Studs Terkel, Working

Studs Terkel's Working is a truly great book, and worthy of the many accolades it has received over the years. Simply put, the book is an oral history of Americans telling of their jobs - both the specific responsibilities involved and the meaning derived from work. The book, first published in 1974, came at a critical time - shortly after the social upheaval of the tumultuous 1960s - when people increasingly questioned their place in society and particularly the long-ingrained American work ethic. After reading the book, my impression is that the majority of workers therein were disatisfied with their jobs, seeing themselves as faceless cogs in corporate and government machines, and often powerless to make a change. But many also loved their jobs and relished going to work every day, which gave the book a much-needed balance.

Since my own words can't possibly do justice to the voices of Working's narrators, I encourage everyone to at least read the various excerpts I've been posting here during the past two years. If those excerpts move you even a tiny bit, then you absolutely must read this great book, the crowning achievement of Terkel's incomparable career.

October 13, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Fireman

The final passage in Working presents Tom Patrick, a New York City fireman.

Last month there was a second alarm. I was off duty. I ran over there. I'm a bystander. I see these firemen on the roof, with the smoke pouring out around them, and the flames, and they go in. It fascinated me. Jesus Christ, that's what I do! I was fascinated by the peoples' faces. You could see the pride that they were seein'. The fuckin' world's so fucked up, the country's fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that shit. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be.

I worked in a bank. You know, it's just paper. It's not real. Nine to five and it's shit. You're lookin' at numbers. But I can look back and say, "I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody." It shows something I did on this earth.

Despite his sober realization of the extreme dangers that firemen face, including their diminished life expectancy, Patrick sees great societal and especially personal value in a fireman's work. He truly feels he's making a difference. Lucky man.

October 8, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Priest

Perhaps the most interesting section of Studs Terkel's Working is the final one, called "Fathers and Sons", which presents not only each worker's reflections on his own job, but also on his father's job or his son's. Thus this section not only included the steelworker Steve Dubi, but also his son, Father Leonard Dubi, who abandoned blue-collar work (with the strong encouragement of his father, who never found fulfillment in his work) in favor of the priesthood.

When I got out to St. Daniel's three years ago, I had an agenda for myself. I was trained in a very liberal seminary. I saw social action issues - war and peace and poverty. I spent my deacon years - before I was ordained - at Catholic Charities. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was a fisherman pulling people out of troubled waters. Trying to bring them back to life with artificial respiration and Band-Aids. Then I'd put them back on the other side of the river into the same society that pushed them in. I knew I'd have to do more than just be a social worker and patch up people.

So instead of handing out charitable aid, Father Dubi became an activist priest - fighting against Mayor Daley the First and the Crosstown Expressway, which would have destroyed thousands of working class homes, and against corporate giants U.S. Steel (ironically, his father's employer) and Commonwealth Edison for their noxious pollution that was poisoning thousands of people. In doing so, he undoubtedly improved the lives of countless more people than he ever could have otherwise. Father Dubi is still active, and is currently serving at St. Victor's in Calumet City.

October 7, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (1)

Working: Alternative School Teacher

Studs Terkel's Working presents these interesting thoughts on competition in the classroom, from Pat Zimmerman, who ran an alternative school in Chicago's working-class Uptown neighborhood.

I discourage competition in the classroom. The only one I accept is the student's competition with himself. He has to compete against where he is, against where he wants to be, and against where he has been. I think every kid understands that. They don't have to prove anything to me. Each kid has to prove to himself that he's worthwhile. There's no cheating here. There's no reason for it.

...Grades? I keep grades, but they aren't entered on anything. I simply keep them in mind as a trend...Kids like grades, 'cause they like to know where they are right now. Records? No. They have enough records. They have police records, social history records, welfare records. (Laughs.) I should have to keep records?

In every classroom, there should indeed be no reason for cheating. If you cheat, you're only doing so to create the appearance that you've learned something when you've actually learned nothing - cheating only gets you the credit for achievement, without achieving anything. Without gaining knowledge. If cheating is pervasive, the teacher isn't doing his job.

