Max Alvarez’s interviews record working-class perspectives on the age of COVID
The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke, by Maximillian Alvarez, OR Books (2022)
A hundred years from now, when all the great crises we’re living through have played out, who will tell the story of what happened to us? Will historians reconstruct this period with broad statistics or lofty accounts made from decades later? Or will the voices of the people who bore the brunt of it and survived somehow make it to the listeners of the future?
I was living in New Orleans when the pandemic hit. Hospitality workers demonstrated and the hoppers struck for PPE and hazard pay. Both were dismissed by Mayor Latoya Cantrell. It was unforgivable. When the fiscal stimulus relief programs were announced, undocumented migrants weren’t eligible. New Orleans has many people who fit that bill since brokers brought workers from Mexico and Central America to clean the city up after Katrina – workers who then stayed and became a part of the city they helped rebuild. On top of COVID they had to worry about hunger and La Migra. Three hurricanes made landfall that year in Louisiana—Laura, Delta, Zeta. Thousands of unhoused evacuees came from Lake Charles, parts of which were laid to waste; in time the neglected evacuees became refugees.
At the apartment complex where I was renting we had a sign announcing, “An Ochsner Hero Lives Here.” She was a nurse who used to come downstairs and talk to her mother in another state on her cell phone as she paced the property. She screamed and sobbed into the phone every single day. When she wasn’t working, she was often drunk–wasted.
Our heroes were being pushed to the brink and beyond. More than 400,000 working age people in the US are estimated to be gone as a result of the pandemic. Beside seasoned-by-crucible groups like Cooperation Jackson (whose cooperators produced state-of-the-art masks on 3-D printers and then distributed them for free to frontline health care workers who were otherwise unprotected) society as a whole did not mobilize to prevent their lives from being sacrificed in those early days. Workers were on their own to navigate the deadly coronavirus storm.
As far as I can see, Maximillian Alvarez’s wise and tender debut book, the thoughtfully titled The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke, is as yet the only book-length exploration of those who experienced and survived year one of the pandemic on its front lines: how they coped at work, how they came to understand the reality of their unenviable class position as “essential” – that is, expendable – laborers. COVID, especially prior to the vaccine, was an acid wash for workers: and in its bracing wake, they far better understand the amoral system of capitalism and their place in it. Embedded in their testimonies is evidence that their class consciousness was quickened, and that alone makes it indispensable reading. I imagine that’s what Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, may have meant when she wrote that Alvarez’s inquiry is “about finding what really binds us together in those struggles so that we can fight our way forward…”
If you linger over the cover image by artist Molly Crabapple, which depicts New Yorkers banging pots and pans in honor of frontline workers, it’s pretty apparent that the New Yorkers making the noise and those on the sidewalk trying to out-maneuver the virus are in different emotional spaces. Above, there’s relief and joy in joining with others to express the sentiment that we’re all in this together; from below, it’s a harmless gesture, as helpful as the rumble of the subway tracks. Pictured with a bike messenger, a bottle and can collector, and a brazen little rat, Crabapple foregrounds the young masked woman’s sad but steely resolve.1Molly Crabapple is an important visual artist whose work has been associated with social movements in North America and beyond since around 2011. Having started her career as a burlesque performer in the New York performing arts scene, Crabapple initially came to prominence as an artist for her series of massive paintings inspired by Occupy Wall Street, which were quickly disseminated as posters and memes. She would spend the next decade carving out a niche for herself as a latter-day Art Young, serving as a freelance illustrator for the writing of radical journalists, essayists, and activists – her distinctive expressionistic watercolors have appeared in Vice, Paris Review, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere. Crabapple collaborated with the working-class Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham on his memoir Brothers of the Gun(2018), preserving his memories of friends murdered by Assadists and jihadists with eighty beautiful ink drawings. And, back when the Green New Deal was on the parliamentary socialist agenda, she animated a wistful video for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about the ecosocialist future. Her work is brilliant and well worth following. –Eds.
The volume’s 239 pages contain brief prefatory remarks from Alvarez, who holds a Masters in Russian literature from the University of Chicago, and whose dissertation, “Technologies of Resistance: Media, Anarchy, and Radical Politics in Early 20th-Century Mexico,” won him dual PhDs in history and comparative literature from the University of Michigan in 2020. He is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, based in Baltimore, and is the host of the prolific Working People Podcast, now in its fifth season with 236 episodes. When OR Books approached him in the spring of 2020, he was already stretched to the max. But as a student of media, he understood what was at stake, and that this book would serve as a placeholder for a larger body of work to come.
Alvarez declares his motivation in the preface: “In the future, we’ll need to remember how we felt about this as it was actually happening to us.” That last piece – “as it was actually happening to us” – is profound. Imagine collecting narratives of more than 2,300 enslaved African workers when they were new to the continent and in the process of having chattel slavery enforced on them; how different that collection would read from the Federal Writer’s Project survey in 1936, which asked predetermined standard questions to an extremely aged cohort, 73 years after emancipation.
