Let Us Now Praise Work, James & Joe

Posted on: Friday, February 13th, 2015
Posted in: SoulTrain, Blog | Leave a comment

We hear much about the 1% thing. In this land of plenty: Dislike. God bless Scandinavia and other successful social-democracy experiments, where people can get rich, but also most everyone enjoys excellent education, employment, healthcare, and—wow!—lots of time off for vacations, babies, families, and more.


Yet hard-working people can do well the world over, and you meet examples daily. A friendly deliveryman or breakfast waitress can make your day (while a millionaire in a Mercedes may flip you off for no reason). Somehow, sometimes, hard-working laborers lead role-model lives; competence is not always about the money.

  • A modest man gone viral

The story of one James Robertson, 56, went viral recently, and he soon found himself $345K richer…and rising. The Detroit Free Press reported about his daily, 10-mile, walking commute to a low-paying job. This he’s done for 10 years. A few good Samaritans took notice, went to GoFundMe, and now Mr. Robertson has the car of his dreams—plus a nice cash cache.

  • Hard workers: Everyday heroes

This tale stirs up many sub-stories, including: The sad lack of job options for the carless and working poor; the nonstop political kerfuffle about funding public transportation and living wages; the incongruity of well-to-do do-gooders suggesting they can solve systemic and societal problems by selectively throwing their money around.

The real story here, though, is the profound role-modeling Mr. Robertson provides by enduring these conditions just to put food on his table—with (until now) no obvious prospects for significant advancement or payoff. He’s just one of the millions (billions?) of workers who toil away out of loyalty, self-sufficiency, and pride.

Most of us have met many of these everyday heroes—and still do. I think about the ones I’ve had the good fortune knowing, especially when I’m feeling overworked, the cash isn’t flowing, hard-working folks do something for me while I merely flash my credit card or move from Point Y to Z.

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My heart forever goes out to Irma, my fellow server and a “lifer” at the country club—whose patience and laugh went right to my heart and the many members who adored her. John, the janitor (when that was the title), who put up with college-dorm crap and always had wisdom and a smile to share. Bob, the pot man. Lee, the fry cook. And Joe.

  • Joe the Dishwasher

I once worked in a downtown Minneapolis restaurant with a booming lunch business, busy bar, and serious dinner crowd. As a newbie waiter, my shifts might start at 10 in the morning—and end after midnight. It seems like Joe was always there, manning the piles of pots, dishes, leftovers, and epic messes that come with such a job.

Joe served as bedrock amid the kitchen’s slippery chaos. And he was always kind and appreciative to me, which is more than I can say for some of the staff who worked in a place with hierarchy and secrets.

Imagine water and food scraps spraying everywhere, all the time. Picture steam and sweat and the occasional burn. Joe did yeoman’s work, never stopped, and never complained. In fact, he rarely spoke, though I know that he walked an hour to and from work every day to his home in a Native-American, government housing complex.

I can’t fathom what keeps a Joe like that ticking. But I do know that—even amid the mean scene that a kitchen can become—Joe held a high post. If you screwed up the way you distributed dirty dishes, you were pulled aside by the chef. If Joe couldn’t keep up with a crazy-busy mealtime, Chef commanded an assistant from the line over to help. And when employees were fed between shifts, Joe got whatever he wanted.

Chef: “You hungry, Joe? That was a rough lunch. What can I make you?”

Joe (shyly, as usual): “You got any ribs?”

Chef (with a smile): “I got more ribs than you can shake a stick at, Joe! I’ll heat some up and you just let me know if you want some more.

When the employees ate, the staff segregated by tables and status—management at one, fancy waiters at another, underclass waiters and bussers at the next, kitchen crew at the largest one where the evening’s specials and recipes were debated while fresh and fussy ingredients were fondled and on display.

Joe always sat alone—amid the odors of his work and in a uniform that usually looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. But I so remember the satisfied smirk on his face when he dug into his plate of fine dining.

This upscale eatery—where CEOs swung deals over Scotch and Symphony Ball mavens gossiped over Chardonnay—could not function without him. Countless jobs and meals and celebrations depended on his dependability and unheralded skills.

Nobody ever crowd-sourced a car for Joe. He may never have gotten a car, and probably didn’t get rich. Yet those of us who got to work with him are richer for it. Maybe richer than the people we served.

  • Loyalty and attitude trump arrogance and ignorance

The backbone of any society is the good people who pick the crops, repair the streets, drive the busses, and dish out our food-on-the-run. Make it a game: When you see someone quietly but diligently making the world a better place despite low pay and status, give them thanks. And a smile.

Chances are, they’ll say, “You’re welcome!” And smile back.


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