Struggle doesn’t have to be option: I am not celebrating the man who walked 21 miles to work

Young Woman Thinking --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Young Woman Thinking — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I am sure you have heard about James Robertson.

According to the Detroit Free Press,

Leaving home in Detroit at 8 a.m., James Robertson doesn’t look like an endurance athlete. Pudgy of form, shod in heavy work boots, Robertson trudges almost haltingly as he starts another workday.

But as he steps out into the cold, Robertson, 56, is steeled for an Olympic-sized commute. Getting to and from his factory job 23 miles away in Rochester Hills, he’ll take a bus partway there and partway home. And he’ll also walk an astounding 21 miles.

Five days a week. Monday through Friday.

Read more about him here. He is 56 years old and walks 21 miles roundtrip to work. He has done this for years for a job where he makes only $10.55. His job holds him up as the standard for coming to work while failing to realize the reason he can’t afford a car is because he doesn’t make enough. While others applaud his effort, I see it as madness. Why was this even an option?

Before the woe is me struggle patrol starts crying, this post isn’t about putting this man down. Trust me, I have walked for miles too. I know how it is to decide between bus fare for work and eating lunch. It is about making better choices in a very tough situation. People have raised over $180,000 for him. What people have done for this man is nice, however it does not change the structural inequality that millions are dealing with all over this country. He is not the only one, and no one will raise money for them. While you sit high in your ivory tower telling me how wrong I am, this post is for the 99% who won’t be saved.

Let his story be a lesson. Forget what these people tell you. The people applauding this do not make $10.55 an hour. They need a low-cost, docile and committed work force to support their high standard of living. Being poor is hard. It sucks trying to figure out if you will pay rent or keep the lights on. It is hard trying to decide whether you will eat lunch today or will you pay for your child to go on a school trip next week. There is no honor in suffering. There is no joy in working for a company during the best years of your life and having absolutely in nothing in your bank account when you are old. You will get old. There is no joy in walking in the snow in 10 degree weather. There is no joy in an empty refrigerator. There is no joy in telling your child you can’t afford a toy. There is no joy in self medicating because you can’t afford to pay for healthcare.  The reality is the government ain’t coming to help. Detroit buses or other bus systems aren’t going to get better. If you make minimum wage and are unskilled, you will have to fight to make a livable wage. You will not get younger and unlike him, no one will save you. So you have two choices in life. Live passively and wait to for someone to save you (which will never happen) or be smart, plan and save yourself.

You don’t have to be 50 begging for help. You can decide your future by making smart choices. That includes finding a supportive network of people, making smarter reproductive choices (it is expensive to be a parent), saving your money, planning for retirement, acquiring new skills and consistently educating yourself. Unlike this man, who needed to rely on the kindness of strangers, you have options. There are places where you can learn new skills for free here. I will acknowledge that all of those things may not prevent poverty, but it will darn sure give you better options.

I am tired of hearing stories like this. I will not celebrate struggle. I will not celebrate pain because I have been there and have done that. While this man’s commitment should be applauded, his situation should not. You have options. Take advantage of them.

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  1. Acara 3 February, 2015 at 14:33 Reply

    I appreciate this article. Yes, his dedication is noble, but I also asked what landed him in that situation in the first place. And I’m not judging, just wondering. I think we too often rush to help without even taking a moment to get the full picture. I think back to the woman who was arrested for leaving her children in the hot car during her job interview. Thousands were raised for her and she quickly blew through most of it and didn’t even meet the court’s requirements to set aside some of it for her kids.

    I do hope the story is much different for this gentleman.

  2. AJ WORD 3 February, 2015 at 17:36 Reply

    I highly applaud you for this post. I have been following you for some time and it wasn’t till I read another post about how black women, especially black women, are okay with struggling. For what? I think me being an atheist has a lot do with how I feel about living my best life in now. Reaping my rewards in heaven are no longer an option. I am not putting this man down but it makes no sense for human beings to have to suffer in this way.

  3. SP 4 February, 2015 at 00:57 Reply

    In a perfect world, everyone would make smart choices and no mistakes. This Gentleman didn’t ask for a handout, but given help anyway. I say kudos to the Man that offered a helping hand that far exceeded what he imagined.

  4. PhillyGRITS 4 February, 2015 at 04:55 Reply

    What is the governor of Detroit doing? Why should a person have to drive, walk, run, skip or whatever to TIMBUKTU to find a job. Where are the jobs, the Governor promised. This country is falling apart and the Governors are watching the crumbling.

