WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK TWO, Part Three – The Commercial, Continued)

Rip Torn

Rip Torn (Actor)

I like a lot of what Torn says in his interview. He’s another oldie actor who I’m not super familiar with and I couldn’t tell you anything he’s been in. But I like his moxie (so to speak) and the ways in which he talks about the acting business.

Torn’s basic attitude is that actors are “shills” and are paid more for their loyalty to money, corporations and politicians than actually being themselves or playing the part how they want. Ultimately, Torn concludes that Hollywood doesn’t want artistry, it wants people as Silly Putty, easy to mold to their own whims.

That said, Torn is hardly perfect. He’s clearly got an attitude problem, as an actor he has a good reputation when Terkel interviews him, but personally he’s labeled as “troublesome” (82) by some who work with him. Torn says that’s because of his attitude, which Torn felt he could use to his advantage as an actor. He thought to himself that he’d be able to use his nature to lean into his emotions (my wording) so that he could be a more desired actor.

It worked but had mixed results:

The sponsor was Pontiac. But this show had resale value. They didn’t want a Civil War character smoking a cigar because they might resell it to a cigarette company and my act might damage their commodity. They insisted I get rid of the cigar. We’re nothing but goddamn shills. (83-83)

Despite all of his hatred of shilling Torn admits he’s done it himself. “We all have to make accommodations for the society we live in” (84) he reasons. When young actors and come up to him, telling them how much they admire him for not selling out, he’s realistic and frank about the matter: He’s sold out plenty of times and that’s because you have to.

But Torn also tries to exercise as much control as possible over the sort of selling out he does. He tries to make sure his own sense of self-respect is left as intact as possible. Torn admits though that the ability to have self-respect in the work has diminished in recent years when it comes to acting. For Torn there’s no “artistry” and only shilling.

For Torn you have to be a salesman to make it:

Who’s running things now? The salesman. You must be a salesman to reflect that culture, to be a success. People that write commercial jingles make more money than people that write operas. They’re more successful by somebody’s standards. That somebody is the salesman and he’s taken over.

To the American public, an actor is unsuccessful unless he makes money. (84)

Given all of that, you would think Torn would hate actors who work in advertisements.

Yet, he explains:

I don’t have any contempt for people who do commercials. I’ve never been able to get even that kind of work.

A friend of mine gave me a name, somebody to see. She said, “You’ll have to shave your beard.” … I said, It’s only a voice-over, what difference does it make?” … I don’t know, maybe you don’t bow to them correctly. If I could learn that certain kind of bow, maybe I’d try it.

It’s like the army’ there’s a ruling in the army called “insubordination through manner.” You don’t do anything that could be really said, “I’m gonna bring that man up on company punishment…” It’s his manner. He’ll be saying, “Yes sir” and “No sir.” But there’s something within his corporal being makes you say something in his manner is insubordinate. … There’s something about him.

In a horse you say, “He hasn’t quite been broken.”

He doesn’t quite respond to command or to the reins. (83)

Similarly, Torn would likely consider himself one of those yet-to-be-broken-horses.

I’d like to think we all have that bit of non-brokenness in us. It’s those moments in which we spend time with friends, get passionate about the world us, invest in ourselves and our communities. Whether those communities be just the people we love and those around us or political communities that expand further outwards, or both.

Our social connections outside of work and often times within it as well as those that keep us from completely breaking. We all have our small rebellions that we perform at work. Whether it’s not completely following a rule to the letter, making exceptions where human decency rules over bureaucracy or even flat out resistance.

It’s interesting to see an actor who is successful (like Freeman was) but still obviously dissatisfied. Torn doesn’t seem dissatisfied with his own personal life (though that may be the case) but more so upset with the world around him and how it treats him. In other words, I think he’s more upset at the system than the part he plays in it.

Maybe acting would be a lot more fun, if people could actually, you know, act.

Obviously parts of the role of an actor is being Silly Putty for the director. It’s being putty for your PR agents and it’s being putty for your audience up to a certain point. All of this is a necessary part of the artistry but I think Thorn makes us reflect on how insidious it can be and how much it can take over the experience itself.

