WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 2 – Counting)

The most “exciting” shot I could find.

We’ll be going a little short today with only two entries to cover but them’s the breaks of this chapter. Counting isn’t a particularly in depth look at the world of financial jobs at 10 pages, but maybe Terkel just finds math as boring as I do.

Still, there’s definitely some winning equations in this one.

First we have…

Nancy Rogers (Bank Teller)

Rogers is a nice girl who works at a (you’ll never guess!) bank and relatively enjoys her job. She earns $500 a month and has been working at her job for six years. She seems like a person with a good head on her shoulders though obviously at least slightly dissatisfied with her job, she’s at a point where she’s trying to make the best of it.

I’ll start with this quote:

You don’t really do much. It’s just a service job. … I’ve never felt you should be tied tied to something like a clock. It’s not that important. If you’re there to start doing business with the people when the bank opens, fine. (p. 257)

On one hand I’m glad no one screams “LATE!” when I come in late (as they do there). I think if the place I worked at had this mechanism I would have either become too numb to that embarrassment or just die from it, whichever came first. At the same time (and I can’t believe this myself) it is somewhat important to be on time, if only to relieve your co-workers.

Let me be clear, fuck the time clock and fuck the pressure on workers. But hey, if you’re gonna commit to a job then you’ve got more than just your managers (or even the public) depending on you. It’s not a great situation and I understand that this is how employers roping you into feeling bad (letting down your co-workers) but it works for a reason.

In related news, her boss sounds lovely:

My supervisor yells at me. He’s about fifty, in a position that he doesn’t really enjoy. He’s been there for a long time and hasn’t really advanced that much. He’s supposed to have authority over a lot of things but he hasn’t really kept informed of changes. … [Y]ou ask a question a lot of times and you don’t get the answer you need. Like he doesn’t listen. (p. 257)

It’s hard enough working in service industries when the public can make your day go from “OK” to “oh my god why I am here?” in a blink of any eye and just because of one person. But even past that, having managers who shouldn’t even be there because of their lack of knowledge and lack of listening skills can make things frustrating in and out.

So what you get in a lot of situations is a lot of pressure coming from outside but also coming from the inside as well. This, not surprisingly enough, leads many workers to leave much faster than they would otherwise. That’s not necessarily going to happen for everyone, but that level of stress has to take shape over the long-term in one way or another.

At my own job I’m “blessed” to at least have managers who sometimes know what they are doing, or at least enough to get by. The trick is for us all to admit to ourselves that most of the time we don’t know what the heck we’re doing and that we just try to do the best we can with the information we have. Being humble is an important part of being human.

Sadly many managers missed the memo (so to speak) on that.

There are two tellers to a cage and the machine is in between our windows. I don’t like the way the bank is set up. It separates people. People are already separated enough. There are apartment houses where you don’t know anybody else in the building.

They object you going into somebody else’s cage, which is understandable. If the person doesn’t balance, they’ll say, “She was in my cage.” Cages? I’ve wondered about that. It’s not quite like being in prison, but I still feel very locked in. (p. 258)

As someone whose introverted and autistic I’d just rather not know Little Timmy Who Lives Downstairs. I couldn’t care less who lives in the same building as me. If they want to get to know me and they seem like a cool person or if I realize they are a cool person, then maybe I’ll extend some effort. But I have about a dozen friends and among that dozen of friends are a handful or so who I am in touch with through each week and that’s enough for me.

This whole thing about everyone going back to the Golden Age where everybody knew each other’s name is such bullshit. I sincerely doubt that everyone in every neighborhood knew the other people they were surrounded by. Especially if that personal bubble was filled with people they didn’t like for whatever reason, say, being racist?

At any rate, I don’t think we all need to know each other. It’s not necessary for any of us to live a good life. For those who want to, great! But try not to pressure people who don’t or make them feel less like they’re not quite human for not wanting to be as extroverted as you, some of us like our personal space, thanks.

The second part about feeling confined is a good one and something I’m sure many of us in the service industry (myself included) can relate to. Though I would like to point out it’s at least ostensibly for the protection of tellers from bullets.

So there’s that to consider.

Money doesn’t mean that much to me. To me, it’s not money, it’s just little pieces of paper. It’s not money to me unless I’m the one who’s taking the money out or cashing the check. That’s money because it’s mine. Otherwise it doesn’t really mean anything.

Somebody asked me, “Doesn’t it bother you, handling all that money all day long?” I said, “It’s not money. I’m a magician. I’ll show you how it works.” So I counted out the paper. I said, “Over here at this window, it’s nothing. Over there, at that window, it’s money.”

If you were gonna think about it every minute: “Oh lookit, here’s five-thousand dollars, wow!” … You’d get hung up and so dissatisfied of having to deal with money that’s not yours, you couldn’t work. (pp. 258-9)

While I certainly don’t deal with as much money as a bank teller does, I sometimes have to deal with hundreds or thousands of dollars. And for me that’s a bunch of months of rent, food, utilities and maybe a few nights out here and there, perhaps a few video games and who knows? Maybe I’ll even save money for college!

