Current Affairs

A Convenient Way To Promote Happiness

Can The Working Class Speak?

What my father, and other working people, never say aloud…

regret never really getting to know my dad until after the world broke him. And it’s not like I didn’t know him well before—I did. But not in the way I know him now. I wish I had known him better before everything went to hell, before the Recession hit, before we lost just about everything, so that he didn’t have to go through it all feeling like I didn’t, and couldn’t, know what he was going through. To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t think he really knew either.

Pops was never that much of a chatterbox. So, we all had to learn how to mine his brief words for hidden meaning. My siblings and I could decipher in a quick, throwaway suggestion that we watch a certain movie with him sometime a clear message that he really wanted to watch it with us now. We could discern many fine layers of disappointment in the way he said “Mmm …” We could read his laughs like practiced fortune-tellers reading tea-leaves. And then there were his silences: The angry silence was obvious and terrifying; the smirking silence usually meant that he was still laughing inside at his own joke; the pensive silences when certain songs were playing usually corresponded to memories we had heard about enough times that we could practically see them playing out in his head.

But then, around Christmas, something changes. I see my dad sitting like a shadow. The familiar emotional cues I had once known how to read now seem lost in static, shershing and flashing on a channel we don’t get, faint, ghostly shapes swimming somewhere under the surface. Suddenly, my dad has become illegible.

It’s clear that Christmas that my parents are hiding something from us. One of the perks of getting older is your parents gradually grant you access to more of those parts of themselves they had to keep behind curtains when you were little. They don’t have to pretend to be saints anymore. They can laugh more. Ma giggles at the table—her eyes are even starting to water—as she gives us more … unabridged versions of stories from her dumb, beautiful youth. She’s kept them down for so long, it’s like she’s hearing them for the first time. At this point, she can let her guard down. She and Pops will finally concede that they were wrong about that one thing. They can admit now that there were times when they actually had no clue what they were doing, and they were terrified. They can just be themselves. But then there comes a day when you can tell, once again, that there’s something they’re not telling you. They’ve drawn the curtains again.

None of us can see the things loved ones hide from us in such moments, nor do we really want to. It’s only in those terrifying, chest-pounding moments of unavoidable clarity—when the ambiguous haze we’re all sailing through abruptly clears onto the jagged shore of the real, when an unpayable bill is due, or a notice is taped to the front door—that we are forced to acknowledge the truth we’ve been striving not to know.

Talking to Ma on the phone, you’d think someone had died. It’s quite literally the last thing she wants to talk about, but they’re out of time, and out of options. Pops won’t (can’t) talk about it. So, it’s up to her. All of us are pooling our resources and trying to figure out how to get the money to them as soon as possible. As a graduate student, I don’t really have any “resources” to speak of—I’m already living below the poverty line. I go to the University administration and see if there are any emergency funds I could get. No dice. They don’t really know what to say. They look at me like I’m from another species. Apparently, “My folks are going to lose their home” isn’t on their list of qualified emergencies. Eventually, I’ll just end up taking out some more student loans. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, as Pops would say.     

“Why didn’t you call us sooner?” I ask Ma, trying not to sound like I’m scolding her.

“We don’t want to bother you guys,” she says. “It’s our problem to deal with.”

But it’s everyone’s problem now. I tell her that we’re a family—it’s always been our problem, and we’re only going to get through it if we stick together. But we can’t help if we don’t know what’s going on, if she and Pops keep hiding it from us. “I know,” she says.

“OK.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

*click*

After I hang up, the ground seems to throb anxiously. Millions of dry leaves skitter in little circles. I recall that I’ve had this exact same phone conversation multiple times in the past year alone. I feel like I’m on a loop, like all of us are living in some uncanny state of suspension, like every day is waiting for a bus that’s always delayed.

