WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FOUR – Part Two, The Demon Lover)

Not as fun as it looks.

The Driving

Booker Page (Cabdriver)

Well, I hope you like hearing about the sea, because Page talks more about that instead of what his job is like. But don’t worry, the next interviewee will make up for it as they are also a cabdriver. Come to think of it, it originally surprised me that Terkel had two cabdrivers in a row, but now it makes a bit more sense now that I’ve written that out.

In the opening passage alone the word “sea” comes up three times. For most of his life Page has spent at sea besides a brief stint at owning a diner with his brother (“I was very glad to get rid of it. I went to sea again.”) and working at an auto-body and finally now as a cabdriver. The way Page talks about it at first doesn’t make it sound positive:

I’m using muscles I haven’t used before. Sometimes I have to stop the cab and get out and walk a while, just to stretch out. Sitting for ten, eleven hours a day got me so that I’m all cramped up. I have to take soap, hot water, my wife rubs my feet, my ankles, ’cause my muscles are actually sore. I don’t get no exercise at all like I usually do. (p., 195)

The combination of sitting for hours on end and not getting any exercise is an easy recipe to gain weight. I used to be 175 pounds fairly consistently as of a few years ago. But as time has gone on and my metabolism has slowed down my proclivity towards sitting and not doing much of anything has me up to around 200 pounds.

And that’s with a job that has me moving around and one that I often have to walk to, which takes me over 20 minutes to get there and another 20 to get back if I don’t have a ride. So my doctor advised me to try to get 30 minutes of walking each day so I can keep my health. I enjoy walking anyways so that’s no big deal.

But for folks who have to work much longer shifts than I do (usually 5-6 hours) and don’t get the “privilege” of standing around and moving about, they can gain weight (relatively) in a hurry. There’s likely a reason why the stereotype about cab drivers being fat and it wouldn’t surprise me if that cultural touchstone wasn’t because of the unfair job conditions.

But hey, who cares about that, right?

Let’s talk about the sea!

I promised my wife I’d quit the sea. One time when my ship came back from India she came down by bus and drove eighteen hours, but just stayed overnight around Savannah.

She asked me to give it up because she was just tired of being alone. I said, “Give me one more year,” because we’d been saving and had plans of what we wanted to do. The Indian run lasted two years. I gave my youth to the sea and I come home and gave her my old age. (p. 195)

Honestly, I’ve never gotten the appeal of water. I used to love swimming when I was younger but these days it just bores me. I don’t find any pleasure in swimming or getting in another splash fight, playing chicken or whatever other water sports might be available. I find beaches often too crowded and being trans I have body issues.

So I hope I’ll be excused for not exactly seeing the excitement Page has here as contagious. I think life on the sea sounds dangerous, unpredictable, boring and most of the work out there sounds underpaid and overworked. I used to know someone who went to Alaska to pay off their loans and it worked but the physical cost sounded too high to me.

This section is really sweet:

My wife and I always loved each other. Matter of fact, we liked each other. Everything we do, we do together. Even when I get up at nights to go pee, she gets up and dances with me to the bathroom. The family that pees together stays together. (Laughs.)

I take water pills for my eight and it runs me to the bathroom four times a night. She’ll walk ahead of me and I’ll put my arms around her waist and we’d fox trot up the hallway.

It could be two, three o’clock in the morning, it doesn’t matter. (p. 196)

Aww.

That was my exact thought upon reading this. I don’t think I’ve read such an earnestly romantic passage in a long time. It’s cute and it’s quirky and it’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect to happen between two people who love each other and have known each other for a long time. Some people have tickle fights, these folks have the fox trot.

But what about on the sea?

Could Page control himself as a seaman?

(Sorry, I coudn’t resist)

Well…

I’d go to movies almost every night ’cause I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. I was just a poor ass seaman. (Laughs.) I’d do other things, naturally. (Laughs.) There’s always women. (Laughs.) (p. 196)

Uh-oh.

“Women-chasing was my weakness. You can love your wife, but a man is like a dog. He’ll chase anything with a skirt on it. Drop the skirt, he’ll still chase. I’ve never cared for women singly. There’s always two or three at a time. (p. 197)

Yikes.

Well, I’m not really here on this site to comment on infidelity…but if I was:

  1. Yikes.
  2. Apparently he was too poor for drinking, smoking and gambling but not women (he mentions prostitutes later)?
  3. “Man is like a dog” Someone call Sartre.
  4. Anything with a skirt on it? What if a man was wearing a skirt?
  5. If dropping the skirt means the man will still “chase” (sounds friendly) then why bring it up?
  6. “Always two or three at a time” Wow.
  7. Did I mention Y I K E S

Okay, got that out of my system.

