Essential workers

If you walk around the corner from Crushcakes Cafe and start down Yucca Lane toward the parking lot behind that building, you see a large mural on the wall that resembles an old-fashioned postcard showing the beach paradise and glamour that is the stereotype of California. It is a colorful image suggesting sun, fun, beauty, natural riches and carefree days.

But if you stop and look at the mural, you notice it has two areas where that image is “peeling away,” revealing something less colorful and less carefree underneath. Behind the shiny car, family beach scene, palm tree and bountiful harvest are glimpses of polluting industry, bumper-to-bumper traffic and hard-working stooped-over farm laborers. It is easy not to recognize the contributions of those who labor behind the scenes to support the stereotype of California, including our own small beach town we work hard to protect.

This reality has become painfully clear in the seven weeks since Governor Newsom issued the state-wide stay-at-home order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools and many workplaces are closed leaving a multitude of people at home juggling the responsibilities of supporting remote learning, home schooling, working from home, along with more cooking and cleaning than we thought possible. Only “essential workers” are still on the job.

We can buy groceries and pick up food to go thanks to the “essential workers” in grocery stores and food preparation businesses. Those places have items to sell us because of deliveries made by truck drivers. There is something to put in those trucks because there are food processing plants supplied by farm workers growing and harvesting the food.

We can keep updated on the latest news on TV, radio, or the Internet, or just binge on Netflix because the businesses necessary to make all that work are also “essential.” Our refrigerators and lights work because electric utilities are essential. Water comes out of our taps and our toilets work because essential workers are on the job.

Almost anything else we want, we can order from Amazon or somewhere else online and have it delivered to us, making use of an entire supply chain from raw materials to factories to warehouses with transportation between each step.

And of course, if we need police, fire or medical help, we fully expect immediate response when we call 911.

For some of us, it can seem that we are on our own, providing for ourselves, making do with only what we have. We are on an island in our home reliant on nobody. Then we open the refrigerator, pull out some food from the grocery store, turn on the stove to cook it, and eat dinner in front of the TV watching a movie we always wanted to see.

But that perspective is difficult to maintain when we go to the grocery store with our masks on and speak to the checker through protective plexiglass. We are there for a few minutes then hurry back to shelter-at-home, while the cashier works her entire shift before returning home, worrying she might expose her family to any virus she may have picked up that day.

The California “postcard” mural has been in its current location since 2001 when it was created through a collaboration between a group of teen artists, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and a master artist. It is officially titled “A Climate for Health and Wealth,” a slogan included in the bottom right corner of the piece. Its installation was made possible through a partnership that included the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council (now the Lynda Fairly Carpinteria Arts Center).

The mural’s creators were referencing California’s history, as well as conditions that persist to the present day. But perhaps the message has never been as poignant and clear as it has become today.

When the danger reduces and we slowly return to “normal,” will anything be different than before? Will we collectively treat “essential workers” any differently? Will teachers be paid the same? Restaurant workers? Truck drivers? Farm workers? Gardeners? House cleaners? Delivery drivers?

Or will we just paste back down the peeling parts of the mural so we can again ignore what is underneath?

This post is from the Coastal View News and ran on May 6th, 2020.