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Spare Change

Business is down for the guy looking for spare change outside the CVS Pharmacy.   He has been there a long time and people are used to him, so I don’t think it is because people have become less generous or less tolerant.   I think the new self-service check-out stations are to blame.  

It used to be that I went in to buy a coke or some potato chips and came out with a pocketful of change and it was almost natural just to dump it into his cup.   When I use the self-service stations, I always use my credit card.  It is just easier and faster, so very often I literally do not have any change, “spare” or otherwise.   Most stores and restaurants now make it easier to pay by card than with cash.   This works out well for me, since I get one monthly bill, but it is hard on the spare change guys.   They may soon have to find another profession … or start taking credit cards. 

It is funny how little changes in habits and technologies can have knock off effects you just don’t expect.   Since I am on the subject of the spare change guys, I think there is an interesting connection between them and containerization.  Let me explain. 

Medusa Cement, where I worked as a young man, was “served” by the longshoreman’s union.  I guess because we were on The Kinnikinnick River and near the Port of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.   My father was a long-time member and a lot of the people I knew in my work life at that time worked on docks, drove trucks or bashed metal.   They were good, hard-working guys who gave a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. 

The easiest job was the "fireman" on the trains.  As I understood it, they used to need a fireman to shovel in coal.  When the railroad converted to diesel engines, firemen were no longer needed.  But they had a strong union and so they stayed on the job.  

Most of the jobs didn’t require much in the way of thinking, which was a good thing for some of our colleagues.  Many were smart, but with levels of education you just don't see much anymore.  One my father's friends was called “Sitzinone.”  That wasn’t his real name.   It came from the way he would say “that is six and one” when shooting craps.  (Seven is the key to success in that game and shooting craps was a big deal.)  He evidently could not count beyond seven but didn't need to.  He recognized the patterns on the dice and had an intuitive understanding of the odds. Another of my co-workers, Lester, couldn’t read, but he had a great memory and could usually recognize also patterns on work orders. He drove the folk lift and loaded trucks by following familiar patterns. It worked most of the time.  

Then there was Tom, who worked the twelve-hour shifts and then went off to deliver pizza for a place called Pepi’s on Mitchell Street. Tom didn’t wash much and never brushed his teeth.  He bragged that he hadn't bushed his teeth since he was discharged from the army after the Korean war. I doubted him, but he smiled broadly and convinced me.  I used to like Pepi’s pizza, but stopped eating it after I got to know Tom.

They used to say that work was the curse of the drinking class and unfortunately many  preferred to consume their daily bread, potatoes and rye in liquid form.   It was easy to slip down that road to perdition.  The bars near the factories opened at 6am for the early liquid breakfast.  (I used to go to a place called the Nautical Inn for lunch.  They had good greasy hamburgers and I would usually get a couple of beers to cut the dust of the afternoon shift.  I had to stop doing it when I got to like it too much.)

Nobody works harder than a drunk sweating off a bender and as long as it was possible to get good paying episodic work these guys could be productive, even admirable members of society. This changed with containerized cargoes and general automation.   

Not only did containerized cargo cut the total unskilled workforce, it also required the remaining workers to be more reliable. Since they operated heavy machines, also excluded were the hard-working boozers, who tended to shake a little too much, not a good thing when running a crane with containers hanging off. 

This change coincided with closing of the flop houses.  If you watch old movies or old “Twilight Zone” episodes, you see guys living in dumpy one-room apartments.  Many of them were not up to code, but they were cheap and could be rented on short-term basis.  In the 1960s, they began to urban “renew” these kinds of places out of existence. These dumps had few champions, but they had provided cheap housing.  When they were gone, some people were left w/o a place to gJohn Matel in front of Medusa Cemento.

So unskilled episodic jobs disappeared at about the same time the cheap, if substandard, housing was improved out of existence.   Worse yet, the economy started to decline after 1972 and the damage caused by the upheavals and social experiments of the 1960s started to become apparent. Things fell apart.

Anyway, little seemingly unrelated changes and decisions can have big unintended consequences. Above is me in front of the cement company where I used to work.


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