless person could easily go out and get a job if they only wanted to. Conservatives believe in the rapture and that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, but I digress.

Enrich your world; Invite a Homeless Person to Lunch (the 1990’s)

I was working part time at the local flagship department store of Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh while trying to develop my second failed business. For those not familiar with Kaufmann’s, the original owners commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Falling Water, as a family home for them, at Bear Run Pennsylvania. Beside the point really, but it has some relevance here as I am talking about the divisions among the rich and poor. The Kaufmann’s cook, as she related on the Pittsburgh public television station WQED, needed to have their grapes peeled before they would eat them. I normally would not peel my grapes even if I had a servant to do it for me. Not much into the whole servant thing, but then again, I was not a child of wealth.

When I worked at Kaufmanns’s, then owned by the May Corporation, I earned slightly more than minimum wage. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, knowing it was not a life long career. I often came to work using public transit on the 16A bus.

Having lived in Philadelphia and worked in Camden, NJ for about 10 years, I was well acquainted with homeless people. Pittsburgh has homeless people too, as do you in your area if you have the compassion to look for them. There was a very friendly man who was often sitting around Penn Avenue and 17th Street in Pittsburgh’s Strip District that I would often talk with and give a few dollars to. Did I mention that he had lost an arm and a leg? I haven’t seen him in about two years, I hope that he is alright and just decided to move to a less harsh climate. I guess I will never know. What were/are his chances in the labor market?

I am a long time liberal/progressive/whatever but one day I guess I partially succumbed to the vile rhetoric that seems to permeate the American discourse. When I was approached by a man asking for money when I was on a lunch break from Kaufmann’s, I had second thoughts. This man was perhaps ten years younger than me and appeared fit and without any significant disabilities that would prevent him from finding a job whereby he could support himself. But wait a minute, I have a bachelors degree in science and I am working for slightly more than minimum wage. Am I too stupid to see what’s going on here.

Well I shook his hand and offered to buy him lunch. He accepted the offer. We went to the nearby McDonald’s and I bought some Big Macs, fries, and drinks. I ate my sandwich with my left hand (his right hand, which I shook, did not appear to have been washed in a while, and I did not want to go to the rest room to wash up to avoid embarrassing him). I came away from the experience feeling both blessed and disturbed. It is good feeling to be both blessed and disturbed. It could help you to develop empathy for your brothers and sisters in this world. Try it sometime.

Cross posted on The Smirking Chimp




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