The men all around us: the second-choice man
Let me tell you a little story.
I had just completed the research for this chapter and wanted to clear my mind. I thought an errands morning might do the trick.
Well, if you’ve read the first few chapters you’re suspicious. You know there are no little stories without little morals. Chalk it up to Farrell’s Fables, but you’re right, all around me the men I had been researching I now began
As I prepared to leave the house, 1 heard the roar of the garbage truck. Usually that just triggers an "Oh yeah, it’s Monday." This time it also triggered my memory. . . that the garbageman was two and a half times more likely to be killed than a police officer. And that 70 percent of the collection crew for the City of San Diego (where I live) suffered job-related injuries in the last year alone.15 Now, as I saw the garbageman pull up to my garbage, I connected the 70 percent figure to this man; to his disproportionate chances of back injuries, hernias, rectal cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, or just being hit by a passing automobile. I saw some things I hadn’t seen before. . . first, just the lumbar support belt one of the men was wearing; then, eye contact; then, a name I had never bothered to ask. Ride with me for a moment on one of these men’s trucks.
On Terry Hennesey’s route (real person, true story) is a dental office.14 When he recently compacted the trash, several plastic bags of human blood burst and splattered into his face. Just a few weeks later, he found a World War II hand grenade with the pin still in it* and about two dozen nine – millimeter, hollow-point bullets. Some months later he picked up a load of low-level radioactive waste. His colleagues tell stories of battery acid splattering on their clothes and faces, of the compacting process forcing chlorine to shoot out of a container, hitting a man in the back and setting him afire; of hot fireplace ashes being dumped in the trash and igniting the back of the truck; of a container of liquid cyanide. . .
Why was I so unaware of these dangers? In pan, because these men never speak up – instead they turn each other’s misfortunes into humor, calling each other the "Cyanide Man," the "Radioactive Man," and so on. And in pan, we are more conscious of the injuries of the football players, for example, because the absence of the football players has an impact on our egos: it makes our team lose. If our garbageman dies, he is replaced, like any pan on the garbage truck.
1 was more likely to think of it as sexism to call garbage collectors garbagemen than to understand that the real sexism is the pressure felt by uneducated, unskilled men to take more than 96 percent of the garbage collector jobs so they can get paid $9 to $15 an hour to suppon their families.,s Or that the real sexism was in hiding something dangerous in our garbage.
Once I saw the garbagemen in a different light, I registered how differently I looked at a garbageman as opposed to, say, a pregnant woman.
’Of course, it’s hard to find a hand grenade without the pin in K!
When I see a pregnant woman, I automatically smile a smile that expresses appreciation for her joy, her adventure, her contribution. But I had never supported the garbageman with a smile that expressed appreciation for his contribution (although he supports what the pregnant woman creates, and carries a different load). Nor had I felt empathy for his lack of joy… I never expected him to be joyful. For all practical purposes he had been invisible. As were so many men in the death professions.
As with any new opening, new information flies in that would previously have flown by – like this letter to Ann Landers:
I’m fed up with people using the garbage collector as an example of an easy job for morons. 1m married to a garbageman and this is what life is like:
He leaves for work at 4.30 a. m., six days a week. . . One day it was fifty below zero. My husband was out in that miserable weather for ten hours… His route consists of 2,500 homes… If he spent just a few extra minutes at each stop, he would be out there an additional two to three hours a day. . . He works on commission, 17.5 cents per house.16
Of course, it’s his wife who’s writing. The garbageman remains silent. . .
▼ ▼ ▼
On my way to the Lucky supermarket in Encinitas, I picked up some cash from an automatic cash dispenser. A about the same time, an armed courier picked up cash from another automatic cash dispenser. He was the second armed courier to be fatally shot in the head that week.17 Every’ time I cash a check, an armed courier helps. Such couriers transport virtually every cent of cash that flows through the American economy. One of these couriers, a veteran of three combat tours in Vietnam and whose delivery area in south – central Los Angeles is gang-infested, says, "As soon as you open the door, you’re meat on the table.”18 So why do they do it? Well, as David Troy Nelson puts it, I am a single parent with two preschool children." He is willing to be "meat on the table" so his two children might have meat on their table.
Which brings me to the meat and vegetables. Sorting through chicken breasts, I used to be more aware of the crimes committed against chickens than those committed against the workers preparing the chicken. Of 2,000 workers at the Morrell meat packing plant, 800 had become disabled in one year.19 Some of these workers were chopping and carving at a rate of 1,000 movements per hour. With 40 percent per year being disabled, each worker’s hands were essentially a time bomb. Almost 90 percent of the workers in the fifty-seven highest-risk jobs at Morrell were men.20 Dozens who had to undergo surgery requiring one to two months to heal were instead required to return to work immediately after the surgery.
