Graveyard Shift

     I can’t wait to get my Harriet Tubman $20 bill.
     I’m going to get a crisp new one and carry it next to my heart.
     No other country in the world has ever graced its money with the face of a woman who violated its laws, recruited people for a slave revolt, smuggled slaves into a foreign country (Canada) to escape her own country’s cruel laws, led male soldiers in armed action in civil war to liberate slaves, then led the fight for women’s right to vote.
     Almost as remarkable as Harriet Tubman’s story is that her country — our country — would give her this signal honor — far too late, of course — for what she did.
     Harriet Tubman made the United States a better place by fighting against it.
     Makes me proud to be an American.
     Pardon an old white boy for this, but let me tell you a story about me and old black women.
     Back in the day, I had some really bad jobs. Pulling weeds. Chopping trees. Factory work.
     I hated factory work, most of all working the graveyard shift in Chicago. Most of my co-workers were black women my mother’s age, or my grandmother’s. They were the salt of the Earth, the nicest people I’ve ever known.
     In that factory all the supervisors were white, of course, as were the guys who drove the forklifts, who picked up the boxes we underlings packed and piled up all night.
     Most of our supervisors were racist. Overtly. Don’t even ask. But here’s the thing: When those … people … had a personal problem — and they always had personal problems — they would, unfailingly, ask an old black woman for advice.
     And the old black women gave them good advice.
     I saw it over and over again. The old black women even kindly advised our chief tormentor, whose name — I kid you not — was Adolf.
     One night after Adolf sought consolation from the elderly Rose — I remember her sad kind face very well — she returned to the line with me, resumed stacked things into boxes, and sighed.
     “What’s the matter, Rose?” I asked. “Not enjoying your work today?”
     “Oh, no,” she said. “I can enjoy my work. I can’t enjoy my life, but I can enjoy my work.”
     That set me back — far enough back that I remember it forty years later.
     Aside from that short colloquy I remember little about Rose. I know she lived on the South Side and had daughters, that she had worked in that factory for a long time, and got there and back on a city bus.
     I know that I have not faced in my life the number of troubles that Rose faced in hers. Today, I believe, I’m a bit older than Rose was that night. Now I understand her.
     That’s why I think Bernie Sanders is a bit off base with his plan to make college available to everyone for free. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe not. A better idea would be for us to make a paying job available to everyone.
     Don’t tell me there ain’t enough work, and don’t tell me that the private sector can do it better than the government can.
     There is, and they don’t, and they won’t.
     It could be cleaning roadsides, clearing brush, taking kids to school.
     Trimming just a few corporate tax dodges would provide billions of dollars for everyone in our country to have a shot at a real job of work, with a regular paycheck.
     That would reduce crime, and drug use, and child abuse.
     It would be cheap.
     Plenty of people would prefer an honest job to selling drugs, despite the pay cut. Maybe they would even come to enjoy their job. And their life. And that would be better for all of us.

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