Many years ago, in summers long past, this week was the saddest week of the year.
For, after 10 weeks or so of free-range kid bliss at our Sullivan County bungalow colony, the morning air was no longer cool and refreshing. No, it was cold and windy, and would require that we wear the long pants and sweatshirts packed high on closet shelves, along with socks and sneakers.
From cabin to cabin, families grimly brought out their suitcases and duffel bags, loading groaning old Chevy's and Fords the dads had backed up to the porch for easy packing. Moms would prepare lunches for the Magellan-like ride home to New York City. But first, they'd line the back seat of the car with pillows and comforters, which the kids would sit on, sleep on, all the way home.
It was far too cold for one last swim. The blueberries had all been picked. The last mah jongg game had been played and the last movie (The Eddy Duchin Story, starring Tyrone Power) had been shown in the Casino. It was a tear-jerker. As was the grim fact that summer was over: school was starting.
It was all because of Labor Day, which had no significance to us kids. That is, other than the fact that represented the Grim Reaper of Summer Fun.
It was hard to connect the two words -- Labor Day -- with the stories our grandpas would tell, late at night, when we kids were drunk with sleep after a long day of outdoor play. The stories sounded serious and were about unions, and scabs, and fighting and sweatshops. Our grandpas were impassioned as they spoke, over glasses of blackberry wine or Slivovitz.
The years passed and our bungalow colony days were gone but not forgotten. Nor were the tales of the elders as -- for us -- the realities of life slowly snapped into focus, and we grew from boys to men. Society, it became clear to us, is built upon the back of labor. For us New Yorkers, it was obvious that our city was always a portal for immigration to the U.S.. We realized that our city was, is and always will be, instrumental in providing the physical and intellectual strength needed to keep this country humming. And, we learned that the U.S. consumer economy is a key driver of the world's economy.
The bravery of our grandfathers' labor movement, born on our filthy New York streets, slowly led to the rise of a powerful middle class that created an unparalleled standard of living. Today, so many summers after we slept fitfully in the backseats of our cars, from Monticello to Monroe, to Manhattan, to Brooklyn, many politicians believe there is currency in denigrating labor. They would make it seem as if the remuneration of cops, firefighters, EMTs, sanitation workers and other civil servants is primary cause of broken budgets. They claim that teachers -- TEACHERS, FOR GOD'S SAKE!!! -- make too much money and have single-handedly caused the collapse of our once-enviable public school system.
And many citizens believe the noise. "Yeah," some say, "who do these unionized people think they are, with their Cadillac medical plans, and pensions, and raises. Where do they come shining off?"
Today, as we approach Labor Day, I think back to those stories Grandpa told. I remember him excusing himself from the dinner table, walking unsteadily to the bathroom, and closing the door. We'd all pretend not to hear him hacking his lungs up and spitting blood into the sink, blood from inhaling the dyes in his apparel shop for so many years.
And, when I think of those stories of his, I shake my head in wonder and ask why the response of our newly impoverished citizenry is not more like: "Hey, we deserve that type of package too -- we're holding down the fort for three fired co-workers, and now they cut my hours so I'm not even entitled to healthcare benefits anymore!"
For the reality is, when the middle class is healthy, more goods and services are purchased and more taxes pour into municipal coffers. And that floats everyone's boat -- even the yachts of the one-percenters howling at the moon over the (stagnated) minimum wage and the need for a few measly sick days a year.
I am reminded that Woody Guthrie lived in Brooklyn for a time. Coney Island, to be exact. He came from Oklahoma, but he ended up a Real New Yorker. His song, Tom Joad (based upon Steinbeck's epic The Grapes of Wrath) tells a story worth noting and noting well on Labor Day.
Standing on his shoulders is Bruce Springsteen who, with the fiery guitarist Tom Morello, do a scorching rendition on Springsteen's homage to Guthrie on their The Ghost of Tom Joad. Consider Bruce's opening remarks as he intros this song, easily found on YouTube.
After watching it, I think you'll realize how far we've all come (and how much we've fallen) from those gentle, caring Labor Days of Bungalow Colony summers long past. Once again, it is the saddest week of the year.
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