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By Tom Cushing

Sad Commentaries

Uploaded: Mar 10, 2014

What's happening to us? That's the depressing question that looms large for me after reading two sad articles in tandem, one local and another about life in Attalissa, a little farming town in Iowa. They seem to share elements in-common ? and reflect poorly on life in these United States.

The Iowa story: The Boys in the Bunkhouse, is a long exposee that appeared in the NY Times Magazine. It lays-out a horrific tale of chronic abuse that spanned nearly forty years. The Iowa bunkhouse was the northern outpost of a company, Henry's Turkey Service, which may have started as a way to provide productive labor to developmentally disabled young men. They were taught the crude rudiments of such tasks as turkey fertilization and slaughter, and then seconded to farmers and meat packers at a legal, sub-minimum wage. Over 1000 boys and men were chosen from Texas state institutions to live and work under the program's guidance.

In Iowa, Henry's rented an abandoned two-story school building that became home for their workers at the local Louis Rich turkey processing plant. These men did the rankest, most foul jobs available in that circle of hell, unloading and eviscerating the birds and "pulling guts." They did it with evident pride, thousands a day, year after year, and became a limited fixture in the Attalissa community.

Their situation quickly spiraled into abuse, however. The boys were never given a pay raise ? not one ? in more than thirty years, and after Henry's deducted money from their minuscule wages for room, board and various prescribed annual outings, the boys never brought more than $65 per month back to the bunkhouse. They were physically abused, their teeth and health succumbed to neglect and lousy food, they slept on soiled floor mattresses in squalid conditions and learned to shield their food from cockroaches that routinely dropped from the ceilings. The few who attempted escape either disappeared, were caught and returned, or froze to death in the open.

The boys were kept against their will, in the sense that they were chosen because they had none, and were completely pliant. They were trafficked as surely as if they'd been imprisoned behind barbed wire, with lifetimes of wages and experiences robbed from them. No word whether the saying "Work will set you free" was painted anywhere over the doors, but why not? They even assumed that the social worker who finally freed them was their new boss lady, and greeted her warmly.

Who failed them? Everyone. Henry's and their overseers exploited them; governments via police, mental health and labor authorities in Texas and Iowa failed to notice or act on their behalf; their families abandoned them and moved-on, heartbreakingly early in their captivities; and both the Louis Rich slaughterhouse and the townspeople, including the church they attended, just looked the other way as their personal and collective living conditions steadily deteriorated.

Production was maintained. Nobody noticed, nor paid attention, nor asked questions or even visited the bunkhouse. And you just have to wonder: how many other bunkhouses are out there, among such as migrant camps, sweatshops, brothels and elsewhere? Are we complicit, in failing to notice, ask and act?

The other story was in Sunday's Chron/SFGate , and nominally concerned the creation and promised enforcement of new rules designed by the city's Main Library to rid the premises of homeless folks who hang out there, and often use it as a restroom and bathing facility.

Now, I understand the need to maintain the facility for its important intended purpose. I also know that "homelessness" is a thorny, seemingly intractable and many-faceted problem and a constant headache for some residents. That said, what bothered me initially is the evident lack of any kind of coordinated community response, beyond encouraging the library to export "the problem" back into the street.

But what was much worse was the utterly snide, nasty and calloused majority of hundreds of commenters who responded to the article. The Most Liked opinion recommended that "homeless advocates ought to have to keep the homeless in their own houses. LOL!" And it went downhill from there. You couldn't even call this the kind of benign neglect that occurred in Iowa, or conclude that these readers were only hostile to the homeless. In their anonymous glory, they didn't even want anyone else to so much as Help the homeless!

It's said that the only good thing about internet anonymity is that you might get to find out what people Really think ? and Lord Knows even this community publication has its challenges with that format. So let's assume that's true and the commenters meant it: this was a failure of empathy on a massive scale. Set in a row with the Bunkhouse horrors, it presents a depressing, if limited review of our culture.

I worry about us ? our pre-occupations with immediate, urgent and personal routines, the ease with which we sever ties and take our leavings, our impersonality, our failures to really connect with each other on a humane level, the absence of real community in our communities. Hell, I even worry that the least-read of my own virtual scribblings hereabouts, by a comfortable margin, was titled The George Saunders Kindness Forum.

These two stories are rife with institutional, community and interpersonal failures. If they don't give us pause to ponder, to vow some greater personal attention to be paid to our fellow travelers, our ties to each other and our expectations of those who lead us, then there will be many more, equally depressing and tragic scenarios headed our way.