As I picked out the best-looking vegetables, I took for granted that 1 would be washing off parathion and other poisons that allowed the best-looking vegetables to get that way Now I found myself thinking of the men who spent their lives inhaling the parathion as it blew back into their faces from the planes and tractors from which they did their job of spraying.
I had always thought of farming as a reasonably safe profession in which men and women worked side by side. I was wrong. With the exception of mining, the agricultural industry has the highest death rate of any industry.21 Young men are tuenty-four times as likely to be killed in farm labor as are young women.22 They are also a lot more likely to suffer the amputation of an arm, leg, or finger. In reality, men and women do not work side by side. Men work where there’s greater potential for death; women, where there is greater potential for safety. As I picked up a microwave dinner, I felt thankful for the many who prepared that dinner – who plowed, lifted, sprayed, and risked amputations so I could heat and eat a meal.
As I exited from Lucky’s down Encinitas Boulevard, I counted about thirty migrant workers in fewer than six blocks, each looking soulfully into the eyes of every passerby, each hoping to be picked to do a day’s work in someone’s fields. 1 saw a driver go by, look over the men, choose two, and leave the others behind. In the ten years I have lived in the town of Encinitas near San Diego, I have seen perhaps a thousand of these migrant workers waiting on these street comers. All of them have been men. Being rejected all day didn’t mean returning to a warm home at night; it meant sleeping in the cold hills. In San Diego, these men are everywhere:
The field labor leaves the men permanently stooped over (after seven to ten years’ work) and rips up their hands. The pesticides sprayed on the fields two or three times daily gradually soak into the men’s skin, especially through open cuts on their hands. The poisons eventually deplete the men’s brains or cause cancers. Those who make it back into the United States year after year to work in the fields thus face brain damage or early death (typically by age 40).
Most of these men are sending their wages back to their wives and children in Mexico, whom they see only once or twice a year before once again risking imprisonment by illegally crossing the U. S. border. This might be thought of as the migrant worker draft. Another all-male draft.
This "sacrifice-to-feed" is the male form of nurturance. In every’ class, men with families provide their own womb, the family’s financial womb. They provide their bodies But the psychology of disposability leaves them without placards reading My Body, My Choice. No movement calls these men oppressed for providing money for women from whom they are receiving neither cooking nor cleaning; for providing their wives with homes while they sleep on the ground When a field worker Is radicalized, he is taught to see the cla&sism but remains blind to the sexism. Yet we call Mexican men patriarchs – as if the rules of their society served them at the expense of women.
As I stopped by a Von’s supermarket for some grapefruit juice, I waited for a huge truck to back into a narrow delivery space. It was a familiar scene, but it was only as I had become aware of how truckers’ scheduling demands sometimes led to their falling asleep at the wheel (making their death rate among the highest of any profession25) that I registered the cup of coffee he was slugging down. In the process I saw more than a truck blocking my entrance into the parking lot, 1 saw a man in the truck. I visualized a trucker on his eighth cup of coffee at 4 a m., stretching his limits so I can eat to my limit without paying to my limit.
1 thought how I had been more likely to associate trucking with “teamsters" and the deaths caused by a truck accident rather than the deaths caused to the truckers. The difference in my feeling toward him turned a moment’s wait into a moment’s appreciation. I smiled at him with a warmth that must have been different because he returned the smile as if he felt the appreciation.
The impact was with me months later. As I saw Thelma and Louise and felt the audience’s thunderous applause as they set a trucker’s truck afire, I didn’t miss what the audience felt, but I felt sad at what the audience was missing.
Before I returned home, I couldn’t resist stopping by my fantasy house. It was being built on the bluffs over the ocean. As I watched the men putting nails through the lumber, 1 imagined the truckers navigating their semis through city traffic and the loggers navigating logs through half-frozen rivers (making logging one of the most dangerous of the death professions). I thought of logging lingo like ‘deadman" and “widowmaker" that referred to the various ways trees and branches could kill a man and make a widow. I realized my fantasy house would result not just from the risks taken by the construction workers but also by the truckers and loggers.
As some colder winds made me ready to leave, I saw one worker on the second story almost miss the beam he grabbed to keep himself from joining the ocean. Until that second I had forgotten about a friend of mine who had been hit by a crane boom almost a decade ago. Although he has recovered some, he will never be the same again – nor will the life of his wife. I wondered why almost no state hired enough safety investigators to do anything but investigate an accident site after a death.
The trip was taking longer than I expected, so I stepped on the gas a bit. A second later, I heard a siren. My heart skipped a few beats until my rearview mirror calmed me with the sight of a fire truck. As soon as I saw it wasn’t heading toward my house (my real one!), I was free to recall the MGM
Grand Hc»el fire in Las Vegas – how it had left seventy-six people lying dead in almost sterile rooms, untouched by fire, unclouded by smoke.24 It was my first awareness that fire fighters now face more danger from toxic emissions in fumes than from fire or smoke – not always immediately, but cumulatively. Why?
