Staying focused on the real should help to create balance, but seeing the pain, hearing the hunger, feeling the emptiness between, can upset that balance. I slipped into East Oakland the other day, driving along San Leandro past the Aloha Club on Fruitvale (boasting the longest bar in the East Bay) and Poor Honey's Used Furniture at High St, a block-long corrugated warehouse whose widely-spaced roll-up doors, each an entry to the store, are neatly centered within painted rectangles very nearly the length and height of box cars, each a brilliant primary color -- red, yellow, blue -- and each with its own set of painted (but unobtrusive) shadowy wheels. A building disguised as a freight train disgorging its contents onto High St. The real train runs behind. . . and above.
I don't know why I am just now noticing Poor Honey's, just now marveling at its bold frontal stance on San Leandro Street. It's been open for two years plus a few weeks. I look at the loading docks in front of store where a few neatly dressed women stand examining a wooden kitchen table and see instead dozens and dozens of men -- day laborers -- gathered there, waiting expectantly for motorists to slow, roll down windows, offer jobs.
Of course, I am seeing only the ghosts of those who used to wait.
No one loiters outside Poor Honey's waiting to be hired, not at this late hour anyway. The sign -- "Day Laborer Hiring Zone" -- is still there, and maybe during morning hours the men still wait. Or maybe Poor Honey's has employed them all to shift couches about, drive delivery trucks, smile kindly at the passing cars, potential customers all.
A shift in focus, but balance holds.
Or does it?
Things have been rocking and rolling lately in Beauty Land. A few too many gun battles and yesterday a bomb threat at the Lawrence Livermore Lab facility in Emeryville.
If the waiting men have all been hired, how much are they paid? Are they offered a living wage that allows them to provide shelter for their families in a region where rents are astronomical? Can they buy the now available health insurance or does it remain over-priced and out-of-reach? Do their children have access to an education that encourages creativity, wonder, and compassion, or are they scurrying from class to class in buildings that smell like mold, passing armed guards positioned by every door leading to sun and flowers and birds flying high in the sky? Do these now "employed" men watch with sorrow and fear as their elementary students grow to become sullen youth with deep silences and a disturbing knowledge of drugs, violence, and firearms, knowing that their "wages" can only permit a move from one "killing zone" to another?
Recently, an organization connected to a major University offered me wages of $120/wk to assume responsibility for a major research project here in the Bay Area. It was made clear to me that I would need to be available at all hours ('24/7', they said), including weekends and holidays, supervise at least six other personnel, but that I would be an "at will" employee paid $20/hr for for approximately 6 hours work a week. "At will" translates as "no benefits, no job security." When I refused that overly 'generous' offer, tendered with neither irony nor apology, they offered two dollars and fifty cents more per week.
That offer shook me to my core.
If a major University can make such a ridiculously absurd job offer and not even blink an eye, what about the men lingering on street corners, in"designated hiring zones", hoping for jobs? Are they, too, forced to accept twenty dollars a day (or less) just to buy milk for their babies?
The corporatization of America has severely polluted community life and gravely wounded our democracy as corporations work overtime to cut costs by cutting wages and increasing work loads. Unions have been busted, and too many who have traditionally spoken in support of fair wages have hopped onto the corporate freight train, riding willingly into the castle courtyard. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly obvious that too many of our institutions of higher learning are no longer beyond the pale of the corporate king-makers. Ring-a-ding-ding.
For now, in the dim present, the underpaid, overworked workforce continues to support, however unwillingly, the "personhood" of America's corporations, but like caged canaries, they sing.
And the future? We all know what happens when canaries are expected to live on fumes.
On the last day in January, the street
buzzes. A raw beat attached to rawer rap.
I pull my garbage bins out to the curb
as the rapping teens step into traffic.
Hands up, hands down. Arms flung out, looking tough,
acting rough. When cop cars roar into view,
they laugh and move to choreograph.
Filming, they yell, one loud voice, out of tune.
Bop. Boom. Cameras target the squad car
and it speeds away. No back and forth chat.
Three lean back, hands held forth in gangland stance.
No way to know if these are ‘real’ gang signs
or made for show. Forefinger disappeared,
the other three lined straight, held well apart.
No thumb. No guns. Plenty of expletives.