Working, by Studs Terkel (Preface I-III)

He wants his 2 dollars…and he’s serious about it.

Preface 1: Who Built The Pyramids?

At least in this first part, it’s going to be easiest to break down the book from one interview to another. I’ll try to limit references to future interviews so as not to confuse anyone. I may make some callbacks as time goes on just to show what some of the folks interviewed have in common with the others and wherein they differ.

The book starts with Mike Lefevre, a worker in a steel mill. He’s by far the most interesting of the people interviewed in the preface sections so I’m going to be spending a lot of time on him.

Lefevre defies conventions about someone who works in hard labor (so to speak). He’s book savvy, has a searing wit, (kinda) knows the score when it comes to the ruling class and him and in short, he’s fairly educated about the world around him. One of the most important things Lefevre says is that “the average working guy isn’t dumb, he’s just tired.”

This is similar to one of the points I made during my book tour at my Worcester stop. The reason why so many working people watch TV or other “mindless” forms of entertainment isn’t necessarily because they’ve been brainwashed by advertising or the TV companies into believing this or that, they just need to turn off their brain for a while.

Hell, I’ve been known from time to time to just shut off my brain when I get home. I watch my favorite Let’s Players, I play video games, I eat some junk food, I talk to friends about Nothing in Particular, etc. But on the other hand some of the videos I watch on YT are pretty heady and some of the conversations I have with friends can be as well.

It just depends on the sort of night I had at work, where my energy is at and how determined I am to learn a given thing or to be entertained and leave it at that. Sometimes I’ll just keep streaming a Netflix show and other times I might work on a short story or something else that is near and dear to my heart. And although in the minority there have been a few nights when I come home from work and go straight (or soon after) to some “work” of my own, e.g. writing.

So maybe I’m not the straight-forward example some other folks are but I don’t even think that most people are the straightforward case of lazy, stupid and brainwashed Americans that some on the left seem to think exist. And to be clear, I consider myself a leftist, but I take umbrage with the sort of attitudes some leftists have towards working folks.

As Lefevre says:

Why is it that the communists always say they’re for the workingman, and as soon as they set up a country, you got guys singing to tractor? They’re singing about how they love the factory. That’s where I couldn’t buy communism. It’s the intellectuals’ utopia, not mine.

I cannot imagine myself singing to a tractor, I just can’t. (Laughs.) Or singing to steel. (Singsongs.) Oh whoop-dee-doo, I’m at the bonderizer, oh how I love this heavy steel.

No thanks.

Never happen. (Preface I, xxxiv-v)

This is reminiscent of many of the criticisms I’ve heard of communism: It’s woefully out of touch with what working-class folks actually want. Now, I don’t claim a steelworker from the 70s speaks for all workers now (or then for that matter) but I think it’s an important insight to take note of. I’m sure I’m not alone in this and some communists have noticed how one of the greatest experiments in communism (the USSR) valorized work to the point of cruelty and authoritarianism.

If you’re looking for more information on that, check out my chapter reviews of Stalin’s Peasants by Sheila Fitzgerald. Of course, many communists will say “well that’s not real communism” and OK, sure. But that’s what a lot of people think about and have to go one for your system. The USSR was originally designed with the ideas of Marx, who, while not everything for the ideology of communism, is surely it’s best recognized and often thought of figure associate with it.

At any rate, I found Lefevre quite an interesting person, especially with passages like this:

I don’t even need the alarm clock to get up in the morning. I can go out drinking all night, fall asleep at four, and bam! I’m up at six—no matter what I do. (Laughs.) It’s a pseudo-death, more or less.

Your whole system is paralyzed and you give all the appearance of death. It’s an ingrown clock. It’s a thing you just get used to. (Preface I, xxxv-vi)

A “pseudo-death” is perhaps one of the best descriptions of work I’ve heard in a while.

Eventually the routines get so built-in, so ingrained and so regularized for you, that it’s almost impossible to escape. Your life becomes based around the clocks that your bosses own, not your own goals, ambitions or dreams. Those are things to have when you’re old and gray, and likely too beat up from a life of work to do much more about.

Lefevre also talked about how he never got to see the fruits of his labor, working in a steel-mill. And that, when it came to the mill, there was a real lack of recognition in the work itself. He went as far as trying to intentionally fucking up whatever piece he is working on so it retains something. The piece of steel he is using at least has some sort of identity and he can have some sort of relationship to it and point to it.

This pointing is all about pride and feeling some sort of self-worth about what you are doing with your time and energy. Not many people (especially those in retail) can point to anything with pride and say, “I did that!” I think one time I put the coke 12 packs in a certain way on top of each other and felt some pride for a second, cause the pattern was neat.

But this lasted all of a few minutes after telling a person or two and then I realized it just sounded ridiculous. Like, am I really celebrating the patterns of coke bottles I did in this shitty store? So even when you do something physical, the joy doesn’t last, not in retail. Recognition is also hardly a thing. That’s not the case all of the time however.

For instance, I came into the store to help out a few of my favorite co-workers last Saturday when I had the day otherwise off (and to get some extra money) and I was thanked by four people (1 co-worker and 3 managers) over the course of two days for coming in and helping. But even one of the managers acknowledged as he did this that there often isn’t enough saying “thank you” in the store for doing important things. And I think that’s definitely correct.