Because those who aim to capitalize on it will tell us to remember it differently, or they’ll have us recall only very select parts of the experience. The question for us then—one of the most deeply political questions of all—is: What will we remember, and how will we remember it?
And though he doesn’t explicitly use the words metamorphosis or class consciousness, they’re brimming in the subtext of another question: “How will we each see ourselves as participants in and shapers of this history?”
What follows are 10 exchanges with workers. About half of them are worker organizers or leaders in some way, having a well of experience from which to draw their insights, illustrative examples, and their occasional flashes of macabre humor. They all seem pleased for the chance to debrief.
Prompted by Alvarez’s genuine curiosity about their experiences and his healthy appetite for nuance and specificity, all read like “shop talk.” Along the way, we learn the specifics of grave digging, organizing educators and nurses, preserving traditional Indigenous farming, Uber driving, sheet metal work, zinc mining, bartending, burlesque performance, and sex work. I especially appreciated Chili Yazzie’s firsthand account of COVID and Diné people in Shiprock, and how the pandemic made the lack of food sovereignty throughout Navajo country more acute. He elaborates on his work with traditional Indigenous farmers to defend against starvation, and the history of food sovereignty as a weapon deployed against his people.
The Work of Living is focused on how workers lived through the first year of the pandemic. Many were “essential workers” who were not provided with information, sufficient PPE, “hero pay,” or other tangible support, but who did have to hear a great deal, as we all did, about the “China flu” and Title 42 mass expulsions of migrants. This is a book about not forgetting how much worse it was than it had to be. A mini-archive by necessity, made in hours snatched from already unforgiving schedules, the book tells of how workers in this country were forced to play a dangerous daily round of Russian roulette with their health and lives, as they were witnesses to the death around them.
One of the particular strengths of The Work of Living is how it lingers on the inner lives of workers, the generosity of their insights that sometimes read like song lyrics (so I added enjambments).
Take Nick Galuppo, for instance, a gravedigger in New Jersey, p. 6-7:
I can’t envision myself really doing much else. You know? Not that I wouldn’t want to. But it’s just…it’s almost like a burden to endure. That’s what it is. And don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to say we’re special, because we’re not. There are people in this world who do important stuff— people who save people’s lives, people who advance technology. We’re not saving anything; we’re the opposite.
But it’s essential.
Or Courtney Smith, full-time single parent, teacher and organizer in Detroit, p.116-117:
The kids need to be online from 8:30 AM to 3:40 PM. They had to have their cameras on. And they needed to be tested damn near every day, it seemed like. It was a lot… it was a lot. We did that for a good month, and we literally cried every single day afterward. I mean, every day, by 1 o’clock, my son’s asking me, “Are we done yet? Can I be done? Can I just…?”
And he’s seven!
But other times the interviewees’ focus is on the all too prosaic ways in which working-class death was normalized throughout the pandemic. Here is Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Association, p.160-161 (this time without my added line breaks):
Well, I’m Filipino and I can tell you that among other things we have been labeled as being hungry for money even during this time when we are fighting COVID and fighting for our lives. They said, “Oh, yeah, a lot of them have died because they’re so money-hungry; they’re doing a lot of overtime,” etc. But that’s not the reason why Filipino American nurses stay for long hours. Culturally we treat our patients like they are our families. If a manager or supervisor comes to me and says “Can you stay? There’s nobody who can work,” that translates to, “There will be no nurse for your patients.” What do I say to that? I don’t want it on my conscience that I deliberately left the hospital knowing that there would be no nurse for x amount of patients. So we tend to stay. That is one of the reasons why a lot of the Filipino nurses have died.
While legacy media lifted up the martyrs and tracked essential worker burnout, it hasn’t spilled too much ink examining how workers came to find themselves in the position of being exploited to death in the first place. The fact is that our ruling institutions have chosen policies that result in working-class people dying in large numbers who did not need to die. The Work of Living stands alone as a particular kind of intervention, a circle of 11 workers (including Alvarez) who in these pages resist the accounts which will inevitably diminish what actually happened. As Alvarez concludes:
The wilds of 21st-century capitalism, and the hard lives it forces so many of us to live, have gotten us so used to being dehumanized—denied our most basic needs and desires for purpose, connection, comfort, and joy—and so used to being alienated from one another, that we must collectively commit to doing the patient, tender work finding each other again (or for the first time). We must listen to each other and remind ourselves of that which life under capitalism forces us to forget: that we’re all human, and we all deserve better than this.
Frances Madeson is a freelance movement journalist, feature-writer, and author of the comic novel Cooperative Village. She hangs her editorial hats at The Real News Network, Truthout, Capital & Main, American Theatre, Scalawag, Antigravity, Tablet, Toward Freedom, and beyond.