WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FOUR – Part Three & Four, The Demon Lover – Concluded)

“The Mechanic” From Batman TAS funnily enough came to mind for this post!

The Parking

This time we have a twofer and are tackling two different sections of Book Four. The trick here is that part 3 and part 4 combined are only 10 pages long. I thought about, for a moment, just doing it one part at a time. But I don’t wanna space things up that much (the book is long enough as is) and I’d feel like I was cheating y’all out of content.

I didn’t find anything deeply interesting in either of these interviews. So as is, this may not be a super long post in the way that some previous ones have been.

Either way, here’s…

Alfred Pommier (Car Hiker)

A “car hiker” is perhaps better known as a parking attendant.

This profession is largely out of vogue these days or at least as far as I can tell. Most of the work from the people at the front to the parking service itself is often automated. And it’s either automated by technology or people just doing it themselves. I’ve only seen valets in fancy places, honestly.

The place Pommier works at is busy:

“We have forty, fifty cars, lots of room to park. When you come eleven o’clock, you can’t get in. You take two, you check out three. You gotta just work around ’em, and people get squakin’, ‘May I get my car?’ ‘We’re workin’ on it.’ ‘Why you got so many cars?’ ‘Sorry lady.’ But it’s easier than a garage, where there’s too many men and always somethin’ goin’ on.” (p. 219)

Pommier has some funny nicknames for himself, “Al the Wizard” for example because he’s practically magical at parking people’s cars flawlessly and with little effort. Within the “hiking” business that’s the sort of thing that gets you a lot of respect from customers, or at least the ones who manage to get a spot.

Those who don’t, or those who have issues can sometimes get their tempers flaring:

Oh yeah, we have a lot of people that have holy feelings about their car. I don’t have a scratch but they check it out and go around. …. Things can happen. When you talk to a man nice or a lady nice, then you calm ’em down. If you have a hot temper, then it’s just a big argument.

I had only one real serious argument in thirty years, me and a manager. Never had another scrap with anyone. So that’s not a bad record for feelings. (pp. 219-20)

I know for myself, dealing with customers who have some sort of attitude issue is just about the worst thing imaginable. I don’t mind customers who are quirky in some way or weird. I’m a pretty damn weird person who has a bunch of faults that I’m trying to get better at managing and overcoming as I go along. So I try not to judge.

But when people get really upset with me or seem prone to anger I try to just be extra nice. There’s a customer who has been in prison and seems like a (no pun intended) tough customer. So I try to be as nice as I can to him so I make sure I stay on his good side (note: I don’t think all folks who go to prison or even most are bad people nor do I think this person necessarily is).

There was one time when he said in front of a few other customers when he was having an issue that I’m always good to him and that made me feel like I’m doing my job OK. It also, honestly, made me feel a little calmer and safer around this person. Again, not that I necessarily think they are a bad person but I get anxiety about things fairly easily.

Most of the really difficult or confrontational folks are the people who are trying to scam the store. And I don’t really care myself whether people scam or even steal from corporations. But it sucks for the employees involved when you give them attitude or try to be confrontational to them about your business.

Moving on:

I was sittin’ in that guy-with-the-tuxedo car. He got out of it, him an’ his girl friend goin’ night clubbing. And that car smelling real good with cologne and the windows be up. And I just be looking int hat car, you know, the music be up. I’d pull back in the lot, back to the front, maybe I’ll go back in the stall. I’d say, “Why can I be a rich man, get me a lot of money, get me a new car?” (p. 221)

There’s an interesting class element where you are working a job for very little money (Pommier says without tips he couldn’t survive) and being able to get a taste of the rich life. What kills me about passages like this is I don’t really think these things will bring people happiness. Maybe in the moment they really love it and it makes them envy others.

But in the long-run I don’t think people are actually happier because of things like this. Maybe they’re happier because of the stuff having a brand new car represents such as financial success, security(?) and the status of keeping up with the cool kids. But in the long-term people acclimate to their situations pretty well and things become the new normal.