Let’s move on:

I love nature. I’m so fed up with man’s so called superiority. I’ve seen change happen at sea. I’ve seen a beautiful day change in minutes to a storm so hazardous you can’t describe it unless you see today’s pictures on TV. More strength and terrible power’s been exerted in five minutes than man has concocted in all his atom bombs. (p. 197)

Given that atom bombs have the potential to destroy the entire planet, I’m going to politely disagree.

Also, you can’t really go from, “I love my wife.” to “I’ve cheated on my wife multiple times and with little to no remorse to show for it, nor have I made it clear that she knows this” and then to “Man is so egotistical and nature is superior”. Like, I get that you’d need to believe that to justify your serial infidelity to this person you supposedly love but…

Sorry, sorry, let’s get back to Page’s work:

Oh, I’m so tired. My bottom gets so … Oh, every muscle aches in my body. It’s my legs and feet, ankles and so forth. I figure in another few months I’ll be able to sit up, stand up, do anything else. I’ll be used to it then. But right now, I’m so… My pedaling the gas and brake, gas and brake, all the time … (p. 197)

Page also mentions how his job almost never gives him time to think about the sea. He feels as if he’s changed into a new life and that he’s mostly in the job so he can get his wife and him on the sea. They want to own a car wash and then after that they want to buy a boat and live out there on the waters.

I came into this interview being fairly sympathetic to Page. He sounds like a passionate guy when it comes to nature and in a broad sense I can dig that. He seems to understand the limits of humanity and our pension for undermining and downplaying the things we want to dominate (like nature). And look, I’m not a perfect person, I’ve fucked up plenty.

But it’s just tough to care about people who show little to no remorse for themselves and seem to have little sense of self-awareness. Maybe I can hope that self-awareness is something that just grows with time. It’s certainly something I’ve needed to develop over the course of my life in dealing with major problems in my life.

I just don’t know if Page ever got there.

Lucky Miller (Cabdriver)

Okay, before we start this interview I just want to denote that Miller never actually talks about why he got his first name. I thought there could be some interesting backstory there. Maybe his mother wasn’t supposed to be able to have children or maybe he nearly died when he was a baby and…well, it’s not really important. My imagination just goes wild at times.

Miller is the interview you’ve been waiting for…you know, if you love cabs, I guess?

“My original intention was to drive for a couple of years. It’s the sort of job where I could have flexible hours while I was still going to school.” He had begun as a part-time driver but he now puts in a forty-four-hour week. During the past four years I’ve been going to school off and on. More off than on.” (p. 198)

This passage reminds me just how quickly a job can sneak up on you. At first you might think that your new job is going to be a great way to help you pay off your loans. But before you know it, the money you’re earning is either suddenly not enough or you have some sort of major change in life plans, whatever. Eventually you find a reason to place the job above all else. And that’s whether you want to or not and clearly in Miller’s case that’s more of the latter than the former.

Miller’s job has largely soured him on people. Although he occasionally gets interesting people he doesn’t incite discussions anymore. He’s too busy trying to pay attention to traffic, make sure the person he is picking up isn’t going to rob him and other daily concerns within his job. And since his switch to day shifts most are boring businessmen.

Whether it’s a long day or a short day depends on my meter and tips. A good day is about forty-five on the meter and ten in overs, as we call tips. I get about forty-eight percent of the meter. It averages to about thirty or thirty-three a day, or about four dollars an hour. I usually clear about $125 after taxes.

No driver declares the tips he actually makes. (p. 199)

There’s a lot to digest here but focus on the fact that even with not declaring the tips during tax time and working over forty hours a week, it stills sounds like (even by 70s standards) that Miller is struggling. And he’s struggling in an environment where he feels that most people aren’t worth interacting with, which is most of the point of his job.

In terms of “benefits” for being a cabdriver both Miller and Page denoted the people they interact with. If you enjoy people and like having a conversation then that’s something being a cabdriver might offer you. But it seems like in the big cities in particular you’re often too busy with traffic or disgruntled on humanity to enjoy any of it.

Here’s some more lovely cab-facts:

A lot of drivers wind up with ulcers. They’re the most likely candidates for a heart attack. Driving a cab tends to shorten your life span—if one does it for a career—-especially if the driver spends most of his time downtown. (p. 199)

Underpaid, overworked and with a good chance of death? Not to mention the lack of interest in interacting with the clientele and adding to all of that is bad exhaust systems that harm drivers. And then piled on top of that is the management system for cabs that Miller says are largely apathetic. For example cabs often won’t be replaced if they break down, it’s just treated as a part of the job. It often takes a handful of breakdowns for anything to be done.

Having a friend who used to drive a cab I remember him often complaining about similar conditions. My friend would often have to deal with an apathetic management, not getting paid enough and cabs that would constantly breakdown or otherwise prove to be unreliable for him. They had co-workers who often got burnt out or threatened to quit often and this was in a relatively small city compared to places like Chicago or Boston.