September 30, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Factory Owner

In Studs Terkel's Working, Dave Bender was the owner and operator of a midsize factory in the Midwest, which he started from nothing and grew through tireless work and relentless curiousity. Though he was the owner, he was most comfortable on the factory floor, and spent little time in his office.
They tell me it don't look nice for the workers for me to work on the machine. I couldn't care less if I swept the floors, which I do. Yesterday some napkins fell on the floor from the napkin feeding machine. I said to the welder, "Pick up the napkins." He says, "No, you pick it up." I said, "If you're tired, I'll pick it up." So I'm pickin' 'em up.

You're the boss of these people.

(Hurt) No, I just work here...I tell people I don't want to hear another word about who I am or what I am...I never tell people I'm the boss, I get red and flustered. I'm ashamed of it. When they find out - frankly speaking, people are parasites. They treat you like a dirty dog one way, and as soon as they find out who you are it's a different person. (Laughs) When they come through the front door - "I want you to meet our president, Mr. Bender" - they're really like peacocks. I'd rather receive a man from the back door as a man. From the front door, he's got all the table manners. Oh, all that phony air. He's never down to earth. That's why I don't like to say who I am.

A man comes in and I'm working like a worker, he tells me everything. He talks from the bottom of his heart. You can break bread with him, you can swear. Anything that comes out of your heart. The minute he finds out you're in charge, he looks up to you. Actually he hates you.

...I do so many wrong things. Why don't you tell me to go to hell for the things I do? I deliberately see how far I can push them. And they won't tell me to go to hell, because I'm Dave Bender, the president. They look up to me as a man of distinction, a guy with brains. Actually, I'm a stupid ass, as stupid as anybody that walks the street.
That kind of candor and humility is just so rare in an executive, and wonderfully refreshing. Clearly, Bender was the kind of boss that all of us would be incredibly lucky to have.

September 23, 2010 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Auditor

Another excerpt from Studs Terkel's Working, this time from Fred Roman, a public accountant:
You're an auditor. The term scares people. They believe you're there to see if they're stealing nickels and dimes out of petty cash. We're not concerned with that. But people have that image of us. They think we're there to spy on them. What we're really doing is making sure things are reported correctly. I don't care if somebody's stealing money as long as he reports it. (Laughs.)
I can relate. My first job out of college was as a bank auditor, examining clients and making sure everything there was actually as they claimed. Though the clients were always friendly, they were always suspicious and wary of my presence, and were undoubtedly relieved when I finished my audit and left their offices.

December 10, 2009 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Hair Stylists

From Studs Terkel's Working, this priceless bit of (dated) insight from Edward Zimmer, proprietor of a hair salon:
Years ago, a wife wouldn't think of going to a grocery store with blond hair. 'Cause what is she? A show girl? Light hair only went with strippers, prostitutes and society women. In order to silver-blond in those days, you would use a lot of ammonias and bleaches and the woman would have to come back two or three times before it got light enough to be a silver blonde. This cost fifty, sixty dollars a treatment. So the average hausfrau and her husband, he's say "What are you workin' as a cigarette girl or something? You're a mother, you got four kids, you're insulting me in church, you look like a hoozy." But today all girls look like hoozies.
That "strippers, prostitutes and society women" comment made me laugh out loud. Ed sounds like he was a pretty interesting and opinionated guy, one who would have been great to talk to. But I suspect he would have gotten pretty infuriating quite quickly.

November 29, 2009 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Interstate Truck Driver

Another great passage from Working, this by "Frank Decker", a trucker who delivers loads from the Gary steel mills.

