At 16, I have a summer job as a shipping clerk, standing at a table, wrapping cartons. More and more keep appearing, and soon I am swimming against a cardboard tide that threatens to swamp me if I stop pulling brown paper off a huge roll and wrestling it around packages.
By noon, I am getting the hang of it and I eat a sandwich in a kind of dreamy stupor. But when I start working again, time has slowed. My hands and arms keep moving, but my mind is in blank panic.
All I can think about is the clock on the wall. I am pushing the second hand with each breath. By the end of that endless day, I know what it means to be beside yourself.
This memory comes back as Mitt Romney tells New Hampshire voters that “career politicians got us into this mess, and the career politicians can’t get us out of this mess. It will take someone who understands how the private economy works because he’s worked in the private economy, and I have. I’m a business guy.”
Romney, born to a Detroit executive who later became governor of Michigan, started his own working life at the top, merging, dismantling and profiting from companies by cutting jobs, not creating them.
This kind of political truth inversion on Labor Day is a reminder of how far we have come from work as physical to shuffling figures on spread sheets and computer screens.
Citing that is not a Luddite fantasy to glorify using our backs instead of brains to earn our daily bread but to underscore how growing up in wealth and privilege can now be transmuted into credentials for governing those who did not.
Half a century ago, I was asked to give career advice to a son of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate who had lost to Eisenhower twice in the 1950s.
“When I got out of college,” the young man told me, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I did what my friends did--I went into banking.”
I thought about my shipping clerk job.