'Lunch Bucket Paradise' -- What Is Work?

In this excerpt from a novel set in post-WWII San Leandro, it all comes down to jobs. Good wages, benefits, maybe even a pension. Work you could count on. But that didn’t make getting up in the morning any easier.

(This is the third excerpt from "Lunch Bucket Paradise," East Bay author Fred Setterberg's fictionalized account of growing up in San Leandro's Washington Manor -- Jefferson Manor in the novel. introduced his young alter ego. focused on the post-World War II prosperity enjoyed by working families. Today he writes about the drudgery of work.)

Every morning, the alarm clock jangles, piercing the heart of dreamy dreams, and the working man reacts to the news of another day with a jolt of dread, his spine arching off the mattress like an electrocuted cat. In the bathroom, he might forget it’s Monday and lazy his way through a Sunday’s-length shower, running late from the start.

For breakfast, the wife warms the toast and boils the coffee, letting the eggs form a pool of yolk that adheres to the prong of his fork like Elmer’s glue. The clock above the table beats out seconds like a metronome. The working man tucks the lunch bucket under his arm and heads out to the street to wait for his carpool in the rain.

The new guy’s driving. Nobody talks. He gets lost, since he doesn’t know the shortcuts. For the last two miles, he speeds and corners desperately.

The working man imagines what it would be like to die in a car crash on his way to work. He figures that it’s better than dying in a car crash on his way home from work, thereby giving the sons of bitches eight hours on a paycheck he’ll never see. He tells himself, Don’t even start thinking about complaining.

You got yourself a steady job.

You got your own house now, paid for in thirty years.

You got a wife and some kids, and maybe that’s a fine thing, too.

Time will pass.

The job is the job.

On break, the working man drinks a cup of burnt coffee from his thermos and reads yesterday’s paper. Some clown from nightshift has crumpled up the sports page into a ball instead of folding it neatly and leaving it on the lunchroom table like a civilized human being. So the working man studies an article in the front section about a guy who finds ten thousand dollars buried in a shoe box in his backyard, but now the government says he’s got to hand it over to the bank because they’re the ones who really own the property.

Back on the job, which is always the job, time fails to pass. It’s like watching the grass grow. It’s like counting every blade of your front lawn on Sunday for no reason. It’s like trimming them with your teeth. The working man just does his job. That’s what everybody does except bums, drunks, and mental cases, know-nothings, losers, big-shot phonies, and guys in white shirts and ties who don’t really work anyway, since nobody’s making them punch a time clock or looking over their shoulder eight hours a day or telling them when to eat, drink, sit down, piss, and get off the pot.

For a split second, the working man figures that the rest of the world’s got it made, but he knows that’s the biggest damn lie anybody could fall for.

The whistle blows. Some guys drop their tools and walk straight off the job without even cleaning up. They’re not going to last, no way. The working man swabs clean all the tools he’s used today with a fresh rag, returns them to the tool chest, and walks over to the washbasin, where he lathers up and scrubs his hands until they’re almost clean too.

Everybody punches out. They file through the shop door. Somebody shouts out something funny and obscene, and the working man nods, raises one finger, and grins with relief because they’re all crawling out from underneath the weight of the day. The carpool heads straight home without anybody telling the new guy how to get there.

In the kitchen, there’s a hot meal on the table. Maybe it tastes pretty good. After dinner, he falls asleep in his chair with the front page collapsed over his face like a brick wall. He pries his eyes open for as long as he’s able. He knows that when he rises from his chair and baby-steps down the hallway towards his bed and wife, he might as well figure it’s practically time to start all over again.

That’s why they call it work, and he’s glad to have some.

(Fred Setterberg will appear on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 1:30 pm at the San Lorenzo Library, 395 Paseo Grande, San Lorenzo, CA. His publisher, Heyday Books in Berkeley, has offered San Leandro Patch readers a 30 percent discount off the $15.95 cover price. To order call 510-549-3564 (extension 304) or email orders@heydaybooks.com. Be sure to mention "PATCH" to get the discount.)

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