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

Maggie Holmes (Domestic)

This time we don’t have the flurry of individuals we often have per section. The rest of the section is made up of two (relatively) lengthy interviews. Both are interesting in many ways and it starts with Holmes who is a person of color that mostly works cleaning folks homes. Her perspectives on racial issues in the 70s is a refreshing bit of air compared to some of the other interviews we’ve seen whose “discussion” of racial issues has been…lacking, we’ll say.

Holmes starts off the interview strong by saying:

What bugs me now, since I’m on welfare, is people saying they give you the money for nothin, When I think back what we had to come through up from the South, comin’ here. … I think what we had to work for. I used to work for $1.50 a week. This is five days a week, sometimes six.

My grandmother, I remember when she used to work, we’d get milk and a pound of butter. I mean this was pay. I’m thinkin’ about what my poor parents worked, for gettin’ nothing. What do the white think about when they think? Do they ever think about what they would do? (pp.112-13)

The whole “I take no shit” vibe is going to be a mainstay of this interview.

And to be clear, I love it.

Holmes is excellent at calling out behavior from white people that she doesn’t put up with. From bosses to co-workers she details a few different scenarios in which she has told people off. Holmes knows her biggest value is her children and so she’s intent on keeping with that value, even if it means risking her job.

Her points about welfare are great. When people say that people don’t earn the welfare or they haven’t done enough to get it, they almost never actually know the person involved or their situation. More often this is just an indictment of some imagined economic disease that goes by the name of “the poor” but with window dressing.

Something that Holmes comes back to again and again is her policy about work. She employs a work-to-rule strategy (though doesn’t call it that) by sticking heavily to whatever her titles tells her to do. If she’s supposed to be cleaning a house and the door rings then she’d say something like, “Do I come here to be a butler?” (p. 113)

Having your boundaries and clearly enforcing them are great life skills and clearly something Holmes has built up over time in dealing with racism. The linage of managers adding more and more features to your job and making the description bigger and bigger as time goes on goes far back and can often be applied more harshly depending on gender and race as well as other factors.

I found this bit interesting, if not slightly upsetting:

Now this bug me: the first thing she gonna do is pull out this damn rubber thing—just fittin’ for your knees. Knee pads—like you’re workin’ the fields, like people pickin’ cotton. No mop or nothin’.

That’s why you find so many black women here got rheumatism in their legs, knees. (p. 113)

The analogies between slavery and work here aren’t avoided in the slightest. The reality of Holmes work is highlighted in her words at almost every turn. Holmes says that this difference of mops is something she has noticed between the south and north. Interestingly, she says the south often had mops while the north doesn’t, in her experience.

Perhaps the best part of the interview is this part:

I worked for the old hen on Lake Shore Drive. You remember that big snow they had there? … When I get to work she says, “Call the office.” She complained to the lady where I got the job, said I was late to work.

So I called.

So I said, in the phone (Shouts), “What do you want with me? I got home four black, beautiful kids. Before I go to anybody’s job in the morning I see that my kids are at school. I gonna see that they have warm clothes on and they fed.” I’m lookin’ right at the woman I’m workin’ for. (Laughs)

When I get through the phone I tell this employer, “That goes for you too. The only thing I live for is my kids. There’s nothin’, you and nobody else.” The expression on her face: What is this? (Laughs.) She thought I was gonna be a (mimics “Aunt Jemima”): “Yes ma’am, I’ll try to get here a little early.”

But it wasn’t like that. (Laughs.) (pp. 113-14)

I can’t even imagine the guts it has to take to talk to your (supposed) superiors like this. For a black woman to tell white people to basically go fuck themselves (and in a heavily capitalist environment no less) is empowering as hell. It makes me want to aspire to have this level of crafting my “give a fuck” levels where it really matters.

And sometimes I will do things like this, in small ways. I refuse to greet people at the door (I’m not a door greeter, I’m a cashier) and some of the procedural things I’ll sporadically refuse to do (like giving the receipt without asking first) and I’ll also give my managers snark for assigning me tasks they’re allegedly supposed to do.

But none of that even comes close to the level of awesome Holmes unleashed.

