Dick J. Reavis: ‘Catching Out’ in the Secret World of Day Laborers

Image from Portland Indymedia.

Researching my new book on the job:
Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers

By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / February 15, 2010

Author/activist/educator and Rag Blog contributor Dick Reavis will be Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, February 16, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.

They will discuss Dick’s new book, Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, and his earlier book — Ashes of Waco: An Investigation — about the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. They will also talk about Dick’s experiences in the Sixties when he was active in the civil rights movement and with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and wrote for Austin’s undergound newspaper, The Rag.

On a blazing and humid day about 18 months ago I was working on a day labor crew. Five of us from the day labor hall and two guys from a landscaper’s regular crew were digging up dead yellow sod and putting down new green sod in the expansive backyard of a million-dollar home.

We were thirsty. One of us, a young black man whom I’ll call Maceo, asked the boss man to bring a water cooler.

“But where will I get it?” the landscaper asked.

“At Lowe’s!” Maceo exclaimed!

The boss man complied, after a fashion. He left and came back in about an hour with a cooler. It was filled with lukewarm water. We were thirsty. All of us gathered around.

Maceo took a taste and demanded ice.

The boss man reached for his cell phone, called the labor hall and said that he was firing Maceo.

That didn’t seem fair to me. The kid was only demanding what every outdoor worker needs in the broiling sun: cool, clear water.

I looked at my peers. No hierarchy existed among us, but one of our number, who we called “Real Deal,” stood out as our leader. He could out-booze and outwork all of us, and he had been “catching out” at the labor hall for 11 years — longer than anyone, even its managers. I knew that if Real Deal threw down his shovel, we’d all join in. If also knew that if I — the only white on the crew and a worker with frailties so notorious that I’d been nick-named “Pops” — did it, I’d be alone.

Real Deal had led a spontaneous rebellion on a construction site about a month before, and I knew he could do it again.

But for reasons I couldn’t discern, he didn’t throw down his shovel that morning. Maybe it was because the owner of the house had given him some Ibuprofen. Strong as he was, Real Deal’s back hurt, too.

The water cooler tale is one of the day-on-the-job stories — not exactly about class struggle! — that I tell in my book, Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, which goes on sale Tuesday, February 16. Every page is about the daily life of the some two to three million men and women who go to labor halls — with names like Able Body and Labor Nation — each morning, hoping to “catch out,” or be dispatched to a job. Sometimes the jobs are good for six months, but more often, they last only a day or two.

I am a former reporter, now turned professor. I started my day labor career at 62, mainly because it looked to me like when I retire — if ever that day comes! — I’ll be a few dollars short. I’d done day labor when I was younger and I had enjoyed it because dispatchers had sent me onto sites and into shops and trades that I’d otherwise have never known. I’d have been ignorant about how blue-collar workers live, and as Marx said (though I can think of a few exceptions), “ignorance never helped anybody.”

By the time I finished two summers on my day labor crew, I knew that the notes I’d taken would make a book, and I believed it should be written. We as a nation waste millions of words a year on celebrities, sports stars, and lying politicians, but nobody had ever written a book about the lives of Americans like the honest, if sometimes unmanageable, men and women with whom I had spent working days.

I am now 64 and I think it’s prudent to presume that this will be my last book. It certainly will be the only one I write about day labor. Most manual workers develop either back or knee troubles, or both, in their 50s, and the result is that by 60, they hurt too much for strenuous tasks. I was able to join them thanks only to my relatively benign white-collar past. When my former labor peers turn 55 and 60, unless they can qualify for disability payments — only 40 percent of applicants do — they’ll will have to wait longer than me to retire, even to a precarious old age.

This is life in the United States, a country in which most people believe that manual labor is boring, repetitive, and unskilled, undeserving of handsome pay and company-sponsored old age programs. My book tells a lot of stories which I think are interesting in themselves, but if it has a message, it is only this: all of that stuff that people believe about blue-collar workers ain’t true.

[A native Texan, Dick J. Reavis teaches journalism at North Carolina State University. An award-winning journalist, educator and author, Reavis was active with SDS and the New Left in the Sixties. He wrote for Austin’s underground newspaper, The Rag, and later was a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine. His book, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, about the siege and burning of the Branch Davidian compound, was published by Simon and Schuster and may be the definitive work on the subject. His latest book is Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers.

Dick will read from and sign copies of Catching Out at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin at 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27, and at Sedition Books in Houston at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28.]

Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers by Dick J. Reavis; Simon & Schuster, $23.99; 352 pp.

Though a writer and English professor by trade, [Dick] Reavis found himself taking on the role of a day laborer to help supplement his retirement and savings. Appearing at the local labor hall to “catch out,” that is, get picked for a job, Reavis, who wrote about illegal immigrants in his first book, Without Documents, becomes one of the millions of Americans who work all manner of manual labor gigs and are, economically and socially, “living on the edge,” as he lugs boxes, digs ditches, and hauls debris with fellow workers.

Despite each of the jobs being unrelated, the book is held together by Reavis’s central focus on the plight of a working class that has no health insurance, for the most part must rely on others for transportation, and, in many cases, may not even have a home to return to at the end of a long day. Also to his benefit, Reavis allows his colleagues — hard drinkers like Real Deal, shirkers like Tommy, softies like Office Skills, and hard workers like Sung — to take center stage in his tales, which run the gamut from humorous to heartrending.

This ability to bring the small successes, daily struggles, and measured dreams of these “down-at-heels” working stiffs makes the book’s final chapter, in which Reavis outlines the legal and economic reforms needed to help day laborers get fair wages and treatment, overwhelmingly persuasive.

Publisher’s Weekly / November 30, 2009

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Dick J. Reavis: ‘Catching Out’ in the Secret World of Day Laborers

  1. What an outstanding premise for a book. I look forward to reading it. I spent my summers in high school laying sod and being a grunt on a roofing crew. My summers in college were spent working as a laborer on pipelines and refineries during the texas oil boom of the 80’s.

  2. Mariann says:

    Dick — your last book???? what kind of nonsense is that? You are only now entering into your prime writing years!

    I heard Mexico City journalist John Ross read his amazing and wonderful poetry last night at Resistencia Books; wow; and quien sabes, maybe you, too, have a poem or two that can now rise to the surface??

    PS — this is funny, the word verification the blog wants me to enter is “relic”; did they read that piece on the Rag Blog this week in the Austin Chronicle??? Yah we are a bunch of old fuddy-duddies, right?

    I don’t know a lot of young guys who are actually fit to do day labor!

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