WORKING, by Studs Terkel (Book Three, Part One – Cleaning Up)

Why not just hire Barney?

Nick Salerno (Garbage Man)

Supposedly the lowest of the low is the garbage man.

After all, what could be lower than literally basing your entire job (and much of your existence) around the things that people throw away? Although I’ve never seen these biases actually enunciated against folks who handle trash, I don’t doubt for a second that it exists.

That said, if it does exist around Salerno, he surely doesn’t care:

I have nothing to be ashamed of. I put in my eight hour. [My wife and I] make a pretty good salary. I feel I earn my money. I can go any place I want. I conduct myself as a gentleman any place I go.

My wife is happy, this is the big thing. She doesn’t look down at me. I think that’s more important than the white-collar guy looking down at me. (p. 103)

This is a definite case in which someone’s priorities are in order. Who cares if the rich business person doesn’t care for your job? What matters is the people you love and trust and what they think. It doesn’t really matter what the people think who have never spent a day in your shoes or even ever seen you work.

It was interesting to read Salerno talk about salary and admit that while he may get paid more than a schoolteacher he feels like he earns it but they should still get more. Importantly, he also adds that he’d rather that extra income amount not be taken from him, but I wouldn’t really trust a public education job to not infringe on his own money.

One thing I enjoyed about this brief interview was this small bit about worker solidarity:

You discuss anything with these guys. Golf, whatever. One of my laborers just bought a new home and I helped him move some of his small stuff. He helped me around my house, plumbing and painting. (p. 102)

Immediately afterwards Salerno denotes the existence of “spotters” who will report them if they stop for a coffee break. It seems pretty cruel to me, especially in a job so taxing on the physical body (and we’ll get to more on that shortly).

Besides these things there are some bits about what people tended to throw away, what they used to throw it away in, the complaints about the job, but nothing really notable to the site. At 18 years on the job with a wife and three kids, Salerno seems relatively happy with his job, while still admitting it has its faults.

Roy Schmidt (Garbage Man)

No, Terkel didn’t interview two people with the same exact profession.

While Salerno drives a garbage truck, Schmidt is one of the many men who works behind one. And here’s we get into the real physicality of the job. Schmidt says the union refers to him as “truck loader” but he insists he’s just a laborer.

For Schmidt, there’s need for glamor for picking up cans and dumping them in the back of a truck.

Schmidt has been at his job for 7 years, previously working on a freight dock at nights but finding it exhausting, he decided to look elsewhere. Clearly this job stuck a little bit more and the fact that it was during the day seems to have been a big selling point.

Personally speaking, Schmidt shows a bit of his age by recounting stories of the youth in the neighborhood. Remarking that they aren’t “held down the way they should” (p. 104) just because they yell at the garbage truck folks sometimes.

He calls them “too stupid to realize the necessity of this job” (ibid) and while that may be the case, I sincerely doubt kids are informed about the highs and lows of working around garbage. So it’s not clear to me that it’s their fault.

I find Schmidt’s comments on comparing the office and his current job interesting:

I’ve been outside for seven years and I feel more free. I don’t take the job home with me. When I worked in the office, my wife would say, “What was the matter with you last night? You laid there and your fingers were drumming the mattress.” …The bookkeeping and everything else, it was starting to play on the nerves. …For one thing a bookkeeping job doesn’t pay anything. (p. 104)

Sometimes all it takes for people to be more satisfied with their job is a change of scenery. Schmidt is still doing a hard-working sort of job, but he’s able to move around a lot more. He gets to be outside and move around with the truck and likely talk to more people and see more people.

I also think there’s something to the appeal of seeing civilization as it “wakes up”, so to speak. It’s fascinating to see big cities with hardly any people. Whether that’s on a holiday, because of some kind of weather storm or just because it’s so gosh darned early in the morning. Whatever the reason, cities with less people has always entertained me.

Now, here’s where we get into the physicality that I mentioned earlier:

You get it in the shoulders and the arms. You have an ache here and an ache there. Approximately four years ago. I put my back into spasms. The city took care of it, put me in a hospital for a week. That one year, it happened twice to me—-because of continual lifting. (p. 104)

So for that kind of job, you’d think you could spare these people a coffee, right?

But, to be fair, I don’t know if the sanitation department that Schmidt works for has the same spotter rules as the organization that Salerno worked for.

All the same, Schmidt also talks about other hazards concerning the job. Things like wood coming out of the back of the truck and causing him to need stitches in his eyes. He’s seen people throw out acid with their trash before.

Here’s a classic work conundrum:

They tell you stay away from the rear of the truck when the blade’s in motion, but if you did that throughout a day, you’d lost too much time. By the time the blade’s goin’, you’re getting the next can ready to dump.

