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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Walking Buzzards Chapter 11

I'm reading Hampton Sides' book Hellhound On His Trail. It's written from a certain perspective that comes across vaguely but unmistakably. This is not a book report per se; it's more an opinion report. Let me quote for you a few passages that stand out particularly for me:
They made less than a hundred dollars a week, and because the city regarded them as "unclassified laborers," they had no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, no insurance, no uniforms, and especially noteworthy on this day, no raincoats. The "tub-toters" of the Public Works Departments were little better off than sharecroppers in the Delta, which is where they and their families originally hailed from. In some ways they still lived the lives of fieldhands; in effect the plantation had moved to the city. They wore threadbare hand-me-downs left on the curbs by well-meaning families. They grew accustomed to home owners who called them "boy." They mastered a kind of shuffling gait—neither fast nor slow, neither proud nor servile, a gait that drew no attention to itself.

Now, as Crain, Cole, and Walker headed for the dump, their clothes were drenched in rain and encrusted with the juice that had dripped from the tubs all day. It was the usual slop of their profession—bacon drippings, clotted milk, chicken blood, souring gravies from the old kitchens of East Memphis mingled with the tannic swill from the old leaves. Plastic bags were not yet widely in use. No Ziploc or Hefty, no drawstrings or cinch ties to keep the sloshy messes contained.

So the ooze accumulated on their clothes like a malodorous rime, and the city provided no showers or laundry for sanitation workers to clean themselves up at the end of the day. The men grew somewhat inured to it, but when they got home, they usually stripped down at the door: their wives couldn't stand the stench.

This undignified job these poor men were doing—without the protection of a labor union the author makes quite evidently clear—ended predictably and very badly. After an undignified life these nouveau-serfs ended up somehow caught inside the death-trap of the compacter on the back of this reportedly unsafe waste removal contraption.
The screams were terrible as the compactor squeezed and ground them up inside. Crain frantically mashed the button. (the off button) He could hear a terrible snapping inside—the crunch of human bone and sinew. The motor moaned on and on.

The story of the fatal accident scarcely made news in the Memphis paper the next morning. There was just a small item in the Commercial Appeal—a drab announcement with all the emotion of a bankruptcy notice.
This terrible accident was the catalyst that ignited the Memphis sanitation workers strike on February 12, 1968 which I assume—having not yet gotten that far in the book—that King was later somehow involved with.

I have a dilemma. On the one hand I'm trying to keep an open mind and read this account of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the motivation of the killer leading up to it. On the other hand this vivid description of such unimaginable suffering and indignity that was routinely suffered by downtrodden black people of that time is so completely outside of and foreign to my own experience as someone who was born in 1967 and grew up without seeing any of it, that it’s difficult for me to even imagine it. They say it was that way, so I suppose it was, yet ... just a few years later in my first year of kindergarten in 1972 Georgia, I never witnessed any of this racism that they say was so prevalent.

How did everything change so quickly? Was it really the death of one man? Should I believe what Mr. Sides is telling me, or should I put more faith in how it was for those I knew, those around me? This account again reinforces my personal belief that I have a different history, that I grew up in some other universe and somehow shifted into this parallel dimension, this darker, meaner, so much more savage dimension.

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