It dawns on me that Ma and Pops are hiding the truth from themselves just as much as they’re hiding it from me and my siblings. They’re living a shadow life. What else are they supposed to do? How else are they going to get by? Like so many others out there, their days are spent wading through a kind of quicksand, a mud-thick mirage of normalcy, trying to make it all the way back to bed without awakening the giant, sucking thing. They are trying to avoid having to remember that their lives are so painfully out of their control, that their existence is basically rented from a soulless landlord who could be banging on the door any minute.      

Illustrations by Susannah Lohr

Try not to forget: You didn’t want to talk either.

I had moved back home to try to help out. It was supposed to be a short-term thing. Like my parents, like so many others, I figured this would all pass soon enough. We just had to make it over the hump. Things would go back to normal eventually.

Four months and hundreds of job applications later, I’m sitting in the deathly waiting room of the temp agency, sandwiched between two leathery viejos. We sit in perfect stillness, like tired, miserable gargoyles, all six eyeballs fixed on the exposed fluorescents that are coughing and wheezing on the ceiling. It’s 3:50 in the morning—the only time in Southern California when it’s actually cold. We’re penned up in a yellow, water-stained room, behind the one window in this strip mall, the one window on this street. It’s like Hopper’s Nighthawks, but much lonelier.   

The jobs just aren’t out there. And my fancy college degree doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. We’re all here for the same reason. We’ve all got to eat. Truth be told, the only special thing about me is that I’m probably the only sad sack here who’s also sitting on tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.

No one wants to talk, but everyone’s got something to say. I can feel it, a shared heaviness sitting on all of us, invisibly filling the room like a gas leak. But no one really knows how to articulate it or what to do with it. We’re all just wading through that mud-like thickness from one minute to the next, from the time we wake up till the time we go to bed. Occasionally, someone cracks a joke, but no one laughs that hard. We share some stories about good, bad, and horrible assignments. That’s about it. We don’t talk about our paychecks or our families. We don’t ask if this is the only way it has to be.

I certainly don’t want to talk about it with my friends or family either. I don’t want to bother them. It’s my problem to deal with. More than that, though, deep down, I don’t want to talk about it with anyone, because talking about it means facing it, head-on; it means prying open the ominously-rattling manhole cover and staring into the pink, dripping teeth of the real. And that is, quite literally, the last thing I want to do.

What would I tell them, anyway? Where would I start? And how could I even begin to describe the smell?

I’m still waiting for an assignment when two 40-something guys stomp back into the temp agency to complain about the smell. It’s light outside by this point. They won’t go back, they say. They don’t care about the pay. “El olor de la sangre”—it’s unbearable, they say. The shrimpy employee behind the desk finally stops arguing with them, huffs, nods, looks down at the sign-in sheet. The shrimp calls out my name. 

When we’re all present and accounted for, the floor manager leads me and the other temps through the metallic, steaming bowels of the factory. I pass under some giant, whirring boiler, hard left, up a rickety aluminum staircase. Flashes of other goggled faces quickly appear and dissolve in the haze. I have no idea what the smell is, but at every turn I expect to see piles of dead somethings.

The smell is not just blood, turns out. It’s all manner of human effluence. Mountains of it. In every kind of state: fresh, crusted, bubbling, black. Standing in front of a screeching conveyor belt, in full hazmat gear, our job is to sift through and sort endless piles of soiled laundry from hospitals in the county. About half the guys I start my shift with run off the line to throw up at one point or another. None of them come back. The bosses don’t care. They just call in more temps and keep us sifting and sorting at a breakneck pace. They know they can treat us like dogs. They know how many of us are waiting back at the agency. They know we wouldn’t be here if we had better options.

I even find a syringe in one of the piles.

Why would I want to talk to anyone about this? Why would they want to listen? Even the other guys on the line don’t want to talk about it. No one here wants to think of this as their life. It’s just something you have to wade through. Best not to look at it too closely, or think about it for too long. All of you are just floating in deep space, suspended in the cold blackness like jellyfish. 

started the podcast Working People for selfish reasons. I needed to talk to someone. And I quickly came to realize just how much other people need that, too.

