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I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

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Let me tell you about these photos.

I first noticed the shoes of the gentleman riding the subway. Then the white suit, the pocket hankerchief, the bow tie, and the hat. I was concentrating so hard on taking a photo surreptitiously that it didn’t occur to me to check out what he was reading. Somerset Maugham? Proust? William Dean Howells?

You never know what photo ops you might see on the MBTA, and I hope to get adept at taking pictures unobtrusively.

Next we have a fanciful teapot in the window of the Lacoste Gallery.

Moving right along: dappled shade on Summer St., Boston, near South Station; and a row boat for rent in Fort Point Channel.

Today’s Dewey Square excitement was a labor rally for striking airport workers demanding a $15/hour minimum wage. Lots of speeches. I photographed a T-shirt and a Boston politician. The politician had such an energetic speaking style, the photo came out blurry, but I’ll add it if you want it.

The last three pictures are of a fake snake — perhaps intended to keep passersby from sitting on a resident’s stonewall — and grapes. The grapes were the most surprising thing that happened to me today. I must have walked past that fence twice a day for years and years, and I never noticed a grape vine growing there. Did someone drape it over the fence while I was at work?

Goes to show you don’t really have to go anywhere much to find surprises.

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Photograph: Ginnette Riquelme for The New York Times
Artist Amor Muñoz pays workers at her mobile factory about $7.50 an hour. “I’m interested in sharing the experience of art,” Ms. Muñoz says.

An artist in Mexico City hires people off the street at $7.50 an hour to help create “electronic textiles.”

Amor Muñoz uses a megaphone to shout, “One hundred pesos an hour!”

Damien Cave at the NY Times continues the story. “The rush was on. By the time Ms. Muñoz parked in her usual spot outside a hospital in one of Mexico City’s peripheral neighborhoods, a line had already formed. Women of all ages squeezed together — one held a baby, another was nearly too old to walk — as Ms. Muñoz opened up a white wooden box revealing thread, needles, cloth, timecards and employment contracts. The work involved creating interactive art pieces that combine the old craft of sewing with 20th-century electronics and 21st-century tags allowing smartphone users to look up who worked on a given piece. …

“Her maquiladora, or factory, she said, is a ‘fantasy’ meant to condemn the harsh reality of a global economy that uses and discards poor workers, especially women, to keep prices low. …

“She described Mexican wages as an insult to human dignity, and every time her mobile factory appears, the power of work for reasonable pay goes on display. The crowds that gather are typically large. Sometimes people push and shove for two hours of work and $15, though once the day’s employees are selected (first come first hired), a calm tends to follow. …

“Many of the women seemed to appreciate a chance to be involved in an art project. María González, 75, smiled widely when handed a needle and adjusted her purple scarf, excited to be creating something rather than worrying about her husband in the hospital. ‘This,’ she said, sewing without looking down, ‘is a wonderful distraction.’ ”

Read more about how happy the women are to work at that wage on art, even if it’s only for two hours.

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Some days I walk in Boston and snap the sights down side streets. The first photo was taken near the harbor. The others were taken near Downtown Crossing.

I like the Adrienne Rich line painted on a bookstore wall: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

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The president recently handed out the Medal of Freedom awards. Maybe in the excitement around around Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, and John Glenn, you missed that Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, also was honored.

Fox News-Latino wrote, “The White House will present the lifelong unionist and immigrant rights advocate with the Medal of Freedom. …

“Huerta’s sense of justice developed from an early age. Raised in Stockton, Calif., Huerta watched her father work for little pay in the fields, while her mother managed a hotel that often let poor migrants stay for free, according to the Daily Beast.

“Along with César Chávez, Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later evolved into the United Farm Workers of America. …

“Using strikes, marches, boycotts and hunger strikes, the UFW has defended the interests of farm workers. … Huerta has been arrested 22 times and been beaten for her activism.

Notwithstanding her run-ins with the law, Huerta has been influential in passing far-reaching legislation. Her accomplishments as a labor rights activist include helping pass California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and helping secure disability insurance for California farmworkers. …

Huerta launched the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002, with the mission of supporting community organizers and budding political leaders.Read more.

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Back before “labor” became a dirty word in the minds of some politicians, “workingmen” were more appreciated.

A corporation might even honor workers in the architecture of a headquarters. (Note the photo taken in Boston’s financial district.)

These days, looking around the subway at the tired bodies heading home at night, I’ve begun to think of almost everyone as the workingman. All but a few folks who are very well off. There is hardly anyone in the middle anymore.

The people slogging back and forth, doing whatever they have to do, are unconscious of a kind of heroic aura that envelops them collectively. You can see it if you look.

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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