Fall Joe and SeoAh’s Moon
Diego Rivera, Detroit mural
An old brick warehouse in a seen better days strip of businesses, located down an alley with little obvious identifiers. When Kate and I found it, other members of Beth Evergreen had plastic bags in their hands, carrying multiple boxes of cake mixes into its interior. Inside snaked several sections of equipment with metal rollers, black plastic boxes filled with canned goods and boxed food items. Improbably, high up were case after case of Coors Beer.
Kate went in while I grabbed four plastic bags of cake mixes and followed the others inside where we deposited the bags on a wooden pallet. This room was forty feet by forty feet, filled with plastic boxes containing canned vegetables, pumpkin mix, potatoes, more cake mix on two sides. The wall on the right as we came in had shelving with new cases of peaches, applesauce and other Thanksgiving food items.
We were there to pack Thanksgiving boxes for Action center clients. Barbara, director of Volunteer programs, an older woman in a blue Action center t-shirt, organized us. After linking up the sections of metal rollers to form an assembly line, putting a group to work making up boxes, and setting a crew to distribute cake mixes into boxes packed the other night, but missing the cake mix, she formed the rest of us in the first room.
One end of the sinuous assembly line of metal rollers had a person who put the empty boxes on the rollers, then stuck in a can of applesauce. After that the boxes moved past a station putting in peaches (Kate), yams, vegetables (me), pumpkin pie filling, potatoes, cake mix, 20 items in all. Moving out of that first room on the conveyor belt the boxes moved up the rollers and up a slight incline where the boxes got sealed, then plucked off the conveyor and put on pallets. All this under the glare of fluorescent lights and the scrutiny of those cases of Coors Beer.
We got there at 6pm and were done almost on the dot of 8. It was fun, doing mindless physical labor with friends, meeting others whom we didn’t know and helping alleviate holiday stress for folks with plenty else going on in their lives.
the warehouse another day
Barbara gave us a pitch about the folks who were clients of the center. “Two main stressors,” she said, standing behind a metal conveyor. “The first is medical costs or disability. The second, rising rents.” Denver’s very tight, hot, housing market has pushed up rents, those costs moving down market like a python devouring a goat; only in this instance the goat is available income.
Barbara also said, “These are people who are working, who’ve hit a stretch of bad luck. I’m glad to help them and I hope you are, too. I wouldn’t feel the same about people who don’t work and want a handout.” Hmmm. This sort of charity is easy to sell. Church and synagogue folk love it, many having a similar attitude.
It is, however, from my perspective, band-aids on a compound fracture. Sure, stop the bleeding, not a bad thing to do, but what about that broken bone protruding from the flesh? The broken bone penetrating the skin of these folks lives is a capitalist insistence on market rate housing, on medical insurance offered through work–which is lost upon unemployment–or purchased, for now, with the aid of Obamacare, and personally devastating when lost. That penetrating bone is also jobs requiring increased levels of education, blue collar jobs now disappearing down the maw of robotics and artificial intelligence. And, increasingly, not only blue collar jobs.
Compassion in action
We insist on pretending that all this is normal, that good-hearted folks with sterling intentions and an acceptable work ethic will be all right in the end. Well, no. Money does not trickle down, it races up to waiting vaults owned by the one percent. Think of friends or family and consider those displaced by a factory or business closing, a sudden illness or trauma. It is simply cruel to ignore their reality, to insist that they navigate this nightmare of an economic system with no substantial safety net.
So, yes, go to the warehouse, unload donated vegetables from black plastic boxes and add them to other items so one of these victims of our heartless economic system can have a Thanksgiving meal. Why not? But don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is the kind of help that solves a problem. It’s not.
That kind of work, problem solving work, is political. It involves changing our entire, established Way. This work is about liberation, about empowerment, about making it shameful to insist on grabbing as much as you can for as long as you can. This work is about recognizing that all people, ALL PEOPLE, need medical care, food, affordable housing, education, dignified and adequately compensated work, then constructing a political culture in which those needs are met.
If we spend all of our volunteer, good-hearted time filling boxes or ladling soup, the system will not change and those of us with at least some compassion will be diverted from the main, the political task.