Street Smart Chicago

Hope Dies Last: The Lasting Scars of Difficult Times

Essays & Commentary, Politics Add comments

Illustration: Zeke Danielson

By Michael Workman

In America, there is no more terrifying a ghoul than the threat of sustained, cripplingly high unemployment. We hear about it all the time. Have maybe even decided just to tune it out or maybe the ubiquity of the bloodless discussion of it has just inured us to the subject. It’s just numbers, right? It’ll get better eventually. Figure it out. After all, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s happening from those chatterboxes in the news, those talking heads feeding us an endless tickertape of statistics, empty percentages; high here, low there. We treat it like the weather. Numbers. Never any stories. Why does it always have to be numbers? Maybe it’s too much, what’s happening. Too garish, what’s happening to them, how the poor behave. How low.

Ask yourself. What actually are the effects on a family slipping below the poverty line, of losing their home in a foreclosure, of a family unable to afford gas, utility bills, clothes? Its effects aren’t just felt for a month or two, or something you get past in a year. There’s a price. And it’s one paid almost entirely by the less fortunate. And that’s what defines our society: how we treat our less fortunate and what price they pay for other’s prosperity. And if we’re a privileged society, maybe all that means is that the privileged get to ignore the silent anguish of the poor. But the cost of it doesn’t go away, ever. It stays with us as a people, changes and defines us psychologically and emotionally, and sometimes we lose one. But surviving it doesn’t fucking make you stronger, it scars and mutilates.

And those scars never go away. I can tell you that. My father was laid off from his auto factory job repeatedly over a decade in the seventies. My grandmother, who had survived the Depression making noodles from flour and water, sold every piece of furniture she owned so we wouldn’t lose our house. My father slaved at any meager job he could rut out. We were always struggling, always hurting. Hurting, and hurt, but not he or my mother or anybody else in my family ever blamed anybody else for our situation. Those in poverty never do; they endure it with quiet dignity. I think somehow my father and mother always thought that somehow it was all their fault, because there’s this guilt that comes with poverty, a shame. It’s a very real thing to live with that stigma, an embedded, unshakable shame. And that stigma, of my own family’s pain and suffering, of our struggle with unemployment nearly forty years ago, is still very much with me.

As a little boy growing up in northeast Indiana, through the fractures of my imperfect memory, I recall one afternoon when my mother drove me, my brother and two sisters with her over to a church in our neighborhood. One of the pastors of the church had set up a trailer out back of the building, a long, white box streamer-looking trailer hitched to a pickup truck. We pull up in the dusty gravel parking lot, wheels crunching loudly over the dispersed crushed white rock as we roll in, stopping in our seventies station wagon next to the trailer. My mother is obviously in a state of high anxiety, constantly checking her beehive wig and pins in the mirror, fidgeting with her makeup. She doesn’t want to be here, and none of us kids know what’s going on, it’s summer, we’re just sweating it out in the back seat, stinging hot even with the windows down. We didn’t wear seatbelts back then, so we’re all wiggling and trying to get space to sprawl out, and she’s angry, keeps snapping at us to be quiet. She puts it in park, checks her face one last time then steps out of the car. One by one, she gets us kids out. She straightens her blouse, shoulders up her handbag and leads us in a group up to the trailer, and up a short metal set of steps connected to its side. Inside, the pastor, a barrel-chested man with thinning hair in a blue suit coat, says hello and calls my mother by her name. Every square inch of the floor and counter surface of the back of the trailer is crowded with brown grocery bags, every single one of them piled out the top with food: cheese, cans of soup, sausages, milk. They sit down together and I watch my mother crying, mascara running down her cheeks in black tears as she explains to him how they can’t afford to pay for groceries, how my dad’s been laid off from his assembly-line job at Dana Corporation, an auto plant that makes axle parts for Ford and GM cars and trucks.

