Barry Saunders

August 31, 2014

Saunders: On this holiday, honoring those who labor

The business of America is labor and the heroes are laborers

Boy, that has to be a record.

After talking to Bobby Haynie, who was working assiduously to keep the sidewalks along Geer Street in Durham spiffed up, I vowed to never again give money to an able-bodied young panhandler again.

If this cat can work like this at his age, anybody ought to be able to get out and earn some pocket money, I thought.

That vow lasted until I reached the Mangum Street exit off Roxboro Road on Friday – about two minutes later – when a man holding a sign approached seeking assistance.

“Any little bit help” the sign said and, unfortunately, I had a little bit to spare at the time. Some people, I realized, may have unseen handicaps that prevent them from grabbing a lawn mower or rake or weed whacker.

Who am I to judge?

Besides, as the pope recently said about something else, who am I to judge?

In honor of Labor Day, I thought it would be good to recognize people who labor, not in some air-conditioned office building – although that’s work not to be discounted – but outside, performing chores that can be seen but seldom appreciated.

Most studies say that those people – the ones who can see what they’ve accomplished – are most satisfied with their labors, and Haynie was proof.

He was whacking the weeds so intently – frequently doubling back to get a blade of grass he may have missed – that I circled the block, parked and asked if I could talk to him. “After I finish this,” he said, motioning to some unwhacked grass and weeds along the curb.

Out of retirement

Fifteen minutes later, he came over and told me his story. He is a 65-year-old Durham native, a graduate of Hillside High School who attended N.C. Central University. “I was a drum major” at both schools, he said.

He then worked at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill in data processing for about 20 years, he said. Retirement didn’t suit him, he said.

“That fella over there,” he said, pointing to a man who’d just gotten out of a BMW and who was now supervising some painters, “he owns all of these properties. That one, that one, that one. I work keeping them up. Been doing this 10 years.”

Despite his age and the years of living visible in his face, Haynie’s lithe build looks as though it could still strut in front of a marching band.

“I’m retired,” he said, “but I like to work.”

How is he going to celebrate Labor Day?

“I’m going to take this one off,” he said. “This’ll be the first one I’ve taken off in a lot of years.”

Whether it’s because I’m so old or because the world has changed so much is irrelevant, but the fact is that many of the jobs my peers and I first held no longer even exist, at least not so a semi-ambitious 15-year-old can do them and learn responsibility while putting some folding money in his pocket.

When was the last time you saw a paperboy riding his bicycle and tossing papers into yards? How about a teenager or young adult walking down the street with a lawn mower and rake and knocking on doors to see if someone needed his services?

Even as lazy as our teenaged selves were predisposed to be, my buddies and I used to keep some scratch in our pockets by doing just that, taking a lawn mower and rake and wandering into neighborhoods that were normally off-limits to us in the 1970s.

That entrepreneurial flame was nearly extinguished when the last yard I mowed and raked – twice – netted me a nickel and a peach.

After taking care of the yard of a regular customer, Mrs. Gibson, I knocked on the door and awaited payment, feeling a glow of pride at the great job I’d done, wondering how I was going to spend the $5 or more I expected.

She returned to the door with the aforementioned nickel and a half-rotted peach. I humbly accepted it but, as anyone would have done, I took the raked-up leaves and spread them back over her yard.

I hurried home, but couldn’t outrun my conscience, which made me go back an hour later and rake up the leaves yet again.

Who knows. Maybe the guy bumming along the highway exit made his sign that said “Any little bit help” after he got paid with a nickel and peach one time too many.

As president, Calvin Coolidge was noted as saying, “The business of America is business.”

Pithy, yes, but more accurately, the business of America is labor and the heroes are laborers.

We deserve a day in our honor.

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