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R. and Me

December 8, 2012

A Meditation On the Value of Individual Human Beings

Call me a passive-aggressive Luddite. Call me anything you like. I’ll never be comfortable when machines do the work. When faced with the wreckage from last night’s dinner labors, a sinkful of plates and pots and pans, my first impulse will be to grab a soap bottle and a sponge. If I found myself standing before a cartoon St. Peter beside cartoon pearly gates some day, I’d hold out my dishpan hands without hesitation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they earned me a few points.

Among efforts to produce order out of chaos, I’ll dump water from a few hastily-rinsed recyclables and set them aside. So today, while peeling the labels off a couple of small cans that had held diced chilies, I discovered a letter R followed by a period on each one, written in Sharpie on the dull, bare metal.

Again, I have to confess my ignorance. Is this a part of standard operating procedure somewhere? Or maybe did some assembly-line worker, feeling particularly faceless one day, give in to the urge to tag the product as it passed? I can’t say. I do know that, as hand-written evidence of humanity beneath a thin layer of brightly-colored distraction, those meandering lines on hard and rigidly impersonal objects dispel the illusory world of shining graphics, jingles, and sentiment in an instant, exposing the stark truth of a single human life.

Diced chilies, after all, don’t grow in cans on supermarket shelves. If left unmaintained, vines would overtake all those florescent-lighted aisles in a handful of decades, and before very long, raw materials once torn from the ground and forced into geometrical forms would settle comfortably back into the earth from which they came. Chain stores are just stories we tell ourselves. You, apparently, are real.

Hello, R, I’m glad to meet you. I think we may have a few things in common.

Products exist to make profits, though the people who work to produce something tangible and to prepare it for consumption share very little of the huge amounts brought in. Cashiers may collect every cent of a CEO’s salary and bonus but then go home worried about buying food and paying rent in the same week.

I’ve been there myself. I’ve worked in great warehouse buildings, synching my rhythms to those of machines, flexing and relaxing the same sets of muscles hour after hour, filling my lungs with the dusts and fumes of mass production.

I know what it’s like to bust my butt only because it’s the right thing to do, and then some person I know only as a printed signature on a company memo posted in the breakroom tells me it’s not quite good enough. Then I swallow the rest of my lunch quickly in the short time given me, take a deep breath, and get back on my feet, trying not to think of the impact of my cheap meal and stress on a body I can’t afford to repair. And I get back to the work without which there would be no company.

I don’t even know what country you live in, R. Since these are disheartening times in mine, which sits squarely at the center of world commerce, I imagine the situation is at least as difficult to contemplate in yours. Decent working people like you and me have been persuaded to increase the plenty at a banquet for those who don’t toil, yet who live far removed from the concerns of mere survival that haunt us day by day. Very soon, we’re promised, the table will overflow, and we’ll have more than falling crumbs to feast on, but we’re all still waiting and hoping. No matter how persuasive a sales pitch is, if the product itself doesn’t work, it’s time to try a different one. Many are the millions poured into keeping us from that awareness though.

Karl Marx, once hailed as the champion of all working people, is good and dead now, shot by President Reagan with his little bow and arrow, or so the heroic tale goes. More than a decade ago, pundits announced that the philosopher had taken Western idealism down with him. Well, icons and isms arise and fall away all the time. We remain, the people trying to get through the day, the week, the month, trying to get through life. We’re what’s real, R.

I’ve chatted with fellow workers about these things, but the conversation always seems to end with, “What can you do? Break’s over.” Unless someone else is out there speaking for me and you, acting in ways we’ve wished to act without being aware of it, making a fuss just seems like more stress, and we’re often too close to the breaking point to stir anything up. The refuge of private oblivions, whether from chemicals that act on the nervous system, the flashing lights and false worlds on a screen, or something we wouldn’t even dare to mention, is simply more accessible and more immediate.

What I can’t say directly to you, I’m announcing here, as if it will somehow eventually drift in your direction: I recognize the value of your individual life, R. Maybe you should be doing more to ease the pressures on all working people, and maybe I should too. Maybe we’ve both eagerly bought up cheap, mass-produced substitutes for agency, for freedom. Maybe you’ve had days when you could no longer throw yourself into a task, and when a supervisor said, “This isn’t like you,” and you held something dear and silent inside of you, but you did nothing more. Maybe you hold the best of you only somewhere deep inside.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve hurt and learned and struggled and sacrificed, and since life is life, it’s all been with mixed results. You’ve gone through things I could only understand after long explanation, but you don’t have to say a word. Those two little letters tell me enough. Speak of God or Nature, there’s something essentially human in the process itself. As hard as it is to see at times, you are of great value.


About the Author

Peter Le Zotte has, for reasons ultimately impossible to pin down, been given a voice and the responsibility to use it. The rest is touch-and-go. His only credentials are life’s scars and a dogged belief that there’s more to personal worth than a credit score, that the ideal of the self-made person is still floating around out there somewhere waiting to be grasped.


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