Athens, Alabama, 6:08 A.M.—there is a complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby. At a table near me are men in neon reflective vests, work boots, and dusty jeans.
The menu: rubber eggs, plastic cheese, and sausage patties which taste like used Dr. Scholl’s orthotics.
A large television is tuned to sports news. The TV rolls footage of NFL football players, kneeling on sidelines during the national anthem.
The suits on TV are speaking in loud voices, waving hands at each other.
“THIS IS THE GREATEST CIVIL DISPUTE OF OUR TIME!” says one reporter.
The youngest workman—fortyish—isn’t watching TV. His black arm is wrapped in white bandages. The side of his face is scraped purple, and scabbed. He stares at his cellphone.
“Yesterday was my son’s birthday,” the young man announces to the table.
He holds up his cellphone.
“He’s eight,” the young man goes on. “My wife took him out for pizza, my boy loves pizza.”
A man with a long white beard and tattooed forearms removes his reading glasses. He stares at the phone.
“Cute kid,” Long Beard says. “I’ve missed ALL my kid’s birthdays working this job.”
“Me too,” says another. “I’s in Pennsylvania on an interstate overpass when my son graduated high school.”
The television is blaring. A commentator in a silk suit shouts at a pinstripe.
An older Mexican woman approaches the table. She is wearing a hotel uniform. She tops off coffees.
And the workmen fantasize of home. One man tells the table that he’s going to take his son fishing when he gets back home. Another says he’s going to put in a swimming pool for his kids. Another will treat his wife to a Carnival cruise.
The young man says, “What do I buy an eight-year-old for a birthday?”
The television is rolling footage of NFL players, politicians, insurance commercials, and pharmaceutical ads.
The young man says, “Man, missing my boy’s birthdays sucks.”
“You sorta get used to it,” says Long Beard. “It’s just part of the job.”
The blue-collar men finish breakfast in silence. They wipe tired faces, toss Styrofoam plates in trashcans, and rub sleep from their eyes.
The sun is getting stronger outside. It’s going to be another hot one in North Alabama.
The old Mexican woman says to the bandaged man, “Be very, very safe today, please.”
The young man removes his wallet and throws several bills on the table. Another does the same. Then another. All men leave dollars.
The old woman says, “You no gotta tip me, this just my job.”
Long Beard smiles. “We appreciate you.”
She thanks them, then gathers her bills. There must be twenty bucks on that table.
The men leave through sliding doors, their boots are loud on the tile floor.
It’s another American workday. The sun is brutal. Men and women will sweat and rupture their spines to earn meek livings for their families.
Some will eat hotel breakfasts, some will dangle from steel wires, some will miss important birthdays just to pay bills. And I respect them so much it hurts.
The hotel lobby is empty after the men leave. Nobody is watching the television.
The old woman finally turns the damn thing off.