Some years, on Labor Day, I think of Samuel Gompers, or John L. Lewis, or a guy tightening bolts on an auto assembly line. But every Labor Day, I think of Patricio Gonzalez.
When I went to see him on Labor Day, 1966, I was a newspaper reporter whose hair was still all one color--dark. He was a father of four children with the harried look of a man who was having trouble staying even.
He lived in a house on the southwest side of Albuquerque that I described in print the next day as "modest." In fact, it was falling down, and it had never been much to brag about when it wasn't.
His two oldest kids owned a pair of jeans each, Gonzalez told me. The younger two, both less than 18 months old, owned four diapers between them. Patricio Gonzalez' wife was bedridden with multiple sclerosis. His car was being repossessed. Labor Day '66 was no holiday for Gonzalez, and you had to wonder if he'd ever enjoy one again.
I went to write about Gonzalez on Labor Day because he was about to take the name of the holiday literally. While his neighbors washed the car or washed down a six-pack of suds, Gonzalez planned to do what he did every weekday, national holiday or not: go to work.
Days, he was a cook at a motel. Nights, he was a watchman at The University of New Mexico. He had 45 minutes to leave the first job, stop by the house for dinner and get to the second. I caught up with him just as he had finished eating.
"I work because my family needs it, because my wife needs it, because that's what a man does," I remember Gonzalez telling me, as we bounced along a dusty road in his ancient sedan.
"I work because my father worked, because his father worked, because if I don't work I'm a bum.
"I know I'm lucky to have a chance to work. I work because I want to earn what my family has. I don't want welfare or charity.
"I love to work. I'm proud to go to work. I wish my kids will be as proud to go to work as their old man.
"I'm glad there's a holiday about work. But I don't need holidays. I'm a working man. Work is what I know."
A lot of us work. But every Labor Day, I'm reminded that very few of us understand what our work means as well as a harried man in a battered sedan, rushing down a dusty street.