When she gives this kind of attitude to her employers Holmes remarks that her employers have said, “Oh all you — girls, are like that.” But Holmes knows what they really want to say, she knows better. I won’t really explicitly type out what the employer actually means. But you can put 2 and 2 together, I’m sure.

The struggle of being a mom and also working a full-time job is also highlighted:

You don’t feel like washin’ your own window when you come from out there, scrubbin’.

If you work in one of them houses eight hours, you gotta come home and do the same thing over… you don’t feel like …(sighs softly)…tired. You gotta come home, take care of your kids, you gotta cook, you gotta wash. Most of the time, you gotta wash for the kids for somethin’ to wear to school. You gotta clean up, ’cause you didn’t have time in the morning. You gotta wash and iron and whatever you do, nights.

You be so tired, until you don’t feel like even doin’ nothin’. (p. 115)

I can’t even imagine trying to do something you hate for 8 hours of the day and then come back and do the same thing but also have it now be unpaid labor on top of that. The sort of stress that Holmes and many women like her must have gone through and still do go through is enormous and not something I could do.

On the other hand, I don’t like how Holmes moves from this to criticizing other parents for saying they’re tired just because they don’t use fresh vegetables from the garden. Just because people use frozen foods and don’t put in the extra labor to pick from their own garden, doesn’t mean they can’t still be tired from work and life.

The Nixon was sayin’ he don’t see nothin’ wrong with people doin’ scrubbin’. For generations that’s all we done. He should know we wants to be doctors an teachers and lawyers like him. I don’t want my kids to come up and do domestic work. It’s degrading. You  can’t see no tomorrow there. (p. 116)

From my perspective it’s hard to see why Nixon would know this. He was a fairly wealthy white person and as Holmes herself says earlier in the interview, the lives of the rich and white to the poor black are very different. I don’t think this excuses Nixon or any other white person from not knowing better, but I think it’s pretty obviously rooted in racism.

Then again, for all I know Holmes knows this and is just saying, “Even racists should know better than that!”

I just wanna finish this interview out how Holmes does in her own words:

You know what I wanted to do all my life? I wanted to play piano. And I’d want to write songs and things, that’s what I really wanted to do. If I could just get myself enough to buy a piano…And I’d like to write about my life, if I could sit long enough. How I growed up in the South and my grandparents and my father—I’d like to do that. I would like to dig up more of black history, too. I would love to for my kids.

Lotta times I’m tellin’ ’em about things, they’ll be sayin’, “Mom that’s olden days.”(Laughs.) They don’t understand because it’s so far from what’s happening now. Mighty few young black women are doin’ domestic work. And I’m glad. That’s why I want my kids to go to school.

This one lady told me, “All you people are gettin’ like that.”

I said,”I’m glad.”

There’s no more getting on their knees. (p. 118)

Eric Hoellen (Janitor) [Content warning: Mention of suicide]

Hoellen is another individual in this collection who works a job often looked down on by society. He starts off the interview lamenting the fact that even during severe winter weather the forecaster won’t recognize the role of janitors in helping the clean up process go by smoother. It sounds a little like a, “But what about me?” argument. The sort of argument that you’d usually roll your eyes at go and say, “Really?” But janitors are seriously under appreciated in the world and in most of media (except maybe in Scrubs but that wasn’t out then so it doesn’t count).

Not to mention the amount of work Hoellen has to do sounds staggering: “When you’re on call it’s twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” He services five buildings, “about a hundred families I have to satisfy.” (p. 119) As Hoellen tells it, he’s the ambassador between the landlord and the tenant and can often make or break the building he is in.

You know, that’s probably a literal truth too.

That being said, Hoellen, much like the garbage collectors before him, don’t feel any shame for their jobs or titles. Terms like “Building Engineer” are thrown around, but just as before, Hoellen finds it somewhat insulting. Hoellen has been with the job for a little over 20 years and remembers shoveling coal to give people warmth within their buildings.

Similar with the trash collector, Hoellen’s got his own physical issues

You talk about heart condition. The janitor’s got one of the worst. He’s gotta walk every day up and down stairs carrying garbage. You carry a hundred, two hundred pounds of garbage down. Going up, it’s bad enough carrying something on your back. Coming down with two hundred pounds on your back.

