LeDuff: Who is 'essential?' The underpaid and underappreciated, it turns out

March 25, 2020, 11:41 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

File photo (Deposit photos)

There goes the garbage man. He is essential. Without him, trash piles up, vermin come, disease grows. There he is this morning, removing the throwaways of some unseen life, carting it to some unseen hole, never to be considered again. There go the discarded wine racks, the throw pillows, the heaping bags of food waste.

What must he think of us, lounging behind our draperies?

The nurse arrives to work this morning. She is essential. The emergency room bursts with the stricken, and yet she has insufficient equipment to protect herself. But there she is anyway, working without complaint in the great coronavirus pop-up tent, at great risk to herself. 

Where has all the public money gone that is supposed to help her, she wonders?

The ambulance jock flies by. Then the cop. Then the fire wagon. The truck driver brings milk and gas and beer. The cashier comes to work at the pet-food shop. The farm laborer still labors. The meat packer still butchers. The utility worker is still up on the wire and down in the sewer. The ancient priest continues to tend to the dying.They are the people who keep America fed, and safe and watered and comforted spiritually. 

Drive-up testing Thursday at Beaumont Hospital Troy. (Photo: Michael Lucido)

These are the essential people, underpaid and underappreciated. They are the essential workers who were passed by when the golden pears fell from the magical economy of the past decade. During that halcyon time, we took their benefits and their pensions. We talked about running some of them out of the country. Now we realize how essential they really are. And nobody talks such things. Not now, anyway.

The swells, the stockbrokers, the bankers, the lobbyists, the lawyers. Their fruit bowls runneth over during the great stock market explosion. Yet, how non-essential do they seem now? If we were all lawyers, we'd be starving on words. The high financiers and the elected officials who serve them? Today they seem, essentially, the problem. 

It is a moment of great humbling in America, a time to ask oneself:  Am I essential?   

Watch as the hordes hoard toilet paper, while few know how to make soap.

The ability to create fire has given way to the glowing box of streaming TV. 

Oral traditions and decent poetry have given way to Facebook bile and ranting. 

Who can snare fish unless there are a few boxes to be speared in the freezer case of a big box store?

Repair a machine? We can't figure how to recycle plastic gloves, much less dispose of them properly.

The majority of men lead lives of desperate isolation: a life conducted in a mortgaged box, commuting to work in a financed box where we sit in cubicles and type into a box. We eat our food from a box, waiting one day to be buried in a box.

This pandemic will pass, and we will be left to pick up the shards of an economy. But this may also be a moment of self-diagnosis. A time – as we are quarantined in our boxes – to look inside, and come out better.

Yes, we are all essential. Necessary and answerable to one another. For the sake of our children, if nothing else.

Maybe we start by saying thank you, and acknowledging those working people whose work – and lives -- are indeed essential.

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