Speaking of PR agents…

Eddie Jaffe (Press Agent)

This interview starts off in a pretty brutal way, check this out:

I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, “What does a press agent do?” you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them.

What being a press agent does to you.

What have I wound up with?

Rooms full of clippings. (85)

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the position from Jaffe. But when you’ve been at the job for as long as Jaffe has (forty-two years!) it isn’t hard to imagine getting tired of it. And besides, Jaffe makes an excellent point in saying that being a press agent is all about putting your hopes and aspirations into other people.

All of his life Jaffe has existed behind the people who hires him out. He’ll hardly ever get the credit when things go right and when things go wrong, he’s often the person who is going to be blamed. Jaffe explains that the relationship between press agent and client is similar to a parent and child. And children eventually outgrow their parents.

Jaffe explains that he’s worked with everyone from strippers to celebrities, industries, governments and a psychic.

The stories he gave surrounding his time with strippers were interesting and humorous:

It was fun doing publicity for strippers.

I got fantastic space for a girl named Babette Bardot. A college professor did a study of strippers. We announced that Babette was going to do a study of college professors, to find out what their hang-ups were.

She wrote to the SEC* asking permission for a public offering to sell stock in herself. She said she had exposed her assets very fully. We got quite a bit of space with that letter.

I decided there’s a direct relationship between sex and our economy. So I sent a stripper down to Wall Street. She said the economy’s getting better because they mobbed her. (86)

*The US Securities and Exchange Commission

The part about the “direct relationship” is easily the most interesting. The link between sexual interest and financial interest is a pretty crucial one in an economy and culture that glorifies sex at almost all possible chances. Which isn’t to say sex is a negative thing or shouldn’t be celebrated in certain ways. But the advertisements and still much of the entertainment we’re told to enjoy has very exclusive meanings of sex and how it does (and thus should) exist.

But still, sex sells as they say and so Jaffe is right to denote this very direct connection.

The power of the publicity release was also discussed:

During the first World’s Fair I handled the Iceland Pavilion … I looked over the commissioner’s speech: how much red herring and goose feathers they import to the U.S. each year. I said, “This won’t get you in the papers.” So I added a line. This was at the time of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.

So I said, “Here’s to the Reykjavik-Washington Axis. Iceland is prepared to send troops any time to defend Washington. (Laughs.) We hope that Washington feels the same way about us.”

That got in all the papers. It was forgotten for about two years. Cordell Hull gets a call one night from the Mirror, “Did you know the U.S. has a treaty to defend Iceland from the Germans?” … The Mirror had a headline about it. The Washington Treaty was based solely on my little publicity release. (86-87)

I don’t know how true this is, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Life often imitates art (and the other way around) and stranger things have happened and…my use of idioms has reached an all-time high today.

Something Jaffe said didn’t sit right with me:

“I’d like to make a new deal with you—pay you five percent of my income.”

He’s getting four thousand dollars a day for ten days. My God, five percent of that is two thousand bucks. Great. But guys told me, “Billy Daniels! He hasn’t paid his last six press agents.”

I said, “You don’t understand. I’d rather not get two thousand dollars from Billy Daniels than get seventy-five bucks from a guy who pays me.”

It’s the idea that you’re making two thousand dollars.

That’s part of the magic, the lure of the thing. (87)

Maybe there’s something I’m missing here but…what? Why would you just want the idea of money? If I’m working really hard (equally hard, I’d presume) for each client then why would the idea of wanting to get paid be better than the real thing? The idea of being paid doesn’t pay the rent and i it pays Jaffe’s rent, he should let us in on his secrets.

Jaffe says before this quote that sometimes ego gets in the way of the economics to publicist ratio. And I get that to a certain extent, but ultimately you need to look past your ego and focus on actually making money, right? If I had the chance to play on a great NBA team (pure fantasy already) or be on the bench for an amazing team, I’m picking the great one every time. At least then I know I’ll get some play and, if I’m really worth it, I’ll get to that amazing on in the long run.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just being naive about how things work. I’m not a press agent (let alone an NBA star) so maybe nothing works like that. Maybe being on the bench is better than the real thing if you’re on a good enough team.