My father started off working at Dana in a part of the plant called the “Hell Hole” where temperatures regularly exceeded one-hundred degrees, lifting axle wheel hubs from one conveyor belt to another, or inspecting the grinds on the assembly, or ushering parts through a paint shed where they were sprayed by men with hoses in masks. Once the assemblies were put together, they were stacked on pallets and readied for shipping to the main factories. My father’s hands were pitch black for many years because of all the dust-fine metal shavings that had pierced and worked their way into his palms over the months of lifting and working with these assemblies, and felt like sandpaper. We never got to see him, he was always booking hours at the factory, sometimes twenty-four, sometimes forty-eight hour shifts, all night, all day, and thin slatted airless windows high up from the factory floor were his only connection to the world outside that he had, a thin blue slat of sky. I remember him telling me that on one of those nights he was looking out one of those windows wondering to himself why he was there, missing his kids. He would often sleep through the day, shrouded in a coma of exhaustion.

In return, my father was regularly laid off for two or more years at a stint. Back then, unemployment benefits didn’t last as long as they do now, and quickly ran out. (Yes, I am pro-union. It was, in fact, a union steward who put my mother in touch with the church that fed us.) Both my parents only ever managed a high-school education, and reinventing themselves as changes in the markets shifted them out of their job security was difficult. What happened to my family and to my parents is a pretty well-documented phenomenon of their time, however much it may have felt like a distant topic on the Evening News, back when everybody got their news from television: manufacturing and the automobile industry in particular were getting hit especially hard by modernization—that is, by the introduction of robotics in the assembly process, and the outsourcing of factory assembly jobs to countries where the labor was cheaper. As a boy, I remember watching my dad with his boots off, exposing soiled white socks that are yellow at the orange stitches in the toes. He’s laying in his recliner, watching the news. Usually he lays on his stomach with his thick, hairy arms propped up on his elbows but sometimes, sitting in his recliner. Behind him on a shelf are a series of model cars, painstakingly assembled. A leftover from his father’s brief career building dragsters and other race cars, a business he’d begun working together with my father. But that was before, one stab at independence in a line of attempts that repeatedly failed, and he was in and out of unemployment for years. It was the same back then as it is today. Everybody was waiting to see what was going to happen with the industry and manufacturing in general, and it eventually took Bill Clinton during his early candidacy to step out on a factory floor and just level with everybody that, in fact, their parent’s manufacturing strategy for job security had already become a thing of the past.

It’s my father’s longest layoff stint, in the late seventies during the Carter administration, when oil prices are skyrocketing and there’s rationing at gas stations, our country clearly on a path to a crisis of social entropy and an eventual inflationary crash. As a boy, these tensions played out in abjectly terrifying ways for our family. One night, I’m almost asleep when the voices of my mother and father come booming through the wall. They’re louder than usual, rising in pitch and accompanied by the thumping and thudding of feet on the floor, on the loose boards in the floor and of the strain on those boards ending with a thud against the boards in the wall. Looking over at my brother, I’m trying to see if he’s awake, if he’s been listening, but he’s laying flat on his back in bed, face hidden in the dark and I can’t see whether or not his eyes are open. In the midst of trying to see whether or not he’s awake, I hear the sound of the door to our room opening, and a single pair of footsteps moving out into the hall. It makes me tense with fear that they will come into the room, and I do my best imitation of a sleeping boy. I can do it pretty well, really. Even have my mouth hanging slightly open and arms clasped loosely above my head.

Our bedroom door whines opens slowly, followed by a few moments of deep silence. I don’t move a muscle and try breathing normally, totally aware that I’m being watched. Once before when this happened, I waited until I thought I was alone and then opened my eyes to find my mother standing there beside my bed, looking right straight directly down at me. I knew I wasn’t fooling anybody. Tonight I’m seriously afraid, and not taking any chances. I wait until I hear the door close and footsteps recede up the hall and even then give it another few minutes before I part my eyelids even slightly, even to the point where the room is nothing but a blur of eyelashes.

