I love trains and I love rising early to board them going just about anywhere. Accordingly, this Saturday morning I was delighted to catch the almost empty 7:34 a.m. Stamford bound Metro North out of Grand Central on my way to Rye. The first 20 minutes of my journey found me gazing out the window down at the city of my birth, which somehow always looks so strange and unfamiliar from the angles given by the rails. Even the Harlem streets where I work five days a week took time to recognize.
As the train pulled into Fordham Road station at 7:55 my reverie was broken by the sight of something out of the Third World. Indeed, it was something out of the Third World as the Third World now exists in pockets right here in the First World; right here, that is, in the richest city in the richest country in the history of the world: the country with the greatest disparity between rich and poor and the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest hands.
Dangerously few hands. And fewer and fewer all the time. Wealth moving ever upward to the already obscenely wealthy.
There on the platform stood perhaps sixty men and women who looked nothing like most people on the train heading to places where people look even less like them. The boarders were brown and black. My suspicion is great that many were undocumented: “Illegal aliens “ as the current nomenclature goes, made up equally of males and females.
They entered the train in silence and remained in that state. I heard not a single word spoken among them, only one voice pleading with someone in Spanish on a cell phone. Suddenly the car I was sitting in almost alone was teeming. I study their faces as discreetly as I can. No one is as much as looking at each other. It is a strange, sad scenario — not abject misery but a world seemingly void of joy.
It was disquieting if not disturbing.
They were, I imagine, on their way to the lily-white suburbs of Connecticut and environs to work as servants or menials of some kind or other.
I find myself thinking of their place in this world and in this strange thing called history that seems to move at the same time it seems to stand still.
Yes, jobs are good and all labor is dignified and even a lousy job is better that no job at all, especially if you have mouths to feed. And hasn’t this scenario played over and over and over again in the last century and a half with the wretched of Europe, the Italians the Irish, the Jews and the rest of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, ” fulfilling the same roles by the thousands only to see their children and grand children rise steadily in every aspect of American life? Isn’t this part of the process, cruel and unnecessary though it sometimes is, that made this country?
Yes, it was, and yes they did, but that was at a time when organized labor was ascendant, brutal and slow that the ascendancy was. Yes, they did, but that was at a time when, for the most part, the American economy was based on actual tangible goods – things — not legal swindles like credit default swaps, sub prime loans or hedge funds or what ever new parasitical racket Wall Street conjures up and our government treasonably allows or even encourages. Anything to keep the private party going and going. It was, in fact, during the late 19th century, when the government in the person of Teddy Roosevelt, began to awaken from its laissez faire stupor, to at least tentatively attempting to address abominations like child labor, starvation wages and the like. Laissez faire policies, now called neo-liberalism, have come roaring back utterly unbound with no Teddy Roosevelt even talking about reining them in, whatever the cost in human dignity. Indeed, such policies, we are told again and again and again are inevitable. What is more, they are what will save us even as they kill but not before completely degrading us.
So, yes, the situation is both very familiar and very different. Those earlier groups, despised and feared, mocked and sometimes attacked, arrived on these shores for identical reasons and, like these silent souls on the train, were willing to work like beasts of burden to achieve what they came for — and what both came for was some sense of dignity and freedom and security.
But the earlier groups had industries to work in and built institutions to protect each other.
What will happen to these people I wondered, as I exited the train? Will they spend their lives merely surviving in a world of less and less security and greater and greater surveillance? How will they feed themselves and their children in a world where jobs are not merely not being created but are vanishing at terrifying speed, sent to a land where human being can be worked to death and the environment utterly ruined, but never to return ?
What will happen to my daughter, I wondered. She with advantages the train boarders could only dream of but facing an increasingly similar world. What will happen to most of us, and sooner than we’d like to think, all of us who are passengers on this train not of our making and making no stops, hurtling at ever accelerating speed straight to hell?