Arbeit Macht Frei (a poem)
…And when I look at this country I see the eyes of a million minimum wage workers, and workers at jobs where the hourly wage is decent on paper but the hours are different every week, the young ones fresh out of high school with its diminished prospects or college with its debt load, the idealists scrambling between useless work that pays enough to survive on and useful work that doesn’t, the young men fresh out of the prison system trying to change their lives for good, but too often going right back into the drug game because at least that shit pays some real money, enough to have a feeling of status of progress of hope, the young women more often going into stripping, same reason. The vets who came back too injured in body or soul to use the killing skills on their resumes to land a well-paid job at the Police Department, the moms worrying over how they’ll be able to pay the heating bill this month because they had to take unpaid leave when their kids got sick, the poets writing on the sly, the jovial ones trading stories of who beat up who and funny car crashes and how totally hammered they got at the bar last night, this is America. Once upon a time politicians used to tell us how it was teenagers who took minimum wage jobs part time, to learn responsibility or some shit, but I’ve never seen any teenagers here. And the older women, always the older women: carrying their handbags and their outrage, laid off from the jobs where they were paid well and respected to be replaced if at all by young women half their age, with half their knowledge and half their salary, with better fashion sense and readier smiles and less pride, the older women reading their romance novels where the heroine is called beautiful and smart and uniquely desirable and always, always irreplaceable. And the families who took out the mortgage back when the boss was talking promotions not layoffs only to end up with the house underwater, and the families whose homes are literally underwater, black mold creeping in making breathing dangerous, combined product of a one-day hurricane and decades-long institutional neglect. And the politicians talk about hard work and self-reliance but they never seem to factor in what happens when your car breaks down, or your body breaks down, or your marriage breaks up. And they never factor in the despair, the feeling you get after the job you figured was just a stopgap turns into months and then years and you start to ask what’s it all for? After the new job you wore your best clothing to interview for pays enough to disqualify you for food stamps but not enough to pay your monthly grocery bills and you start to ask what’s it all for? When you can’t get the smell of your job out of your hair after washing it three times and you start to ask what’s it all for? When you have lower back pain from pushing around a vacuum all week or wrist pain from tying knots on boxes at top speed and you start to ask what’s it all for? When you smile and say “Have a nice day” a hundred times a day and never once express your own thoughts, and your soul silently cries what’s it all for? And you just get fed up and want to smash capitalism smash the state and most of all smash the faces of those mergers and acquisitions dealmakers and corporate CEOs who preach on TV the old Protestant work ethic, the old lie that work, all by itself, will make you free, Arbeit Macht Frei, well everything sounds scarier in German doesn’t it.