I had bottled up so much for so long. I told myself that I didn’t have to talk about it, that I’d eventually feel better if I just ignored and tried not to awaken the giant, sucking thing, if I put my head down and labored my way to absolution. If I just kept working, I’d get there, eventually. Then I could be my old self again. And my friends and family would be there waiting. And things would go back to normal. I’d dig myself out of this hole. I’d pay down my debts. I wouldn’t be terrified to look at my mailbox or my bank account. I’d feel better. I’d be back on solid ground. This is what I told myself, as I waded through month after month, like a shadow that had lost its body. This is what I told myself, for five years. I am, it turns out, my father’s son.

All that time I worked, waiting for myself to come back. But I never really did. Because no one ever comes back—there’s never any safe, static “normal” to go back to. Encouraging and maintaining the cruel belief that there is still a “normal,” just out of reach, is just one of the many ways the forces that command our world keep us compliant and hopeful, sucking us dry while we wait for the return of a past that is always delayed.

I needed to talk to someone. I needed to stop waiting for the world to return me to myself. But I had no idea how to do that. Like so many others out there, I had gotten extremely comfortable hanging in suspension, pickling in the brine of expectation, believing that things would go back to normal at some time that wasn’t now, in some place that wasn’t here. My self-in-waiting had taken the place of the self I was waiting for. And I knew I could stay like that forever, until the very end. And that terrified me. So, one day, I went to the person I imagined to be the “source” of my disposition, as if it was something that had been genetically passed down. I went to Pops.

Agreeing to be interviewed on Working People was a very brave thing. More than one of the interviewees I’ve had on the show since have confessed that they got the desire and mustered the courage to tell their story after listening to the interview Pops did to open the season. In the very first episode of this podcast, in a recorded conversation that people around the country would listen to, my dad became more legible to me than he had ever been. And I love him for that.

I didn’t really have a clear idea of where I wanted the conversation to go, what I wanted it to be. I just wanted to listen. Perhaps I was hoping to hear something that would help me, to pinpoint in what he said or didn’t say something that would show me how I had gotten stuck living this way, how I had become like him, a me-sized static who wouldn’t (couldn’t) face up to reality. As we kept talking, though, it was as if the antennae, at last, untangled themselves, a clear signal finally came through, and the crackling, impenetrable static of these last five, six, 10 years gave way to an image of home, an image of the bruised, battered, but still bright, loving, funny, honest man who raised us. 

We talked about growing up in Tijuana, and about the deadbeat dad who deserted him and his siblings two weeks after he was born. “Maybe he took a look at me and said, ‘Man, I don’t want this guy,’” Pops laughs. We talked about life at the bottom. “When you’re poor,” he says, “you don’t realize you’re poor.” We talked about his mom dying in the middle of the night, and about not having a chance to say goodbye. And we talked about his mom’s dying wish. “I remember my mom making my grandmother promise that she would bring us to the United States.” We talked about him and his brother Chano being split up from their sisters when he was only eight years old. We talked about him and Chano living with a foster family that wouldn’t ever verbally admit, but would communicate in many other, vicious ways, that they didn’t really want them there. We talked about him meeting Ma when they were both working at a Sizzler—she was a waitress, he was a cook who loved to tease her. We talked and talked about his life, his different jobs, our family, about becoming a citizen, getting into real estate, and voting for Reagan. And then we talked about the Recession.

My dad came to this country in search of that proverbial thing: the American Dream. And I think there was a time in my childhood when he believed he had found it. Our family histories, on both sides, are colored with stories of poverty and hunger and need. But, for a brief time, with four kids in tow, Ma and Pops had clawed their way to the mythical middle class. And, in the flicker of a candle, it was all gone. Like so many others, we lost all the money we had. We lost our house. And for a good while, we lost each other.

