Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

One Sappy Sucker … Get Over It

I posted on FB after watching Netflix’s new rom-com, Always Be My Maybe. I said I’d watched it, loved it, and was setting up to watch it again. This tiny bit of completely unimportant and fairly uninteresting information so concerned a friend of mine that she emailed me about it:

“Were you serious with that rom-com bullshit? I mean, you? Since when do you get into stupid shit like that? If you were making a joke, I think I get it, but maybe we can talk and clear this up.”

(She and I talked the following day and I let her know I was totally going to mock her in a blog post … and she isn’t exactly “cool” with that, but she knows, and I’m not using her name, and Anne Lamott said I own everything that’s happened to me, so …)

But, before I get to the mocking, however, I want to talk about the movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD!! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Seriously, I am going to say stuff about this movie and other movies and if you don’t like spoilers, you should just stop reading now. Thanks for coming.

No, listen. I’m being for real. Spoilers.

You can scroll down to the next bit of big red text if you want to skip the spoilers and get right to my righteous anger, but you might see something as you scroll and then you’ll be pissed. Because … spoilers. This is your last warning.

So.

I knew I had a bias in favor of this movie from the moment I saw the teaser trailer. I like both lead actors (Ali Wong and Randall Park), and I loved that the movie was centered on POC. Even if it hadn’t turned out to be totally excellent, I was predisposed to be happy with it. So, total bonus that it’s super funny and clever and sweet and goofy and all that good rom-com stuff.

But let’s come back to the “centered on POC” part. To what I’m sure would be my friend’s horror, I love another Netflix romance offering: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB). It’s entirely adorable and charming and the leads (Lana Condor and Noah Centineo) are winning and there’s the major perk of getting a little dose of John Corbett (Chris in the Morning!) for your money.

The book the movie is based on is by Jenny Han, and Lara Jean, the character Condor plays, is Asian American. I wouldn’t describe this movie as “centered on POC,” however, as Lara Jean and her sisters, along with one Black secondary character and one Black tertiary character are the only folk of color we see more than in passing. TATBILB is adorable, and I’m glad Han fought to keep Lara Jean Asian (studio execs wanted a whitewash).

Having Lara Jean fall in love with Peter Kavinsky — the cute, white dude-bro — isn’t exactly ground breaking. But having her Asianness be entirely a thing and yet not be a thing kind of is groundbreaking. White folks walk in the house and take off their shoes and there are no foolish comments or sight gags. When Peter tastes Kitty’s yogurt smoothie (from the Korean grocery), there’s no drama about its “foreignness.” It’s not “weird” food, it’s just something he’s trying for the first time. There’s no exoticizing of Lara Jean or her sisters.

Always Be My Maybe has some of these little touches. And then it has some excellent, more in-your-face bits, such as the fact of Marcus’s (Park’s character) band being called “Hello Peril.” The movie centers Asianness in ways that TATBILB doesn’t attempt. There are no white primary characters in Always. There’s a bit character who’s white, and there is, of course, Keanu Reeves (playing a ridiculously bizarre version of himself that is beyond fabulous), but that’s it. The absence of whiteness is a complete pleasure. When Daniel Dae Kim’s character starts dating someone else … she. isn’t. white!! He hooks up with Padma Lakshmi (because, hey, who wouldn’t?). When Marcus’ dad (played to beautiful, sweet-and-warm-hearted perfection by James Saito) starts dating someone, she’s not white!

This movie is steeped in non-whiteness, it is deeply, super-unapologetically-specifically Asian, and I am here for every second of it. There have already been plenty of wonderful reviews and think pieces from people who speak to this both better than I can and from lived experience. I definitely recommend reading those for a deeper dive. I will just say how much this movie pleased me.

Okay. That’s it for the spoilers.

Yes, spoilers are done … but my friend’s email and our conversation about it are still stuck in my teeth.

Her email is nuts. Let’s just be clear about that right up front. Nothing about the fact of my having watched Always Be My Maybe should inspire such a response. From anyone. Who the hell cares that I watch rom-coms? Seriously. Why should anyone care? And if you, for some unfathomable reason, do care … you shouldn’t care so much that you resort to colorful language … you shouldn’t care so much that you need the fact of my watching a Netflix movie “cleared up.” Maybe you thought I was made of stone, thought I’d rather claw out my own eyes then watch a romantic comedy. Okay, but would you ever need to react this strongly? If my ridiculous status makes you type the words, “maybe we can talk and clear this up,” the person needing to do some soul searching here is you. Also? It seems you’ve forgotten that I am in no way required to live my life based on any wacky notion about me that you hold.

