At some family event, my father said that when he was kid, what he really wanted to be when he grew up was a rag
and bone man. An odd revelation, given that he'd had two careers—one in the Air Force and one in the plastics industry—that allowed him to provide his family the whole
check-off list of middle-class comforts.
But the moment he said it, I could see it. He grew up during the Depression into a household ethic of saving; because everyone was on such short
rations, nothing could go to waste. Then, when the war barged in, saving became a national obligation. Getting the most out of the least had been baked in.
He spoke about the rag and bone man who came around to collect whatever domestic thrift couldn't transfigure, like rusted iron bolts extracted from the
cellar walls (and, yes, rags and bones), and away they would go into his wagon. Drawn by a horse. Who could afford a truck much less the petroleum to run it? And the horse gave
something back that the truck couldn't, which could just be pitched in with everything else for a small return on the equine dollar.
I'm sure my father knew, even as a kid, that it was a mucky job full of noisome odors and tetanus, but something in it spoke to my father's spirit of
both thrift and simple living—a working-class romanticism, in a way, the satisfaction of doing something useful, of doing something right, even if not celebrated or renowned.
In our burg of Weehawken, we have a version of the rag and bone men. Every morning, a squad of men (and they are all men, at the moment) wheel out
garbage cans set on hand-pushed trucks equipped with brooms and long-handled swivel-headed dust pans, and off they go to clean the streets and sidewalks of the town.
One of them, who lives two doors over, is a true RBM—things he finds as he wanders the streets eventually make it into his backyard and from
there (we assume) into the worldwide market of the used and devalued. Lots of metal—metal seems especially lucrative. And lots of just stuff—not classifiable, not even
describable, but clearly of use to someone somewhere in the vast nooks of the capitalist system.
Others just do their routes, sweeping up fallen leaves in the fall or the drift-down of seeds in the spring or the jetsam of a consumer culture (White
Castle wrappers, flattened outer boxes of Nutter Butters, hubcaps, WWE fan cards, a hand-written half-page of a grocery list escaped from the recycling bin, a tai chi shoe,
cigarette butts, crumpled face masks—even the inventory-genius of Walt Whitman would eventually be defeated by trying to inventory the cast-offs on our streets).
Do their efforts make the streets and sidewalks cleaner? I really can't say (how does one measure that?), but I'm also not sure that that best
gauges their efforts.
Clearly, if the town's Department of Public Works really wanted to clean the streets efficiently, then a street sweeper machine, like the ones used in
Union City, the next town over, would be the way to go. Yes, a cost and a maintenance, but the mayor would have the chance to show off the new purchase before it got all
street-scratched, even put it in the Memorial Day parade, and get the political pay-off from the appearance of progress.
But the town hasn't done that. Instead, I can only assume that the town pays people to do this work because it's more important for these men to have a
job and something to do each day than for the town to have a shiny new vehicle.
Because, truth be told, if these men didn't have this job, it would be impossible for them to find work of any kind since they are on the old side,
physically worn-down, probably inexpert in many of the soft skills needed to survive our bureaucratic systems—they would be superfluous men and have to be paid for in some
other fashion sure to be undignified and demeaning, given the way we treat people on the margins in this country. At least here, they have connections, purpose, income,
independence, self-respect and visibility to me, an excellent investment by the town in the welfare of its least powerful citizens.
As I think more about this, the rag and bone men aren't the street cleaners but the town itself doing what made the whole enterprise attractive to my
father: saving what would otherwise be discarded, finding value in what others might consider rubbish, giving work dignity, helping the men feel that what they do each day makes
our common places better, that "working class" still has a place in our lexicon and deserves respect.