I’ll never forget where I come from
I discovered my class anger in 1983. I was a 22-year-old high school dropout, working at an auto parts warehouse in Cambridge, Mass. I’d just been discharged from the Air Force, and in the fall, was headed to college. My boss didn’t know that. I’d lied to get the job.
Before then, I’d washed dishes, dug ditches in hard red clay, done landscaping and farm labor, piled potatoes into 15-foot mountains and assembled mobile home rafters at the rate of 45 an hour. The Air Force got me out of Sioux Falls, S. D. From there, I enrolled in community college and was eventually accepted to University of Massachusetts Amherst. I just needed to get through one more summer.
So I pulled radiators and such off the 10-foot high warehouse shelves and assembled orders for delivery. My boss was a recent college grad who’d majored in business and knew just enough Mandarin to negotiate wholesale prices from China. While he worked the phones in his air-conditioned office, temperatures in the warehouse would turn the dust that settled on my skin to slow-running mud.
A much deeper circle of hell than my own existed in the bumper re-chroming operation a floor below. There, non-English speaking immigrants from Haiti, Mexico, and El Salvador toiled in unbearable temperatures amid toxic chemicals for roughly the same non-livable wage. We shared a filthy washroom that was always out of supplies. The front office bathroom, reserved for the bosses and the young white women who worked just outside their plate-glass windows, had perfumed soap, Charmin and indirect lighting.
This, I decided, was the bathroom for me. Occasionally, someone would point out that I belonged upstairs, in the smelly workers’ toilet, where we were to wipe our asses with rough paper towels. I’d stare blankly and nod. I was going to college. I’d shit where I wanted. Eventually, they gave up.
My badly rusted Saab was good for a one-way trip to Cambridge before the engine temperature went fatally red. My earnings paid for rent, gas, cigarettes and just enough food to get by. There was no money for car repairs. I soon complained about pay to my Mandarin-speaking boss.
He was annoyed. “What do you need to live?” he asked. My answer rated another 40 cents an hour. It didn’t help much. A few years later, as a Social Theory and Political Economy major, I’d learn that wages within capitalism are often set to provide for the bare reproduction of labor power. This struck me as verifiably true.
About a week before I left for Amherst, I came clean. My boss took the news philosophically, and as a farewell gesture, bought me lunch. I was no longer the warehouse rat. I was college-bound. A near-peer. Someone with whom one might share pizza and beer. The shift was too sudden. I’d always known I was just as good as my boss, but for him, this concession to my human dignity was news. For some reason, this pissed me off more than anything else.
Lunch passed without incident, and we went our own ways, but before I finished my pizza, I knew something new. Some things might change, but I wasn’t going to forget where I was from. Not then. Not ever.
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