The coronavirus pandemic has recently chipped away at the myth that the United States is a nation unstratified by class. The mid-March scramble for food and toilet paper drew our collective awareness to lowly supply chain jobs temporarily aggrandized as “essential.”
The three months we’ve now spent in some degree of quarantine have proved long enough to see and publicly thank warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, and truck drivers – but also then to quickly forget them once we got our necessities stockpiled.
The whiplash represented by this speedy cycle of seeing and then unseeing workers has been especially jarring for me because I’ve spent my life straddling two worlds: that of the ruling class, who generally enjoy the luxury of working from home and doing the stockpiling, and that of the working class, who grease the skids of our lives.
For more than two decades, I’ve been a law professor at the University of California, Davis, where I write about race and class. But I grew up in middle America, the daughter of a long-haul truck driver. My father used to come to the Great Central Valley to pick up produce to deliver to points east. I moved to the Valley to teach law. My working-class childhood is now deep in my rear-view mirror, and my current milieu has socialized me over many years to be ashamed of it.
So I was surprised in the early days of sheltering in place when the New York Times ran an op-ed on the importance of truck stops and a front-page feature about a trucker who was continuing to drive as his wife and children hunkered down at home in Wyoming. I was stunned by Marketplace’s attention to the industry, including an explanation of the pressing need for more truckers. I could hardly believe my eyes when governors tweeted thanks to – of all folks – truckers.
When logistics experts explained to the media that truck drivers are “skilled labor” who take months to train, I remembered my father, who I came to call Avery. I never ceased to be amazed at Avery’s ability to thread the needle with his big rig, backing it between others at a crowded loading dock or negotiating a busy interstate highway.
I grew up immersed in the gritty details of trucking: fuel reports, air-ride seats, logbooks, CB radios, an unending cycle of breakdowns and repairs. But we were proud to be a trucking family.
My sister and I once decorated our father’s homemade birthday cake with a big rig, writing “Avery Pruitt Trucking” in frosting on the trailer. One Christmas I cross-stitched an 18-wheeler and framed it to hang on the wall, a present for Avery. Snapshots in family albums, even on special occasions like Easter, featured the big truck as backdrop. The 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit” – starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field – was affirming for us, as were trucking songs like C.W. McCall’s “Convoy,” which topped both pop and country charts in 1975.
Back then, truckers seemed all-American, with appeal well beyond the down-market, redneck crowd that my current milieu associates with much blue-collar work. This was, of course, before our nation thought and spoke in terms of red states and blue states, before cultural and political rifts divided coastal elites from the uncouth denizens of what we now denigrate as flyover country or, worse still, envisage as some monolithic Trumplandia.
But even when pop culture was glamorizing trucking, I saw the toll it took on Avery. The hand-to-mouth financial existence was stressful for all of us, the constant struggle to make the truck and trailer payments, to buy groceries and pay other bills. Then there were the “little white pills” Avery took to stay awake; the cigarettes and all that cigarette smoke trapped in the cab of his truck; the beer he drank to wind down once he got home.
Our father-daughter relationship became strained when I was a teen. As I accumulated college and graduate degrees, the rift between us widened. Avery didn’t have the capacity to appreciate what I was doing with my life, and I didn’t do a good job of affirming him for his hard work, for what he was accomplishing.
Avery and I were both fighting the odds, striving to pull away from the sticky lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to which we were born. But as access to higher education was enabling me to win my struggle, Avery was losing his.
The year I finished law school and started a PhD program, Avery had his first heart attack, a massive one that left him disabled at the age of 46. He later succumbed to heart disease and emphysema. Today, scholars who study long-term trends among workers like Avery would label his a “death of despair,” recognizing how his downward mobility was in a fatal feedback loop with alcohol, drugs and hopelessness.
Avery was an extraordinarily hard-working and dependable cog in the American economy. I have no doubt that if he were alive, Avery would have basked in the glow of truckers’ fleeting moment in the limelight this spring. He loved trucking and would have relished being designated “essential,” but what Avery would have appreciated more was pay and security commensurate with his skilled labor.
As the economy opens up and we seek some semblance of normalcy, we must not look away from workers like Avery. We must remember those who emerged briefly from the shadows just a few months ago, as the scales of class privilege fell – at least temporarily – from the eyes of the ruling class. Further, we must do more than tweet platitudes of gratitude. We must find a way to give these workers – always essential, whether we said so or not – their fair share of the American dream.
Lisa R. Pruitt is Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, [email protected]. She is writing a book about what the experience of migrating from the working class to the chattering class can teach us about contemporary political divisions. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.
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