But I don’t think about that much and I suspect most of my co-workers don’t either. There’s some very short-term reward in stealing the money but the long-term consequences are (likely) severe and not worth it. If you could somehow take the money without being noticed…but even then I don’t feel great taking, even when it’s from corporations.

Also, I’m not advising breaking the law.

Cause that’d be bad and stuff.

Duh.

Speaking of breaking the law…

I really don’t know what I’d do [if the bank was held up]. I don’t think I’d panic too badly. I’d be very nervous and upset, but I’d probably do exactly what the man wanted. If possible, trip the alarm, but that’s not going to do much good. I’d give him the money, especially if he had a gun in his hand… Money’s not worth that much. The bank’s insured by the government for things like that, so there’s no real …

It’d be exciting, I guess. (p. 25()

Props to Rogers for having perhaps the most chill response to, “What if you had a gun pointed at you?” I’ve heard in a long time or maybe ever. Then again, whenever the store I’m in has been robbed from (though never at gunpoint or from the cashier’s side, it’s almost always products) it’s sort of exciting or stunning.

Recently a guy came in and took a whole thing of beer and did it two weeks in a row without giving a shit. I think I’ve already talked about this guy before but he actually came in again this Wednesday and did it again. And again (how many times can I say the word “again?”) but this time at 8:07 in the AM. What a dedicated customer/thief!

Banks are very much giving into desexualizing women who work there, by putting uniforms on them. Trying to make everybody look the same. In one way it’s nice, it saves on clothes. In another way, it’s boring, putting on the same thing almost every day is—ech!! Some I’ve seen aren’t too bad. but in some places they’re very tailored and in drab clothes. Uptight is the only word I can think of to describe them. (p. 260)

One of my least favorite parts of my job is my uniform. I hate that we can’t express ourselves and all of the ways in which we can express ourselves are severely limited and narrowed by the company. I take off my shirt almost as soon as my shift ends and sometimes it’s difficult for me to even want to be physically affectionate with my partner (we work together). It’s not because they aren’t beautiful either way, but the shirt (once the shift is over) literally repulses me.

It just reminds me of the shit job we just had to do and will have to do. I like thinking about work as much as I like thinking of my impending death when I get older. Or how much I love thinking about all of the shitty mistakes I’ve made in life and can never make up for. Or how much I’ve loved certain people but let them down in big ways. All equally pleasant.

Last quote:

I think a lot of places don’t want people to be people. I think they want you to be almost be the machines they’re working with. They just want to dehumanize you. Just like when you walk in the morning, you put the switch on and here you are: “I am a robot. This is what I do. Good morning How are you? May I help you?” I hate having to deal with people like that. (pp. 261-2)

Like I said, relatively.

Fred Roman (Auditor)

By the end of the interview Roman says, “There just isn’t much to talk about.” and this section ends.

Welp. Guess that’s it then. If he doesn’t think there’s much to talk about, why should I spend my time?

I’m gonna find a way to keep listening to Paramore’s discography, maybe watch some Youtube and…

Oh, I have to keep going?

I’m not even at 2,000 words yet?

Jesus.

Okay.

Let’s try this again.

Fred Roman (Auditor)

Roman says he’s an accountant to most people, given that people are at least banal and indifferent to accountants. But the truth is…well slightly more interesting, as we’ll see. Because, as you can see from the title, Roman’s job is a bit more complicated than that. He’s not the acquisition man that movies would make him out to be but…

We will certify whether a company’s financial statement is correct. They’ll say, “This is what we did last year. We made X amount of dollars.” We will come into examine the books and say, “Yes they did.”

(p. 263)

As you may imagine, this makes some companies a wee bit nervous:

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.)

Now this is my kind of auditor. The kind that makes people like m-um, not-that-bad people, off the hook.

Roman elaborates that they’re supposed to be independent but if they irk a company by making them lose some money it’s likely they won’t be coming back for a second job. I can’t imagine this causes any lack of pressure on people to turn the other way on certain things while coming down on the big monetary misalignment from a company.

If nothing else, auditors want to keep their job and there’s probably other companies to “help”. But Roman admits there are some gray areas where missing money could just be debt. Then it just revolves around how likely it is that the company in question can pay it back or not.

But heck, if Roman really feels like there isn’t too much to talk about, then it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in me to keep quoting him. Though, I will say he’s got a good idea of the bigger picture where it concerns his job.

In fact, let’s leave it there:

Is my job important? It’s a question I ask myself. It’s important to people who use financial statements, who buy stocks. It’s important to banks. (Pause.) I’m not out combating pollution or anything like that.

Whether it’s important to society … (A long pause.)

No, not too important. It’s necessary in this economy, based on big business. (p. 265)


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