But I sort of doubt it.

Lastly, this hit me hard:

Punishment by publicity is more serious than punishment by law. If you were indicted tomorrow for a crime, the punishment, through publicity is more severe than any jail sentence you might receive.

Everybody has a lawyer, but very few have a public relations man. (87-88)

When dealing with my own public turmoil late last year, I sure wish I’d had someone like Jaffe.

He wouldn’t be wasting his life, at least not to me.

Richard Mann (Installment Dealer)

Now here’s a job I’ll never envy.

An “installment dealer” is (as much as I understood it) someone who buys non-essentials (furniture, drapes, etc.) for other people on plans. These goods are sometimes (often?) too expensive for the people who want to buy it. So the dealer buys it for them, sells it back on a plan of sorts and let’s them buy it back little by little. The people in question may not be poor but actually be shy or even fearful of the public.

The process also gives the person more say over what they want. It makes them feel like they’re in power of what they’re buying instead of having to compete with everyone at the store and in the long lines they likely hate. But that doesn’t really stop these factors from affecting the dealer who is helping them to begin with.

Mann…doesn’t have an enviable job.

For one thing, he works 70 hours a week.

But also, having this type of job means Mann has to knock on people’s doors. Sometimes Mann has to knock on as many as 70 homes in a single day (Saturday, he says). And for at least some of these houses he’s going to have to collect on the payment that folks might owe him. And…well, we all know what society thinks of the collectors.

People who are meter maids, repossession workers and folks like Mann are not exactly well liked.

As an example:

This whole business has fallen absolutely into disuse in the past ten years. I know of no young man who’s gone into it. To them, it’s demeaning. I once asked my son to help me. His wife came over and told me she didn’t want her husband to help me exploit people. …

Of course, she believes anybody who makes a profit exploits people. So you ask, “What is not exploitation? One percent? Two percent? General Motors?” I don’t feel like I’m an exploiter. I’m a capitalist. I believe capitalism is the greatest economic system there is. (92)

So first off, his son’s wife sounds like a socialist which is pretty cool. But also, yes. One percent, two percent and GM are all (within a capitalist system anyways) products of a system based on exploitation. And the fact that Mann doesn’t feel like he’s exploiting others doesn’t mean he actually isn’t.

I don’t feel like I’m poor some of the time but I still know that I am. I am not as poor as many people. I have the basic amenities and then some. I’ve got a stable job and I pay my rent. I’ve got utilities covered. But this is all because I live in a shared space with three other people in a semi-shady part of the city I live in. Otherwise, most of this would become impossible and as it is I barely squeak out with extra cash after getting most of my food at a food bank and a church.

Plus, just legally speaking, my job only makes me around $600 a month (usually less) and per year that would only get me a little over 7,000 which is $5,000 below the poverty line. So according to federal standards, I’m definitely poor.

Anyways, Mann is upset about “deadbeats”, AKA people who figured out the whole thing is an extortion racket and either can’t or won’t pay them back. I understand this puts Mann in a tough place, But then again, that’s the exact place he put himself in when he chose to participate in a very exploitative job.

He basically admits he’s taking them for a ride:

If they’re good customers, I want to keep ’em buying, continually owing me. The worst thing that can happen is for a good customer to pay up her bill! Ach!! That’s terrible! You can’t ever get in to see her again. she pay you up or a reason: She doesn’t want to buy from you anymore. (90)

So you know, my sympathy is limited for you, pal.

That said, Mann makes a decent point about why he’s in the business:

I used to work in a furniture store. Two years without a day off.