Going up, it’s bad enough carrying something on your back. Coming own with two hundred [pounds on you back, it gets heavier. It has never bothered me. I have a real bad back, by the way. I’ve been in the hospital last year with a bad back. (p. 120)

Another parallel I’m noticing between the laborers who work with trash and the janitors is that they both do intensely physical work. Even with something as simple as a mop,it uses a lot of your hip to be able to clean effectively. And over the course of years, your hip could be worn down similar to Holmes and her comments about knee rheumatism.

There are many ways in which all of these physical jobs are connected. It’s not always apparent or necessarily clear, but the lines between many jobs that take place outside or involve a lot of manual labor, no matter if they happen within different contexts, can still contain strikingly similar complaints from the people who do those jobs.

Most tenants, I get along with ’em. The bad part about a tenant, they have no respect for your hours.

Maybe my day starts when their day starts, but they want something done when they come home. My day is ending too. They’ll call up and some will be sarcastic about it. “You have to come here when I’m home.”

That’s not true.They can leave me the key, so I can do it on my own time.

Some people don’t trust you. If I’m gonna steal something, I’m not gonna steal from somebody I know, especially when they know I’m in there. If they can’t trust me, I don’t want to be around’ ’em. (p. 122)

Similar to Holmes, Hoellen makes sure his boundaries are paid attention to. He doesn’t want to put up with the ever-changing wants and needs of tenants. He’d rather play by his own rules as much as possible. He says later on in the interview that one of the best things about his job is not having someone looking over his shoulder.

I think that may be in part where he gets the strength to put down his foot and assert himself in these sorts of situations. I’d also agree that if a client can’t trust you then they may not be worth working for. In a similar light, if someone in a relationship you’re in doesn’t trust you, then it’s not much of a relationship.

In a dark turn for the interview, Hoellen talks about the pressures of being a janitor who works with tenants. He mentions the fact that 3 janitors have hung themselves. They couldn’t take the pressure of keeping up with people and constantly feel like they were letting people down. Hoellen counsels that you just do the best you can and try not to let it overwhelm you. I can imagine that’s a difficult task, especially in a profession that is looked down on within society.

But Hoellen says earlier in the interview that he’s not tied down to many locations. He comes and goes as he pleases, the pay is pretty good and his father did it. So despite these problems within the job, Hoellen still feels positively.

There’s an interesting passage towards the end about Hoellen’s kid:

I got a boy married. I’m a grandfather. He’s twenty, going on twenty-one. He was an honor student in math. I wanted him to go to [Illinois Institute of Technology]. He run off and got married.

A kid’ll do what he wants to do. He hurt us real bad.

He said, “Dad why should I spend all your money and go to college.I can get a job driving a truck and make more money than a college graduate.” I said, “There’s two different kinds of work, though.”

(pp. 123-4)

I’m not sure what Hoellen means by “two different kinds of work” (and he doesn’t elucidate). Maybe he means there’s the type of work that people can get with a college degree and without? But Hoellen later says that the college man is underpaid despite his degrees so that doesn’t seem like it’s it.

Regardless, the pressure to live up to the notions of others can be a crushing one. Speaking personally I never really knew my father and my mom was always switching jobs or at a particular job I knew little about. My grandmother had a career at a specific corporation but I never felt any sort of pressure to get into it.

And finally the interview gets…weird.

Apropos of nothing, Hoellen says:

I carry on the side a criminal investigator’s badge. I can carry a gun whenever I want. I’m registered by the state, with the FBI, with the city police. …I work for a detective agency because sometimes it’s pretty rough at night. …I’ve worked with the FBI. Watch out for Weathermen and stuff like that in the neighborhood. …You don’t have no authority, you just kind of see the area. This is for something like dope.

(p. 124)

Apparently not many janitors do this but Hoellen does and mostly does it because he’s around the university. But he claims they’re not interested in the kids…but then also talks about a time where he told them where a draft dodger was which made sure the FBI could “talk” to that person. He says they weren’t going to arrest him, but I’m skeptical.

So anyways, the point of this point is: Watch out for janitors, they could be working for the FBI.


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