WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 3 – Footwork, Concluded)

Taken from here.

For a few reasons or more this section of part 3 is going to be a little challenging for me. The main problem being that the first two people I’m going to highlight from Terkel’s interviews are actually happy with their jobs. And these aren’t jobs you would usually associate with being happy either. So it’s a weird thing, but I’m also glad for them of course.

On the other hand it doesn’t make it a compelling story if I just talk about how much they like their jobs and then leave it at that is it? Then again, introducing conflict artificially when there isn’t could also be bad. So interviews like this have to be handled delicately because I want to respect people’s opinions about their own life and experiences.

But at the same time there’s always holes in our perceptions.

Babe Secoli (Supermarket Checker)

As a checker for 30 years, Secoli is one of the first workers in a while who loves her job. She says she fell into it as a young girl and found it “interesting” though doesn’t elaborate why. It’s gotten to the point where she doesn’t know any other work (and likely doesn’t want to) and feels like it’s her life. So, that’s going to make this interesting.

And Secoli not only loves her job, she knows it:

I don’t have to look at the keys on my register. I’m like the secretary that knows her typewriter. The touch. My hand fits. The number nine is my big middle finger. The thumb is another one, two and three and up. The side of my hand uses the bar for the total and all that. (p. 282)

Not only that but Secoli also knows all of the prices for the store. I don’t think that would be even possible these days given the amount of products. I think I can remember that at the store I work a gallon of mile is…$3.29? And ice is $1.99 as well as most candies having fluctuating prices but usually less than a $1.

I can name some of the most frequently bought things and also some recent items I’ve seen. But naming the price of every one is way beyond my care or interest level. I guess that’s just one thing that makes Secoli and I very different people when it comes to our job. In fact, Secoli and I have a fairly similar job, just in different time periods.

Secoli has a soft spot for shoplifters, though still gives them no quarter, funnily enough:

As far as standin’ there I’m not tired. It’s when I’m roamin’ around tryin’ to catch a shoplifter. There’s a lot of shoplifters in here. When I see one, I’m ready to run for them. … The best kind shoplift. They’re not doin’ this because they need the money. A very nice class of people off Lake Shore Driver. They do it every day—men and women. Lately it’s been more or less these hippies, livin’ from day to day… (p. 283)

So even though Secoli can’t tolerate theft of any kind it’s apparent she can sympathize with the motives. It’s an odd position that reminds me of cops who sympathize with people who (for example) smoke marijuana to relieve pain but it’s illegal in their state and if a cop busts them, the cop goes through with the arrest, sympathy or not.

I sympathize with Secoli on this next bit:

Some of ’em, they get angry and perturbed at the prices, and they just start swearin’ at me. I just look at ’em. You have to consider the source. I just don’t answer them, because before you know it I’ll get in a heated argument. The customer’s always right. Doesn’t she realize I have to buy the same food?

(pp. 283-4)

I get these same sorts of customers and would respond similarly. Though, perhaps if I’m being more honest, I wish I responded similarly. Anyone who knows me well enough knows I have a penchant for arguing with other people and even when it’s customers and they’re (supposedly) always right, it’s hard to not say something back.

For example, yesterday I told someone something was $4.99 and they gave me $5. After the sale they looked at the receipt and back at me and say, “Wait, this was supposed to be $3.50, I didn’t know what the price was.” And in the most constrained way possible I said, “Ma’am, I said it was $5.” And she says, “I didn’t hear you.”

This despite the fact that I said it right in front of her face, loudly and clearly, she wasn’t distracted by anything and she gave me near-exact change. But I didn’t say any of those things. I knew that this wasn’t going to go anywhere good if I kept making comments back, so I just did a return and she bought 2 so she could get the deal ($7 for 2).

But OK, why does Secoli love her job so much?

Well:

I’ve got very nice bosses. I got a black manager and he’s just beautiful. They don’t bother you as long as you do your work. And the pay is terrific. I automatically get a raise because of the union. …

Right now I’m ready for retirement as far as the union goes. I have enough years. I’m as high up as I can go. I make $189 gross pay. When I retire I’ll make close to five hundred dollars a month.

This is because of the union. Full benefits. (p. 284)

Damn. If I had a good union like that, awesome bosses who left me along so long as I got the main work done (bagging and checking) and had an amazing pay with full benefits…I can’t say I wouldn’t like my job more. Secoli takes pride in her work and talks about how she doesn’t treat people like she’s below them which is great to see.

This was a funny quote, on that note:

I’m human, I’m working for a living. They belittle me sometimes. They use a little profanity sometimes. I stop right there and I go get the manager. Nobody is gonna call me a (cups hand over mouth, whispers) b-i-t-c-h. These are the higher class of people, like as if I’m their housekeeper or their maid.

You don’t even talk to a maid like this. (p. 284)

Even a maid…well we’ll get to that soon enough but for now, I just found it absolutely adorable how this woman was so afraid to say a profane word. Then again, I try to stay away from that word too. Mostly because of its abusive historical usage towards cis women and how men have often used it against them as a weapon of power.

