Friday, August 31, 2007

Is everyone alright?

(photo of Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez during Chavez’s 1968 hunger strike)


When I lived in Chicago, I once tried to unionize the restaurant where I worked. I called the Service Employees International Union, and was really surprised when they set up a meeting between me and the head of the local chapter. I remember that he worked in a very posh, if somewhat old-timey office, with a large wooden desk that looked like it weighed about a thousand pounds. It was polished to a mirror finish. I remember he was impeccably suited in a navy chalk stripe, with his red hair slicked back and wearing a gold pinkie ring. I remember wondering if the ring might be new, as he frequently appeared to be admiring it as he turned a cut glass tumbler of water around and around in his hand. I could tell he lost interest in my cause once I told him how small the restaurant was, but he continued through the rest of his spiel for my benefit.

Some weeks later, I was killing time in that same restaurant, waiting at the end of the evening for the last diners to trickle through. I was standing in the waiter’s station and reading a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir/history written by a labor lawyer in Chicago, called Which Side Are You On? The hostess walked by and told me she had seated my section, and when I looked up, I saw a single man sitting at a two-top. He looked to be in his mid-30s, with blue eyes, blond hair, and that unmistakable simultaneously pale & ruddy Chicago Irish complexion. His face looked familiar to me. I turned over my book, and god damn if it wasn’t his face on the back cover.

I approached him while holding his book behind my back and asked him if he was who I thought he was. When he said yes, I said “I’m reading your book right now. It’s wonderful.” He thanked me. He seemed really flattered. I pulled the book out from behind my back and asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing my copy. He said “You weren’t kidding about reading it right now, were you?”

Later, after he had paid his bill, he walked into the bar area where I was watching television while waiting to close down the dining room. I was watching a PBS documentary about Robert Kennedy. He stood next to me and commented that he was taping the show so he could watch it later. I told him that one of my prized possessions is a photo I have of my mother at a rally for Bobby in my home town in Indiana. He said “Oh, yeah?”, and so I described the photo to him. The photo was taken right before the state primary, when my mom was working his campaign. In the photo, Bobby is standing on the back seat of an open convertible, speaking and gesturing toward the thousands of people filling the city square, and my mother stands right beside the left rear door, with her arms outstretched as if to hold back the crowd. Her face is uplifted toward Bobby, with an exhilarated smile and an adoring look in her eyes.

Bobby Kennedy went on to win the Indiana primary. He would be dead in less than a month.

At that moment, the documentary on television turned to Bobby’s assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. They showed that famous photo of him lying on the floor as a uniformed kitchen employee kneels beside him. Kennedy’s last words before he succumbed were “Is everyone alright?”

I couldn’t help it. Tears sprang to my eyes. I grabbed a bevnap off the bar and tried to dab them dry as nonchalantly as I could. I could feel him, the author, staring at me, and I turned to look at him and rolled my eyes in an “I’m a dope” kind of way.

He said “Can I have your phone number?”

We saw each other a few times, but there was not really any kind of spark there. I wish, however, I had stayed in touch, because sometimes I really need to talk to someone like him.

Someone who is as sad as I am for what our dreams have become.

Unions have made millions of lives better, but it’s hard to defend the unions that have become as corrupt and as evil as the industries in which they operate. It’s hard to imagine that we are headed for anything other than a union-less future, where workers will be about as protected and well-cared for as the serfs in Russia under the tsars.

When I was growing up, a friend's father was in the UAW, and if he hadn’t been in the union, he would’ve been fired after his first heart attack, and without his job and his insurance, he wouldn’t have survived the second one. He would be dead now, if not for his union. Of that I am sure.

And it’s hard to listen to the stories of those miners trapped in Utah without wondering if they wouldn’t be alive if they had worked in a union mine. The UMWA opposes retreat mining, and perhaps they could’ve prevented it from being hastily approved for the Crandall Canyon mine by BushCo’s industry crony-run Mine Health and Safety Administration. Would those six men be alive right now if they’d been union, I wonder?

