I just heard the passing thunder of a LIRR train from the deckchair of my back yard.
The ground shook like my mother waking me for school. It felt like the crazy pulse of life returning after a 10-week deep freeze of cryogenics. I have only started going onto my back deck in the past week after the long hibernation of COVID-19 in 2020.
It’s like getting paroled.
Birds sing in verdant trees like street corner a cappella doo wop groups. The air is loamy with the marvelous smells of the summer earth. Bees barhop from blooming roses to blossoming lilacs, zigzagging and stoned on 100-proof pollen to bring back to the hive where there is no social distancing.
Every now and again, a jet plane rumbles through overcast skies, where the sun plays a tireless game of peek-a-boo with a world coming back to life.
I hear cars whispering down the streets now and a Mr. Softee truck just jingled past a construction crew that has arrived to work on a half-completed house down the road. A roaring parade of earth movers, Bobcats, and cranes enter the site where workmen celebrate a return to labor with whirring saws and drills and nail guns and the clattering planks of lumber.
From the opposite direction, two landscaping crews have arrived to mow lawns and trim trees and hedges.
I have been on Zoom meetings all week, working virtually in the entertainment business, and my son just got an email from his upstate college announcing that they intend to open for live in-person classes in late August for his senior year.
I might actually see my kid graduate.
But as we reopen, so much will stay closed.
There are 40 million people unemployed across the nation since the pandemic hit in mid-March. Unemployment in Suffolk County is estimated to be between 10 and 15 percent and there have been over 39,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus with almost 1900 deaths.
They tally like the stats of a depression and a war combined.
There is no telling yet how many businesses will fail to reopen because of the virus or how many people will be evicted, or foreclosed upon because their COVID financial damage has overwhelmed them. About 240,000 Long Islanders applied for unemployment during the lockdown.
Many will not have jobs to go back to.
Suddenly the bloom was coming off the roses that those bees were feasting on in my back yard.
I remember as a kid when my dad’s factory moved from Queens to New Jersey and he was forced to go on unemployment. He was a proud, gutsy guy, with a wooden left leg, who took pride in overcoming his handicap by going to work each morning with his lunch that my mother made for him in a brown paper bag. He toiled all week in the factory making electrical appliances on an assembly line. He felt like a worthwhile man when he came home on a Friday night and handed over his pay envelope to my mother, who budgeted $100 to feed and clothe seven kids.
She worked too, of course, and so did all the kids when they were old enough to deliver orders for the local butcher, fish store, and corner grocer. My sister worked in the local five and dime.
My old man would keep a 10 spot for himself every week for cigarettes, car pool money, and to “decorate the mahogany” as he called putting a five dollar bill up on Rattigan’s bar where beers were 10-cents, every fourth one free.
After giving my mom his pay, she’d feed my dad a bowl of Irish beef stew and then he’d go take a bath and a shave and pull on a fresh white shirt ironed by my mother. He’d pay me a dime to shine his leather loafers, the left one filled with an oaken foot. Then he’d knot on a tie, shrug on a tweed jacket, and fix a fedora on his full head of dark hair and kiss my mother goodbye and descend the three flights of Brooklyn tenement stairs two at a time by gripping the banister and hopping on the good leg.
Then Billy Hamill would limp across the avenue to the roar of Rattigan’s saloon and drink his beers and sing Irish rebel ballads after a hard week of work.
That was his reward, his immigrant’s American dream come true. He came to America seeking the dignity of a j-o-b that paid the rent, and put hot home cooked food on the Formica kitchen table for his kids and let him decorate Paddy Rattigan’s bar.
Impact Of Unemployment
When his factory moved, he became unemployed. He felt suddenly valueless in a job market that wasn’t friendly to an amputee long before the People with Disabilities Act.
My father was a man with a fierce work ethic that he passed down to his kids, but when he couldn’t work and watched my mom become the breadwinner as a movie cashier, he became quiet and laconic and introverted as he searched the daily Help Wanted ads.
Without an extra nickel to spare, he no longer could decorate the mahogany. He became homebound. He went on, well, lockdown.
When he finally landed another job many months later, and it was organized by Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with health bennies and sick leave and paid holidays and overtime, he rallied back to the joyful man we all so badly missed.
I couldn’t wait to shine his shoes again on a Friday night.
That’s what unemployment does to a person. Those harrowing numbers you see every week scaling to over 40 million across the land, those are good, hard-working people, most with families, whose souls are being sucked out of them. All this condescending talk about how working people would rather be on unemployment than working because of the $600 federal pandemic relief is an insulting political talking point that voters should force feed to them on Election Day. That sugar high of extra unemployment — that will soon vanish — is not how proud working people live their lives.
Working people plan their lives around a paycheck.
And so, behind those weekly unemployment numbers and the political venom of a campaign, you will find working men and women searching for a purpose in life, a way to feed and shelter their kids, and maybe a reason to shine your shoes on a weekend evening before splurging on a glass of beer.
As I sit on my deck listening to the birds sing and the bees work and the roar of workers back at their crafts, I feel that sense of joy I had as a kid when my proud father went back to work.
But I know those are the lucky ones.
Many people will not have jobs to return to and they, too, are lasting victims of COVID-19.
I hope the economy does come roaring back in a floodtide if and when this horrible virus dissipates.
But that isn’t gonna happen.
I see years ahead of people like my father trying to find a dignified purpose in life by way of a decent job.
That’s the other magic bullet that we desperately need, along with the COVID-19 vaccine. Otherwise, as the world reopens, for countless others it will remain closed.