Big Words
Quotations for Everyday Use

 
As soon as you say the word "class," everybody falls down dead.
Noam Chomsky
  .
Those of us who feel invisible or misunderstood when we try to name what is oppressing us within supposedly feminist or progressive groups need to realize that our language is legitimate and valid. It comes from our families, our cultures, our class backgrounds, our experiences of different and conflicting realities. And we don't need to read another book to justify it. If I want to say I'm working class, I should be able to say I'm working class without having to read or quote Marx.
 
 
As a worker, I have discovered a very simple test to determine the class to which a person feels he belongs... in a mixed crowd, where in addition to a sprinkling of blue-collar workers you might find a fair number of administrators and minor executives (it doesn't hurt to throw in a couple of doctors and lawyers, too), casually remark that you know plumbers who make thirty dollars an hour. It will be a conversation-stopper, believe me.
 
He said the older lawyers who were liberals like him wanted to do it [advise the Teamsters for a Democratic Union] but the younger lawyers did not. The younger lawyers didn't want to be involved with the Teamsters at all.

"But we're the good guys," I said.

That's not it. They don't like any Teamsters."

"Why?"

"They don't like the fact they make $40,000 a year ... you know, just by driving a truck."

I was unhappy with the decision, but I also felt a secret thrill ... the idea that twenty-eight-year-old lawyers, driving BMWs, making only $100,000 a year, could resent these rank-and-file Teamsters, could resent people like Bill and Diane, and that even now, at the end of the Reagan era, when every other union has been run off the road, young lawyers could still look out, could still see, pulling up in their rearview mirrors, riding their bumpers... the Teamsters, coming after them, breathing down their necks, making $40,000 a year. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I could give dozens of examples of class cluelessness in the media. Here's one. It was the 1980s and I was pitching a column on how middle class women could solve the fabled man shortage by marrying blue collar men. The editor screwed up her expensively maintained face and said, "But can they talk?"
 
Ruby Sprague, describing her mother's feelings as she was photographed by Dorothea Lange
A shiny new car pulled into the entrance, stopped about 10 years in front of Florence and a well-dressed woman got out with a camera. She started taking Florence's picture. With each picture, the woman would step closer. Florence thought to herself, "Pay her no mind. The woman thinks I'm quaint and wants to take my picture."

 
Her people were like Mexicans, only different.
Gary Soto
The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black
 
To gaze deep within myself, I walk the streets of Oildale.
For many and complicated reasons, circumstances had collaborated to make me ashamed that I was a tenant farmer's son. As weak and warped as it is, and as difficult as it is even now to admit it, I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia. I could not bear to think of it, and worse to believe it. Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was. It was all out of an effort to pretend otherwise. I believe to this day, and will always believe, that in that moment I literally saved my life, because the next thought--and it was more than a thought, it was a dead-solid conviction-- was that all I had going for me in the world or would ever have was that swamp, all those goddamn mules, all those screwworms that I'd dug out of pigs and all the other beautiful and dreadful and sorry circumstances that had made me the Grit I am and will always be. Once I realized that the way I saw the world an man's condition in it would always be exactly and inevitably shaped by everything which up to that moment had only shamed me, once I realized that, I was home free.
 
 
 
 
 
Our parents were the immigrant farmworkers who pulled us away from the fields to the schools, away from the hard labor and exploitation. We are not self made, we do not owe what we have to individualistic self made success but to the sweat, struggle and tears of our parents.
 
And tears onions raise

Do not begin in your eyes but in ours.

 
The tenement is in my blood. When I think it is the tenement thinking. When I hope it is the tenement hoping. I am not an individual; I am all that the tenement group poured into me during the early years of my spiritual travail.
 
Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.
 
The Common woman 
is as common as a nail

 
We who write are survivors, onlys. One out of twelve.
Tillie Olsen
.  .
I was the first person in my family to finish high school, and the fact that I went on to college was nothing short of astonishing.
 