As an example my favorite co-worker/manager has been working there for over 5 years (yeah, I know) and handling many of the tasks that are not explicitly distributed to any particular person. So they will handle things like ordering, manage the photo section of the store and so on. All of these things are now in addition to the new expectations (and responsibilities such as closing the store) that they now have to deal with.

And I’m pretty sure no one really gave this any thought or time to recognize them with. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it just seems like it’s a combination of them putting this on themselves but also doing that when no one else will and then getting insufficient support for the choices they make.

Retail isn’t a place for pride though and clearly neither was this factory for Lefevre:

It’s hard to take pride in a ridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.

(Muses) I worked for a trucker one time. And I got this tiny satisfaction when I loaded a truck. At least I could see the truck depart loaded. In a steel mill, forget it. You don’t see where nothing goes.

(Preface I, xxxi-ii)

That said, for all of the good and insightful things Lefevre says there’s one particular point I can’t help but criticize and address:

Don’t you think with that extra twenty hours people could really expand? Who’s to say? There are some people in factories just by force of circumstance. I’m just like the colored people. Potential Einsteins don’t have to be white. They could be in cotton fields, they could be in factories.

Somebody has to do this work. If my kid ever goes to college, I just want him to have a little respect, to realize that his dad is one of those somebodies. This is why even on—(muses) yeah, I guess, sure—on the black thing … (Sighs heavily) I can’t really hate the colored fella that’s working with me all day.

The black intellectual I got no respect for. The white intellectual I got no use for. I got no use for the black militant who’s gonna scream three hundred years of slavery to me while I’m busting my ass. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) I have one answer for that guy: go see Rockefeller. See Harriman. Don’t bother me.

We’re in the same cotton field. So don’t bug me. (Laughs.)

(Preface I, xxxiii-xxxv)

As I’ve stated before, it’s easy to rouse up some moral disgust when you use slavery. But the bottom line is that while wage-labor is horribly authoritarian, hardly voluntary and sometimes operates under horrid conditions, it’s not akin to slavery. Slavery was a completely non-consensual, violently imposed system of relations that was backed by the law and didn’t include any sort of compensation besides maybe shelter and food.

Workers are able to have their own property and are not the legal property of their managers (even if that’s how they’re sometimes treated) and there are plenty of other differences we could draw up, but you get the point. And just because you’re living under difficult conditions, doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to racism, racist institutions or white supremacy.

There’s a sort of white entitlement (one I’m sure I’m not free of) which says something like, “Well how could I be racist if I’m out here suffering all of the time at my job and barely doing anything outside of my home?” There are plenty of ways to reinforce racism for instance, implying that black militancy has no utility unless it’s centered on your own desires, which are notably informed by a rather distinct body of history and culture than people of color.

Black intellectuals and militants don’t need my or any other white person’s respect or “use”. They’re not here for us, they’re here to help tear down the systems that us white folks built up to begin with. Maybe we didn’t physically build them ourselves but we’ve surely benefited from them and assisted them knowingly or not.

To close off this section I just want to quote Lefevre one last time as I think it sums up a big part of my attitude towards work as well:

I punch in about ten minutes to seven in the morning. I say hello to a coup of guys I like, I kid around with them. One guy says good morning to you and you say good morning. To another guy you say fuck you

The guy you say fuck you to is your friend. (Preface I, xxxiv)

Preface II: Who Spread the News?

This section deals with the much lauded and sought after career of…newsboy. Yeah, not so much, huh?

There’s three different boys interviewed. Billy Carpenter, 12, has a mixed-positive opinion of the job, Cliff Pickens (also 12) is happy and Terry Pickens (brother of Cliff and 14 years old) is cynical and bitter about the job.

Let’s take a look at their individual stances and then relate the three:

Billy Carpenter: I like my work. If you’re nice, they tell everybody about how nice you are and they would pass it on. But now I’m kind of in a hurry and I do it just any old way to get it done. ‘Cause it’s wintertime. It gets dark earlier.

This one lady, she lives about thirty yards from the street. I just throw the paper. She came one day and started to bawl me out ’cause she got a box. You gotta go up this alley, turn around, and go to the box on the side of the house. It takes about a minute. I I had to do it for everybody, I’d never get done.

Q: Will your experience as a newsboy help you get along in the world?

A: Oh yeah. You can get a good job as a salesman, like selling encyclopedias and stuff in your later life. I would. Because you would get a lot of money. (Preface II, xxxix-xl)

Cliff Pickens: It’s fun throwing papers. … The people down at the pool hall, they reach back in my basket while I’m not lookin’ and steal my papers. But they always give ’em back. They just tease me. I don’t know their names. … It’s good to be a newsboy. You get to really like people. (Preface II, xl)

Terry Pickens: It’s supposed to be such a great deal. The guy, when he came over and asked me if I wanted a route, he made it sound so great. Seven dollars a week for hardly any work at all. And then you find out the guy told you a bunch of bull. You mistrust the people. You mistrust your customers because they don’t pay you sometimes…. A lot of customers are considerate but a lot of ’em aren’t. Lot of ’em act like they’re doing you such a favor taking the paper from you.

