A Labor Day Tale of Three Cities: Pittsburgh, Birmingham and New Orleans


As Hurricane Irene made her way up the Eastern Seaboard, my wife and I packed a few changes of clothes and trundled westward out of her path to spend the storm’s duration in Pittsburgh, PA.

The excursion did us some good, in particular, leaving insular Manhattan, and facing the faded, crumbling Industrial Age grandeur of Pittsburgh. Walking, once again, among the plaintive rasps of the ghosts of the devastated laboring class (the social setting of our youth) provided us with a humanizing contrast to our present day circumstances stranded amid the manic chattering of the preening demons of banal self-regard possessing Manhattan careerists.

Nowadays, the island of Manhattan is tediously bright and shiny — a sterile, oligarchic controlled dystopia. Accordingly, any sign of redemptive decay and hint of shabby ass human glory has been banished by official caveat and collective collusion.

In contrast, while in Pittsburgh, because I was born in a steel and coal town, Birmingham, Alabama, I shuffled among familiar shades. Deep in my being, I know the social setup — once manifested in forged steel, living flesh and human longing — now lost to the ravages of time (more accurately, the consequences of neo-liberal economic doctrine).

In Birmingham, under the statue of the Roman god of the forge, Vulcan, his mortared gaze lording over the city from atop Red Mountain, I witnessed men, hardened by years of grinding labor and demagogic political manipulation, sacrifice their bodies to (Pittsburgh plutocrat-owned) mines, foundries and smelting plants for subsistence pay.

In childhood, when I watched local men labor in the city’s metal foundries, their sweat-lacquered faces, reflecting the fiery glow of smelted steel, seemed to glisten with rage, as angry blue sparks showered the heat-seared air around them.

These were hard-drinking, short-tempered men who were calloused of hand and possessed of humiliation-hardened hearts…rendered so, by a life of the strenuous labor, mandated by an exploitive economic system that bequeathed to them little but a hard scrabble existence–and the promise of a future bearing more of the same.

Little wonder, they swore into the soot-choked air, brawled among themselves, and clutched (self-defeating but politically useful to the ruling elite) racial animus, as their vitality was harnessed to build the structure and infrastructure of the industrial state and increase the wealth, privilege and political power of steel and coal plutocrats up in Pittsburgh (the absentee owners of the area’s coal and iron mines, smelts, and processing plants) — but, in so doing, we locals further diminished the steerage of the course of our lives.

I learned early the girding lie that sustains the oligarchic state i.e., the illusory promise: Work hard and you will set yourself free. In fact, as was the rigged economic setup of the Birmingham of my youth, the harder one works within the inverted totalitarian structure of the corporate state, the more one increases the wealth, hence the political power of the ruling elite…by enabling the parasitic class to consolidate yet more power. Therefore, by working harder and longer for their benefit, one further diminishes one’s control over the trajectory of one’s fate.

(Caveat: This is not to be confused with hard work and diligent effort — a million acts of responsibility create freedom. The distinction being…be aware of who benefits from your efforts and mindfully choose where to apply your labors.)

At present, in cities such as Birmingham and Pittsburgh, the structures, built in the mechanized fury of the Industrial Age, stand idle…decaying around legions of the unemployed and the woefully underpaid and under-compensated. In the oxidized scream of rust, one can almost hear the wails of rage of those souls who surrendered their life force to erect and work the now abandoned factories, mills and foundries of the nation.

Outsourcing, downsizing, work speed-ups, i.e., the most recent mechanisms of capitalism’s death cult of dehumanizing efficiency goes all but unchallenged in the official narrative of the corporate state. By means of intimidation and the proffering of small bribes, the work force is induced to transmute their body’s vitality and soul’s pothos into the profits of an advantaged, ruthless few. In this way, one’s pothos (Greek: yearning plus libido) is rendered into the convenient pathos (alienation, paranoia, displaced rage, consumer addiction) of the corporate age.

Why do so many in the U.S. accept this pernicious, self-defeating setup? Perhaps, because they have been convinced by constant saturation by the commercial propaganda of the consumer state that capitalism will bestow to those who abide by its (rigged) rules and (gamed) economic arrangements everything one could possibly need and desire.

Accordingly, all an individual needs to know and experience is at his impulsive, electronic mass media-happy fingertips. He can click from virtual reality enactments of explicit porn to obscene interpretations of Christian prophecy (e.g., the present field of Republican presidential hopefuls) thus, in an instant, transmigrating from fake sin to phony salvation … What more, in the whole of boundless creation, could one possibly want?

Yet, where does a veritable (as opposed to virtual) sense of place exist in social and economic arrangements such as these?

The present era of weightless perception serves to obscure the crushing consequences of the short-sighted cupidity of both the economic elite and underclasses alike. Reflecting this, wealth now exists as constellations of electrons; money is no longer the vaulted riches of miserly plutocrats nor payday cash of the laboring class burning in the pockets of worn work clothes.