August 17. Still at Pier 23. Nine hours. Fishing fever has seized many of the people working on this ship. The striped bass are running, and they have been catching real big ones. The result was that half of the time we were short-handed on a big pile of drums. The strain and the irritation combined to make it an unpleasant day. Of course, I didn't write a line.
 
When I sat down to write A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, my dead father and his brother, who was also my father, haunted me and lived in my dreams, dreams that were an inseparable mix of the unendurable and unspeakable, the good and the bad. There was too much I did not understand. I wanted to understand it so I could stop thinking about it. I thought if I could relive it and set it all down in detailed, specific language, I would be purged of it. I wrote A Childhood in the most specific and detailed prose I could summon and relived it all again. It almost killed me, but it purged nothing. Those years are still as red and raw and alive in memory as they ever were. So much for good ideas.
 
 
I'm still keeping secret what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.
Critics have complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin Eden, achieved. In three years, from a sailor with a common school education, I made a sucessful writer of him. The critics say this is impossible. Yet I was Martin Eden.
 
"You're a construction worker," she said. "What would you know about poetry?"
 
We do not know where the borders of working class literature are nor how much of it exists. Judging from the yield of my research and the many contemporary women who are worker-writers, I suspect there is a rich but submerged lode. It is hidden because it is not located in academe, and in choice of language and subject, it may not be viewed as aesthetically pleasing by middle-class editors and publishers.
 
 
Then there are the unedited books that I have never been able to sell because they were books written while I was reading Hegel and Kant and very abstract and philosophic and Puerto Ricans aren't suppose to be on that ground. You're not supposed to have been there, done that and read that!
 
During the interminable discussions that finally led a committee -- beleagured if not benighted -- to approve the volume of stories that constituted half of my doctoral dissertation, I absorbed a good-natured barb from one unimpressed prof: "Who cares what happens in the sticks?" The answer was simple: I did.
 
The reason I write about work is that that's just about damn near all I've ever done.
 

 
No one should ever work.
Bob Black
. ..
Whilst we sit here talking & smiling, some person is out there in field & shop & kitchen doing what we need, without talk or smiles.
 
On the evening bus, the tense, pinched faces of young file clerks and elderly secretaries tell us more than we care to know.
 
Nailing those crates together was regarded as lowly work. I suppose it would be natural to dismiss it as a mere job, the first of the very many I have held down over the years. But that job that summer has remained the most important thing that ever happened to me in my life because of what I felt about it. I had become a man.
 
All labor has dignity.
So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans

O Yes? Do they come on horses

with rifles and say,

Ese gringo, gimmee your job?

 
 
Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.
 
April 23. Eight hours palletizing short four-by-fours at Pier 48B. The easiest, steadiest, and most wearisome job I have ever known. Time flew, but the leaden monotony was frightening.
 
Which is to say that being a factory worker in Flint, Michigan, wasn't something purposely passed on from generation to generation. To grow up believing you were brought into this world to follow in your daddy's footsteps, just another chip-off-the-old-shoprat, was to engage in the lowest possible form of negativism. Working the line at GM was something fathers did so that their offspring wouldn't have to.
 
 
If you work all your life but raise your kids to avoid it, you have made an obvious criticism of your own life spent working.
 
Marx, it appears, lacked insight into the reality of day-to-day work, perhaps because he never really held down a job.
 
Two old guys were waiting for me. I met them down inside the subway where the cars were parked. I was given an armful of carboard posters and a small metal instrument that looked like a can opener. We all climbed in one of the parked cards.

"Watch me," one of the old guys said.

He jumped up on the dusty seats, began walking along ripping out old posters with his can opener. So that's how those things get up there, I thought. People put them there.