A stop at the Wisconsin state line, a place to eat. Big trucks stop there. Maybe meet a bunch that have been in the steel mill all night. Coffee-up, tell all the stories, about how badly you're treated at the steel mill, tell about the different drunks that try to get under your wheels. Then move towards your destination and make the delivery at seven o'clock in the morning. We're talking about thirteen hours already. My routine would be to drop two days like this and not come home. Halfway back from Milwaukee take a nap in the cab at a truck stop. You use the washroom, the facilities, you call your dispatcher in Gary, wash up, get rejuvenated, live like a human being for a day, come back to the mill after supper, and be off again.


To me, this passage is truly literary, capital-L Literature. Any fiction writer who wants to create realistic dialogue, to sound like people really talk, should regularly use Terkel's book (or any of his books, for that matter) as a reference manual.

August 2, 2009 in Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (1)

Working: President, Lordstown Local, UAW

Reading Working last night, I was struck by this passage from the UAW local boss in Lordstown, Ohio, which is timely today even though it was said back in 1972. He's talking about the onset of robotic automation at General Motors, which sped up output but also resulted in extensive layoffs.

When they took the unimates on, we were building sixty an hour. When we came back to work with the unimates, we were building a hundred cars an hour. A unimate is a welding robot. It looks just like a preying mantis. It goes from spot to spot to spot. It releases that thing and it jumps back into position, ready for the next car. They go by them about 110 an hour. They never tire, they never sweat, they never complain, they never miss work. Of course, they don't buy cars. I guess General Motors doesn't understand that argument.

There's twenty two, eleven on each side of the line. They do the work of about two hundred men - so there was a reduction of men.

You always hear economists and business commentators sing the praises of "productivity", which is just a fancy way of saying "producing more with fewer workers." What they never say is that fewer workers also means layoffs, and reduced consumer spending, and lower quality of life in the towns that rely so heavily on the auto industry. Sure, robotics increase production, but at a human cost that is rarely mentioned. Or an economic cost, even to GM - as the union boss points out, robots don't buy cars. Imagine how many more cars GM could have sold all these years if they were still paying the paychecks of several hundred thousand more autoworkers whom were cast aside in the quest for "efficiency."

May 31, 2009 in Books, Current Affairs, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (2)

Working: Policeman

In Working, policeman "Vincent Maher" reflects on the role and authority of police in the community, past and present:
To me, when I was a kid, the policeman was the epitome - not of perfection - was a good and evil in combination, but in control. He came from an element in the neighborhood and he knew what was going on. To me, a policeman is your community officer. He is your Officer Friendly, he is your clergyman, he is your counselor. He is a doctor to some: "Mr. Policeman, my son just fell and bumped his head." Now all we are is a guy that sits in a squad car and waits for a call to come over the radio. We have lost complete contact with the people. They get the assumption that we're gonna be called to scene for one purpose - to become violent to make an arrest. No way I can see that. I am the community officer. They have taken me away from the people I'm dedicated to serving - and I don't like it.

The cop on the corner took you across the street, right? Now, ten o'clock at night, he's still there on the corner, and he tells you to get your fanny home. He's not being nice. The next time he tells you, he's gonna whack you with the stick. In the old days, when you went home and told your dad the cop on the corner whacked you with a stick, you know what your father did? He whacked you twice as hard. "You shouldnt've have been there. The policeman told you to go home, go home." Today these kids defy you.

January 25, 2009 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Two Actors

In Working, Studs Terkel interviews two actors. The first, longtime character actor Arny Freeman, relates a funny anecdote that describes the pitfalls of being sort of famous - but not quite famous enough:
I came out of a movie house one day. I hadn't gone more than a few feet when two guys moved in on me, pushed me against the wall. I thought I was being held up. They flashed badges. They were detectives. One said, "Would you mind coming back into the lobby?" I said "What for?" "We'd like to talk to you." So they moved me back and there was a woman, screaming, "That's him! He's the one!" Someone had stolen her purse in the movie house and she fingered me. I played a gangster on TV in those days. The boss would say, "Hey, Shorty, do this." And I'd say "Yeah, boss." They were all alike. I asked the woman if she had seen "T Men in Action" on Thursday. This was Saturday. "Oh my God," she said. "That's where I saw you." (Laughs.) The dicks couldn't do enough. They drove me home in their car.
And Rip Torn takes a more serious tone in discussing the need to take pride in one's work:
A lot of young actors come up and say, "I have respect for you because you never sold out." I've sold out a lot of times. We all have to make accommodations with the kind of society we live in. We gotta pay the rent. We do whatever we can. I've done jobs I wasn't particularly proud of. You do the best you can with that. You try to make it a little better for your own self-respect. That's what's changed in the nature of work in this country - the lack of pride in the work itself. A man's life is his work.