Currency exists in precincts of pixels–a fever dream of appliances–the effluvia of the schemes of the elitist illusionists of high finance whose machinations have wrought an age of electronic razzle-dazzle and devastating real world consequences…whereby the solid architecture and durable accoutrement of the Machine Age, manifested as the sturdy structures of Industrial Era cities, such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, has been transmuted into the manic, evanescent imagery of the mass media hologram.

In the years since Katrina, I’ve been known to rage at the indifferent sky, why the Hell (or, at least, its earthly exurb — Houston) did nature’s impersonal fury have to descend on New Orleans, about the last outposts within this corporate simulacrum of a country where an individual pulse and collective heart beat could be found — where the primordial songs of bone, heart and flesh — of the arias rising from steam-caressed sidewalks and the riffing currents of rivers — have not been forced into the Clear Channel/Disney/Time-Warner überculture blandification machine?

In order for the U.S. — a nation whose populace possesses the collective capacity for cognitive depth and emotional resonance of a Louisiana gnat flurry in high summer — to rise from its destructive swoon of insularity-engendered anomie, the embrace of a view of the world imbued by anima mundi, embodied in the living architecture of a city like New Orleans, is essential.

In New Orleans, interred corpses will not remain buried in the earth…the water sodden ground causes the dead to rise to the surface. Axiomatically, we must not deep-six our grief and rage. In the name of Katrina’s dead and walking wounded, we must not allow the casuistry-shattering verities of the human heart to be buried and forgotten nor allow mass media schlock to drown out the lamentations of the city’s restless dead from memory.

To honor her dead, displaced and deeply scarred, we must remember the mortifying sights and heart-shaking sounds of both the natural disaster that was Katrina and the official shit storm of human negligence, flat-out deceit and malevolence that rendered the Crescent City a corpse-choked drowning pool. Instead, we must gaze down into the dark water of memory, remembering the water-deluged streets of the city…awash with bloated bodies, raw sewage, industrial sludge and the floating debris and submerge detritus of peoples’ lives.

Yet, to properly mourn what was lost to the storm (in the tradition of the city itself) one must allow one’s grieving heart to be seduced by the soul of the world. Personally, as is the case with many who knew the city, pre-Katrina — beautiful, disloyal, capricious creature she was (and remains) –” I retain a lover’s ardor for her.

For: Being enveloped by the redolence of orange blossom and jasmine, held on her humid, late afternoon air, as I sat, swigging a Turbo Dog, on the banks of the Mississippi, as evening tilted over the Lower Ninth. For: The exquisite indifference of starlight above the Bywater, and the manner those distant, celestial bodies would stand in stark contrast to the redemptive immediacy of the sweat-soaked bodies near me, as we would lie on our backs, upon the sidewalk, watching steam (borne of the mass of humanity within) rise from the roof of Vaughan’s Lounge…listening, as inside, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers wailed into the early morning hours.

I suspect my years in New Orleans saved/cursed me from being agenda-prone. I’m not of the reductionist school. I’m drawn to swamps…not so much the muck –” but the mindfulness needed to negotiate the terrain. Of course, swamps will bog one down; yet, I’m drawn to the cacophony and filtered light, to its minute gradations of green upon green … One is forced to slow down in order to take in the revealed beauty and hidden dangers therein.

Moreover, the swamp exists for its own sake and feels no obligation to explain its mystery. It can be known, but its mystery is just that … ever growing, always dying.

One must not, and this is a habitual misstep of the contemporary left, approach politics, personality and place as a strictly intellectual exercise — as a thought experiment that will yield to logic. If the swamp of the human psyche were that simple to negotiate, then life would be a dry, blood-bereft trudge indeed.

And yet, how the world wounds us; at times, delivering an aching sorrow that one will always carry. But rejoice in your wounded condition…for the open wound harbors a mouth to kiss…a womb from which to be perennially reborn. As Octavio Paz testifies, “Love is a wound, an injury…Yes, love is a flower of blood.”

As far as the struggle to be included in the present political narrative, we, on the left, remain marginalized to the point of near invisibility. But don’t lose heart: The problem is the solution. Apropos, empire carries the seeds of its own demise. Therefore, in the shadow of the house of cards economy, now tottering over the ruins and detritus of the nation’s shuttered factories, foreclosed upon farms, and abandoned mills, one should go about the business of working on what will replace the hollow and decayed system when it collapses from within.

Accordingly, Rainer Maria Rilke averred (paraphrasing) everyone has a letter written within and if you refuse the life your heart wants to live, you don’t get to read this letter before you die. An individual must risk the world, with all its attendant woundings, or he risks having a dead letter office piling up lost correspondence from his neglected heart.