 
 
 
The hard hat is an amazing protective device. As the posters point out, the hard hat will protect the wearer from a falling object, provided, of course, that the object is not too big or too heavy. The hard hat will also protect you when you bump your head. If you work in a mine, down the hold of a ship, or in dozens of other places one might think of where one finds low overheads, there is always something waiting to collide with your skull, raise a bump, and water your eyes. A hard hat will also, if placed on the ledge behind the backseat of your car where everybody can see it, identify you as someone who works for a living, and a lot of guys like to do that.
 
 
 
I'll tell you my waiter theory, which is you sould not be allowed into a restaurant until you have worked in one. It should be like a country club where you have a pass. At the door you would have to say, "Yes, that's right, I worked at Denny's." Because the best people to wait on are other waiters; they know how screwed up it is.

 
On your way to work, a city street is like a beach in Paradise.
Claudia Shear
   .
The first job I had, as a hostess in a Chinese restaurant, I was fired for watering the plastic plants.
 
We got an hour for lunch. I'd eat quickly, having been up most of the night and early morning, I'd be tired, aching all over, and I found this secluded spot under the bicyles. I'd crawl down there, under three deep tiers of bicycles immaculately arranged. I'd lay there on my back, and suspended over me, precisely lined up, hung rows of gleaming silver spokes, wheel rims, black rubber tires, shiny new paint, everything in perfect order. It was grand, correct, orderly -- 500 or 600 bicyles stretching out over me, covering me, all in place. Somehow it was meaningful. I'd look up at them and know I had forty-five minutes of rest under the bicycle tree.
 
 
 
He is always going by and checking on me. Finally, he stops. "Lookit," he says, you've only done these three little barrels. There's a woman on day shift keeps the hopper full and still leaves me with three big barrelfuls extra at the end of the shift, that's how far ahead she gets."

He is trying to give me incentive: surely I will not let myself be outdone by a woman.

"She must be crazy," I tell him. 

 
 
 
I love being a waitperson. I'm sixty-eight years old so I guess I'll be doing it for the rest of my life.
 
One time at the Warwick Hotel I was waiting on the manager's family. Their food came up and I was carrying it to the table on one of those big trays. Six lobsters, with ramekins full of melted butter and sauce. As I got near the table I felt the tray becoming unbalanced; it was moving slightly forward, and it was going to fall onto the table and all over the manager's family. I had no choice but go for the wall. So this is what the manager saw me do: I took his family's meal and smashed it into the wall. I lasted another week there.
 
 
 

 
Two cents was money in those days.
Freddie Mae Baxter
  ,.
I'd rather have money problems than lack of money problems.
Because there is so much economic disparity in our land today, a lot of progressives want to talk about redistribution of wealth. My advice? Please don't. A phrase like "redistribution of wealth" is policy wonkishness at its worst. It sounds like sex talk for econcomists.
 
I've heard it said that Indians shouldn't become involved in high-stakes gambling because it tarnishes our noble heritage. Personally, I've never believed in the nobility of poverty. Personally, I believe in the nobility of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
 
I hate romanticizing poverty because I think it can make you as cold as can be.
Let's face it, for thirty years I've been staying in the finest hotels and travelling first class. But my roots are in the working man. I can remember very well how it is to pick cotton ten hours a day or to plow, or how to cut wood. I remember it so well, I guess, because I don't intend ever to try to do it again.
 
Merle Travis / Tennessee Ernie Ford (song)
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get 
Another day older and deeper in debt
There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about "the working classes," and satisfy themselves that a day's hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day's hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they all know about the one, but haven't tried the other. But I know all about both; and as far as I am concerned, there isn't money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down - and I will be satisfied, too. Intellectual "work" is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation and its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him - why certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it's a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair - but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also. And it's also the very law of those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship.
 
 
 
 
 
What makes a job menial? Iím tired of this stuff about menial labor. What makes it menial is that we donít pay folk anything. Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life. And no matter what the job is it takes on dignity.
 
The way to honor work, which we all claimto do, is first of all to pay for it.
  .
Don't Never Say Cain't
Ethel Reed Strainchamps
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