Joe Clement was a crusty old Irishman who lived in the little wood frame house next to my grandmother. He’d nod if you said hello and it was okay to go on his lawn and retrieve a stray Wiffleball. Crusty doesn’t mean crabby.
He was universally called, “Mr. Clement.” I didn’t even know he had a first name until long after his death. Joe Clement was a mow and blow gardener. He drove a green late 40s Ford pickup with a lawnmower, rake, hedge clippers and burlap drop cloth tossed in the back. His skin was cracked and brown from the sun and as tough as a catchers’ mitt. He smoked cigarettes and didn’t own sunglasses. Gardening wasn’t his career it was his job.
With his mower and strong back Joe Clement bought a house and raised a family. He fed his children and sent them to school so they would not have to mow other people’s lawns unless they chose to. He didn’t live large but he lived well, never asking for anything other than what he earned with his own hands. This was a long time ago, in a different America, back when all work was good work.
I’m surprised how often I think of Mr. Clement. I can still see him climbing out of his Ford; dirty, sweat-soaked and scratched from roses and briars. He’d kick off his boots on the back porch and let the screen door slam behind him. 30-minutes later he’d be tending his own garden, freshly showered and shaved in a perfectly pressed white collared shirt, the only white collared thing about him.
I think about all the Joe Clements who still labor in America; and I think about how many can only dream of the life Mr. Clement led, a life of independence, a life of dignity. Joe Clement lived when America valued labor.
A few years ago, before the drought, when I still had a front lawn, my mower sputtered and quit with half the yard to go. I pulled off the cowl and shook out the air filter and blew on the spark plug, but nothing. My mailman happened to be coming up the block. He stopped to chat.
It turns out his boys, 16 and 18, were in charge of lawn duty at his house. It was a struggle to get them to do their chores and his suspicions were raised when he came home a week or so earlier to a pristine front yard. He lifted the lid on the green bin and it was empty, not a single blade of grass.
He grilled his kids. How did the lawn get magically manicured without leaving any grass clippings behind? They sputtered like my busted mower and finally cracked under cross; they had hired a day laborer to cut the lawn while they played video games.
My mailman and I both wondered, how cheap have we cheapened labor when two teenagers, sons of a letter carrier, can pay a grown man to do their chores?
The Earth doesn’t spin backwards. The digital world demands new skills. But not everyone is cut out to write code or flip houses. We will always need roads paved, homes painted, grocery shelves stocked and trees trimmed. Somebody has to clean the gutters. Why can’t that guy live well?
Two Fridays ago the Ashley Furniture factory/warehouse in Colton fired 840 workers. Production will move to plants in Wisconsin, Mississippi and North Carolina. Nobody cares. City Hall created FilmL.A. to fight for television and movie production jobs, and I’m glad they did, but nobody fights to save furniture jobs in San Bernardino. We bribe companies with incentives and subsidies if they promise Green Jobs while Blue Collar jobs are forced out of California due to high taxes and onerous regulations while our State Senate and Assembly work 24/7 piling on more.
And predictably, an endless supply of illegal labor continues to cheapen all labor, turning Joe Clement’s life of dignity into a daily fight for survival and a race to the bottom.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. Hear him weekdays 5-10 on AM790. He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.