I’ve long loved May Day. I partly grew up in England, where there’d be twee dances with participants wearing flowers on their heads as they danced around a ribbon-festooned pole. But there’d also be the sound of The Internationale playing somewhere in the background and huge parades of workers in urban areas and all across the Continent. Back then, you’d even get regular images from the even larger May Day events taking place in Communist countries, or socialist nations with strong Communist parties.
My first job after college was as a bartender in a small Alaskan port town. It was union, as most work was then. There were union benefits. My clientele started each day with roofers and unemployed locals in the afternoon, who claimed they couldn’t go out because of that region’s insistent rain each spring. Then came the foremen and business owners, at the start of Happy Hour, followed by the town’s working folk: loggers, fishermen, state workers.
Each bar had a bell that, when rung, would mean that a round had been bought for everyone in the house. People got along. There was no stratification among drinkers, or apparent partisan divides.
The sound of that bell would mean a flurry of drinks prep on my part: Olympia and Rainier beers, VO and waters, blended cream drinks for the ladies. Shots of Everclear for the truly hardy. One time I got a large order of Pink Ladies for a table. I mixed the ingredients listed in my Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide into a blender then hit the run button. “Drinks on me” was my tip-inducing comment after everything ended up on me. I’d forgotten about the blender’s lid.
May Day was big throughout Alaska. It remained a thing into the 1980s. Eventually, it started disappearing. Unions became a thing of scorn. The idea of solidarity slipped into other uses.
Mention of workers’ power is now suspect. But the calls for a shift are growing as work restarts under new guidelines; because of social-distancing needs, employers are saying, many will have to move to different shifts so workplaces don’t get too crowded. Weekends, say, or night hours. Fewer workers may be needed moving forward.
I’m feeling strangely empowered today. I walk down a street and note how people have been picking up trash, or leaving gifts for others: one stoop has five pairs of shoes lined up. Another has toys. The corner store’s put out day-old bread and other items next to a Free sign.
Human dignity, we’re learning while inside away from others, is about much more than the work we do, or the amounts we’re paid. It’s tied to how we treat each other on the street, in a community.
We need to remember, moving forward, that May Day is about the survival of us all beyond the roles we play as part of an economy. It’s a day of beautiful dignity as well as a crown of flowers, a mantel of pride we wear no matter how foolish our jobs have sometimes made us appear.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.