Work Life

Low Wage Work, the South Side and Me

At Sunset

The benefit of working in a low wage job is exposure to lives I wouldn’t otherwise know exist.

Every work day someone’s car has been repossessed, an abusive spouse called an associate at work, or someone lost their apartment with no ability to pay for a new one.

This a part of society people don’t see much unless one is living it. Government is not involved unless a trip to the courthouse or prison is part of the package.

During my transportation career I spent more than my share of time on the South Side of Chicago. Some folks decided to break into a trailer dropped in a neighborhood and attempted to take a refrigerator. The refrigerators were large and awkward to handle, and the Chicago police stopped the theft and pursued the would-be thieves through the neighborhood. A call from our corporate staff in Cedar Rapids resulted in my spending most of a day in arraignment court. The time there was life-changing. I knew Chicago experienced a lot of crime, but was in no way prepared for the endless procession of victims and their aggressors.

When our case came up on the docket, the prosecutor began by pointing at me, saying “a representative of the company” was present at the arraignment. If I hadn’t been there, the charges would have been dropped. While enjoying the narratives of the culprit chase and questioning about their identification the night of the crime, I had other responsibilities to pursue, such as finding drivers who would comply with company policy and park their trailers at our nearby secure terminal across the Indiana line.

I worked three months for a subcontractor of a subcontractor to the Whirlpool Corporation in North Liberty the spring of 2013. It was hard work and I found something better. There was constant employee turnover and I got to meet and spend breaks with a lot of transients during my tenure. There were no permanent employees of the temp service who wrote my paycheck, not even in our Cedar Rapids office.

A group from Chicago had set up shop off Penn Street in North Liberty, renting an apartment where friends, relatives and neighbors from Chicago stayed and rotated through. They had heard of job opportunities and cheap living in the Cedar Rapids – Iowa City Corridor and some of them worked at the temp service I did trying to find a permanent arrangement in Cedar Rapids. My informant was someone who participated in this operation. In addition to the work building kits for Whirlpool, he was a low-level loan shark and two-bit hustler trying to get ahead. He didn’t last long at the plant.

I started referring to the “Chicago contingent” with these folks specifically in mind. Unbeknownst to me my experience and others like it became the stuff of urban legends. So much so that Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker addressed it in a presentation last week to Cedar Rapids’ First Presbyterian Church, titled, Dispelling the Myth of Chicago “Trouble-Makers.” The YouTube video is an hour long and Walker does a great job framing the issues.

As Walker explains, the phrase “Chicago trouble-makers” is dog-whistle for racism. Since my experience with the Chicago contingent was born out of personal experience, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The fellow employees at the temp service were trying to get ahead, and I don’t blame them for wanting to get out of Chicago. I didn’t know many of them as well as my informant, and it’s likely some of them had a recent criminal background, based on conversations in the break area. What I called their “operation” could not help but be noticed by others and civic attitudes toward it followed.

Our politics cultivates urban myths like the “Chicago trouble-makers” as a primary function. We’ve become so disconnected from our neighbors that rumor and innuendo displace human interaction and its role in society. My solution is to write about what I know from personal experience and challenge my own perspective as much as that’s possible. Once one engages in society it is possible to effect change. In fact, that may be the only way to do it.

One reply on “Low Wage Work, the South Side and Me”

Engaging in society takes a lot of time and effort. We don’t have control over much of it. It takes us in unfamiliar and demanding directions forcing us to cope and adjust. But, that is how learning and engagement happens.
I think today we are offered an alternative ‘engagement’ via our interactive devices called phones. They allow us to avoid real-people-time, the most authentic means of engagement. With phones and the social media apps, we don’t have to look anyone in the eyes. We can ‘share’ with multitudes we don’t know and convince ourselves that we know what the world is really like. Well, I disagree. We humans weren’t evolved to have data streamed into our brains 24/7 in this artificial way. We aren’t coping with it very well. Even our president is addicted.

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