I was biking along the river in Portland last night just after dark when I saw a lean, wiry man having an animated conversation with three young people on a park bench under the light of a street lamp. Curious, pulled over and listened in. The man was dressed in shabby work clothes from another era — felt hat, old-style dungarees and heavy wool shirt — and used an occasional phrase unfamiliar to today’s ear. He spoke with a bit of a scandinavian lilt in his voice, though his words had a flinty-hard edge to them.
“How do you blockheads think you will find decent jobs jobs if you don’t organize and throw the bosses off your back? The rich will always enslave you if you let them. And if you believe you’ll get pie in the sky when you die, that’s a lie. Do you think Starbucks gives a shit about you because they give you lousy healthcare and discounts on lattes?”
I listened for a while to a message not heard in the land for almost a hundred years. After he wound down, I asked if I could join him on the park bench.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you and excuse me if I am butting in, but you sound like an old-time labor organizer.”
“That is what I am, friend. Old-time? Well, the times never really change, do they.”
“Are you from around here?”
“I’m from everyplace where workers have gotten a raw deal, where there families are put out on the street because they cannot make payments, where kids go to school hungry, where people can’t make a living wage, where bosses have all the power because we gave it to them like lambs to the slaughter.”
“Um, okay. What is your name, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“My name is Joe Hill.” He looked at me with a clear-eyed, steady look and paused to let that sink in.
“I know what you are thinking — I died in prison a long time ago. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. See, I’ve died a lot of times in a lot of places, everywhere from Centralia to Jo-burg. I guess I’m just too stubborn to lie down.”
I decided to humor him, since I had no particular place I had to be and there was still light enough to get home.
“Joe Hill, huh? The old Wobbly labor organizer,” I said. “The one who wrote all the union songs. Why come back now?”
“Because people are hurting, kids going hungry, and country is full of pie-in-the-sky suckers. In my time, people knew their class. Today, a lot of folks believe they might be rich someday, so they betray their class. They kiss the bosses’ ass, knife each other for shit-wage jobs, and hope there is enough money at Christmas to buy a few trinkets for their kids –that is until they get the sack. It’s still bullshit. Always was. So I tell people about organizing where I find them and move on, which is what I have to do now, by the way. See that freight train warming up in the yard down there? I mean to be on it.”
He pulled a blanket bedroll out from under the bench, slung it over his shoulder and looked at me with a sooty grin.
“Things never change unless you change them. First they beat the workers down. Then they start spying on you, send infiltrators, watch your every move. Today they do it with computers and people don’t even know it. Pretty soon you don’t know who to trust because they know everything you say and do. It’s time to wake up before it’s too late.”
“Nice jawin’ with you,” he said as he turned and started walking slowly back up beside the river toward the railroad yard. I watched him until he walked under the bridge and out of sight. He was singing to a familiar melody I’d heard growing up in church.
“Praise boss when morning work bells chime.
Praise him for bits of overtime.
Praise him who’s wars we love to fight.
Praise him fat leech and parasite.”