Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Shining

Johnny stands outside the downtown dry cleaners with his little Ben Hogan hat on. He sees me, moves his head a little, and then he begins to walk inside. He knows he has a customer. He is lean and wrinkled and his skin is dark. He has been shining shoes in this triple seater for as long as I can remember.

Always good to see you, he says.

Always good to see you.

You come back now.

Always good to see you.

And so far, I always do.

Even on the hottest day in August, this dry cleaner shop on the main street of this capital city is not air-conditioned. If you want your shoes shined, you sit and read the paper, and you do it in the heat.

I always feel like I’m in the first act of a Tennessee Williams play. You can see the sidewalk traffic from your perch with impunity. They are outside, you are inside, they look at you, you look at them. The stained laundry glass window with the specials painted on it separates you just enough.

As Johnny is finishing up on my Blundstones, another customer mounts the shining stand. He is a lawyer. But he is not your standard smarty pants lawyer with a polished imitation soul, he is a real guy. We know each other casually and we are glad to bump in to each other.

He even occassionaly reads the blog, so that tells you something.

We visit for a moment.

Somehow we got started about General Motors and their negotiations with their work force. We talk about how the social contract with the workers is being broken. More and more, we are seeing large Corporations, be they airline companies or energy companies, either not honor or wish to change their contract with the people who have made their stockholders the profits, the bondholders their yields, and earned the executives their bonuses and football game viewing boxes.

So on this day, General Motors managed to carve out part of their obligations from their work force.

The first line of the NYT story reads

General Motors reached an agreement Monday it had long been pursuing with the United Auto Workers to reduce the company's mounting health care costs. GM, the nation's largest domestic automaker, also said it was considering selling its finance business to further reduce expenses and restructure itself.

The announcements came on the same day that GM said it lost $1.6 billion, or $2.89 a share, in the third quarter, even as sales increased by 5 percent, to $47.2 billion, because of deep discounting of cars and trucks in the summer months.

Somehow I could tell that even though this lawyer knew that GM had to do this to survive, he found it disgusting.

That gave me an opening. Besides, I figure that anyone who voluntarily reads this blog is more than likely willing to at least listen to a mini lecture while on a shoe shine stand in an un-airconditioned cleaners on the main street of an reasonably old southern capital of a demonstrably powerful state.

I opened up.

"One of these days, we are going to measure the success of our economy by how low the employment rate is," I said. "We will measure our success by how few of us are working." Full employment in an advanced civilization is the equivalent of hay in a parking garage. It’s just not needed anymore.

"100 years ago", I said, "most of us were farmers, the rest of us helped build things, and there were a few merchants and soldiers." With today's machinery, we only need one percent of us to feed everyone. We need less than that for construction. So, there's our food and our shelter with just over one percent of us working. Robots and computers could do almost everything else. That presumes of course that we have the energy.

And that of course is all around us."

By now, I could see he was at least politely going with me.

“Yes”, he said, “I wonder how many of us earn our livings by simply transferring wealth?”

“And what about real estate agents”, I chimed in.

And we went on.

Not willing to lose the moment, I took it further.

"Little did the Capitalist know that when they won the cold war against the Communist, that as they witnessed the disintegration of half of the world’s economic philosophy, that the other half, our half, would follow them in just a few short decades.

"We may have won the Cold War, but our system is as bankrupt as the system of the partner adversaries that we helped bankrupt."

Johnny was finished with both of us by now.We dismounted from our elevated perch and walked onto the street of one of the most creative, artistic cities perhaps anywhere.

As we walked down the wide, well constructed sidewalk, I reminded him of what Thomas Jefferson said, “we are farmers and revolutionaries, so that our children may be lawyers and doctors, so that their children may be philosophers and teachers, and their children may be musicians and artists.”

I told him that work is what we just did. We talked deeply, honestly, in the moment, and we exchanged our best with one another in a spirit of compassion and understanding.

We parted.

"Always good to see you."

"Always good to see you too."

I cannot find the Jefferson quote.

Sometimes I just make stuff up.


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Oz note...The Jefferson quote is derived from a shorter John Adams quote.
Comments are working again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

comments working

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece today. Paul Krugman has written well about the GM negotiations too.

The quote is from John Adams, and it's a favorite of mine, too.

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy."

Like you, I can't resist taking it to the next logical step, so when I quote it I usually add, "and theirs to study music and poetry." A happy thought on a lovely day - thanks.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

post are still cranky

11:44 AM  
Blogger Step Back said...

You echo the thought I had at the moment when it was reported the "Evil" Soviet Empire had come crashing down:

1) We are next, and
2) Now we are the Evil Empire.

"Mr. Gorbachev tear down that stupid, smug grin off my face" --misquoting Ronald Right Grin, the "brilliant-pebbles"-in-his-head genius who guided us to our new place in history.

(And if you don't remember, "brilliant pebbles" was our next step in militarizing outer space because our economy was doing so well down here. Ronald Reagan "tore down" the solar panels that Jimmy put up on the White House roof. What a guy.)

1:00 PM  

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