Things got tenser day by day. There were more arguments, each more successively intense than the last. All we heard from the factory management was a constant stream of “can’t” passed down from company owners as it slowly dissolved its traditional “family” and community outreach supports and placed a freeze on hiring. Union members, including my father, were strategically promoted into management positions, softening resistance and dissent and paving the way to the dissipation of the work force. My family realized how limited their choices were only once their available options became dangerously insufficient. They didn’t have the intellectual toolbox to negotiate the changes suddenly imposed on them. We went through months and months of debilitating struggle, of background choices coming suddenly very much to the fore when our stability and survival were all too suddenly at stake. Not only was this a challenge to the resourcefulness of our family, it created its own, much more threatening set of problems that, in their own way, were more challenging than the critical lack of financial support we were suddenly forced to confront.

I remember laying there that night, listening. The door at the end of the hall near my sisters’ room opens and closes. Again, silence. Then I again hear footsteps in my parents’ room. The bedroom door opens, and there’s a loud knocking on the bathroom door. “Open this door,” my father is saying, in a forceful tone of voice. I hear my mom’s voice in response, but can’t quite make out what she’s saying. There’s some more knocking on the bathroom door, this time louder and then my dad says “Maryl, if you don’t OPEN UP THIS DOOR…” and then, after a very brief pause, he kicks in the door with a B-A-N-G, and the sound of splitting wood. There’s a yelp, what sounds like a brief struggle and then the sound of bare feet hurrying up the hallway. I can tell they’re bare by hearing the heel, the sound of the bone against the hard floor beneath the carpet. That, and in this same instant as I hear the thud of bone striking floor, there is the reciprocal sound of an ankle in misstep, and a flat thud.

I sit up in bed and look over at Tad, who’s awake and leaning up on his elbow. “You hear that?” Tad asks me. I throw back my covers and climb out of bed, motioning for Tad to follow. We open the door to our room as quietly as possible and sneak together out into the hallway on hands and knees. I’m staring at the light on the carpet, at the light coming from my parent’s bedroom on the carpet, expecting to see the outline of a pointy shadow coming out of the bedroom, looking from shadow to the face with those eyes, and to realize in a flash of terror that I’ve been caught. Halfway down the hall, where the light from my parent’s bedroom shines out onto the carpet, my brother and I stop and carefully lean down along the wall to peek into the other room, barely peeking past the edge of the wall for fear of being spotted. Past the family room and just beyond the threshold of the kitchen we see them, my mother grunting in horror and sprawled face-down on the floor, sky blue nightgown tangled around her legs.

Blood is pouring in streaks from her nose and dripping in long, viscous strands of spit from her lips. Her straight brown hair is stuck to her sweaty, snarling red face as she shakes her head in defiance, struggling in hatred against my dad and screaming LET ME GO DANNY, LET ME GO. A couple of times, my mom struggles and bucks up against the weight of the knee in her back, in response to which dad, bare-chested and wearing a pair of jeans, deals her a firm, open-handed blow to the back of the head. He metes them out with a series of swift lunges, palm connecting with the part of her skull where the fontanel used to be and her face, blank with shock, is thrown once then twice against the dirty floor, leaving a blood-and-spit smear in the shape of her runny mouth. Again and again he strikes, pausing after each blow, hand suspended in the air above her, her feet braced under his arm, ensuring her submission, that she will not resume her struggle. Dad raises his hand above his head as if in salute, then delivers one final, full-strength blow, nearly losing his balance and toppling forward from the thrust.

Yanking back on the rope tied to her wrists, my dad grasps the ankle of my mother’s bare left foot and, snatching away the black sock hanging halfway off her right foot, he ties the loose end of the rope around them. His burly teardrop stomach, split down the middle by a thick furrow of wavy black hair, is slumped over the top of his jeans and sagging like wet dough over the thigh of his raised leg. He starts whipping the length of rope around and around, trying to hurriedly lash her wrists and ankles securely together before she has time to try and struggle again. I better hide, I remember thinking. I don’t want him to see me watching.

