Volume 26, Number 4

Worn Out


In the 1930s, my Polish grandfather’s body
became knotted from crawling under brew-
house machines, and fitting copper pipe. His
muscles were broken and his spine thinned,
prematurely. The company he worked for
cut him without any benefits. He turned

to booze, then died on his way home
from the saloon. In 1957, my Russian father
walked a picket line for seventeen long
weeks. He had only the union dole—
of twelve bucks—to feed four of us. We
ate eggs, potatoes, and “shit on a shingle.”

The corporation, the old Harnischfeger, now
Joy Global, is still strong today. Not so my
father. He’s gone. My father worked ten-
hour days, six-day weeks, black grease under
his fingernails. As he lay dying of esophageal
cancer, the HR rep came to the hospital

with an engraved, silver-plated dish, “In
Recognition of Thirty-five Years of Service.”


My story: I bounced in an eighteen-wheeler,
dragged off 2,000-pound pallets of bagged
pea gravel and turned 5,000-pound steel reels
of cable on January ice. (All so that construction

had their supplies.) I helped raise three kids
while I scratched poetry on the back of my
lunch bag. When I hit fifty, my chiropractor said,
“The discs in your back look moth-eaten.
You’re on the cusp of being worn out.” Okay.
So now, tell me about how hard we need to work,

how we should take a big cut in pay and benefits …
Tell me that the union-busters, the one-percenters,
the laissez-faireism are really the job creators.
Then tell me, again, how tea partiers with their
absurd white stockings and their little three-cornered
hats are going to make it better for all of us.

—John Sierpinski