I dunno. I guess I’m a little depressed this week, listening to the news stories of people in New Orleans still struggling two years after Katrina. We could’ve used that opportunity to mobilize a government workforce, like FDR did in the depression, and given the residents a good job and decent paycheck for rebuilding their own city. But no, that kind of massive operation is reserved only for people outside the United States of America, people who live in countries with large oil reserves. If we had spent 500 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast instead of Iraq, think what we could have done.

The slogan for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign was “These are not ordinary times.”

No, they were not, and as tiresome as our times are now, they are not ordinary either. And just for the record, I do try, I really do, to resist the urge to wonder where we would be if we had chosen our leaders a little more wisely. We can make things better, I think to myself. We can. I don’t know how, though. I just don’t know how. And right now, I’m a little tired of trying.

21 comments:

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Absolutely brilliant. You write so well and your writing evokes so many emotions. I really love your blog and it's stories and posts like this one that make blogging so worth while. Thanks girl, you rawk.

Skylers Dad said...

Amazing Vikki...

What has become of our country, where are the heros, and when will the madness end?

Questions that I am so afraid we may never have answers to.

kirby said...

No, we're not all right. The answer to that one is most definitely no.

Chris said...

Another unbelievably good post!

I'm in the same boat as you. As much as I try to stay optimistic and hopeful, I'm really not seeing any sense of urgency on the parts of people in positions of power who should know better. I mean, with the laundry list of dogshit this administration has compiled, can you blame me for being cynical and overly-sketical, Mr. Wingnut?

The best I can do at this point is keep a sense of humor and positively impact the people that I personally or electronically come in contact with.

Megan and I agree you should be getting paid to write the kind of stuff that you write.

'Bubbles' said...

First, ditto on what Megan and Chris said about you.

Second, I am still optimistic and hopeful. I still believe in fundamental stuff. The pedulum has moved far, far, far right. Natural laws will bring it back. It just happens - and it is time.

Some fine leaders have fallen in history, but perhaps their fall has made their leadership and vision more visible and amplified. Maybe that was their purpose - to be bigger than life. We will never know - because they are gone and we are left with the vision and the "what would have been."

Maybe we needed their visions to bake a little longer. Maybe we needed their inpiration to simmer a bit more before it could be served.

I worry when people start to slow down in their oppostion to the wrongs. You just can't let that happen.

FEMA and it's processes and systems are a fucking mess. Our health care system is... oy... We have been pouring resources into a lost cause and we have a leader that is too bull headed to stop.

Good Lord, you can make the list better than me.

So - if you wear out, it will take even longer for the change you imagine to come!

Please consider this your (caring) kick in the ass from a big fan.

Never forget, change happens - one mind at a time.

One of your fans
Bubbles

You are a born leader and a visionary, Vikki. It is clear from your written work. There is hope, I'm absolutely sure of it. Watch and see.

dad said...

I find that doing things that require my complete concentration (example:playing tennis) is a great relief from upsetting myself about the latest Bush administration horror story, or the hypocrisy of the politicians sucking that suck up to the religious right wing, or to the failure of the fourth estate to protect the Consititution. This shit can grind you down because it is ubiquitous.

Its time for a vacation.

Phil said...

You have made things better. You help me be better with your writing, which makes me a better parent, raising better children, who will, hopefully, be better people and parents themselves raising better children.

Corny, I know, but that's the best how I can think of.

Thanks.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I love that photo too. You should scan it. It's hard to believe that's the same square where the lynchinghappened 38 years before.

cheer34 said...

Your blog makes a difference. Do not give up. Remember sometimes we have to look at the small accomplishments and build from there.

kiki said...

doesn't LA have the lowest percentage of voting population?
why would a scum politician care about people who don't vote?

it sounds like you did a whole lot of not much at that restaurant...!

Flannery Alden said...

This was very moving. It reminded me of how deep my head is buried in the sand most times. Thanks for saying this.

Grant Miller said...

I'm glad I read this on Labor Day.

deadspot said...

Can I have your number?

I wonder what the folks in New Orleans thought when Bush said "we don't abandon our friends" when talking about our continued military presence in Iraq.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Dr. MVM: Thank you. You are obviously a very intelligent and discerning monkey.