Now, none of that means it’s not worth striving for in some respect. If you really want a new car and think your job is holding you back or makes it impossible then try to do something about it, if you can. But for Pommier he says in the interview that due to his kids and the limits of his job, he’s largely given up on this dream of a nicer car.

The closest I come to this sort of dream for myself is living in the countryside in a tiny house that is still fairly close to a local town or pseudo-city (think of the cities in New Hampshire or Worcester) and being in some sort of supportive commune of friends. Maybe I have a partner but I also have important work that I enjoy doing (such as writing).

I still have hopes for this, but I try to keep them dampened so as to be more realistic.

How long would I continue? I would say I would go another four years, maybe five. ‘Cause I know I can’t continue walking any more. If I ever decide to quit parking cars, I think I could get me a watchman job. Maybe I might be a cashier or pick up tickets at a theater. I know I won’t retire in the parking lot, ’cause they don’t pay any retirement money. the walking is pretty bad on your feet. (p. 222)

Pommier doesn’t exactly have a happy end to the interview. Most of it is him reminiscing about his younger years when he was faster on his feet and better with cars. At 15+ years on the job and almost into his early fifties Pommier doesn’t seem to have much to look forward to and can only romanticize bits of the past where he felt successful.

Personally I could never understand the “thrill” of doing a great parking job.

But I guess there’s something for everyone.

The Selling

Johnny Bosworth (Car Salesman)

Car salesmen are an interesting type of folks. They’re well known for being snake oil salesmen or in other words, people who take advantage of others. Bosworth is self-aware of that perception throughout this interview to try and take steps to counter it. While he doesn’t deny that such salespeople exist, he insists he isn’t one of them.

If you hit a person’s logic, you got ‘im. Unless you’ve got a dingaling. Everyone can sell an idiot. an idiot, Jesus, I wish I had fifty thousand of ’em a day, because you can sell ’em the world. You can sell ’em the Brooklyn Bridge.

Would you like to sell the Brooklyn Bridge?

No, because that would be taking advantage of someone. This may be hard to believe, but I don’t enjoy taking advantage of people. Most of the salesmen int his business, they tell you it’s a cutthroat world, you gotta screw your brother before your brother screws you, I disagree with that. I’ve been screwed many times myself because I’ve helped other people. They’ve turned around and just kicked me in the head. Rather than rebel and say I hate the world, I chalk it up to experience. (p. 227)

I’m honestly not sure how much of a “rebellion” it is to say you hate the world and then proceed to take advantage of people. Given we live under capitalism I would say that many people implicitly or otherwise don’t mind taking advantage of people as long as there are mental cushions in between their actions and themselves.

Regardless, I at least appreciate Bosworth and his attempts here at trying to be better than the folks around him. He hasn’t let the peer pressure of trying to take advantage of people get to him. He has, as he reveals at the end of the interview been fired a handful of time but always called back. In his own words he was often fired for “honesty”.

Given his stance here on manipulation, I think it’s at least somewhat plausible that his boss may not appreciate some of his behavior. But given how many callbacks Bosworth has had it’s likely that he is, at the bottom, a good salesman.

I like people. If it’s a hippie I ask him, “Do you smoke grass? Do you take dope? Do you liek this type of music?” I try to find out things to make ’em relax. I also keep askin’ questions that they’ll answer yes. Get them in the habit of saying yes. (p. 226)

On the other hand, selling something often means the shifting of folks opinions. And it would be tough to do that without some sort of mental “trick” involved. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m not sure, to be honest. Aren’t we using mental tricks all of the time to change people’s mind? On the other hand, there’s obviously a limit to these tricks.

If I want you to spend the night and you say no then I shouldn’t try to make it sound more appealing unless I have a very good reason. For example, maybe your life is in danger or I think you’re capable (mentally) of hurting yourself or others, I may insist a little stronger or try to appeal to something about you that I think will help me and you out.