When the real estate market crashed … never in a million years did I think that our family would be one of the casualties… And that is super hard to get over. To think that, as a broker, we work so hard to achieve whatever status we had. To have it all … it’s like water going down your arms, you know? Like, dripping at your elbows. The only way I can describe it is, “It’s all gone, it’s all disappeared.” And, it’s been tough to get back, but I think it’s been really tough mental … mentally. Because nobody wants to talk about what happens personally, you know? Ourselves included. It’s depressing, it’s an embarrassment, all that kind of stuff. And I was surprised that, when we went through all of this, like, nobody really … I don’t know, maybe everybody’s too busy with their lives … nobody really reached out to see where we were at, you know? 

Pops and I had never talked about what happened like this before. The conversation flowed so naturally, it felt so familiar, but the whole time I was struggling to keep my breath. It was like a giant wound that had sliced across our whole family was finally being sewn up.

I think, for all these years, he had been punishing himself without mercy, boiling himself alive in the scum and froth of shame, paying his penance for what he saw as his ultimate failure to provide for us, regardless of how many times we told him otherwise. To this day, I still don’t know if we will ever be able to convince him and Ma that the Recession, a worldwide catastrophic event, wasn’t their fault. I don’t know if we will ever be able to lift that cross from their shoulders. In that moment, though, in a recorded conversation that people around the country would listen to, I could feel my dad lifting the thing that had been crushing me, and our family, for so long.

In his own quiet way, he had always protected us, always put us first. And I think that’s what he was doing now. He would carry us all the way to our beds when we were little. He would take the flashlight outside when we heard a scary noise. And now, black eye, broken ribs, and all, he strode calmly into the cackling, black wilds of the real. He faced it, head-on.

It’s hard to overstate the political value of talking to each other. And for each other. And by talking for I don’t mean on behalf, but for the sake of. More than anything, producing this podcast has revealed to me just how little of this needed honesty people get on a daily basis, and how much we all need it.

In the networked complexity of our atomized, hyper-mediated state of 21st-century being, it appears that we are communicating more than ever before, and yet we are ever more demonstrably bad at reaching one another. And please don’t think I am taking the position of the old Luddite crank for whom technology is the culprit in the “death of dialogue.” We have an overabundance of means for fostering genuine, open, soul-affirming dialogue in our world today—what we lack is the desire.   

When we talk to each other, more often than not, we make each other secondary in the whole process. We serve as stand-ins, as proxies, for a conversation that isn’t really about or meant for us. Whether real or imagined, there’s always someone else in the room. They’re the real interlocutors. This performativeness is by no means a problem that begins in the digital age with the dawn of social media, but the latter has certainly made the problem more visible. But only slightly, because it’s become such a painfully obvious feature of our daily communicative interactions that it has practically faded from view altogether. So much of what we say to each other on social media posts, for instance, is said for other people, known or unknown, who may see it. The person whom we are supposedly addressing, the one to whom we are ostensibly responding, becomes a vehicle for our own self-validation, which drips like sugar-sweet morphine in the form of “likes,” “loves,” “laughs,” shares, retweets, and so on.

And, again, this doesn’t just happen online—we do it everywhere. At our jobs, at the grocery store, on the subway, at the gym, on the street … we use each other. And we grow accustomed to being used. On a daily basis, as the gross spectacle of capitalist life routinely encourages us to, we accept being each other’s instruments in our respective, harried races to become ourselves, forsaking our need to see and be seen for who we are, squandering our human capacities for being together, for connecting through genuine bonds of care and cooperation and dignity and equality and duty to each other. We get used to being—and to making out of each other—the tools for living alone.

That’s why I started this podcast. I wanted to feel less alone. I needed to see people, and to be seen by them, as more than faceless tools, as complex knots of humanity and time and experience with whom I was living in common. And I have talked to so many others who need that, too. And I think we have seen in one another—in our common need to be human to each other—the real, bleeding tissue of a possible, and necessary, socialism.   

The concept behind Working People is incredibly simple: I talk to working-class folks from around the country, from all walks of life, and I record it. We talk about their life stories. We talk about where they grew up. We talk about family, friends, school, politics, and whatever else comes up. And we talk about their working lives … their dreams, their victories, and their struggles.