SkyDad: Heroes? Isn't that a show on NBC?

Kirby: I know, right? That's the part that gets to me the most.

Chris & Megan: Thanks. As two of my favorite blogging people, it makes me really happy that you like my stuff. It also makes me really happy that you two found each other. That's awesome. Yay. I think I should be paid, too. Now if I could only convince about 10,000 other people...

Bubbles: Thanks to you, girl, and I hear you. I know you're right. But when I see how quickly & easily all the good legislation and the forward movement gets undone by one powerful ignoramus, it is damn tough to take.

Dad: Fuck the vacation. It's time for LA to dip below a hundred fucking degrees for a few days.

Phil: It is corny, and I can't remember the last time I heard such a great corny thing.

Kristi: I know I should scan it, although what I should really do is try to blow it up professionally. (sigh) It's on my list.

Cheer34: I'm not sure I buy into the whole "I make a difference" thing, but when the fight is all you have, you fight, I guess.

Kiki: Actually, our voter turnout is pretty good in general elections if you consider our electoral system, and that the race has frequently been called long before our polls close.

Flan: I have a hard time believing that you bury your head in the sand...

Grant: What are you doing reading blogs on Labor Day? Go out and play with your kids or something!

DeadSpot: I don't know why the people in New Orleans aren't rioting every day. Unfortunately, I think they are too busy killing each other.

Frank Sirmarco said...

Somebody pay this girl to write already!

Megan said...

Chris read this to me the other night as I was making dinner and now that I've had a chance to read it for myself (cause I process better that way, ya know?) I like it even better.

Trying is tough and I get sick of it myself, but you are just about the trying-est person I know and I admire you immensely for it.

Here's a small thing: about a year and a half ago I canceled my subscription to the newspaper because I never got around to reading it anyway. I did, however, read your blog religiously, although I don't think we were linked at that point. I wrote a post about resubscribing, but what I didn't mention (because it would have been a little stalker-ish) was that reading your stuff is primarily what made me realize how important it is not just to be informed but also to inform others in whatever ways we can, even when we don't feel like it.

In short, you rock. I think what we mean when we say that you should be paid for what you write is that you are about 8012 times more honest, insightful, witty, intelligent, and passionate than the vast majority of people who DO get paid to write about politics (or Crocs).

OK, well, I think I've blown enough sunshine up your ass for one day. More posts please!

kiki said...

louisianna...

sorry, not L.A.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Megan: Thank you again. I'm just vain enough to admit that praise from intelligent people is actually quite a motivator.

Nice post about resubscribing. I don't remember how our blogs found each other but I will say that you are definitely one of the people comprising that imaginary audience that I think about when I am in the process of writing something. Oh, and that boyfriend of yours, too.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to put some sunscreen on my ass.

Johnny Yen said...

My local library got the RFK documentary recently, and I checked it out and burned a copy to watch with my son. I did stop and watch some of it-- the part at the Ambassador. I can never help tearing up at that part of it. I feel a huge sense of loss, like there was one last chance to change a lot about our country that died with RFK.

Jess said...

Previously, the most I ever knew of RFK was that he used the mob to get JFK elected (by underhanded means) and then turned around and "betrayed" them by totally going after them once his brother was in office.

Then I saw the movie "Bobby". It wasn't very good, and it was pretty cheesy, but it DID give a great overall sense of what he was all about and how people felt about him. I'm glad I saw it because it really brought out a whole other side to him that I didn't really know. A lot of what he said is so incredibly relevant today. I think the only candidate that even comes close right now is Kucinich, who I absolutely love.

(I still don't recommend the movie, however. It wasn't really about him. It was just a bunch of fictional stories of people who happened to be there the night of his assassignation. I mostly liked his speeches that they occasionally cut into the movie)

dguzman said...

I'm in tears right now, Vikki. You're so eloquent and your values--well, they're just right on.

I have a friend, Suzan Erem, who's written two books about unions, Labor Pains: Inside America's New Union Movement and On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5. Ever heard of them or her?