How Quickly I Forget

I’ve done several interviews over the past couple days, and one of the questions that has come up is how working on the book has changed me. When asked, I make the point that I have spent a lot more time reflecting on how much hard work is being done, every minute, that I benefit from, and how little I thought about this before. When I first left the lettuce fields in Yuma, I couldn’t enter a grocery store without spending a good amount of time in the produce aisle. I’d go from head to head of lettuce, picking them up, turning them over to admire (or critique) the cut, reading the label, giving them a squeeze, and wondering just where they came from and whose labor made their appearance in the grocery store possible. In retrospect, I probably looked like quite the psycho.

Since I don’t eat meat, I haven’t had the same flashbacks when buying chicken–but I do think about my coworkers in Alabama whenever a KFC commercial comes on the television. And after my time working as a delivery “boy” for a restaurant in Manhattan, I picked up this pretty consistent habit of, when riding around the city, striking up conversations with delivery workers at intersections or while pedaling alongside them.

Recently, though, I had an experience that made me realize how easy it can be to forget to pay attention. For the last six months, I’ve been working for a union in a very large building. Each morning, either while I’m locking up my bike or when in the elevator, I see the same young man–who can’t be older than twenty–delivering food. But I’m usually thinking about work and what needs to get done, or just zoning out zombie-style…so I’ve never actually asked him about the job, and a few mornings I’m sure I didn’t even register his presence.

Finally, a few days ago, as we were taking the elevator, I asked him in Spanish how work was. He said it was okay. I mentioned that I had worked for a short period doing delivery. That seemed to get him interested, and he expanded on the “okay” job by saying that in fact his boss only paid him $2 an hour. That’s less than half the legal minimum wage for delivery workers, which at $4.60 is already laughable. So it’s 2010, he’s living in the one of the most expensive cities in the world, doing one of the most dangerous jobs, and his boss is handing over $2 an hour. To top it off, he’s spending part of each morning at a union headquarters.

He got off the elevator mid-conversation, but I look forward to hearing more about his story. I’m not sure exactly what my point is here–I sense I’m wobbling around a bit this morning–except that the project of paying attention is one that requires diligence. Not that paying attention is enough: me striking up a conversation and learning about labor abuses isn’t helping anyone. But being aware and seeing often invisible workers is a necessary first-step if we want to start changing things.

***

Second item: today is my book’s official publication date! (And my grandpa’s birthday!) Or at least today is the original publication date, as I think the official date has now been moved to next Monday, February 1st. Either way, the book should now be in most bookstore across the country (and around the world?). I did spy four copies of it at a Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn, sitting on the new non-fiction table. I spoke with a Barnes and Noble employee about the book, who was actually impressed that lettuce workers earned $8.27 an hour. “We start at $7.15,” the middle-aged man told me, making me wonder when a union was going to set its sights on the company.

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