The end of this interview isn’t a cheery one filled with hopeful ambitions, instead:

At this point, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do. I had been intending to teach. But with the glut on the market, I don’t think by the time I get my B.A. I’ll stand much of a chance. I’m thinking of the field of mental health—if by the time I get my degree I still have my own sanity. (Laughs.) (p. 201)

I have these same concerns in the current job market. Is it really a good idea to stick my financial neck out for the slim possibilities and promises of college, let alone graduate school? For myself, all I know is that I’ve tried the alternative these past 8 years and I have not been impressed. Maybe I won’t get anywhere but more in debt but I want to at least say that, in the end, I gave my dreams and ambitions a chance to work, even if it doesn’t end up doing so.

That just means I can come up with new ambitions and hopefully more realistic ones too.

Will Robinson (Bus Driver)

Point of clarification: I have no idea why cabdriver and bus driver are treated differently. One is a single word and the other one must (even WordPress told me so) be separated. Grammar is weird.

Anyways, Robinson has been working his job for 27 years and is largely burnt out on it, as you might expect. At first it was nice because there were things to do in the break room. They had pool tables, a little library and even a restaurant but as more black folks came in (Robinson being one of them) these things started going away.

What a weird and definitely not racist coincidence, right?

Since then the prestige of the job has gone down. Robinson said it went down around 20 years ago and from the way he talks about his job there hasn’t been much since to make it any better.

You have your tensions. Sometimes you come close to having an accident, that upsets you. You just escape maybe a hair or so. sometimes maybe you get a disgruntled passenger on there, and starts a big argument. Traffic. You have someone who cuts you off or stops in front of the bus. …

Then we’d have people get on the bus and pay their fare just like any other passenger, but all the time they’re a spotter, see? They’re watching everything that goes on. If there’s anything you do wrong, two or three days later you’re called into the office. (p. 202)

Similar to driving in a cab, Robinson also talks about the pains of ulcers, getting hemorrhoids, kidney trouble and not to mention plenty of other day to day stresses. I’ve never wanted to drive a bus because it sounds so stressful to me. I’d rather drive a car, which is to say, I’d rather not drive a car either.

Even just being on a bus can sometimes give me some nerves when it’s a short and sudden stop before a car or the bus is going to take a wide turn. I’m always wondering, “How is this driver so calm about this??”

The spotters are of course related to the mystery shopper craze. Managers love to make sure their workers are being as obedient as possible when it comes to their, usually inane, policies. So instead of relying on direct communication or any sort of honest procedure, they just decide to rely on deception and manipulation to ensure trust.

That always works, right?

Then you have the supervisors on the street. They’re in automobiles. If you’re running a minute ahead of time, they write you up and you’re called into the office. Sometimes they can really upset you. They’ll stop you at a certain point. Some of them have the habit of wanting to bawl you out there on the street.

That’s one of the most upsetting parts of it. (p. 203)

A ring of surveillance, shame and control is at the heart of most of jobs that are out there. It’s only in some of those jobs that it can be made as obvious as it is here with Robinson. In order to better guarantee the control of their workers managers will rely not just on questionable methods for control but shaming and even public shaming.

There’s also a regiment of discipline and punishment with regards to time. If you’re caught running ahead of time then you can suspended by the supervisor. The supervisor ultimately has all of the power in the relationship and can be the difference between a weeks pay and a sudden involuntary vacation.

The situation is so bad that Robinson has been involved in strikes recently:

The union, as far as that goes, it’s nothing. That’s why we was on strike. It was as against the union as against the Company. You don’t have any court of appeals. We had this wildcat about the buses not having good tires on the back. No threads, slick. That’s a hazard to us. It’s also endangering the lives of the passengers. During rainy weather or snowy weather, that’s when we’re really into it.

We don’t have traction whatsoever. That’s why I got off the Outer Driver. On those slippery mornings, you go into skids. That was one of our grievances. They promised there would be good tires on the buses.

But it’s still the same. (p. 203)

Feelings of utter powerlessness mixed with a suspicion (or outright knowledge) that your opinion doesn’t mean much and that you’re constantly at-risk of (likely racialized) policing and punishing from management. Most of their hope with the strikes comes from the younger drivers who have less to lose and much more to gain.

To conclude I want to quote Mrs. Robinson’s most poignant point:

I can always tell when Will’s had a bad day. He’s got a nervous twitch. I don’t event think he'[s aware of it. I think Will is a very proud man, and he wants me to look upon him as a man. This is one reason I stopped riding his bus. I didn’t want him humiliated in front of me by the inspectors.

He wants to talk back like a man. He’d be more likely to do that if I’m on the bus than he would be if I’m not there. I know it happens. Much of it would be humiliating , so we don’t talk too much about the job. I just have to feel and tell by his attitude when he’s had an exceptionally hard day. (She leaves the room.)

(p. 205)

Time for me to follow Mrs. Robinson lead and take my leave as well.


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