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It had been months since I'd lifted anything heavier than objection. Longer since I'd pounded over a concrete floor. My knees felt like someone had driven steel spikes through them. My back ached. My feet. And this was only a four-hour getting-to-know-you shift. It did not go well. I'd made a lot of mistakes.

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To my novice eye a twenty-pack of diet cola looked a lot like a twenty-four-pack. Orange and strawberry and mixed-fruit punches all displayed the same reddish glow by flashlight. Every screwup was faithfully recorded and relayed to me the next night in Derek's office, with a long face and a short talk that began, "You messed up again. Another night I caught Derek watching me work. He had the disappointed look of a man whose new puppy has just chewed up his divan.

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I can put a pretty face on every job I ever lost. Carol, through those high school gigs, a college-bound blond whose only flaw was that she didn't realize she was too good for me. Then Tricia — the closest I've ever come to finding a soul mate, who'd be waiting when the mill whistle blew. Darla, with high Slavic cheekbones, who sold perfume in a department store while I worked the receiving dock. Terry, who sang in a jazz band.

Another Carol in there somewhere. Maybe it was a Carla. Strivers all. They'd make their money waitressing or tending bar while taking classes at the junior college. Tricia used her personal-assistant position at a bank to learn her boss's job. Terry could tear up the Ella Fitzgerald songbook at night and study for her real estate license all day. I don't know what they saw in me. I'm no looker — I have photo ID to back that up. Maybe they considered me a project — a sad kitchen that had makeover potential, an old sofa that could be reupholstered, one threadbare patch at a time.

We'd last six months or a year, depending on how long it took the wonder of me to wear off and be replaced with talk of plans, and goals, and us. And it would end, always the same way. They'd come home with flushed cheeks, all aglow about so-and-so's boyfriend who was making a killing in the mortgage business. Or a bank. Or whatever sure thing was about to come up on the roulette wheel.

And in the silence that followed I could hear the rumble of the U-Haul backing up. Another spring-popped sofa was headed to the tree lawn. My father lived by a different code: If at first you don't succeed, screw it.

My old man was always starting a new job or leaving one. I can recall him laying floor tile, driving a delivery van, installing car windshields, and stamping out wax milk cartons at a dairy — and those were just my grammar-school years. It didn't take much — a slight from his boss, real or imagined, or the prospect of a better gig, another pretty bubble floating past over a quitting-time beer. Whatever: He'd be off, ready to sell our cow for magic beans. I think his work ID must have shown the back of his head, going out a door. I can't explain his motivation.

If I was the forgiving type, I'd say he was just looking for himself. But I don't forgive. One of my earliest memories is him sitting at our kitchen table, explaining how he'd just put in his two-weeks notice somewhere. I can still see the hollow look in my mother's eyes as she listened, with my kid brother in diapers, playing at her feet.

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I know how much hurt a man can inflict on a woman when his latest scheme crashes and the paychecks stop for months. Me, I took a different path. I guess I stayed too long at a half dozen parties. Guys who have half as many horses shot out from under them usually get a statue in the park. Looking back, I think I figured I could outlast anything. No excuses. Besides, "looking back" — what does that get you?

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Places I worked, you could walk into something. I work and I sleep. Home is three rented rooms above a plumbing company. I lucked out — for a month's security deposit and a workingman's wages I gather my mail on the cusp of suburbia. I kick off the sheets about A. Down the block there's a fire station.

Across the street there's a church and, next to that, a funeral home. I didn't plan it, but I figure I've got the bases covered when the time comes. At noon I run errands. I've taken a beginner's stab at cooking: I can assemble a scratch Bolognese sauce, whip up a serviceable cacciatore, do spaghetti alla anybody. Some days I'll walk up to the library and check out Giada De Laurentiis — but only for the recipes. On a warm day, I push on to the supermarket, to sniff onions and gather carrots for a ragout.

That's how it must look to day-trippers: that night shifts are manned by Lost Boys who simply can't deal. I'll admit that perpetual dark requires a special breed. The world does shrink to a more manageable size in the wee hours — traffic thins on the drive home, and you can park right by the door of the twenty-four-hour Walmart. But life never goes away entirely. You tote a lot more to work in a lunch pail than Ring Dings.

You pack alimony and autism diagnoses and car notes and the rest of the workingman's grind. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. Also braces, a better school, and a down payment on that spring field trip. And you chew whatever has been dumped on your plate in silence. I get good at this job. Good enough at least. One night I look over a pallet and the case count just doesn't feel right. And it's not. I can distinguish between punches — the berry mist glows.


I can distinguish diet from classic by the color of the bottle caps at forty paces. I'm too sensible to claim expertise; let's just say I pull my weight.

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And I can't help but feel proud. I would have never made it this far if not for the kindness of strangers. When my screwups were a nightly lock and the day drivers were asking, Who was checking these loads, Stevie Wonder? Rick took me aside and said, "Forget them guys. You work with us. I learn later that Derek took some bullets from his bosses that were intended for me. When I'm gone and the next guy hoists the clipboard, they'll be just as kind to him. It's not about me; not everything is. Last summer I saw my first shooting star, and I'm a grown man. While many enjoy freedom, there are millions of people who are still trapped by our legacy of racially exclusionary policy in grinding poverty, with no real chance of escape or a better life.

Our society is unique in many ways. One of our most defining features is the legacy of race-based deprivation. Apartheid used laws to push black South Africans to the periphery of our economy and society. While the freedom to take part in elections, and other freedoms, have brought very real choice and justice for millions more, it has not manifested in economic justice — the ability to access opportunity — for the majority of South Africans.