Child Labor and Anti-lynching Laws

“What do your croaking, amphibious friends say ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’?  New day, same shit.  I know you were startled the other day to learn there was no federal law banning child labor until I was fourteen,” said the skeleton, sitting up on a remarkably cool, fresh mid-June morning in the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill boneyard.

“Speaking of boneyards, don’t forget your mother’s yahrzeit tonight,” he said, “it should have really been last night, but since God is a mean drunk at a party, you’re the only one trying to keep score.”  

I’ll light one for you too, if I manage to remember when I get home.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” said the skeleton philosophically.  “but, yeah, I saw you literally stop in your tracks and make a note of that law, passed in 1938, under FDR’s New Deal, that established a federal minimum wage (a pathetic near-starvation pittance then, as now) forbade an employer from requiring more than 40 hours of work a week and banned child labor.  A bill banning child labor had been sitting around since 1924, the year I was born.   I was fourteen years old when FDR signed that bill into law, could have already spent my whole life at a full-time, sixty, seventy hour a week job.  

“The only childhood job I ever mentioned to you was the indenture at Tamarka’s every weekend when my brother and I, as part of our mother’s lifelong debt for her passage in rat-infested steerage, would dig our fingernails into her fucking rubber tree as we dusted the enormous leaves.  Tormenting that plant was our only outlet, our powerless, silent slave-like way of venting.  The plant, for its part, truly did not seem to give a crap about our sadistic treatment.  You know how stoic plants are.  Tamarka’s rubber tree was stubborn, too.  The more we tortured it the heartier it seemed to become.

“But, yeah, 1938 it finally became illegal, nationwide, to lock children in a sweatshop or send them down into a mine.  At the same time there was a federal anti-lynching law the blacks and people like Eleanor Roosevelt were trying to get passed.  FDR, always the pragmatic visionary, realized he’d lose the support of the Dixiecrats, those racist, Ku Klux Klan loving Southern Democrats– the same ilk that all turned staunchly Republican overnight after LBJ betrayed his race and the South– and when have those reactionary “rebel” pricks ever not been betrayed?–  anyway, FDR quietly pretended he didn’t know about any anti-lynching law.  

“You can’t sign a federal law against lynching and expect the votes of the lynch mobs.  And there are a lot of voters in those lynch mobs and they tend to think in rather black and white terms, if “think” is even a word you can use in connection with a lynch mob.”

A surprisingly cool breeze toyed with the trees and shrubs, playfully touseling their leaves.   A car purred by on the country road just outside the cemetery gates, crunching the gravel at the top of the road down to the graves as it passed.  The skeleton paused as the birds came in like a tiny chorus to make music of the silence.  

“Nice,” said the skeleton, “more prose for the cutting room floor, but it’s good to set the scene a little now and then.  And to let the reader breathe a couple of beats. To let the whine breathe a little before you decant it.  You know I was always a lightning fast reader, but even I always appreciated breaks on a page.  Books where the author simply forges ahead in endless paragraphs and each page is like a heavy black slab– a grim prospect compared to Elmore Leonard’s pages, or Vonnegut’s.”

I was wondering just now if putting my words in your mouth is such a good idea.

 “Well, you know, I really wouldn’t have an opinion on that, Elie,” said the skeleton with a wry, skeletal grin.

“Personally, I think you’re conveying me fairly.  Sure, some days, like today for example, you might be putting a little too much of your own thoughts into my quotation marks, but, at the same time, I think it’s fair.  These are all the kinds of things I would say.  

“Look, in 1938, almost a decade into the Depression– and don’t forget, we’d already had a bunch of very severe economic depressions in this great experiment in democracy, there was a calamitous one, for example, right after the Civil War, as you might expect, this one lasted much longer and happened at the dawn of mass media, when the radio came into play, and so news of how badly everyone was suffering was nationwide, plus the newsreels we all saw every week told the same story — the heroic FDR is quietly downplaying the importance of allowing federal enforcement of the Constitution, the right not to be hanged by the neck for the amusement of a crowd snarling ‘nigger’ as your feet kick in the air, for fuck’s sake.   This is the way it’s always been, Elie. 

“We had a photo of FDR on the wall, he was a hero to all poor people.  Blacks loved him, like they would later love JFK and that brilliant, charming fraud Bill Clinton, the great centrist Democrat who made it safe for easy-going Republicans to vote for the cool guy, our first black president.  Blacks loved Clinton, for some reason.  One of those abusive relationships, I suppose, where true, the guy beats me, and arguably sometimes makes me have sex against my will, let’s not call it rape exactly, because I know he loves me, and he’s always very contrite afterwards….”

Pull yourself together, dad.  Such lamentations are for the living, not for skeletons. We all know Mr. Clinton was the best Republican president since Ike.  

“I saw a sign, during the 1956 election, carried by some pugnacious cretin, I don’t remember where, that said ‘Vote for Ike, not the kyke.’   Shades of ‘Vote for Cuomo, not the homo’ when Ed Koch ran against Mario Cuomo.  Do you know who the kyke was in the 1956 election?”  

I guess it had to be Adlai Stevenson.  

“Your mother and I, of course, voted for that brilliant kyke-like fellow, though, of course, he was only Jewish to an anti-Semite.  The thing was, he thought like the best of the Jews, which is to say, like the best of any people, and there are billions of them alive on the planet today, who believe in fairness, justice, equality, decency, intelligent debate and problem-solving based on the facts, all those quaint things that the people most greedily intent on appropriating everything in the world, wealth, power, unfair advantage, immunity, the right to do what is hateful to them to anybody, at any time, with no consequence to them or their vast wealth…

“Wow, Elie, I have to take a breath.  I never spoke in sentences that had no ending, that’s one of your tics.  Phew.   Yeah, plus ça change and shit.  Ike was really not all that bad, in retrospect, compared to the blandly evil crew that followed, even as it took him a while to finally put his foot up Joseph McCarthy’s hideous ass, which the ranting alcoholic senator used for shitting from, likely at long intervals that left him cranky,  as well as for roaring out his accusations from about people who hated our freedom.  He used the same crusty orifice, is what I’m saying.  

“Plus ça change, Elie, now we have dozens of his kind, bloviating on the radio and TV and becoming millionaires, their hateful views resonating with millions who have been screwed by the same conscience-repressed fucks who have never hesitated to kill, impoverish or do whatever else had to be done to preserve their privileges.”  

Their privileges and immunities, dad.  Well, as always, it has been a privilege, father, to spend this time with you, and my fortunate immunity, as well, to say sayonara, even in the middle of a chat.  

“Aw, you’re going already?  You just got here…” said the skeleton, as he fell back into his nap with that inscrutable expression the dead so often have on their faces.


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