FOR three days last year I planted small trees and shrubs along Interstate 85 for $3 an hour. Mindlessness, talentless and eternal boredom became the key words filtering through my consciousness, as all sense of self expression and sensitivity took a back seat to survival.
There is at least some sense of accomplishment, of beautifying the highway, of working hard and seeing results — although if the government didn’t cut down all the standing trees to begin with, this job, like so many others, would be unnecessary.
What remains with me now, though, is the memory of men with whom I worked. For if these days come only once in a while for those of us who occasionally have to “support an ideal,” they are commonplace for guys who do this all the time.
They’ll spend most of the day complaining about the job, trying to loaf whenever they can, and generally talking about “getting out and getting into something else,” although you somehow feel they never will. They are attached to a life flow that brings in money and requires no exercise of conscience, thus bringing, to the simple man, security. The brightest moments of their day seem to be the talks about fast cars, women, and liquor. This, then, becomes the working man’s personal outreach towards self expression.
Surprisingly enough, these conversations take place with the federal inspectors who follow us around every day to make sure we plant the trees right. The inspectors seem to have a cushy job. They aren’t allowed to pick up a shovel, only observe. Yet is soon becomes clear that their lives are even emptier: they spend nine hours a day, all year long, doing nothing but conversing about cars and the wrecks they’ve seen on the highway. We’re paying these guys $10,000 a year to do nothing, while I’m busting my ass trying to feed myself, hoping one day I’ll be able to cohere my artistic talent and make some money doing something I enjoy and ultimately try to do some good with my life in relationship to my fellow man.
AND so we have intelligent, well-educated young people doing “shit work” for a few dollars a week because they don’t want to work for the Man.
And we have mothers and fathers who must work wherever they can so they can feed their children.
And we have some rich people who never work.
And we have a few movie stars.