Saturday, November 01, 2008

In light of Joe, the Plumber

There’s been much talk about Joe, the Plumber, in the soap/drama that is the US Presidential election. For those who may be unaware, Joe the Plumber is an actual plumber - albeit with a different name - who earns about $40,000 but has aspirations to buy a 250,000/year earning business. Joe met Obama while the latter was campaigning in Ohio and is now a celebrity, ever since McCain mentioned him some dozen times during the third presidential debate.

For the two Presidential campaigns, Joe is a convenient stand-in for the “honest, hardworking” American – just like other generic stereotypes: Jill the engineer; Molly the dental hygienist; Jack the electrician; Chuck the truck driver. In my travels to American cities – Chicago, DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia – I’ve come across plenty of these so-called “ordinary” Americans, whom the Obama and McCain campaigns invoke at every turn. Here, then, are a few of my glimpses – a few of the many such I’ve met over the years.

1. The Shuttle Driver

A few days ago, I took a ride on a shuttle from Amherst, Massachusetts to the airport in Hartford. The shuttle service was called Bluebird. Joe, the driver, picked me up at 5 am. He was a tall man, perhaps in the early or mid-sixties. As we drove, I learned Joe owned Bluebird. He was in fact, the owner and the only driver. The minivan, fitted with a GPS, was his only vehicle. Joe used to work with Valley Transporter, a larger service with many employees, but had quit and begun Bluebird recently.

“So you must be one of the small businesses that the Presidential campaigns constantly refer to,” I said with a laugh.

Joe smiled and said yes, but there was a bit of a pause.

“I get one or two calls per day, but it’s been awfully quiet the last few weeks. I thought I wouldn’t get any more calls.” he said. “It must be the economy. Everything is expensive. I pay a hundred dollars a month to Google to ensure my shuttle reservation website shows up among the top results when prospective customers search on the internet.”

Joe lives in South Hadley, a small Massachusetts town very close to Amherst. His family consists only of his daughter, who went to college in the area, and is now attending hairdressing school.

I asked Joe where he stood politically.

“Well, I don’t prefer either of the candidates. Both are not liberal enough for me. I’d like someone who is a lot more liberal. Someone who’ll get us out of Iraq quickly. I still cannot believe we are in this mess. But if I vote, I’ll vote for Obama.”

Nothing surprising there: this was Massachusetts after all. In fact, I’ve seen only one McCain sign so far in my drives around the towns here. I was surprised, though, that Joe didn’t mention anything about the economy affecting his choice of candidates. Especially since Joe himself was feeling the pinch.

But perhaps Joe was thinking broadly: if billions hadn’t been spent in a meaningless war, perhaps they could have been put to better use at home.

2. The Mechanic

In April this year, while traveling on an Amtrak train from Washington DC to Baltimore, I met Joe, a short, potbellied man in his mid forties with somewhat ragged clothes and large, calloused hands. My first impression was that this was one of the “working class men” that the television networks were constantly talking about at the time. The Democratic primaries were still going on; the Obama-Clinton contest was still undecided. The general wisdom floating around was that to win states like Pensylvania, the candidates would have to win over working class voters.

Joe was talkative. He had a wily look about him; he came across as someone who knew well the ways of the world. He had been in the military, loading bombs during the first Gulf War. He had traveled to India too, to Kerala; he’d also been on a secret plane that had flown over Russia, and had almost been hit by a Russian missile. He said all this with an easy pride.

Joe earned his living now as a mechanic. He had grown up in Philadelphia, in the south side, near “hardware docks”, where things were assembled and disassembled. That experience had fascinated him. He had a special love for cars and trucks. “Automobiles,” he claimed, “ran in his blood.” He worked in what seemed like a high intensity environment, where cars and trucks had to be fixed quickly. He bragged of a rough but macho life: those who worked with him were tough. Sometimes, in accidents, mechanics lost the tops of their fingers, and yet pretended that nothing had happened. They covered the fingers with tissue and kept on working.

As he talked, I began to sense something different. This wasn’t a “working class” man - at least he wasn't anymore. He was paid more than 100 dollars an hour. His boss, in order to keep him from moving to a more lucrative job elsewhere, pleaded with him to stay and kept increasing his pay. Joe dictated the terms of his increase every year.

“In America, everyone wants to blame others for their situation these days,” he said, talking of political and social matters. “They say: I am in this situation because of you. Pointing fingers. It’s all a blame game.” I couldn’t help wondering if he was referring to the black community.

His views were very conservative. “I hate liberal democrats,” he said. “Global warming is something democrats have cooked up to take our money, tax us. In the Midwest, right beneath American land, there is oil there for the taking. But the democrats won’t want take it; they want to steal money from us. So my advice is: Never vote Democrat.”

It made sense now. Joe was well off; he had probably earned his wealth the hard way and was now protective of it. A Democrat government meant taxes, and that might mean some of his wealth would be siphoned away.

We got off at Baltimore Penn Station. When I’d first seen him in the train, his ragged clothes had suggested that he might be frugal, that upon reaching Baltimore, he’d get home in a bus. But at the station, as we parted ways, Joe said he would call a taxi. He said it in a tone that suggested he called taxis all the time, without hesitation.

How mistaken initial impressions can be.

3. And finally, Jane

I’ll finish with a note about a lady named Jane I met in Minnesota. Jane was 52. Unlike the shuttle driver in Amherst and the mechanic in Baltimore, Jane had nothing political to say, but she was full of warmth and spoke with great earnestness. She talked to me – while we rode on the shuttle van from Minneapolis to Rochester, Minnesota – of her family, and of how she had left Rochester only twice in her lifetime, this trip of hers to Minneapolis being one of them. I was fascinated by that fact: it contrasted sharply with my own life. I had moved a lot, even while in India. The other trip Jane had made outside Rochester, Minnesota had been to the Appalachian country in Kentucky. That to her had been like a visit to a foreign place.

Jane was one of eleven children. Her father had grown up during the Great Depression and had struggled. But he had worked hard to provide for his children. Jane was the third child, and she had only brothers after her.

One of Jane’s brothers worked as an electrician; another as a brick layer; yet another as a carpenter; one had been in the navy; her sister worked as a beautician. Jane herself worked as a nurse who cared for the elderly. Remarkably all of them lived in Rochester. Jane did not have to call a service when she wanted something fixed at home; her brothers would do it for her. They were a close knit family.

Joe the Plumber was just one person, one example of your “ordinary, hard-working American”. But here was a family whose occupations sounded like a roll call of the unspectacular, plebeian jobs. If the Presidential candidates had known of Jane's family, they might have come rushing to use them as an example.

This, they would promptly claim, was the type of hardworking American family they would fight for when they were elected to office.