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Honest work

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:01 p.m.
 

When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was asked by CBS about solutions to the nation's debt problem, he quickly responded that the Social Security “retirement age has to be changed.” Raising the retirement age is necessary to slow down and contain entitlements, he said.

Blankfein displayed the confident manner that bespeaks those corporate and banking titans who have attained celebrity status in this age of business news networks. And he has mastered that knowing smile that signals he knows best when it comes to high finance. Watching Blankfein perform, no one would suspect that he was peddling hot air.

Surely he knows that Social Security funding does not affect the deficit, that the fund is solvent until 2033 and that it is not relevant to the ongoing budget talks. And he cannot have forgotten that his own firm received a $10 billion bailout, a corporate entitlement of sorts that kept it afloat in troubled times.

But it is clear that Blankfein has forgotten a few things — like the people he grew up with in a Brooklyn public housing project. He must not remember the daily grind faced by his postal clerk father and his receptionist mother. And his own work as a vendor at Yankee Stadium during breaks from his public school education seems to have faded from memory.

None of it makes sense, this disconnect between who he was and who he now seems to be, until you take a hard look at the man's hands — his well-lotioned, carefully manicured, pretty hands. There are no calluses or rough spots and no real dirt under his nails. It is clear that it has been a very long time since these hands saw honest work.

They are not the hands of a construction worker, hands that start to crack when the weather turns cold, staying raw until spring. They are not the hands of a factory worker, hands that count on unflagging concentration to survive the mind-numbing monotony and deafening pounding of heavy machinery. And they are not hands that have gripped a shovel or ax or sledgehammer for so long that the fingers do not straighten on their own at the end of the shift.

People who physically work for a living will quietly work as hard as they can for as long as possible; that is the great American work ethic. And even though people are living longer, it doesn't mean that they can work longer than they do now — at least not at back-breaking, nerve-jarring jobs.

Maybe the next time Lloyd Blankfein passes a construction site he will take a long, hard look at the workers there, many of them older than he is, all of them hoping that they can hold on until retirement, until Social Security kicks in.

And if he remembers the days of his youth, he might understand his folly and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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