Hustler Eddie's response to an uncertain workplace

February 08, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Because he regards all straight employment as human catastrophe, Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well-known bookmaker, is making his way along Hanover Street this frosty morning with four imitation wool sweaters in a plastic bag.

"Worth $89," he explains by way of sales pitch.

"Too much," says a guy regarding them with the eye of a connoisseur.

"I'll take $20," says Eddie, never one to split hairs.

Historically, Eddie makes his living booking horse races and ballgames and numbers. But, owing to the football season having ceased and the state having become the biggest lottery operator around, it's fallen to Eddie to supplement his income in a variety of other ways.

Selling lifted property, for example. On Hanover Street, Eddie holds these sweaters liberated from an Anne Arundel County shopping mall by a junkie with a $60-a-day habit who sold them to Eddie for $10. So, if Eddie sells them for $20, he's profited without breaking a sweat, while the junkie's on his way to the morning's first fix. On such machinations an entire underground economy sustains itself.

"What about working for a living," Eddie was asked now, "for a real company?"

"I got a sister," Eddie replies, "who worked 14 years for this company out in Woodlawn. She gets laid off six months ago, because the company was doing business with the government, only the government's cutting back, so the company had to cut back, too. She's looking for work for six months now, and whereas she used to make $22,000 a year, now she can't find anything higher than $14,000 a year."

The words hang in the air for a moment. Where's the security in such a life? Eddie's asking. He's not the only one posing such questions. At the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, they've just completed a poll of Marylanders that tells us that nearly half of those employed in the legitimate workplace are concerned about losing their jobs, and most of those people are "very" concerned.

"What's driving the fear?" Larry Thomas, director of the center, asked yesterday. "Partly, it's the uncertainty of Washington, and the corresponding fallout in the state, the reduction of government employees, the downsizing of corporations. When you see a Bausch & Lomb in trouble, or an AT&T laying off people, it makes everybody feel very vulnerable."

"For us," added Don Haynes, director of the survey, "the key distinction is those who were 'very' concerned. Among whites, it was 18 percent. Among blacks, 43 percent. Among males, 19 percent. Among women, 30 percent. [Blacks and women are] the first to go in downsizing, in layoffs, in companies moving out of town, and they get left behind. So they're the ones who feel most vulnerable."

Statistical differences also showed up in income and education. Those who stopped at high school tend to worry more. Those who currently make little money fear they'll be making none: almost 50 percent who earn less than $15,000 a year said they're "very concerned" about losing their jobs. But, while the numbers diminish as income increases, they're still pretty significant: Of those making $35,000 to $50,000, one in four are "very" concerned; of those making up to $75,000, one in five are.

"There's a lot of pessimism in the air," Haynes was saying, "and people make plans based on perceptions. They're afraid to go for big-ticket items, for houses, for new cars, for high-price Christmas items."

Also, there's a chill in the workplace. A new study says the number of U.S. labor strikes dropped to their lowest level since World War II -- just 32 strikes last year involving 1,000 workers or more, which is half the amount of a decade ago and one-eighth the level of two decades ago, according to the New York Times.

This, at a time when the gap between the country's wealthiest and its poorest is wider than at any time in history. This, at a time when the middle class sees itself getting wiped out. This, at a time when figures show the United States has become the most economically stratified of industrial nations.

And so, on Hanover Street, here is Eddie from South Baltimore, who fights such conditions in his own way. He represents the permanent underground economy, subject neither to layoff fears, nor to government cutbacks, nor to the various whims of employers who value an added percentage of profit over the general welfare of employees.

"C'mon," Eddie says now, holding up the four sweaters. "Twenty bucks."

"Fifteen," says the guy examining them.

"Eighteen," says Eddie.

And, like that, he's up eight bucks to start the day. And no boss is hovering over him, asking, "How come you didn't make nine?"

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