Even White Men Sing the Blues
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
It was on a Friday afternoon that I went to take care of some errands. You see, I needed some concrete blocks to set up makeshift book shelves for my room. With this mission in mind, I went to the nearby building supply company, little knowing what I would later encounter.
I pulled into the store’s parking lot, and immediately noticed a group of Latinos, hanging around on the nearby sidewalks, and sitting on the curbs. I also noticed a little food truck across the street, and after feeling some incredible tuggings from my belly, exchanged greetings with the people on the street, and went to get a taco.
It was a damn good taco, with jalapeños that burned my tongue off, but while eating it I became somewhat unsettled because I could see one of the guys looking at me out of the corner of my eye. He had a look of hunger in his face that unsettled me, so that after finishing my taco, I went to get my concrete blocks.
As I went into the store, I realized that the people were around the street not because they liked to just “hang out” in front of building supply stores, but because they were looking for a possible piecemeal job. These people, hoping that someone would need their help for a quick construction job, were looking for some small scale pay to feed their bellies or their families. I figured that things must be pretty tough for them to live like that, and I wondered what could be done to help them out.
But then my attention got pulled back to the task of getting the concrete blocks. Inside the store, I perused over plant seeds and plumbing supplies, checked out prices on trash bins (we needed one for the kitchen), and generally looked around the store. For a while I pondered over buying an aloe plant (they’re good for cuts and burns) but decided not to, and went to buy the blocks.
It turns out that the supply company is built in such a way that you pay for the heavy yard items (i.e. lumber, concrete, etc.) at the cashier and drive around back to pick the items up, so, after paying for my stuff at a checkout line where the cashier explained that the band-aid over her thumb was covering the place where she accidentally stapled herself the other day, I went to drive my car to the pickup lot.
Outside in the pickup lot, I was greeted by a security guard who, taking my order slip, waved over to two guys nearby. I figured that they were the yard workers who deliver the supplies that people order from the lot. The two workers were a ways off, and eventually, somewhat reluctantly, one of them came over, and I was thinking to myself that these guys were pretty laid back in terms of doing their jobs.
The worker that came over was a caucasian. Wearing a light blue work uniform, his face glowed the reddish color that white people get from being in the sun too long.
“Well,” the worker said to the guard,” It’s been nice knowing you.”
The guard looked at the worker strangely, and asked him what was going on.
“I’ve just been laid off,” the worker said.
The guard looked at him puzzledly, and seemed at a loss for words. Not really knowing what to say, he just handed the worker my order form. The yard worker looked at the slip a little bit.
“Well what do you think?” he said to the guard, “Should I take care of one last order before I quit?”
The guard didn’t say anything, and the yard worker went off to get my bricks. I stayed by my car, and waited until he came back on his motorized cart. When he pulled up, I decided to talk to him a little bit.
“Did I hear you right?’ I said, Did you just get fired?”
“Yeah,” he said, “after working here for six years.”
“Damn!” I said, “Six years and they laid you off just like that?!?”
“Yeah, and my wife got laid off a little while ago and she’d been working here for more than seven years.”
Between us two, we loaded the bricks into my car. I noticed that the sun was setting a bit lower in the sky.
“I guess it had to happen sooner or later,” he said, “The yard's been kinda slow lately and I guess business is business.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Probably apply to the competition,” he responded warmly, adding a little touch of humor in this moment of sadness.
“Well, I hope everything goes okay for you,” I said, as we got the last bricks into the car.
“Take it easy,” he said, “You’ve been a good last customer.”
With that he stepped into his cart and disappeared behind some gates in the lot.
As I went driving away from the yard I watched as the sun continued to set itself down for the night. Oranges and reds had begun to appear on the horizon. As I sat there in my car I thought about those workers waiting for work in the streets. And I also thought of that man, now laid off from work, who after six years of loyalty to his job has now been dismissed like so much dirty laundry. These things all struck me as problems that needed to be addressed but I could find no ready answers to solve them.
And then it struck me that maybe these problems would continue to exist as long as “business was business,” and as long as certain systemic problems continue to exist in this society.
The Latino workers outside the store shouldn't have to stand on street corners practically begging for a job just to survive. Neither should the caucasian worker in the store have to be fired without some sort of previous notice or help in finding a new job. Yet these are the end results when corporations are more concerned about the bottom line than they are about helping people to survive.
Perhaps then, the time has come to address the real root of the problems in America today, so that the maxim of “business is business” will not continue as it has been for the last few decades. Perhaps now is the time to change the system so that everyone will have the opportunity to work with security, dignity, and respect.
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