Your mailman searches for the ghosts of Tom and Joe

Boys1937BenShahn2

Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge.

I live and work in what is called Metro Detroit's most thriving suburb, Royal Oak. Art galleries, coffee houses, high-rise condos, hipster culture galore. It's a great place to be, but the surface glimmer of sheen is hiding a much subdued luster. Homeless folks push shopping carts in search of the elusive 10-cent deposit. Under the railroad track embankments, in the public library and city parks, wandering nomads search for some sort of identity in America the beautiful.

Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest.

Letter carriers like me see it all. Foreclosures, bankruptcy notices, evictions, bounced check statements, delinquent utility bills, all on the rise in this economy. And we hear it all, too. Today, a young couple with two kids told me a sad story. They are giving their house, a house they had built just eight years ago, back to the bank. They are going to rent now and hope that their luck will change. Dad is a proud American, flies his flag every day. "Support our troops," "George W. for President" - the lawn signs now crinkled in a corner of his former garage.

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad.

Heard a statistic on the radio today. Americans are paying the lowest income taxes in 60 years, around 9 percent. The average for the last 60 years is about 12 percent of income. The richest corporations pay no income tax. The CEOs of these corporations make 458 times the wage of the average worker. The top 1 percent own 40 percent of the wealth in this country. I wear a hat of red and black in search of the American dream.

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass.

The Postmaster General says five-day delivery is the only way to save the Postal Service. Oops, he never mentions the loss of 40,000 union jobs or service to the American public. In a Washington Times interview, he even lets it slip that Tuesday as well as Saturday delivery may have to go. He's going to push for four-day delivery. And he probably won't stop there. The privateers are wringing their hands in wishful anticipation. Wonder how much he gets paid? Public servant or CEO? Wonder who's whispering in his ear?

Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct.

Tom Joad is the protagonist in "The Grapes of Wrath." This is John Steinbeck's fictional portrayal of a family caught up by the ravages of the Great Depression. As I sit in my garage, pen in hand, I am looking for the ghost of Tom Joad. And if the spectral fates will be so kind, let the ghost of Joe Hill sit by my side as well. I wear a hat of red and black lost in the American dream.

The highway is alive tonight
But where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin' on the ghost of Tom Joad.

Joe Hill, the troubadour of discontent; the most famous "Wobbly" of all time. The Industrial Workers of the World - IWW - were the bedrock of the modern labor movement. Hill's songs and acts of rebellion led to him being framed on a murder charge and executed in Utah in 1915. His last words were, "Don't waste any time mourning; organize!" He then yelled the command to "fire" to his executioners. I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.

Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there.

The IWW believed in song as a means to rally. Joe Hill wrote many of the songs in the famous "Little Red Song Book," including "Casey Jones - a Union Scab." At rallies, management would send in the Salvation Army band to cover up the Wobbly speakers. Joe Hill wrote parodies of Christian hymns so that the union members could sing along with the band, but for their own purposes. The best known IWW song is "Solidarity Forever," sung to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Now, more than ever, we need songs to fan the flames of discontent. And more black and red hats.

Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.

The Letter Carriers had a great food drive on May 8. My mom helps me pick up food from my giving customers. It's amazing to me that every year the least able to give, the underemployed and out of work, are the most generous. I know this one feller hasn't worked in over a year and he put out two full bags of food. The working class understands the fear of hunger and losing a job. Twenty-three tons of food collected in Royal Oak in one day. Incredible. My mom has told me since I was a kid to quit trying to save the world. Sorry, Ma, I got a head with wings ... under my black and red hat.

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad.

Thank you Bruce Springsteen, John Steinbeck, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Mom.

Photo: Boys who salvage coal from the slag heaps at Nanty Glo, Pa., 1937. (Library of Congress/Ben Shahn)

 

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  • My name is of no import... But here are my credentials... Father born Robert`s Street 1923 and Mother born Finn town Road 1922. What does THAT mean you ask?!? Talk to the two boys in the world famous photo. They`ll know. My Dad gave them the gig in the slag heap he always claimed. The one on the right was named "Swede" I remember. He was my Dad`s best friend and lived about four doors down. I mety met him as a 60 something year old man at my Mom`s Nanty Glo funeral. The boy on the lefts name has been forgotton after 75 years but not the fact that my Dad said he wore a cap to hide the truth his parents couldn`t afford a good haircut. We have a picture of Dad saying good bye in uniform to the two boys now in High School 7 years later during WWII. If you don`t believe me, ponder this. Even Elvis once had a next door neighbor... Is that a fair statement?

    Posted by CoalTown USA, 05/01/2013 7:30pm (1 year ago)

  • I like your post & I will always be coming frequently to read more of your post. Thank you very much for your post once more.

    Posted by nike shox, 10/04/2010 5:26am (4 years ago)

  • This was wonderfull. I actually cried. Worker's of the World Unite! Throw off your chains! Mike.

    Posted by mike, 06/24/2010 6:43am (4 years ago)

  • I agree that music is needed today. Especially music relevant to the needless deaths of workers caused by corporate greed, the unemployed, the pollution of our planet, the systematic erosion of our civil liberties, the willingness of politicians to sell out to the bosses, waging unjustified, unwinnable wars while our schools lay off teachers!

    Yes indeed, our nation is in one hell of a mess! What's missing is a massive campaign by labor led by reds and socialists like was done in the 30's!

    Posted by , 06/23/2010 2:45pm (4 years ago)

  • Let's start a movement for a Joe Hill day. Talk about goading the establishment!!

    Posted by Ronald Humphrey, 06/18/2010 6:16am (4 years ago)

  • Unfortunately, being a "Casey Jones" is a way to hang onto a job, when few are to be found!

    Posted by Joe Sompolinsky, 06/15/2010 11:24pm (4 years ago)

  • Great story! Thanks!

    Posted by April Smith, 06/15/2010 12:09pm (4 years ago)

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