My Life’s Editor and I stopped for a visit to our country’s political headwaters after my high school reunion in Delaware. We sat three hours, masked, on the tarmac at Tampa on the way up. A sneezing fat guy sat behind herself the entire flight, projecting COVID bombs. On the return flight, we festered at a Reagan National waiting gate for three hours beyond “scheduled departure,” noshing on micro-waved, plastic-wrapped sandwiches for dinner (unmasked.) A line of cranky passengers rescheduling cancelled flights was so long that a brisk futures market developed in selling line positions. Couples met, married, had children, and sent them off to college. Our suitcases plopped down at 1 Beach Drive at 3:00 AM. There is nothing in the Geneva Convention about airline torture. A shame.
But that is not what this epistle is about.
Washington DC was a-bustle with groups of high schoolers from the flyover states immersing themselves in artifacts of our country and its culture. By our hotel, near the White House, suited types with briefcases strode briskly about, doing the nation’s business. Limousine drivers hung out near their black SUV behemoths, awaiting the beckoning of a Capitol Hill mogul.
On an expedition to the Navy Yards, near the Nationals’ Stadium, we came upon the folks who do the nation’s actual work. A bridge was under construction over the street, a part of the spaghetti strands of highway that convey government types on their daily route from Maryland or Virginia into downtown DC. It was the noon hour and at the base of the bridge, in the shadow of the arch, construction men ate their lunches, legs flung out in front, backs against the concrete slab. lunch boxes at their side, empanadas in their hands. I reflected that in downtown St Petersburg, where a forest of construction cranes stabs the sky, similar men earn their pay. From our high rise we see them arrive in the parking lot in the early morning wedged shoulder to shoulder in battered Ford Rangers and Toyota Corollas. They wear sturdy tan laced-up boots, baggy pants, and Tees under yellow safety vests. They walk back to those cars in the evening, lunch box in one hand, safety helmet swinging in the other, headed home for a Corona Extra.
Nearly all these workers are Hispanic. Latin Americans provided 50% of our population growth over the last decade and drive our economy, buying diapers, toothpaste, and Big Macs. We are grateful to our south of the border neighbors for corn and potatoes, samba and salsa, Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria, and a raft of gifted shortstops. My familiarity with Latin Americans started in the fourth grade when Puerto Rican kids pounded me in the boxing ring. In Little League a fly ball to the outfield drew cries of “Mia! Mia!” In seventh grade it was my Mexican pal Eddie Altuna’s fault that our gym teacher threw a chalkboard eraser at me. He missed. In adulthood, I had colorful, industrious, family-loving Cuban and Columbian customers in Miami. Their approach to dealing with a business competitor was something I never heard at Wharton: “I gonna cut price and keek his ass!” Ay caramba.
If tomorrow morning all the Hispanic workers at construction sites across the nation called in enfermo, our nation would be up the Rio Grande without a paddle. Imagine for a moment if white-collar types had to complete the work. In Washington DC they wouldn’t show up until 9:00 AM, requiring time to drink a second cup of coffee and catch the Red Line Metro from Chevy Chase. There would be the issue of footwear. Cole Haans tend to crumple under a cement block. Where would they stash the Wall Street Journal for reading at break? By lunchtime, a house salad with broiled chicken and vinaigrette dressing would have wilted in a lunch box. The Evian water would be tepid. If a pallet of drywall had to be lifted off a delivery truck, there would be inter-office memos issued with appropriate CCs, requesting approval for a forklift to be released from the holding lot. The forklift driver would have to know how to operate something without a Tesla touchscreen.
On one of our nights at the nation’s capital, we ate at a Spanish restaurant near our hotel, Taberna del Alabardero, a fave from a prior visit. We are fond of tapas – think patatas bravas, croquetas de jamon, and gambas (herself says forget the pulpo.) Our camarero was a personable man in his late 30s, wearing a dark suit and a warm smile. We chatted him up. He was Guatemalan, had been in the US for 15 years. His family had remained behind in Guatemala while he bunked with relatives and established himself, starting as a dishwasher. His sons joined him in the US this year, a twenty-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. He beamed as he showed us the worn photo drawn from his wallet. He was proud of the future he had made possible for them. “They will go to college, get good yobs, support their families.”
Get a good yob, support your family. Sounds good to me.