More importantly, how has this woman been my friend for a significant amount of time and not figured out one of the most foundational truths about me: I am pathetically sappy and a total sucker for love stories. I love romantic comedies. Love them. Love them. LOVE. THEM. Are they all I watch? No, of course not. Do I spend all my time talking about them? Again, of course not. Have I watched every rom-com ever made? Hell no. But do I watch a fair number of them and enjoy them, including some of the ones that are contrived and trope-y and aggravatingly dated? Yeah, pretty much.

I am a big sappy sap. I own this. I wear it proudly. Okay, maybe not always “proudly.” I didn’t, for example, run around telling anyone that I was binge-rewatching TATBILB. I mean, it’s a teen rom-com, for heaven’s sake! But binge-rewatch I did. That movie is too adorable to leave alone.

When we spoke, I let my friend know that I found her email both ridiculous and annoying as fuck. Unsurprisingly, she was defensive in the face of my annoyance. She was so shocked by my displeasure that she felt compelled to explain herself.

The reason she couldn’t accept my rom-com love? She thought my time wasted on Always would have been better spent raging about racism and other injustices. It’s what I do, you see, what she expects from me, and how could I look away from the horrors of our world to lose unrecoverable moments on frivolous crap?

Yeah.

So here’s the thing. I do spend quite a bit of time raging about injustice. That really is something I do. Sure. But does that mean I can never experience joy or love or the appreciation of a cute baby dancing or a puppy falling into his food bowl? I mean, what the hell? Also, I don’t actually exist to perform my pain for other people’s edification or enjoyment. At least not all the time. And more also? What the fuck?

I talk a lot about my anger and often reference that moment in the first Avengers movie when Bruce Banner says he’s always angry. That remains true. I really am always angry. Even when I’m not actively or visibly raging, there is an ever-molten core of rage roiling in and through me. All. The. Time. Even when I cry over sappy commercials or laugh out loud at funny stories or enjoy the mess out of a clever and charming rom-com.

My friend, I almost don’t want to say, is a white woman. She is a white woman full of righteous, indignant anger and outrage at the state of the world. She also regularly posts pictures and stories about her beautiful child, pictures and stories of her enjoying vacations in sunny climes, pictures and stories of delicious meals she is about to consume. While she does click “like” on many of my rage-y posts, I have never actually seen her post anything rage-y, have never seen her post about the things she feels righteous indignation about … not even in the simplest form of sharing my or other folks’ righteously indignant posts.

All of this says to me that, in this woman’s worldview, she has the right to be casual in her activism but I don’t. She has the right to have pleasures in her life but I don’t. She can move through her world smiling but I can’t. I exist to keep my oppression and rage on display for her because her reading my words and clicking “like” is the farthest she is willing to go in acknowledging ugliness in the world. And if I step back from the precipice even for one evening, she somehow loses something … possibly her ability to think of herself as a good white lady.

I have no time for this and said as much when we talked. It was a prickly conversation, as you might imagine. She insisted she wasn’t saying I didn’t have the right to enjoy myself, she just worried because it seemed to her I was losing sight of “the goal.” I asked her what she thought the goal was, and she said, “your liberation.”

For real. My liberation. Which will obviously never be realized if I manage to experience any pleasure in my life. Of course. Ugh.

I asked her why it was okay for her to never post about the same things I post about, and she had no ready answer, seemed surprised by my question. I hope that the response in her head didn’t begin with, “But I’m not Black…” but I will admit that I have some strong suspicions about this.

I am not her only friend of color. I met her through a friend of color, and she seems pretty solid and comfortable in that woman’s close circle, which is almost all WOC. I wonder if she behaves this way with those women. I have to imagine she doesn’t. A few of those women would surely have come for her long before now. So why do it with me? Or maybe one of them has given her a sound reading, and her takeaway from that was to not say these things to them but to me? Well, I am definitely not the one … and, if she didn’t know, now she knows.

Sigh. I hope our friendship survives this, but I really don’t know. I hope our friendship survives, but I need her to acknowledge that she understands what was wrong with her perception of me and the way she’s been comfortable using me. And I need her to at least be on the up-slope of figuring that out before we talk again. Maybe that sounds harsh, but I can’t have that kind of toxicity so close to me.

I enthusiastically recommend watching Always Be My Maybe, even if you’re not a diehard romance lover. There’s just so much to appreciate there. It might just win you over. ❤


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.