Homeless Worker

     I sat out on the porch with a guy as he replaced our electric meter with a smart meter.
     He’s 48 and glad to have a job.
     He has no home.
     I wonder how many other guys are out there living like him.
     He lost his place a year ago in Hurricane Irene.
     He’d been a truck driver for 20-30 years, but business was so bad his boss cut him down to one day a week.
     He couldn’t live that way. He got lucky and found a new job, installing smart meters all over the country.
     He put what he managed to save from the flood into storage and figured, why pay rent?
     He had no complaints about his company. He felt lucky to have a job. As do I.
     His company, which I won’t name, against the chance it might get him into trouble if I did, moves its workers all around. It’s a 9-year project, installing smart meters for electric companies. Pretty soon he’ll go to Missouri, then Illinois, then who knows where.
     His 18-year-old son works for the company too, doing the same thing.
     I asked the guy if he was saving any money.
     “Naw,” he said. “Most of it goes to my son.”
     He didn’t complaint about a thing, except about the time a jellyfish stung him and his leg swelled up. He’s divorced, and expects he won’t have a real home for the next 9 years.
     Many years ago, I read a short story by Harvey Swados, called “Joe, the Vanishing American.” It was in the Summer 1957 edition of the Hudson Review. I bought it for 50 cents in a used bookstore.
     The narrator was a kid working in a factory when Joe came along. Joe could do anything: fix a machine, run a machine, make a machine do new things. Joe didn’t talk much, just looked at everything and everyone with a remote, knowing eye. After a few months he quit. And moved on. I believe, but I couldn’t swear to it, that the story ended with the kid watching Joe’s taillights disappear.
     The kid didn’t understand why Joe would do that: Quit a good job, to move on, to what? To no job. To an uncertain future. But in the story, Joe moved on, and the kid hung onto his factory job.
     That story has stayed with me for 40 years. It wasn’t a romantic story. It was a realistic story. But it was clear that in the author’s view, Joe was a superior being. He moved from job to job, looking for something, maybe, or just moving. From place to place. From state to state.
     It ain’t like that today. My mom, who grew up in the Great Depression, told me that back then people didn’t expect anything from their job but a paycheck. No fulfillment, or personal expression or anything. What they tried to do was, hang onto it.
     That’s how it’s getting to be today, except for the lucky few, among whom I count myself.
     Joe, the electric meter guy, has no home. He lives with eight other guys in a place his company rents for them. Pretty soon they’ll all move on. Going to other places. To other states. Hanging onto their jobs. On a 9-year project.

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