A Labor Day Reading

Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (New York: Dell, 1972, 1934) 76-79.

“Alright for Tracey to talk, alright, he didn’t have a wife and kids hangin round his neck like and anchor. Alright for him to talk, alright with nothing more important to worry about than getting canned and stepping out a floosie.

And Tracey was young, just twenty, still wet behind the ears and the old blinders were on him so he couldn’t really see what was around and he believed the bull about freedomofopportunity and a chancetorise and ifyoureallywanttoworkyoucanalwaysfindajob and ruggedindividualism and something about pursuitofhappiness.

He didn’t know, so the big sap threw it up, he threw up his job, thinking he was flinging his challenge into the teeth of life, proclaiming I’m a man, and I’m not not taking crap offn anybody, I’m going to live like a man. There’s more to life than workin everything you got to live with outa you in order to keep a job, taking things no man should stand for to keep a job. So he threw it up, the big sap, not yet knowing a job was a straw and every man (having nothing to sell but his labor power) was the drowning man who had no choice but to hang onto it for notsodear life.

So he threw it up, not yet knowing a job was God, and praying wasn’t enough, you had to live for It, produce for It, prostrate yourself, take anything from It, for was it not God and what came was it not by Its Divine Providence, and nothing to do but bow to It and thank It for Its mercifulness to you, a poor sinner who has nothing to sell but your labor power. So he threw it up, the big sap (not knowing), he renounced God, he became an atheist and suffered the torture of the damned, and Good Job (being full of that generation) never took him back into the fold only a few days at a time, and he learned all right what it meant to be an infidel, he learned:

the little things gone: shoeshines and tailormades, tickets to a baseball game, and a girl, a girl to love up, whiskey down your gullet, laughter, the happy belch of a full stomach, and walking with your shoulders back, tall and proud.

He learned all right, the tortures of the damned:

feet slapping the pavement, digging humbly into carpets, squatting wide apart in front of chairs and the nojobnojob nothingtoday buzzing in his ears; eking the coffee–and out; shuffling along the frozen streets, buddy (they made a song out of it) can you spare a dime, and freights north east south west, getting vagged, keep movin, keep movin (the bulls dont need to tell ya, your own belly yells it out, your own idle hands) sing a song of hunger the weather four  below holes in your pockets and nowhere to go, the flophouses, the slophouses, a bowl of misery and last month’s cruller and the crabs having a good time spreading and spreading (you didn’t know hell would be this bad, did you?).

Oh he learned alright. He never even got a chance to have a wife and kinds hang round his neck like an anchor and make him grovel to Good Job. (And I guess it’s just as well, Jim Tracey, because even among the pious who heed and prostrate themselves Its wrath is visited, for Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen, and are not the Sins of the Fathers (having nothing to sell but their labor power) Visited on the Sons, and it’s no fun to see the old lady nag and worry her life away, no fun to see the younguns pulpy with charity starches drowse and chant the lesson after the teacher: we-are-the-richest-country-in-the-worr-uld).

So (not knowing) he threw it up, the big sap, thinking, the big sap, jobs grew on trees and (believing the old bull) a man didn’t hafta take cap off’n anybody, he renounced Good Job–and the tortures of the damned were visited upon him in full measure, he learned alright, alright, that last hour writhing in the ‘piano’ in the chain gang down in Florida.

And there’s nothing to say, Jim Tracey, I’m sorry, Jim Tracey, sorry as hell we weren’t stronger and could get to you in time ands show you that kind of individual revolt was no good, kid, no good at all, you had to bide your time and take it till there were enough of you to fight it all together on the job, and bide your time, and take it till the day millions of fists clamped in yours, and you could wipe out the whole thing, the whole goddamn thing, and a human could be a human for the first time on earth.”

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