I’d be lying if I said that the deep, scorching need for some kind of human connection that led me to start the podcast wasn’t also intertwined with the underlying political aim of building a sense of shared struggle and solidarity among workers. And the inspiration for this, once again, came from a familiar source.

As all of us in the family slogged onward in an endless, arduous struggle just to get by, Pops took to driving for Uber on nights and weekends. And it broke my heart. Knowing more than enough about Uber’s slimy, exploitative, low-paying model, it broke my heart to see him, like so many others, being taken advantage of. But something happened that I hadn’t expected. Pops found something he desperately needed, something that I think gave him the courage to share his story with me on the podcast, something that had been entirely absent in every other area of his life. While working as an Uber driver, he simply started talking to people: to the immigrant nurse he was driving to her second job, to the middle-aged husband who had lost everything in the Recession and had nothing for retirement. He discovered intimacy and honesty and solidarity with strangers, with fellow workers. And, in talking to them, he began to learn he wasn’t alone.   

For the overwhelming majority of us, to live in the United States is to bask in a world that’s simply not ours, to be consumed by desires for what we don’t have, to strive to be what we’re not, to be told again and again that who we are is not good enough. We are inundated by an endless, kaleidoscopic barrage of elite lives and elite tastes, serving as a daily reminder to working people that the blood and sinew of our rich, complex lives will always count for less. And it compounds that unshakeable, shameful feeling we carry with us—the feeling that we’re the only ones going through this, that other people are getting by just fine, that our misery is our failure and ours alone.

But at a time when so few control so much, there’s a world-changing potential in seeing ourselves and our neighbors as people engaged in a shared struggle, as so many strive to make do on so little. There’s healing in knowing we’re not alone in this. There’s beauty and strength in sharing our stories and our scars with each other. And our stories do deserve to be told, our struggles deserve to be remembered, our lives deserve to be celebrated. From Sara, the undocumented telemarketer in Las Vegas, to Tom, the plumber in St. Louis; from Vickie, the Amazon warehouse worker in Texas, to John, the university lecturer in Michigan; from Glynndana, the Disney Resort worker in Anaheim, to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota—this is what Working People is about.   

For the first few episodes, I think I was worried about whether or not our discussions would produce anything people out there would actually want to listen to. In that way, I was still perhaps thinking about the people I was talking to as tools. But quite quickly, that melted away. Because it turns out that, if you actually talk to people, if you really talk with and for each other, if you take the time and care and patience to see each other, you realize just how much we don’t actually do that in our everyday lives, and how much we really need it.

In a world where working people are consistently reminded that we don’t matter, where we become accustomed to being, at best, exploitable and, at worst, invisible to each other, seeing and affirming the trembling humanity we share with our neighbors is revolutionary. And this, I think, is the raw, beating core of the socialist project. It is not and will never be enough to talk at, about, or on behalf of the working class in the hopes of ultimately “swaying” them and “activating” them to the cause. We can only start by talking to and for each other in ways that open between us that which capitalism forecloses—in ways that allow us to see, share, and celebrate the common humanity of our rich, complex, and irreducibly different lives, and the common cause of living on this planet together.

Enough speaking for or about the working class. Just talk to one another. Without agenda, without judgment, just listen.

We must understand—and trust—that the open, vulnerable, attentive, and genuine process of commune-icating with our fellow workers will, itself, enact the very truth of socialism. That it will—and must—bear out those humanity-affirming connections between us and those we talk to, which, once brought to the surface, will only confirm the dehumanizing unlivability of capitalist life. For what is socialism if not a vision for the material and social arrangement of a world in which we can finally practice the soul-affirming art of life in common? A world in which equality, dignity, freedom, peace, justice, and ecological sustainability are actualized in ways of living together and treating each other that enable the flourishing of a collective humanity, which capitalism has stunted and squandered in the endless search for profits.

The need for such a world is there, in so many of us, buried deep in the static of our lost connection to one another. From the lonesome vacuums of our daily wait to see and be seen, it calls out. In the brokenness of our brothers and sisters, it speaks. The question is: Are we listening?

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