    An infrastructure project would do well for Detroit and the economy, the man with the 21-mile “drive” to work, and all of the Detroiters that need and want a job.

  5. Eva 4 February, 2015 at 07:41 Reply

    I agree with you. It’s important to make good choices and many people are in the positions they are in because of the bad choices they make. The first thing I thought when I heard about this man was, “Why isn’t there a good public transportation system where he lives? “Why is minimum wage so low today, when in the 60’s and 70’s, people could thrive on minimum wage.

    However, as a person in their fifties, I do know that sometimes, no matter how much you plan and make the right choices, life can hit you in the face and slap you down. The only thing you really have control over in this life, are your reactions to situations. I know people who have done all the right things, chosen good mates; but then illness, mental and/or physical happens and their lives change forever.

    Like I said, the only thing you have total control over, are your reactions to whatever cards life deals you.

  6. Destiny Perkins 4 February, 2015 at 09:03 Reply

    It’s like this… Desperate people do desperate things. My Mom is a Struggling Single Mom of 2.
    She took 6 buses a day to get to & from a low paying job which often caused her to get daycare late fees and we are still poorer than the other kids/ Families, only to get let go at the drop of dime for reasons beyond her control.

  7. Elizabeth Alston 4 February, 2015 at 10:01 Reply

    Struggle doesn’t have have to be an option but don’t bash this man. He didn’t ask for any help. He was minding his own business doing his thing. People who heard about his commute started this fund. I glad you’re showing people options. I applaud you for that. Sometimes people don’t know of any. We don’t really know his complete situation, reading about it doesn’t give you the whole story in any situation but I’m glad they started this. It gave him options now and it may somehow make things a little better for the next person. Showing others do any job the best you can & show up. I have a son who has epilepsy ride a scooter sometimes, walk, catch a ride always working. I hear people all the time saying he should be on disability. I think he make a point he is just like everyone else. Yeah, I know you can make options for yourself. I did & life is a lot easier these days.

  8. Gia J. Morris 4 February, 2015 at 20:18 Reply

    I appreciate the helpful info that you provide here but I feel something is missing in your argument. Its very easy to say, “Make better choices.” But in reality not everyone has the same capacity or resources to make better choices. And not everyone comes from a family or community that told them they could rise above it all. There are so many reasons people find themselves struggling and a lot of those are generational and so deeply ingrained that it makes some people have no hope to even try to make that first step. Some people have been trained to only feel comfortable in chaos and don’t know how to be functional. For some this is not just about individual choices but is a systemic problem. So they survive the best way they know how. And if they are lucky someone may come along and show them a better way or give them a leg up but that obviously doesn’t happen everyday. And as in this man’s case it obviously isn’t happening in Detroit.

  9. Ree 4 February, 2015 at 23:47 Reply

    Speaking about the original news report here… I get the reasons to celebrate this individual he is an anomaly in an impossible situation! But the story is sensational because it offers no context. (There are so many in these unreasonable situations. Why?) I would have loved to see Mr.Robinson ’s resilience used as a platform to talk about the systemic issues and possible solutions… (What responsible organizations are out there that we can help support? Where might someone in a similar situation go? Or must they all hope to be rescued by a sensational story?)

    So I appreciate your offering something lasting that more that one person will benefit from in your write-up. I think you mean it to be empowering, that we can chart our own success but the argument you start to make in the “making smart choices” paragraph can start to sound a little bit like the other side/other way of ignoring the systemic issues at play. I.e. in general I don’t think it only boils down to personal responsibility (though obviously this helps tremendously). Making “smart” choices in that sense is really more of a nurture thing than it is a nature thing. Nature is biological; fight or flight, survival and the more stress we are under the worse our decision making skills become. So take intergenerational poverty (not saying this is his reality), lack of access, stress and then ask someone to make better choices/ pull themselves up by the bootstraps is a lot to ask… Still, having that awareness myself, I do plan on checking each one of these links and I really appreciate your sharing them and of course your thoughtful analysis.

