On her husband’s last day on the job, Renee Spencer sent me the kind of e-mail that could have come from a devoted spouse living just about anywhere in America.
I do not know Renee, but that didn’t matter. She is a blue-collar worker’s wife in Ashtabula, Ohio, reaching out to another wife, whose working-class roots run deep in that same small town.
Renee was 19 when she married the 20-year-old tower of a man with a way about him that made her swoon. Nearly three decades later, she still adores Ed, but she worries he no longer can see the reasons.
“After 33 years of waking up with a job to do, tomorrow he will be lost,” she wrote. “The pride of this hard-working man is that he put food on the table, clothes on his family’s backs, put two kids through college and raised them to be awesome individuals. He sees his value in the pain in 50 percent of his joints from years of walking concrete floors and working in coolers/freezers. He sees his value in every callus that his hands have earned.
“What I hope he comes to see is that his value is in his wonderful blue eyes that say ‘I love you’ even when his lips don’t. I hope he sees his value in the fact that he is, and will always be, both his kids’ and my hero.”
Ed was 16 when he got a union card and his first grocery job. Over the years, he worked his way up from bagger to dairy manager. In 2006, when his job at an Ashtabula grocery was about to evaporate, John Zagara called Ed to ask him to work at a former Tops grocery on Cleveland’s east side. It was the first time Ed ever felt courted.
“John made it sound like the question was: Is he a good enough employer for me to work for?” Ed said. “I’d never met an employer like that.”
Zagara, a third-generation grocer, restored 40-hour workweeks for Tops’ former full-time employees and promised the union workers they would keep their current wages at the renamed Zagara’s Marketplace.
“Some didn’t believe me at first,” Zagara said. “We could have cut their wages, but you don’t do that to people. We had to build up morale.”
It was Zagara’s second grocery, and just as it was starting to take off, the economy imploded.
“We lost our footing,” Zagara said. “If the recession hadn’t hit, we would have made it.”
“John tried to make it work; he really did,” Ed said. “We knew there was a chance he would have to sell the store. We knew jobs could be lost.”
After Zagara told Ed he’d agreed to sell the store to another local chain, Ed waited until long after dinner to tell Renee. She had come home with news of her first bonus from the J.C. Penney store where she works part time.
“She was so happy. I didn’t want to spoil it for her,” Ed said. But Renee knows her husband. She finally turned to him and said, “OK. What’s wrong?”
Zagara met with each of the 75 employees who would lose their jobs. “It was hard,” he said softly, his voice breaking, “but it was the right way to do it.”
Ed Spencer was luckier than most. He had a choice, but it was a hard one.
Zagara offered him a job at his other store, but it wouldn’t include the overtime that used to compensate for the hourlong drive and evening hours. The new job would add another 20 minutes each way, too, and he’d already totaled his car once on the drive through Snowbelt country.
Ed also knew his body was wearing down. At 49, he has had knee surgery and is scheduled for shoulder surgery next week. He regularly visits a chiropractor for his back.
“You’ve provided for us all these years,” his son Tim said. “You put us through college. You don’t need to be throwing boxes around anymore.”
Ed had put in the required 30 years with Local 880 of the Food and Commercial Workers union to trigger his pension. It’d be less money, but he still would earn extra cash working as a high-school umpire. And he’d find another job.
“Renee and I talked about it a lot,” Ed said. “She said it was up to me.”
On a wintry day in mid-February, Ed sent Renee a text message: “Last day March 14.”
She responded: “Then you get a new start March 15.”
Ed’s not so sure.
“I was raised to believe you do what you have to do,” he told me. “I’m a man who has to work.”
He said potential employers look at his résumé and think he’s not qualified for the kind of job he used to do.
“These days, you need a college degree,” he said. “You need a piece of paper that says you can do what I did without one for 33 years.”
Ed laughed at that.
But only a little.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.