There’s a few funny contradictions in this interview. How Secoli will say that the customer is always right, unless they start rushing her, in which “they gonna get nothin'”. Secoli will also say her feet don’t get sore during the job or even at home to a certain extent but she also says, “My feet, they hurt at times, very much so.”

Still, there’s also a great quote in this interview and I want to finish with that:

Years ago it was more friendlier, more sweeter. Now there’s like tension in the air. A tension in the store. The minute you walk in you feel it. Everybody is fightin’ with each other. They’re pushin’, ‘pushin—“I was first.” Now it’s an effort to say, “Hello, how are you?” It must be the way of people livin’ today. Everything is so rush, rush, rush, and shovin’. Nobody’s goin’ anywhere.

I think they’re pushin’ themselves right to a grave, some of these people. (p. 285)

Thomas Rush (Skycap)

Speaking of Rush…no, not that one.

What the heck is a skycap? Apparently (I had to look this up when I was reading) it’s the folks who take your luggage (especially if you have a lot) and help you get to the check-in area. These folks aren’t as big anymore given airports have a lot more technology including more(?) accessibility to carts and such, but they’re still around.

Rush is in fact one of the lead skycaps so he does much of the scheduling for everyone else. The job turned out to be an alternative to being a police man (Rush is black, I think) and both his mother and wife told him not to do it. So he ended up accepting a skycap job instead at his local airport…back in 1946, so he’s been at this job for 15 years.

Let’s start out with an ouch moment:

I’ve walked hundreds of miles on this job. I haven’t really had too much problem with my feet. But I do get tired, very tired. (Laughs.) I’m wearing a knee supporter. One day I went to the check-in counter with a passenger that had excess baggage. As I turned to walk away, my knee just snapped. (pp. 286-7)

Rush elaborates that the pain comes goes and damn I can’t even imagine (and don’t want to) that level of pain, no thank you. Still, he carries on and talks about how (and this is true) smart and knowledgeable you have to be to be a skycap. You have to know all of the local bus lines (this helped when I was in Austin last year), know what meals are being served on the planes as well as their schedules and so on. The skycap is a smart person.

Here’s a great bit on emotional labor from Rush:

I look at everybody at eye level. I neither look down nor up. The day of the shuffle is gone. I better not see any one of the fellas that works for me doing it. Not ever! You do not have to do anything but be courteous and perform your job. This is all that is necessary. That perpetual grin I just don’t dig.

I have been told that I don’t smile, period. I said, “I don’t think it’s necessary.” I smile when I have something to smile about. Otherwise I don’t. If I make the passenger happy, that’s all that’s necessary. (p. 287)

I completely agree with this, actually. Insofar as work has to exist and especially jobs that are in person and depend on some sort of contact with customers, I think the standard of simply being nice and polite handles things fine. You don’t need to be artificial, but be pleasant like you would to any stranger who hasn’t done you wrong.

Rush doesn’t speak too much on why he loves his job but he does say that he makes a good amount. Though he also discusses that because ticket agents make so much that skycaps should still get more. He briefly mentions that even without a union the skycaps get a good amount of benefits and don’t have to wear “dungarees and things”.

Ultimately, Rush says they’re the “elite of the fleet” and I think he liked it that way.

Grace Clements (Felter, Luggage Factory)

Ah, now here we have a vintage job-hating interview! I guess I shouldn’t be happy about the fact that we’re so quickly back to people who dislike their jobs but come on, isn’t that the more interesting interview anyways?

Terkel describes her as a “sparrow of a woman” which I’m pretty sure isn’t a good thing. She has 18 grandchildren (holy cow) and has worked in factories for around 25 years. But mostly she is with a corporation called ARMCO Corporation which handles luggage well as other things like snowmobile parts, windshield defrosters and…black paper speakers.

Look at this damn process and tell me it isn’t depressing as shit:

In forty seconds you have to take the wet felt out of the felter, put the blanket on—a rubber sheeting—to draw out the excess moisture, wait two, three seconds, take the blanket off, pick the wet felt up, balance it on your shoulder—there is no way of holding it without it tearing it all to pieces, it is wet and will collapse—reach over, get the hose, spray the inside of this copper screen to keep it from plugging, turn around, walk to the hot dry die behind you, take the hot piece off with your opposite hand, set it on the floor—-this wet thing is still balanced on my shoulder—put the wet piece on the dry die, push this button that lets the dry press down, inspect the piece we just took off, the hot piece, stack it, and count it—when you get a stack of ten, you push it over and start and stack of ten—then go back and put our blanket on the wet piece coming up from the tank…and start all over.

Forty seconds. (pp. 289-290)

Jesus Christ on a pogo stick! Would you like this job?

On top of that there’s no way to leave the tank but at the same time Clements says it’s better than a previous job she had and this job has burn scars as a gift to boot. In addition, plenty of other girls have burn marks to show for all of their hard work as well. Someone else had a hydraulic lift drop on her hand, losing two fingers and had to have plastic surgery.

