Bad Jobs and Revolutionary Thoughts

In the Winter of 1981 I had just returned home to Minneapolis from a two-year stint as a volunteer missionary in Hong Kong, full of idealism and a love for my work. I had served in some of the most impoverished areas there and saw many lives transformed, as I learned to exist in a new and wondrous culture. I had “eaten some bitterness,” which the Chinese say is a necessary part of becoming emotionally strong. Not having eaten a lot of anything else for the two years, I had shrunk by more than thirty pounds. I was off to finish the degree in linguistics at the University of Minnesota I had put on hold for volunteer missionary service and I was ready to delve into great ideas again. But, I was self-funded and needed a job. I looked for positions on campus, eager to sign on as a research assistant, teaching assistant, or at least find a position that might compliment my academic training.

It turned out that my skills and professional background were not in as high demand as I imagined. Lowering my expectations, I narrowed my choices to fast food, a parking lot, and an industrial laundry. The parking lot work seemed promising because it would allow me to study on the job when things were quiet. But when the parking lot job fell through I used my connections with my brother to land the job at the aptly named Gross Industrial Laundry. The pay rate of $6.50 per hour–––a decent amount at the time–––and the late hours would not interfere with my classes.

On the strength of my brother’s recommendation, I went to the laundry on a Friday morning to fill out some forms. The following Monday I reported for duty at 10PM and the Assistant Manager gave me my task–––to scrape the ceiling of the massive facility in preparation for its first paint job in 25 years. He gathered a team of custodians to assemble a twenty-foot high scaffold from which I would work. When he could not tell me how long I would be up there, I immediately began thinking about exit strategies. But my brother had helped me get the job and I was afraid to disappoint him. So, I climbed up to the top with my bucket of scrapers and a file for sharpening them when they became too dull. The boss did not want me to waste time going up and down the scaffold every time I needed anything and so I was self-sufficient–––respirator mask, tools, lunch, water, and all.

I had no idea how to do the job or what the quality standard was, so I just lay on my back and started chipping away at the grimy, grey ceiling. The paint–––most likely lead paint as I understand now–––flaked off and stuck to my sweaty face in the heat of the rising steam from the machinery. Nobody below seemed to care about intermittent showers of paint dust. The edges of my dust mask dug into my face and it was hard to breath and to concentrate on my work. The air was replete with a heavy musty smell from the newly disturbed dust that had accumulated over many years on the top of the insulated ceiling pipes. The plywood platform under me had deteriorated from years of exposure to humidity, and delamination formed a wave in the surface of the wood. The resulting bumps caused bruises on my back after a while and I would sometimes get slivers as I slid around to get leverage and position to work. Hour after hour I scraped and days blended together in a pattern of drudgery.

By night a laborer, by day a student, I was enrolled in a physics class taught by an avowed Marxist at the University of Minnesota. He wore a Trotsky-like goatee and liked to wear jeans with his suit jacket. Tenured long before, he spoke only a little about physics, but he did teach Marxist political theory whenever he could. As I listened to him explain the concepts, his ideas began at first to resonate with me. The “proletariat” needed relief and I was thinking about how it might be done. I was sure that I was not a part of the proletariat, but I did sometimes feel like a member of the working class masquerading as an intellectual.

After a while I began to skip breaks with my fellow workers, preferring instead to recover my strength up high. I also worried that my co-workers would find out that I was a university student and that they would resent my aspirations. I had learned from working on construction sites that workers and tradesmen were not always supportive of my college plans, and they would sometimes suggest that I thought myself better than they. It was during those early days that I began to have radical thoughts on economics and political systems. “This was what fomented revolutions,” I thought, exploited workers with no hope of an end to unpleasantness. I remembered shirtless Hong Kong workers in pajama bottoms climbing up and down the bamboo scaffolding as they carried bags of sand to higher building levels to make concrete. I wondered how they endured.

My father was a commercial painter and I grew up working on job sites, doing whatever he told me to do–––picking up trash, cleaning old brushes and spray guns, and doing other character-building tasks that nobody else wanted to do. Being the youngest of three brothers, I was the lowest in the family seniority scheme as well and my brothers secured the better jobs like taping off windows or moving ladders. At my high school people would sometimes ask what my father did for a living. I would say “he is a painter” and they would respond with things like, “Oh, an artist!” or “My mom plays viola in the symphony.” Occasionally, I would elaborate, other times I would say nothing. In their imagination, my French family background seemed to mesh better with art than construction work.

