This is an essay from 2005.
Work is an American ethos. The pace of work that we have set for ourselves is intense, active and direct. We work hard. We do a good job. We keep the proverbial food on the table and roof over our heads. Work defines who we are. It seems to link most of us together. Over 90 percent of us are working at some time or another; it's something we have in common.
I like to think that I'm a hard worker. I put in sixty plus hours a week, every week. I don't take vacations; I schedule a day or two off every month or so. Most of the times, those days are called "Sunday," but then I write on Sunday mornings, so I'm not sure that counts. Every day I arrive at my office at 7:15 am, and I don't leave until 8 pm. On the weekends, I arrive at about 6:15 am and work until late into the morning.
I tire. On the weekend, it's all I can do to get a little rest. By Sunday, I'm a little down if I don't sleep well during the week. So I'll try to do something mindless, like laundry or watching baseball. I have trouble staying in one place for very long, so I'm usually up, trying to find anything to do.
It's about this time of the weekend that I start feeling really sorry for myself. I'm so spent. I work so hard. I work so long. I can't find anything to do to relax. Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I think I'll go eat dirt....
So I do what I know needs doing. I go back to my office, and try to get some work done through the feeble focus of my disorganized haze. And on some days, as I slow down and approach the parking lot that holds my office door, I see The Truck.
It's a blue Toyota pickup with one red fender. It's parked in the cul-de-sac. Seeing it, I know that it's been there all night. I know this, because I know who it belongs to. It belongs to Ray, the owner of the Donut Star, just fifty yards from my office.
When I come upon that truck, it means Ray has been at his store all night, making donuts, cleaning the store, getting ready for the morning. I see the truck there more often these days. The baker he hires to make the donuts in the evening often takes the weekend off, which means Ray has to work graveyard for him. Then he starts the morning shift, selling what he made.
Ray is at his store at 5 am, every morning. He usually doesn't leave until 4. He lives around Friars and 15, so it's a half hour ride back and forth. On days that he has to bake the donuts, he's back by 9 pm. And he stays until he opens, and works until he leaves. He takes Christmas as his only day off. The rest of the days of the year, Ray mans his post.
I have been going to the Donut Star for about sixteen years, as long as I've been in this office. Over the last five or so, Ray and I have become friends. We are in a football pool every week of the football season. We've gone to baseball games together, and he tolerates my fantasy baseball addiction. He always gives me a break on his donuts and diet cokes (yes, he sells both) every day I'm there...which is just about every day.
I have never seen him sick, ever. I have hardly ever seen him tired, even after his overnight shift after working his twelve-hour day.
I asked him how he did it, how he kept so healthy and awake. He said, without blinking, "I don't get sick. I can't afford to."
One day I came down during an off-hour and asked him about himself, where he was from and how he got here. What he said staggered me.
He said he was from Cambodia. He said that, in his late teens and early twenties, he worked in the fields run by the Khmer Rouge. He asked me if I ever heard of the movie "The Killing Fields." I said that I had. He said that those were the fields he was talking about.
He hears people talk about how they had to walk ten miles to go to school: he had to walk about that long to get water. He said that most mornings he woke up to people that died the night before, lying in those fields.
He said that he worked for “three years, eight months and twenty days” in the fields, then escaped to Thailand. Once in Thailand, he worked for another year in a refugee camp. After that year, and through contacts and assistance of the US Embassy, he arrived in the United States.
He works harder than any man I've ever known. He is constant in his affect. Ray is always the same, always happy. I have never seen him unkind to a child, upset with an adult. He is the embodiment of patience: think of how long it takes for any of us to pick out a dozen donuts. Personally, I'd be homicidal, hiding an M-16 in the éclairs. Ray waits in a state of peace, with calm affixed to his face.
When I get too far into myself and think that I'm working too hard, I think of Ray. I think of the sacrifices that he's making today, and the sacrifices he made in the past to get here. He is the definition of hard work. He is the toughest, strongest, and most resilient man I know. He is my model of what I can do if I really try, of how hard I can work if I stop thinking about myself and start thinking about those I'm working for: my clients, my family and, to a point, myself. I always use Ray as the barometer of what can truly be done when your attitude is good and your will is strong.
If you get some time this summer, go see Ray. He'll be there, like he is every day. Buy a dozen, say hi, and thank him. We’re better for him being here.