But at the same time, appealing to people isn’t just a passive thing. We are trying to change the pathways in folks brains so that they will acquiesce to our wishes of what reality should contain within it. In that vein I think things like making someone say “yes” naturally to a bunch of questions so they say yes before is pretty sneaky, probably manipulation.

If you want to win someone’s trust then (as Bosworth himself would say) appeal to their logic. But just getting people to say “yes” a lot and having them become an automated robot isn’t a sort of “logic”. It may be a kind of logic to know what a hippie is into or a business orientated person, etc. is into and use that, but turning them into a robot isn’t.

Most of the interview isn’t very interesting, it’s just stereotypes based on Bosworth’s experiences. He talks about people of color, pipe smokers, academics, “orientals” (yeah, this was in the 70s) and so on. Some of these generalizations strike me as plausible (people of color tend to care more about what they can afford more than anything else, professionals tend to oversell themselves and how much they can buy, etc.) but others seem horribly outdated.

Bosworth does have an interesting philosophy on his job at least:

Say I’ve been working at this place twenty years, okay? Most people’s jobs, after twenty years you got seniority. You’re somebody. After twenty years at this job, I go in tomorrow as if I started today. if I don’t sell X amount of cars a month, I’ve gotta look for another job.

It’s not because they’re bad people, but they’re in business. If you got a bad egg you get rid of it. I don’t like it. … [F]or my family I’d like a little more security. (pp. 227-228)

Bosworth says that he likes his job because he has to or else he wouldn’t be able to sell cars. That sounds like a miserable job and maybe the only thing that retail is gonna beat out with plain old selling. I don’t get a profit on the things I sell which makes me care less about it but also removes the pressure I feel when folks decide to not buy something.

It can still be annoying because usually they expect me or one of my co-workers to put it back for them. But on the other hand at least I’m not losing any money or, heck, my job because they aren’t going to buy a Twinkie. A job where my paycheck depended on my socialization skills would likely not be a good choice for me on many levels.

I find this passage interesting:

Could the world survive without my work? No. There has to be a salesman. Oh, if a man put his mind to it … that could all be computerized. … The only thing that would require a salesman is the price. (p. 228)

There’s more to the passage than this, but I just found it funny how, when Terkel introduced a qualifier or perhaps Bosworth just thought about it a little more, he decided, nah people could basically do fine without us.

Lastly,

[The customers] don’t have to be animals. It’s the whole system that makes ’em animals.

Everybody goes on strike, they want more money. The wife needs more money to buy groceries because groceries are higher because the delivery is on strike, the trucks are on strike, the factories are on strike, everybody is on strike. (p. 229)

Bosworth is talking here about how customers see him as practically inhuman when they often treat him as poorly as they make him out to be. I can’t really nail down what striking has to do with this or whether Bosworth is coming down in favor or against them (though it seems against) but there’s certainly something to the system making us all rougher.

Rougher in our emotions and how we decide to treat each other. Capitalism doesn’t leave a lot of room for compassion within these jobs we feel like we must like in order to succeed. And not just succeed financially but also have some peace of mind when it comes to our families and those we love and want to take care of.

Work isn’t the place where these dreams have an excellent chance of coming true.

Often it’s just the opposite.


If you enjoyed this chapter review, consider donating to my Patreon!

3 thoughts on “WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FOUR – Part Three & Four, The Demon Lover – Concluded)

  1. Hi Doreen.
    This has been a good series of articles. The book doesn’t seem to be available in my regions libraries in the UK but I’ll keep an eye out.

    There’s a series of links from this link, its from Kate at the anti-careerist. Perhaps some of them will be of interest. It would be great if you could have a discussion with her and share it too.

    Thanks

    • Always great to hear from you, Hugh.

      Thanks for the links. I have talked to Kate a little before (we have some minuscule differences around anti-work but she’s certainly a fellow traveler).

      I’ll add it to my reading list, thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *