An American working man’s story as told to the author

These shoes. Whence all the scratches, tears, wrinkles, grime and rundown appearance?  I came up in a time when good shoes were hard to come by and were to be treated with care and respect in hopes that one could maximize the mileage from them. “Keep ‘em polished, son — maybe impress somebody enough to get a good job.” Shoes definitely spoke in former days about the wearer’s quality — “good upbringin’, personal pride” and all that.  But things happen along the way.

Take that old supporting chair, for instance.  It sits as a bedraggled, faded and sweat-stained pedestal, mute testimony to the years shared with those shoes.  There’s a back story, and I know it well … all too well. The knowin’ quiets many of my questions as I think about the shoes, the chair, and the implications softly spoken, and sometimes wept, by that scarred, stained leather and the hours of labor put in – and risks taken – by one man’s feet on an assembly line.

These shoes, and the chair that supports them, bear a common-but-remarkable and oft-unnoticed story of the so-called “blue collar worker” in America.  Cut by cut, step by step, drop by sweaty drop.

I can just hear him, the man who wore these shoes for twenty-five years, arrivin’ home still sweaty and grimy at the end of a late-night swelter of a summer shift – or the bitter cold of winter – after drivin’ the fifteen or so sleepy miles down that dark, all-but-deserted two-lane Highway 45. “Clump, clump” the shoes numbly protest as he takes the wooden steps, unlocks the door to the trailer, and sits down in the dim light in his chair – this chair – emits a deep but almost-silent sigh, then wearily stoops to pull off these shoes. “My feet are so tired they could cry.”  He blinks back a tear and quickly glances over his shoulder, half-embarrassed and feelin’ like he weakened though he knows nobody’s awake and watchin’.  Leanin’ gingerly back in the old chair, he stretches legs and wiggles toes, still sweaty in heavy cotton socks, and takes stock. “Man, shore glad I have these steel-toed shoes! That part that fell off the line would’ve cut off some toes – and durned-near did anyhow!”  Fresh cuts in the shoe-leather and bruised toes silently confirm.

Mind and body return to the present: “Do I eat somethin’ first? Take a shower first, then eat? Or just pull off my dirty work clothes and climb into bed?  I’m wore out, so tired I cain’t see straight.”  The pull of bed and rest are irresistible.

Six hours of rest pass quickly, then yesterday’s re-run begins again with feedin’ the few animals kept in a small patch of pasture behind the trailer and openin’ yesterday’s mail to add to the stack of bills to be paid. There’s a bowl of cereal with fresh milk and a cinnamon roll waitin’ for his silent daughter when she shambles from her bedroom with school books in arm.  As he pours a mug of steamin’ black coffee from the old percolator, he asks how her special-ed classes are goin’ and gets no answers, only shrugs. The school bus pulls up, and out the door she dashes with sudden energy. He’s left alone to ponder.

Cold sandwich, a glass of milk and a couple of cookies for lunch precede a dozin’ nap as he tries to watch the noon news with its daily stories of continuin’ high unemployment and climbin’ national debt. Then he’s back in the old truck and off up the highway for his shift at the plant. A note is left for his daughter, “See you tonight, hon.  Call your mom and say hello.”

I know for a fact that these shoes are owned by a man – a smart but simple, unsophisticated man with simple needs. A member of the backbone of the American workforce.  Finishin’ high school with a talent for mechanics and a set of trade skills, he got married and spent twenty-five years doin’ his job well, pride of quality and dedication intact, on an American assembly line. Tryin’ to make a way for his family.  Any number of circumstances foreclosed college or advancement beyond crew lead.  And there were some losses along the way.  But that’s natural, isn’t it?

Then one day as he sat in the plant break room eatin’ another cold sandwich from his black lunchbox, he and a thousand-or-so fellow employees were called from their places and told their plant would be closed and their jobs shipped to a place near Saltillo in northeastern Mexico.  “Lower wages, less overhead for the company.”  As he listened to the speech, a set of burnin’, practical questions assaulted his mind like incomin’ fire from an all-out air attack. “Bills to pay. Did my union help me by constantly pushin’ for higher wages? [While they constantly pushed for higher dues from me?]  With my high-school education, I assumed the leaders were smarter than me, knew what they were doin’, cared about me.  Did they?  How’d they let all these jobs go south across the border, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands are crossin’ the river into our country and takin’ even more of our  jobs for lesser wages?”

Turmoil rose up in the pit of his stomach like a churnin’ tide. He looked down at his feet. “I wonder who’ll fill these beat-up, wore-out old shoes of mine?”

When he got home from work that night and sat down in the old chair, he unlaced those shoes for the last time and sat there lookin’ at ’em between his tired feet, knucklin’ under toes with feet arched, then fannin’ ’em out as if to let ’em breathe. Lookin’ at those old shoes as though they were twenty-five years away, old friends and ghosts rolled into one package. Pickin’ ’em up with one hand, he slowly rubbed the leather with his rough, shopworn hands, rememberin’ by touch every cut, nibble and tear in the rugged leather. No patina here.  Just scars and a tale wrought in leather, rubber and steel, blood, sweat and tears.  Settin’ ’em on the old chair, he snapped a photo for remembrance.

Carpe diem. Vita brevis.

© 2012 by Michael E. Stubblefield.  All rights to my original work reserved.  Photo © 2012 by Dwayne Eacret, published by permission.

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