I had done mostly menial and, often unpleasant, jobs in my life. At thirteen years old I illegally worked at vegetable truck farms picking radishes at five cents a bunch. I trimmed Christmas trees in the 100-degree heat of humid Minnesota summers. My resume also included chemically stripping stains from copper panels at a restaurant renovation, and even assembling the kind of scaffolding on which I lay at the laundry. My missionary experience had been hard, but at least it had had a higher purpose.

Each night I took up my place from the last day, scraping away, thinking about the unfairness of life. My best friend on campus had a condo and an allowance paid by his father. I had a laundry connection. I would work past 2AM each night exhausted and numb by the time I returned to my apartment. Gradually I stopped thinking about the cause of social unrest in the working class and had another epiphany: The reason that revolutions were not more common was that potential revolutionaries became too weary and cared more about sleep and food than about abstract ideologies. I also started questioning the bone fides of my radical physics professor when I found out that he grew up in an upper class New York City family and made quite a bit of money teaching me about economic inequality. He had gone to Columbia and then Princeton on full scholarship before taking a job teaching blue-collar kids like me at a state university. During one of his office hours at a local coffee shop, I asked him how wealthy socialists fit in with Marxist theory. With visible irritation, he impatiently repeated his lecture about the role of the rich and of intellectuals in Marxist theory–––that they were a necessary part of the historical dialectic, that the workers were the essential players in the socialist transformation. He was telling me about the romance of the working class, but to me it was not that romantic. I was studying hard so that I could leave that life behind and he gave no indication of a desire to work on job sites. I was the wannabe intellectual and he a would-be laborer.

A few days after the confrontation with my professor I ascended my perch on the scaffold, no apparent end to my task in sight. My back was perpetually stiff and sore. I thought of Michelangelo and what he might have thought as he lay on his back for four years, creating the images on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I tried to imagine what kind of scaffolding he used. Was there a renaissance-style scaffolding? I imagined Michelangelo to have used something less utilitarian. But if he was inspired, I was decidedly not. This laundry job was not art; I didn’t even get to use a roller –––let alone a brush–––and my work was an act of demolition, not creation. I was the anti-Michelangelo, removing years of filth from this temple of the industrial age in preparation for a fresh coat of green epoxy. I began to be less interested in politics and started to observe laundry life below. Because of the drone of the machines, I wore earplugs, which deadened the noise and sharpened my visual sense. It was like watching a silent movie of an earlier era. Nobody seemed to remember that I was in the air and I became invisible, very much like the fly on the wall.

Over the weeks I learned that one of the custodians liked to take long breaks behind the row of giant dryers. One worker appeared to be drinking something other than water and an Assistant Manager liked to go out to smoke in the cold winter air. His smoking habit was a welcome relief to my existence as it brought in a brisk blast of cool air every time he opened the door. I discovered that from twenty feet in the air a stack of uniforms looked like a leaning tower and that there were many fascinating artifacts from times past lying atop laundry equipment: old dried up shirts, rusty tools, and even some rat skeletons. There were some live rats up there too. As I moved my scaffolding around I found that certain dryers were hotter than others. In some positions I could gaze out through one of a couple grimy skylights, giving me a distorted view of the heavens on cold, clear nights.

I learned that a laundry was governed by a kind of choreography and rhythm as workers moved in cycles from washer, to dryer, to presser, and finally to the rotating central hanger. This dance stopped every two hours, when clusters of red coffee thermoses would suddenly appear everywhere, standing out in vivid contrast against the grey floors below. Workers were in either blue or red, but management wore only black and white, the colors seldom mixing. Sometimes the scene looked like a colorized black and white movie––with artificial, not-quite-natural colors; other times the setting looked more static and more inspiring, like a minimalist Japanese print with a black background and a dramatic splash of color. I was becoming a vulgar art critic and each night I evaluated variations on the themes. This exercise cleared my mind and distracted me from my aches and cynicism. Isolation and rhythm became a comfort.

After three and a half weeks of scraping paint I came down from the scaffolding to find the boss, who said, “You’re done,” though at first I didn’t know what he meant. Done with scraping? Done with work in the laundry generally? I had indeed put my blade to the entire ceiling, but nobody had explained how the ceiling was supposed to look upon completion. There weren’t, as far as I knew, any established standards for laundry ceiling restoration. “It looks good enough and I don’t have any other work for you,” the boss added, and he had the office cut me a final check. I exited the steaming laundry into the bitter Minnesota winter air and headed to the Lake Street White Castle to reward myself with a box of sliders. Watching the late bar crowd stumble in I thought of my intensive mini-course on life during the previous weeks and felt tempered–––no longer so idealistic, but also less cynical.