So I decided to go in business for myself. You’re never beholden to anybody. You always have a buck in your pocket. This is the easiest way, because you have no overhead. You don’t have a store, you don’t have employees. You pay no rent, no insurance…” (91)

At the end of the interview Mann says there’ll always be room for his kind of occupation because people will want personal contact. But then again, if you minimize the need for personal contact through, say, the internet (and especially through services such as Amazon), then it looks like the occupation of Mann is more than just dying.

It’s dead.

Enid Du Bois (Telephone Solicitor)

Now here’s a great interview to finish this book with!

Du Bois is a woman who needed a job and answered an ad in the paper that read “Equal Opportunity. Salary plus commission.” She spoke pretty (one day?) and got the job sooner after her interview. It was on North Michigan Avenue which in her mind was the “greatest street” (94).

As you can tell from her job title she tried to get people to send money to the company she worked at by having them subscribe to a newspaper. You could tell them it was to help blind children or help fund a hospital or anything you wanted.

That salary? It was $1.60 an hour and so you’d have to get around ten calls an hour to make it worth your while. If you didn’t pull your weight enough you were quickly shuffled out. They didn’t want to “subsidize” you more than once.

And the commissions depended entirely on where Du Bois called. If it was where middle class folks worked then she might get some decent results. But calling into poorer neighborhoods would net you less money and some of the money you think you have may get canceled by the end of the week. And so folks would often have to work up to 5 hours overtime to make sure they got the solicitations they needed so they could keep their jobs and pay their bills.

There were gimmicks in getting the papers. There were promises made. There was a lot of fast-talking.

But Du Bois got tired of it:

I did as well as I wanted to. But after a while, I didn’t care. Surely I could have fast-talked people. Just to continually lie to them. But it just wasn’t in me. The disgust was growing in me every minute.

I would pray and pray to hold on a little longer. I really needed the money. It was getting more and more difficult for me to make these calls. (95)

Combining the moral disgust was the level of privacy Du Bois and others had on their phones: Very little. The supervisor would listen in with just a button press. The wages were often hard to obtain and for Du Bois in particular who worked the poorer sections, I imagine she wasn’t often making a lot.

As time went on, many people left and mostly the old people stayed. People could be kind and open on the phone but other times they could lace the call with obscenities. And so while the idea of talking to people for a living seemed fun at first, Du Bois eventually grew tired of it. She could hear the desperation in people’s voices. Wanting to pay but not having the funds to pay for the newspapers, even if they were buying based on false pretenses.

Sometimes people were just happy to hear someone who would talk. While others would hit the click on their phones, Du Bois would often stay on the phone and talk to them, if only for a few minutes longer.

The last four paragraphs are just a feel-good marathon compared to some of these other interviews.

Take it home, Du Bois:

What really did it for me was one call I made. I went through the routine.

The guy listened patiently and he said, “I really would like to help.” He was blind himself! That really got me—the tone of his voice. I could just tell he was a good person. He was willing to help even if he couldn’t read the paper. He was poor. I’m sure of that. It was the worst ghetto area. I apologized and thanked him.

That’s when I let for the ladies’ room. I was nauseous. Here I was sitting here telling him a bunch o lies and he was poor and blind and willing to help. Taking his money.

I got sick in the stomach. I prayed a lot as I stayed there in the restroom. I said, “dear God, there must be something better for me. I never harmed anyone in my life, dear Lord.” I went back to the phone room and I just sat there. I didn’t make any calls. The supervisors called me out and wanted to know why I was just sitting there. I told him I wasn’t feeling good, and I went home.

I came back the next day because I didn’t have any other means of employment. I just kept praying and hoping and looking. And then, as if my prayers were answered, I got another job. The one I have now. I love it. I was sick and tired of him. Oh God, I really can’t tell you what I said. (Laughs.)

I told him, “I’m not gonna stay here and lie for you. You can take your job and shove it.”

And I walked out.

He just stood there. He didn’t say anything. He was surprised.

I was very calm, I didn’t shout.

Oh, I felt good.

I still work in the same building. I pass him in the hallway every once in a while. He never speaks to me. He looks away. Every time I see him I hold my head very high, very erect, and keep walking. (97)

(emphasis mine)

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