While I’m distracted, I’m startled by a sudden movement directly above my head on the other side of the hall and flinch, expecting a sudden blow. Instead, I realize both my sisters are crouched on the floor across from me. “Go back to bed, you two,” I whisper, angrily and with all the authority of an oldest child that I can muster. “Go on—now!” My two sisters lean back with their legs folded under, contemplating the seriousness of my command. In the half-light with their flat brown hair and frilly cotton nightgowns, I can’t work up the ferocity necessary to feel that I’m actually angry with them. Because I’m not. “What’s he doin’ to huh?” My youngest sister Mildy asks, raising her arm slightly, palm down, pointing toward the floor. “They’re arguin—!” my brother says, angrily and almost loud enough to be heard in the kitchen, but not quite. “Shut up,” my oldest sister Silvie snarls through her teeth. “I’m scaird,” Mildy whines. “You shutup,” snaps Tad. “Hush, you guys,” I say, worried we’ll be caught. “He’s hurtin’ huh,” says Mildy. Then, fists clenched, she stands up and stomps, indignant, out into the hall. I snatch at the hem of her gown, but she shakes me loose and keeps moving, through the family room and into the kitchen. She stands there for a second, just stands there, looking first at mom and then at dad, neither of whom seem to notice her. My mother is crying now, long wet sobs and husky groans, sucking her breath spastically. Mildy lunges at dad with both hands, trying to push him away from mom, screaming “You get off huh! You get off of huh!” then backs away from him. Run, I mumble instinctively. Run!

Dad looks disbelievingly up at Mildy and pauses, flinching. He gestures pleadingly, waving his hand in the air, then motions down toward mom. Mildy stands back from him, not knowing how to react, both of them staring at this woman, face down on the floor in front of them, hair hanging over her face. “She was trying to kill herself!” He says, his voice hoarse and strained with irritation, as he hastily finishes tying his knot with one last, exasperated tug of the rope. We break and run for our bedrooms. I notice, glancing back, that on the floor behind the broken bathroom door are several white bottles with the lids torn off, pills laying everywhere. My mother, pitched over the edge, had to be institutionalized for the greater part of two years.

It’s hard not to wonder now if she wouldn’t have been driven to suicide if the hardships of unemployment hadn’t intervened in our lives to create such a wellspring of despair. I’m sorry mom, I remember thinking, and we all felt guilty. But it didn’t make a difference. Later that night, a car comes. The lights from the car pan ghostlike across the wall in my room, and even though I’m afraid, I get up and look out through the foggy window. The car pulls into the driveway and waits there, exhaust creeping in long white wisps from the tailpipe and dissipating against the gravel, headlights shining in two quivering spots on the front of the house. I part the scratchy yellow and brown knit curtains against the wall and look out, listening to the idle sound of the engine of the waiting car, to the sound of the front door opening as my mother and father step into the yard. I watch them walk out together, my father leading my mother, wrapped in a blanket, out to the waiting car. They pass out of the porchlight and into the dark of the distant driveway, casting shadows that stretch into the horizon as they approach, walking silent and penitent up through the lights of the waiting car. As my mother gets into the car, as she opens the door and the dome light comes on, I can see the man sitting behind the wheel of the car and—a face I’ve never seen before, slicked-back hair, his flowing, knotty beard. A wave of fright trickles down my spine, and I drop down with my back against the wall, worried he has seen me. Then I watch again through the foggy glass, the sound of the whining gears becoming diffused in the faintest haze of half light, as the car pulls away along the edge of the dusky, swaying field.

One Response to “Hope Dies Last: The Lasting Scars of Difficult Times”

  1. Today: Farmers Market at Congress, Chili Cook-Off at Moonshine, BYOB Benefit at Ipsento Says:

    [...] early. Make a pot of coffee. Revisit Michael Workman’s riveting New City cover story, Hope Dies Last, which appeared in print this week and is worth any amount of time it will take you to read [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.