(p.105)

And another:

I’m pretty well exhausted by the time I get through in the day. I’ve complained at times when the work was getting a little too heavy. My wife says, “Well, get something else.” Where the evil is a man my age get something else? You just don’t walk from job to job. (p. 105)

Despite his complaints Schmidt concludes that he doesn’t hate his job. He recognizes that it contributes in a meaningful way to society. He feels more free than he did stuck in an office and gets meaning from garbage.

Isn’t that beautiful?

Well, sort of.

Louis Hayward (Washroom Attendant)

“A what?”

Exactly.

Okay, but seriously it’s basically a towel assistant who helps someone out in the bathroom. If they need an extra towel or maybe their shoe shined or something, then they’re going to call someone like Hayward. A big part of the job is hoping you get a tip (a whole quarter! woah! but to be fair this is the 70s) for your service but you have very little time to make an impression on the person you’re assisting.

Something Hayward says early on resonates with me: The power of recognition.

Simply knowing a customer’s name by heart is a great way to show them you notice them. After all, as Hayward notes, you can always be somewhere else to make sure you’re not interacting with the wrong customer.

Hayward says he took the job because it’s light and of a stroke he had earlier in his life. But now, nearing sixty-two, he feels somewhat stuck in the job, though not to the degree that it deeply affects him.The days go in large part for Hayward because of the books he brings with him (sound familiar?) and the shoe shiner in the back.

Here’s Hayward on his feelings about the job:

I’m not particularly proud of what I’m doing. …In my own habitat I don’t go around saying I’m a washroom attendant at the Palmer House. Outside of my immediate family very few people know what I do.

No, I’m not proud of this work. I can’t do anything heavy. It would be hard to do anything else, so I’m stuck.

I’ve become inured to it now. It doesn’t affect me one way or the other. Several years ago (pause) —I couldn’t begin to tell you how menial the job was. I was frustrated with myself—for being put in that position. The years piled up and now it doesn’t even occur to me, doesn’t cross my mind. (p. 108)

Hayward also comments that part of what normalizes the job for him is seeing other people doing it. After all, if the job is so bad why would other people be doing it too? But that’s easy: Probably the same reasons Hayward is doing it; to pay the rent. They may feel just as stuck as he does and as it happens it sounds like the shoe shiner feels similar.

Overall, Hayward describes his mindset as “hardened” and that he rarely gets upset except when he puts in more effort but is still not afforded the reward he believes he deserved. But despite this hardness, Hayward is more than candid about the job and openly admits it’s on the way out and was never really necessary in the first place.

There’s a bit of a sad note at the end, but I feel it’s important to talk about anyways:

I always wanted to be a writer. My mother was a writer. Sold a couple of short stories. I enjoy reading—thought I might enjoy writing. I thought a little of her talent might rub off on me. Apparently it didn’t. Her desire rubbed off on me, though. (Soft chuckle.) Just an idea … Most people like to say how rich and rewarding their jobs are. I can’t say that. (p. 110)

Part of this makes me realized how technologically privileged I am today to be able to so easily write and just get it out there to people. I don’t get a lot of people (the site probably has averaged 100s of views in any given day throughout its almost 5 year run so far) but the people I do get, who appreciate my work, mean a hecking lot to me.

So to whoever is reading this, thank you.

Seriously, thank you.

I can talk all I want about how I chiefly write for myself (and I do!) but damn if it isn’t nice to have your writing validated once in a while. Whether that’s a simple comment, a “like” on a post I’ve shared, or even constructive criticism aimed at a piece I’ve written. It’s all great and it all means a bunch to me.

I want to be a writer too (professionally) and maybe my time at C4SS, this site, my blog and the book I edited is the closest I’ll ever get, but at least I gave it a shot and will keep trying. My mom wasn’t a writer, or at least never pursued it if she has/had any writing talents, but writing is one of the main ways I can express myself and live my life more fully.

I can’t imagine not doing it.

Well, I can, but it’d be boring.

Lincoln James (Factory Mechanic)

Note: In order to make this chapter review thing sustainable I want to take things as I can handle them. I’ve tried to do 20 pages and 4,000 words (or thereabouts) per review. But that’s starting to be a bit too much for me, so I’m going to try to do each of these sections in half. That way they’re a bit more manageable for me and (hopefully) you.

Finishing this chapter off, we’ve got the enemy of Boxer (the horse) itself: a worker from the glue factory.

The most interesting parts of this interview aren’t super relevant to the site; bits about what a glue factory principally does and what it produces. There’s a bit where James tells us a dialogue he had with some folks about where some of the stuff in our everyday lives comes from. Accidents are infrequent and even given various chemicals so are infections.

The only somewhat relevant point in this interview is that, after being employed for so long (36 years!) James describes the idea of not needing to work as an “experience”.

Employment is something he considers “wonderful” and remarks that he’d be “lost without his job. (p. 112)

It’s hard to argue against that any of this, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.


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