By R.J. Beaumia
Recently I have had to make what is perhaps the most crucial, difficult decision of my life, but unlike the majority of my previous King Solomon moments, I think it is also the best one.
I’m one of those people who has had scant opportunity or – given my bent for abrupt and prolonged bouts of sybaritism – little desire or providence to make choices in life that would have the public clamoring to put my name on the front of newspapers or inspire committees to pin medals to my chest. Harvard or Yale? Medicine or law? No, not for me.
Rather, my internal monologue through the years has sounded more like this: Should I swipe another one of Dad’s Marlboros or should I just steal a whole pack for myself from the store? Should I have one more scotch now or should I wait to have one with my dealer when he gets here with the eight-ball? Should I try to get my best friend drunk so that he’ll let me blow him again or should I get his roommate drunk too and see if they’ll let me pull a two-fer? And should I swallow?
I’m the kid who left the carrots on his plate to save room for the chocolate cake, and then asked for a second piece.
The choices we make early in life can determine the number and varieties of the choices available to us later on. So, as a result, some find their alternatives countless and others, like me, have found their choices limited to the categories labeled Hobson’s or Sophie’s.
I allowed a noxious combination of my social class, religious upbringing, genetics, low self esteem, fear, naivete, confusion, sloth, and bad timing to rule the circumstances of my life for many, many years. I needed sound advice, I needed guidance, I needed someone to tell me that none of those things mattered and that I was making huge mistakes and that I had a lot to offer if I would just get my shit together. I didn’t get that from anyone. The people in my life, my true friends and my family, without exception loved me and did their sincere best for me, but were limited themselves in the resources or experienced advice that they could give because of their own similar circumstances.
And had they been able to show me where I was going wrong, would I have listened? Looking back at myself at that time, maybe not. Even though I felt like I looked like Quasimodo, out there in the middle the public square of my mind (which is about three miles south of the windmills of my mind), unlike him I was never shackled, never tethered. The choices I made were all mine, plainly.
What rescued me was cheap gasoline and two constants in three generations of my family, the United Auto Workers and Ford Motor Company.
Anyone who’s read this column before and has submitted themselves to my moaning knows the story: Back in the early 90s I got a good-paying job with great benefits at Ford building big SUVs and it saved my life. I would say that I got my groove back, but since I didn’t have one to lose in the first place, I guess I’ll just say that I finally got a groove and it felt great to have one.
The work on the assembly line was extremely hard and I battled homophobia. But I stuck with it. I got used to the work, I became good at it, and I was valued when I learned dozens of jobs. I became a team leader and thrived on the interaction with my team members and I found out how Sally Field feels because they liked me, they really liked me!
Over the years the culture of the company and the union changed and outward displays of homophobia or harassment because of sexual orientation were not tolerated. Some old-school assholes might have wanted to call me a faggot, but wouldn’t because they could get fired. Ford’s gay employees got domestic partner benefits, and let me tell you, those benefits were good because they were negotiated by the UAW.
The first three things I did soon after I started making money at Ford was to pay off my old car, go and get a proper medical check-up with my new health insurance plan, and buy myself a Rolex watch. While that last one was a completely unneeded bit of decadence, its tangible presence represented to me that my hard work could be translated into buying power for wants instead of desperate needs, and there is no other feeling like that when you’ve been exploited for years working your ass off in shitty jobs.
I stopped taking drugs. I bought a house and a new car. I got a passport and traveled.
I had been going to college on and off since I graduated from high school. Before Ford, most of the time I couldn’t afford to go; other times there would be just too many people I had to meet around a coffee table covered in lines of cocaine for me to bother with studies. My sporadic attempts at college yielded me little until I started at Ford. I used my UAW-negotiated education benefit to finish two bachelor’s degrees.
I got involved in my union, met everyone in the UAW, and was given the honor of editing a union publication.
And now I’m leaving all of it, and it breaks my fucking heart.
I made up my mind to take a buyout from Ford the last time I found myself up at nine o’clock in the morning (I’ve worked nights my entire life by choice and have been a night person from birth, so this was abhorrent to me) waiting for a televised announcement from executives at the Glass House where they would say which plants were going to be closed and which were to be spared – for now.
Anyone who’s grown up in the car business like I did is well aware that auto manufacturing is a volatile way to make a living. Growing up I saw my Dad and others in my family go on long strikes or get laid off for extended periods because gas prices were too high or consumers wanted Japanese cars or recalls were hurting sales. My family had seen it all and we had weathered it. But this thing I was going through was a completely different experience.
Whether I would stay with Ford during this crisis or go, either way my life would never be the same. The auto business would never again be like my grandfather’s or my Dad’s auto business. It wouldn’t even be like the one I had grown into. It was obvious to me that the contracts or the opportunities for advancement would never be as good again, and I just had too many years left to wait around to see the results. I knew the downsizing would be rough.
But like the old Motown song goes, every day things change, and the world puts on a new face. My world was changing, and I decided to change with it and not look back.
Years ago, when things got bad, workers could be laid off on any random Friday; no warning, no Rice-a-Roni as a parting gift, nothing. This time the UAW negotiated a generous set of separation packages and Ford was savvy enough to agree to them, considering them an investment in the future of the state’s workforce.
I’m taking an education buyout and getting a master’s degree, maybe a PhD. And I want to publicly thank the UAW and Ford Motor Company for the opportunity they’ve given me and thousands of others during the direst of circumstances.
I want to state right here that the United Auto Workers is the best thing that ever happened to working men and women in this country, and I also want to say that despite the flaws, Ford Motor Company is a fantastic company to work for and they make great products, and I will always be grateful for what they’ve done for me and my family.
I got tough at Ford, and I became a survivor. So, not only did they do right by me in my financial life, they helped me become more proud of myself as a gay man by showing me respect and bestowing me with the dignity that I’m legally denied every single day outside of their plants.
I will take the union and company with me wherever I go in life, and believe it or not, I paraphrase Richard Nixon here by saying that I leave the UAW and Ford with high hopes, in good spirits, with deep humility, and with much gratefulness in my heart.