Despite the oft-quoted “wisdom” of the young, there are some things you really can’t talk knowledgeably about in life until you’ve lived a good many years. Gotten lots of rings on your trunk, as it were. One such subject is the dignity of work.
I’m a people watcher. Guess it’s part of the old reporter instinct - always keeping an eye on folks on the street, in a store, a fast food joint, the doctor’s office, church or ... well, just anyplace. But, because of my four-score-plus years, it’s the older ones I’ve been noticing more lately.
When I say “older,” I mean 65 and up - people who’ve retired or reached the age when they could retire if financially able. Which not everyone is. Just because you physically reach 65, that doesn’t mean retirement is automatic. And Social Security? Few of us could live on the $1,200 or so a month which is the national average. That ain’t living.
So, lots of grayhairs work. Some because we have to - some because we want to - some because that’s what we’ve considered a normal part of living during a long life. It’s where we find value and a sense of self-worth. Maybe a little extra money is nice but having a place to go - a time to be there - a task to complete - those may be as important. Or more so.
Oregon has many fine things to offer. But not legally being able to pump your own gas isn’t one of ‘em in most of the state. So, there are several examples of seniors working at the station I frequent. Just above minimum wage and no more than 20 hours weekly. No benefits, either.
One guy is retired military. Probably Marines. Always a fresh buzz cut - stout physical frame - deliberate moves when working - looks you right in the eye. Another one appears retired from business or corporate life. Short but very fit stature. Wears black slacks and white shirt like the rest but his look is tailored, black shoes shined, haircut just the right length - always. And always calls me “Mr. Rainey.” These two work, I’d guess, because they have done so all their lives, it’s important to stay active and the extra few dollars are great but not the driving force. The kid with the tattoos, an ear ring and a bad complexion while listlessly pumping gas - who knows?
Across town at a fast food joint, a small, plump woman, probably of Italian heritage - 70+ with jet black hair piled high on her head and always with a colorful comb tucked in. Light makeup. Her uniform seems to fit better than the others because she likely tailored it herself. Always a pleasant word for strangers as she empties garbage cans, mops floors or cleans public restrooms. Always! Probably working mostly for the money.
At another fast food spot in town, a guy in his 70's with the obligatory uniform complete with the ridiculous little cap on his head. He dusts things off a lot and looks like he’d rather be anyplace else. Any place. Never says a word. When a 20-something manager gives him a task, you can see hurt - if not disgust - on the guy’s face. He needs the $500-600 a month. Needs it.
There’s a 70-something guy where I get my oil changes. Greets, washes windows and checks air in the tires. They won’t let him down in the pit area. The ladder climb is bad for his legs. He doesn’t talk much but, when he does, it’s bad grammar and often a complaint about weather, politics or something else. I’d guess he’s probably related to the kid manager who tolerates the attitude because the senior family member needs the money.
These are people that come to mind when some blowhard member of Congress - making $175,000 a year plus health insurance, expense account and staff - makes threats to cut Social Security, Medicare or some other senior-earned entitlement. The mouth runs but the brain has no concept of the guys at the gas station - the lady and the fella cleaning fast food joint restrooms - the 70-something washing my windshield.
These are people who work. Some because they have to. Some because they want to. All of them - ALL are products of the 30's-40's-50's who grew up learning to work, having to work, knowing they would likely always have to. They don’t think about “entitlements.” They work now because they need the small, extra income or because they want to – some because they need something outside themselves that adds value to their lives. Maybe the value of dollars. Maybe the value of still participating and staying active. Maybe just the value of the work.
The old know it. The young will learn it. The people I know who seem to have the most meaning in their lives are the busiest. Some for money. Some for just the work itself. It’s called dignity.
On a dreary coastal morning, that sort of dignity can even help you get through doing your own laundry.