  10. Carmencita A. 8 February, 2015 at 10:26 Reply

    I don’t think it’s about “celebrating” the struggle rather than honoring what others did to persevere and make it. What she deems struggle may have been opportunity for them. Why would you even consider throwing shade at ppl who did what they had to do to make as opposed to sitting still and being status quo? Walking 20 miles to work or school for that person might have been the difference between living the same life as ppl in close proximity or a new advantage. It might have been the difference between sharecropper and line worker learning new skills and technology in a plant. She’s full of shit

  11. Carmencita A. 8 February, 2015 at 10:37 Reply

    This whole article lacks the necessary context to effectively prove whatever theory she was trying to prove. We live now in a society that promotes discarding our past and discarding they various elements of our history that brought us here–to this moment where anyone can DECIDE to be “bougie black girl” or successful black woman or fierce graduate or unstoppable mogul or fabulous homemaker. The choices we all have as ppl in this society are excellent, but what does it say about us as individuals when we use the lives of others to justify our own, personal, limited understanding of empathy for humanity by using someone else’s path or PERCEIVED struggle to big up our own self-centered points of view?

  12. Carmencita A. 8 February, 2015 at 10:47 Reply

    Finally, my grandfather is a WWII combat vet, raised his family on a janitor’s wage all of my mother’s and my life. My grandmother was a maid and childcare worker who later graduated business school at the age of 48. Ppl like “bougie black girl” would view their lives & some of what they went through as struggle, not to be celebrated, but that is a conclusion of shallow depths. They successfully bought a home, in an upper middle class area of town when no minorities were yet on the block and no one they knew could fathom home ownership in that area. They successfully put two children through college while maintaining annual family vacations down the shore, to Sag Harbor, to Hawaii, Bermuda, Rome, Brazil, Brussels, Mexico & various US states. They were the “all American” nuclear family…on a janitor and maid’s wage….with little debt. Sometimes they worked long hours, sometimes they walked miles to work when the roads were too icy to drive, buses weren’t running but they were still required to come in…but they did it for the benefit of the family. One person’s short sighted perception of struggle may be another’s path to progress.

    • Bougie Black Girl 8 February, 2015 at 12:01 Reply

      My grandfather and grandmother did the same thing. As a result of their hard work, I have traveled to places most people cannot spell. Do they deserve a medal for doing what they had to do? You, like most fail to see the the forest through the trees. I cannot blame you for that. Most cannot. What you fail to see is that there are millions of Americans doing the same thing every day who won’t get a car. Who won’t get a goFundme account. Who won’t get trotted out by the media as the standard for low wage workers who accept being underpaid and over worked, and who you don’t give a damn about.

      My point is that no one should have to walk 21 miles for a job that under pays you. No transportation system should be this bad. His job failed him knowing that they were underpaying him. The transportation system failed him when they discontinued service but raised prices. This is a systemic failure that can’t be addressed with goFundme accounts for millions, let me say this again, MILLIONS of America’s working poor who are doing the same exact thing. Until we discuss livable wages, FREE job training and a decent transportation system, your feel good stories are nothing more than distractions. Distractions that tell poor people that one day some white knight MAY or may not save you. If they don’t save you, even though you worked at the same low wage job for years and even though we cut off bus service to get to that job, you did not deserve help. Take your struggle porn elsewhere. Your short-sided nonsense won’t fly here.

  13. geejai 9 February, 2015 at 22:55 Reply

    Why can’t you just celebrate this mans work ethic ? Rain , sleet, snow, sun, he made this trip to work. And based on his hourly wage, he cold have just stayed on and revived some type of Govermnet assistance. Yes we understand the systemic problems in this country with income inequality, failing infrastructure , lack of adequate services, and even more so in Black communities. And while he is the benefactor, a lot more Americans finally understand what the working poor looks like. He put a face on it. And for those who believes he made bad choices, you don’t know what his story is? You can do everything right and still have struggles. Having a good education will not protect you from struggle. Most of us are a illness or one negative life event from being where this man was. He was not jobless or homeless, he just couldn’t afford a car. I get your anger at the current system rail against it, but don’t disminish what this man did. And yes I belive our ancestors deserve medals, because in the face of insurmountable struggles they persevered. Maybe you don’t think your folk deserve a medal, but I sure belive mine do.

  14. firefly88 11 February, 2015 at 20:22 Reply

    Working hard is a virtue but working smart is better; for you. Think of the time, health, and trouble that can and could have been saved by using some brain power and saving up for a bike or ride share or finding a third way. Do what you have to to make it, but always look for a way to make it better and more efficient.

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