Plastics. Since World War II, plastics such as polyvinylchloride (PVC) have increasingly become pan of our telephones, furniture, carpets, wallpaper, waste baskets, plumbing, and televisions. When they burn, they produce deadly chemical by-products such as chlorine, hydrogen chloride, and phosgene gas (deadly enough to have been used in World War I as a weapon for chemical warfare). When a. fire fighter enters a home, he might see neither smoke nor flames, but the invisible fumes contain a literal bomb of poisonous gas. Toxic emissions become toxic munitions. The result?
Death from cancer has increased 400 percent more for fire fighters than for the population at large.25 The average age for cancer deaths among fire fighters is S2.26 Line-of-duty injuries such as back injuries, and occupational diseases such as heart attacks, force one out of every three fire fighters into early retirement.27 One out of every twenty-one fire fighters is exposed to communicable diseases (a quarter of these to AIDS).28
Why don’t more fire fighters use breathing equipment more often? Breathing equipment adds about 35 pounds to the 100 to ISO pounds fire fighters already carry in ladders, axes, hoses, and turnout coats. Handling a fire requires an organized attack with good communication; wearing masks prevents the fire fighters from talking.
The fire fighters know that every time they protect themselves, others might die. A flame might be moving as fast as eighteen feet per second, as was true in the 1980 fire that roared through the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. In a matter of minutes, eighty-five people were killed. The oxygen tanks take about a minute to put on. In that minute, a flame could move more than a thousand feet. In brief, many fire fighters choose to forfeit their own lives to save others*.
Why do volunteer firemen risk their lives? In part, to be appreciated. Some firemen feel a little unappreciated, though, when homeowners seem to resent the firemen’s boots muddying their carpets.
As I pulled into my driveway, 1 spotted a removal van in front of a new home in the neighborhood. I was in time to see the movers slip their bodies under a large couch, angle the couch through the doorway, and juggle/ balance it up a curving stairway. I could hear the father warn the son, "Watch the way you lift or you’ll end up with a lower back like mine."
I looked around my home with a different appreciation for how the refrigerator and file cabinets were moved. . . appreciating the men who make my life convenient while they remain invisible.
When 1 showed a first draft of this chapter to a friend in the coal industry he said, ‘‘You’ve left out the most dangerous of all industries – mining.” I responded that I guess I didn’t see the evidence of that around me every day. He corrected me, “It s the miner you don’t see around you, but you see the evidence of mining all around you."29 I was intrigued.
"First,” he said, ‘mining isn’t just coal mining, but metal mining and oil and gas extraction as well. Now look in the shaving mirror and check out your teeth – the fillings contain gold, silver, mercury, and composite [petroleum). Your eyeglasses contain not only metaJ but plastic, which is made with both petroleum and coal. And you doubtless have the light on, which is shining through glass bulbs containing tungsten, mercury, and phosphorus. The electricity to produce the light comes through copper and aluminum wires from generators also made of copper, spun by tungsten turbines, powered by steam produced from uranium, coal, or oil." I was impressed.
“Then, assuming you get dressed," he said, laughing, “your clothes usually contain iron, made from iron ore, limestone, coal. And as for your computers, they are made of plastic, glass, phosphorus, and dozens of metals that have to be mined. The chapters of the manuscript you sent me are currently bound together by binder clips made of steel (iron ore, limestone, coal). By the time your readers get the book, they’ll be reading these words on paper manufactured with sulfuric acid, a by-product of refining petroleum and sulfide metal ores. If the paper is acid free, it probably incorporates calcium carbonate [limestone) to neutralize the acid. Even the adhesives that hold the book together are made, in part, with petroleum. If the dust jacket turns out to be shiny, it will be that way by adding clay to the paper."
What makes mining so dangerous? Each week, rocks falling from mine ceilings cause concussions or deaths among miners; dangling electrical wires electrocute them, and moving equipment maims them. If an office had ceilings falling and killing secretaries, or electrical wires dangling from the walls onto desks and electrocuting them, or moving equipment crushing them, how many women would agree to work there (for any price)? How long would the employer remain free of a lawsuit?
That was enough thinking for the night. I turned on the TV to relax. Despite myself, I chose the news over a sitcom. It featured the war on drugs; and, of course, the next morning, I couldn’t help but do a little checking.
From 1921 until 1992, etery Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent killed has been a man30 The w ar on drugs, then, is a war with a sex – segregated army: the women are in the safe positions, the men, in the combat zone.
Agents of the DEA used to go from induction to retirement without ever firing their weapons.31 Now, says the training director at a DEA academy, ‘ the I)EA agent who graduates today probably will have to draw his gun within the first week."32 Today the DEA has the highest assault rate of any federal law enforcement agency.33