And if that’s not all bad enough:

In the summertime, the temperature ranges anywhere from 100 to 150 degrees at our work station. I’ve taken thermometers and checked it out. you’ve got three open presses behind you. There’s nothing between you and that heat but an asbestos sheet. They’ve recently put in air conditioning in the recreation room. There’s been quite a little discussion between the union and the company on this.

They carry the air conditioning too low for the people on the presses. Our temperature will be up to 140, and to go into an air-conditioned recreation room that might be set at 72—-’cause the office force is happy and content with it—people on the presses almost fain when they go back. We really suffer. (p. 291)

So what does Clement do about all of this? She decided to become the chairman of the grievance committee and tries to help other people get their grievances get won. She also helps with the union paper and so she cut stencils, writes articles and copies pictures. She spends at least a few nights and a handful of hours on it.

For helping herself she tries to daydream and think about the union paper, what she’s gonna have for supper, etc. She also talks about how she and her husband spend many weekends on the river, which sounds peaceful. Sometimees I wish I lived near the ocean or a nice lake just so I could easily go out on a boat and read or take a nap, etc.

The union involvement has changed Clement for the better (according to herself). She’s now much more interested in the community, politics and even wants to make a career out of being in the union. She wants to make life easier for anyone who comes to the union which seems like an admirable job to me.

One thing I disliked was this passage:

I attended a conference of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Another lady went with me. We were both union officers. Most of the women there were either teachers or nurses or in a professional field. When they found out we were from labor, their attitude was cold. You felt like a little piece of scum. … I can understand how the black and the Spanish-speaking people feel. (p. 293)

Issues of class and race aren’t completely different but they are also definitely different and I think comments like this highlight that. While looking down as less than human is similar between working class and folks of color, it’s not for the same reasons and can have very different effects. Not all dehumanization plays out the same or looks the same.

For example, when I wear a skirt or generally try to present more femme, people look at me weirdly. It’s probably because I don’t pass but it’s also more generally because trans folks are seen as inhuman. This attitude is changing more and more as time goes on, but many trans women (especially women of color) are being killed each year. And when they aren’t killed they’re being harassed, abused or anything else folks can justify.

By the same token, children are being put in cages via ICE because of their nationality and who their parents are and in general because imaginary lines dictate policy to an extreme level as they typically have, especially in the US. And while, yes, these are both horrible forms of dehumanization they aren’t exactly the same and shouldn’t be compared.

Anyways, this is just a quibble. Clements seems like a great organizer and I hope she had many years of success in making life as difficult as possible for the corporation she worked for.

Dolores Dante (Waitress)

Now for perhaps my favorite interviewee of this whole footwork section. A waitress for over 20 years in the same location and enjoy is, even loves it. She works from 5 PM to 2 AM six days a week and talks about needing the job because of her husband leaving her in debt with three children. But hey, she’s an atheist so that’s cool.

The way Dante figures it (was she even supposed to be here today?) she wants to get to know as much as possible about people. And since she can’t go to them all she instead lets them come to her. And she doesn’t just serve people their food but also provides “philosophy” and “political science” alongside it. You can already see why I like her.

Stuff like this:

I’ll say things that bug me. If they manufacture soap, I say what I think about pollution. If it’s automobiles, I say what I think about them. If I pour water I’ll say, “Would you like your quota of mercury today?” If I serve cream, I say, “Here is your substitute. I think you’re drinking plastic.” I just can’t keep quiet. (p. 294)

Dante reasons that she can’t be servile and has to speak her mind, she came her to serve people but that isn’t the same thing as putting herself under their rule. I love this because it’s a great distinction to make. Just because I’m trying to help you in some commercial way doesn’t mean you are better than me, especially because you likely have to as well.

She also does things like this to vary up her days and I get that for sure. If all I said was the same thing all of the time to every customer I don’t know what I’d do. And sure, there are some questions I ask almost every transaction but usually I’ll mix up how I ask or (more often) I try to say something after about what they are wearing or what’s going on, etc.

There’s more about the feeling of subservience here:

People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think or have any kind of aspiration other than to serve food. When somebody says to me. “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress?” Just a waitress.

I’d say, “Why don’t you think you deserve you be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. It makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all. I myself feel sure.

I don’t want to change the job. I love it. (pp. 294-95)

It’s amazing to me to have this sort of passion about waitressing, but on the other hand if it makes you happy then Glob speed to you. I wish I could better appreciate the perspective of other people on things like this but jobs like this seem so menial to me and inherently degrading, not to mention they tend to pay pretty poorly.

On top of being a badass who is opinionated, she also has great quotes (which makes sense. right?):

Life doesn’t frighten me any more. there are only two things that regulate us—the bathroom and the grave. Either I’m gonna have to go to the bathroom now or I’m gonna die now. I go to the bathroom. (p. 295)

This is perhaps the best quote from this whole book.

It’s worth tattooing, if you’re into that sort of thing.

There’s more to this interview, but why bother?

If you’re not sold on this book with that quote alone, when would you be?

(Just kidding, see y’all next week with a new chapter!)


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