Why, you don't even have the kind of carpenters...He says, "Aw, f*** it." You know they're not even gonna countersink something when they should. They don't even have the pleasure in the work any more. Even in Mexico, there was something unique about the road work. The curbing is not laid out by machine, it's handmade. So there's little irregularities. That's why the eye is rested even by the curbing in Mexico. And walls. Because it's craftsmanship. You see humanity in a chair. And you know seven thousand didn't come out in one day. It was made by some man's hands. There's artistry in that, and that's what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.

December 7, 2008 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Deep Miner and His Wife

The recent passing of Studs Terkel has prompted me to finally start reading Working, his marvelous and groundbreaking oral history in which he interviewed dozens of everyday Americans about their working lives. It's a very long book - my copy is 750 pages with very small type - so as good as it is I don't think I'll read it cover to cover. Instead, I'll probably read it in installments over the next few months, returning to it now and again, and savoring it like a drawn-out seven-course dinner. As I read, I'll post excerpts here that particularly strike me - every passage I've read so far has been excellent, so the excerpts will be what I consider to be the best of the best.

The excerpt below is from "Joe and Susie Haynes: Deep Miner and His Wife", who are a middle-aged couple in the coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky. Although their passage touches only lightly on work itself, I couldn't help being moved by their palpable anger at the strip-mining companies who have exploited their families for nearly a century and ruined their livelihoods, homes and their very way of life.

JOE: ...You're in one of the richest areas in the world and some of the poorest people in the world. They's about twenty-eight gas and oil wells. They have one here they claim at least a three-million-dollar-a-year gas well. One of the men that works for the gas company said they valued it at twenty-five million dollars, that one well. They offered a woman seventy-five dollars on the farm that the gas well's laid on, for destroyin' half an acre of her place to set that well up.

They can do that legally because they have the mineral rights - broad from deed. Eighteen eighty-nine, my grandfather sold this, everything known and that might be found later - gas, oil, clay stone...My grandfather and grandmother signed in with two X's. They accepted the farmin' rights. Company can dig all the timber, all your soil off, uncover everything, just to get their coal. Go anywhere they want to, drill right in your garden if they want to.

They took bulldozers and they tore the top off the ground. I couldn't plow it or nothin' where they left it. Come through right by that walnut tree. I've got corn this year, first year I raised it. About four years since they left. Nice corn over there. I had to move a lot of rock where they took the bulldozers.

They threatened my wife with trespassin' here because she called up the water pollution man, the gas and oil company did. (Laughs.) If the oil runs down this creek, it's kill the fish and everything in it. And I had a lot of chickens to die, too, from drinkin' that oil.

SUSIE: When they come through with those bulldozer and tear it up like that, the dirt from it runs down to our bottom land and it ruins the water. Our drinkin' water gets muddy. So we don't have much of a chance, don't look like.

Our boy in the navy when he comes back, he says all he can see is the mountain tore up with bulldozers. Even the new roads they built, they's debris on it and you can't hardly get through it sometimes. I guess that's what they send our boys off to fight for, to keep 'em a free country and then they do to us like that. Nothin' we can do about it. He said it was worse here than it was over in Vietnam. Four times he's been in Vietnam. He said this was a worse toreup place than Vietnam. He said, "What's the use of goin' over there and fightin' and then havin' to come back over here an' pay taxes on somethin' that's torn up like that?"

"A worse toreup place than Vietnam." Wow.

November 22, 2008 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)