Once in a while I come home angry, most of the time just crabby. Sometimes kids steal the paper out of people’s boxes. I lose my profits. It costs me a dime. The company isn’t responsible, I am. The company wouldn’t believe you probably that somebody stole the paper.

I don’t see where being a newsboy and learning that people are pretty mean or that people don’t have enough money to buy things with is gonna make you a better person or anything. If anything, it’s gonna make a worse person out of you… Yeah, it sort of molds your character, but I don’t think for the better. If anybody told me being a newsboy builds character, I’d know he was a liar. (Preface II, xli-xliii)

With a job like newsboy it’s pretty clear that it’s all about the route you take and the people you meet.

Back in the 70s (and even past that) it was reliant on the people at the door to pay you. This is actually a long-running gag in the movie Better off Dead, that the newsboy couldn’t get a reliable payment from the main character and had to keep chasing him just so he could get it. So, yeah, the struggle is real.

So while for one Pickens brother the “stealing” was a joke and he was always able to get it back, the other seems to constantly lose money because of it. And while Billy complains about the lack of time he has to do everything he’d want to do during his routes, he doesn’t see this as a big obstacle. He just sees it as a necessary part of the job during the wintertime. Unlike Terry who thinks that any of the “bugs” in the job are actually features.

It’s interesting how Cliff says that he is able to have fun at the job. He can bounce it back up on the bushes and then get it back on the porch after he picks it back up and throws it again. Cliff is having fun because he makes a game out of the experience. He thinks about getting newspapers on roofs (though never does it), bounces them off bushes and enjoys seeing that and he likes getting to know people and talk to them.

But for Terry, most of the people he meets are mean or unwilling to pay him. It makes any notion of creating a game within the job a lost cause. He’s so busy trying to make money from it and chase people down for their cash that he can’t see any of the positives from the job that could be there (it must at least be a decent source of exercise, right?).

At any rate, though I was never a newsgirl myself and so I can’t really comment on how easy or difficult it typically is for people (it’d be impossible for me, I don’t know how to ride a bike, just for starters). But it sounds like just with many jobs it really depends on a host of factors for how you’ll deal with, not to mention your personality. Billy is optimistic about the future and Cliff never responds to that question but Terry is pessimistic and doesn’t see how the job is helping him.

On the other hand Terry also denotes all of the money it’s made him…and how it disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared for him. He spent it on candy, McDonald’s a few times (sometimes we forget just how long McDonald’s has been around, I certainly do…) and anything else he could get his hands on. So maybe if he saved his money for more meaningful ventures, the work would also become more meaningful?

I don’t know and I doubt it, but conjecture is always fun.

Preface III: The Mason

So…how about the opposite of Lefevre?

Because that’s what we find in Carl Murray Bates, a stonemason. He epitomizes the sort of individual I talked about in my post a while back when I compared doing retail work to do something much like stonemasonry.

Bates is a man completely captured by his line of work. He eats, sleeps and dreams about stone and I definitely envy him a whole hell of a lot. Unlike, Lefevre, Mason is able to see the products of his labor (“Cause you see, stone, you don’t prepaint it, you don’t camouflage it. It’s there, just like I left it forty years ago.” Preface III, xlix) and thus has a much stronger relationship to his job. He tells Terks that he isn’t watching the clock because he is looking forward to quittin’ time but because he’s wondering how much can he get done before quittin’ time.

More often than not Bates is wondering where the time went and wonders to himself why he couldn’t have done more. Imagine that kind of pride in your work! Imagine that kind of interest and genuine love of what you do! It’s unheard of for most people that I know. Most of my friends are stuck in jobs they hate, working for corporations they have no literal or emotional stock in and only working because they have to pay the rent, et. al.

But Bates makes it sound like he’ll do it for as long as he can. He clarifies that the so-called “risks” of stonemason are pretty low as he’s usually only as high as a few stories and most times he’s not even that. Bates also isn’t worried about automation because he knows there is always cracks where you can’t get a machine to get in. So he feels hopeful about his future and as it is, when Bates is interviews, he’s in his late 50s.

You can just feel the passion in what Bates says, look at the detail in which he describes stone:

With stone we build just about anything. Stone is the oldest and best building material that ever was. Stone was being used even by the cavemen that put it together with mud. They built out of stone before they even used logs. He built him a cave, he built stone across the front. And he learned to use dirt, mud, to make the stones lay there without sliding around—which was the beginning of mortar, which we still call mud.

The Romans used mortar that’s almost as good as we have today. (Preface III, xlv)

The detail here is (as I presume it would’ve been in Bate’s work) astonishing. He not only knows about stone but he’s clearly studies its history a little bit and enough to think about other types of materials. He talks about the different grains that stone can have, how it has and hasn’t changed over his lifetime and beyond, etc. His passion is pretty contagious and honestly reading a story like his might make you want to take up stone masonry.

I’m already loving this book and we haven’t even technically gotten to the beginning of it.

I have a feeling we’re in for a fun ride, y’all.

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