Dispatch from South Carolina: “I think we could use a union here.”

As a child, I was sometimes unsatisfied by the explanation for the privileges of adulthood that extended well beyond my own. “Because I’m a grown-up” never seemed to pass muster as an explanation for why my parents could do certain things that I couldn’t – stay up past 9 p.m., have extra ice cream, drink Mountain Dew, etc.

Naturally, then, I was drawn to an ability that was unavailable to my parents because it skipped a generation — the adults had been passed over.

I’m not sure how old I was when my grandfather introduced me to water witching. It was somewhere in that expansive wasteland of my preteen years. It turned out that I, unbeknownst to me, had been blessed with a gift. My grandpa explained that I, as his grandson, could sense the source of underground water. We two men of different generations had this in common. We had an indelible bond of water as well as blood.

My grandpa gave me two thin metal sticks fixed at a 90-degree angle and told me more about how to tap into my mystical ability. I could home in on my target through intuition alone. All I had to do was lightly hold the sticks one in each hand. Next, start walking, just like that, and think about the underground water you are trying to find. The sticks will begin to move of their own volition, controlled by whatever powerful forces were at work. They may move in coordination, out of sync, or erratically with no discernible purpose at all. But, eventually, they will cross. When the sticks cross, that’s where the water is. That’s the place you should dig your well.

In my childhood hands the makeshift dowsing rods seemed ancient relics imbued with religious significance, not the bent remnants of one of grandma’s metal hangers. I romanticized the idea that there was some metaphysical force I was attuned to that was unknown and unknowable to most of the adults around me. All I had to do was relax, commune with it, and it would guide me to where I needed to be.

I spent a lot of time that summer and fall in the 10 acres next to my grandparents’ house. I would walk through the empty field, brown with the stalks of harvested corn, trying to find whatever it was I was looking for, burdened with the responsibility of the seeker.

That’s why serendipity is always so amusing to me as an adult. It makes me stop to wonder if some part of me is still wandering around in my grandpa’s field, only halfway in control, being pulled by some unnamable force to just the place I need to be in just the moment I need to be there.

***

George (not his real name) was a slender, brown, shirtless young man with a slouch hat and long, white teeth. As he talked, he would spread his legs wide apart and diminish in height, then bring his feet back together and slowly rise back to his original stature. He was a local. That much I knew. I figured him for a surfer or tanning enthusiast who worked in the restaurant business. Something that would give him time to hang out at the beach and chat with strangers on a Monday afternoon.

His figure and constant activity were quite a contrast next to my indomitably pale bulk lazing in the shade of a rented umbrella. Leafing through an article about workers at Case chicken farms in Ohio from last week’s New Yorker, I was reticent when he tried to strike up a conversation. I hoped to finish the New Yorker and move on to a still half-read winter issue of The Point. Accordingly, I wasn’t keen on getting into a long discussion with a rank stranger. But, I could tell he was the kind of person who thought it rude for two people to sit together in silence. He kept opening up dialogue with such unflagging sincerity that I couldn’t help but eventually bite.

“So, what brings you down here?” he asked.

“Just vacation,” I replied.

“Oh, nice. Cool.”

“Yep.”

“Why Myrtle Beach?”

“Well, I’m heading to Atlanta to get some award next week. I figured this was as good a place as any.”

“Cool, cool. What’re you getting an award for?”

“To be honest, I can’t even remember. Something about being good at my job,” I demurred. He chuckled and flashed a big-toothed grin.

“So what is it that you do?”

“I’m the digital director for the UAW.”

“Oh, ok,” he paused. I’d been through this conversation enough times to know what came next, but he seemed almost embarrassed to ask, “So you work for the government or something?”

“Nope. The UAW is a labor union. We’re probably best known for representing the folks who work at GM, Ford and FCA, formerly Chrysler.”

“Oh, really? A union, huh?”

I’ve been in the American South enough to know that one potential response to saying that you work for a union is getting asked this question. The way it rolls off the tongue lets you know it’s more pejorative than inquisitive. It’s a stand-in for “oh, you’re one of those people” and similar sentiments. Your interlocutor is marking you as an outsider, an other, something strange, different and dangerous. You’re a person who shares a different vision and set of values. You’re the kind of person who might band together with others to challenge the prevailing order. A meddler. Someone who won’t leave well enough alone. Or, worse: A lazy ass. The kind of person who doesn’t have it in them to do a hard day’s work but wants to use some kind of union chicanery to share in the fruits of another man’s labor, which fruits you have got absolutely zero right to.

So when he said, “Oh, a union, huh?” I was wary. I’d been down this road before. But, something unexpected happened instead.

George was from Indiana, proving Kurt Vonnegut’s statement right that wherever you go, there’s a Hoosier doing something very important there. I don’t know if that says more about the character of my fellow Hoosiers or the relative desirability of the great, flat expanse of our home state. Regardless, George was a northerner, like me, on a gig job here working for a company that employs a number of immigrants. The company’s unspoken aim is to avoid labor strife by employing workers who won’t cause a stir because they’re afraid to imperil their work visas in Trump’s America.

He started to talk to me about what it was like to work there.

The company makes them falsify paperwork about how many hours they work. They are asked to come in an hour before their reported start time and leave an hour after their reported clock out. In this unreported time, they are tasked with doing the sort of routine maintenance and clean up that has to be done at any job. In other words, it’s time they should be compensated for.

Their pay is subject to opaque rules that leave them guessing at how much they’ll earn each week. The company puts them up in housing with as many as six workers living in a single two bedroom apartment. The workers constantly question whether what they are doing is, in fact, in line with the safety protocols they were exhorted to follow during their training.

As George and I discussed the challenges at this job, he told me about how his managers had explained all the issues away when he brought it up to them.

“I can kind of see it from their side,” he told me, “Some of the stuff they were saying makes sense.”

“Sure,” I replied, “If I was getting you to do dangerous work for free, I’d have a good explanation as to why we should keep doing things that way, too.”

He chuckled, and looked off in the distance.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes I think we could use a union here.”

***

Of all the places I could have been, of all the people who could have been standing next to me, there I was. And there was George. I thought about witching water. The way you had to hold those metal sticks just right; not too tight, not too loose. You needed to focus on the water, but not so much that you started to influence the motion of the dowsing rods. Only when you relaxed and stopped thinking you knew what you were looking for would you find where you needed to be.

Here, in coastal South Carolina, one of the most virulently anti-union states in a virulently anti-union American South, a union official on vacation happened to be standing next to a guy thinking about organizing a union at his workplace.

(Note: “George” does not work at the White Sands Motel or Pizza Heaven. These establishments are under new, and presumably wonderful, management.)

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