WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 1 – Appearance, Concluded)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A dentist, a hotel clerk, a bar pianist an elevator starter and a janitor (also ex-salesman) walk into a chapter of Working.

What, never heard that classic joke?

Neither have I.

Up for a game of Guess Who?

Dr. Stephen Bartlett (Dentist)

First we start with the dentist who got a late start (28 for starting dentist school) and is 46 and divorced when the interview takes place. I’ve never thought too much about the profession of dentistry and as someone whose insurance doesn’t cover it, I don’t have much of an incentive to.

That said, Bartlett brings up some interesting points:

The mouth you work on usually is not in an ideal condition. If the patient is not cooperating, moving their mouth, or salivating a lot, it’s hard to get the job done. You’re nervous. If you’re not satisfied when you’ve completed your work, nobody else knows, but you do. You’re your own worst critic. (p. 245)

I would never have imagined dentists as being the stressed out or worried types. My perception was that they were always confident because it was their job. But keep in mind the last time I saw a dentist was when I was much younger and, as I said, I don’t tend to think about dentistry very often these days.

That said, it makes sense. You don’t want to mess up someone’s teeth. I see people come into the store that I work at and honestly I do subconsciously judge folks for having bad teeth. I’m no paragon of dental health myself but people with missing, rotten or otherwise messed up teeth usually strike my suspicion. I don’t like this bias, but I recognize it.

And speaking of which:

Teeth can change a person’s appearance completely. It gives me a sense of satisfaction that I can play a role. The thing that bugs me is that you work hard to create, let’s say, a good gold bridge. It requires time, effort, and precision. Before I put them in place, I make the patient look at them.

An artist can hang his work on the wall and everybody sees it No one sees mine except me. A dentist is creative too. It requires a certain skill, a certain art. If you do a good job, damn it, you’re proud of it.

And you want other people to appreciate it. (p. 245)

Frankly, I think Bartlett is not giving his art enough credit here. Wouldn’t the person’s romantic or sexual partner see it? And isn’t the most important thing here that the person who has it done to them gets to see it and appreciate? Art that everyone can enjoy is surely a treat, but it’s also nice to have something very personal and unique(ish) about you.

Bartlett actually touches on that most patients can’t identify if a dentist is good or not. And that speaks to my previous statement about being surprised that dentists would be nervous. I agree with Bartlett that it’s a personality thing and so long as the dentist can come off as good-natured and capable, most people are going to be fine.

The divorced part of Bartlett’s life is weird:

Fantasies about women come before and after work. The schedule is set up that you’re operating against time. You have a half-hour to get this done. Now in the evening or going back over the day I might think, “Goddamn, she was good looking!” Or, “I wonder what she meant when she said that?”…

I like girls. And women. I’m called a dirty old man lots of times in a joking situation. That’s part of my image too. (p. 246)

I’m not sure what “girls” means here but I suspect Bartlett means something like girls around 18? I’m not really sure nor do I think I want to know. At any rate, his interest in both may explain his divorce or it may hold no explanatory weight whatsoever. I’ll try not to look too much into it (especially cause there’s very few specifics and it’s pretty vague).

Finishing up the interview Bartlett tells Terkel that he’s happy with dentistry. He feels like he is independent, like being a physician is not much better and because he gets to work in a hospital some times.

So the pervert is happy, rejoice!

Doc Pritchard (Hotel clerk)

Ironically after a doctor not named doc we’re introduced to a man named doc…who is a hotel clerk.

Pritchard opens the interview referring to the amount he needs to smile at work. Hotel clerk is just another retail job so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s highly regulated when it comes to emotions. Whether it’s in the 21st century or the early 70s, companies have long favored controlling their employees and how they can emotionally respond to situations.

I like this point, though I admit to being biased as a sort of clerk myself:

Clerks are really underpaid people. It is one of the lowest paid jobs in the United States. I think they should put out more money for a good hotel clerk. If you get a fellow on the front desk who has got a good personality and can get along with people and he’s on his toes, I mean really serving the guests, I mean really getting out there and encouraging them to come back—-the hotel has to be halfway decent too.

(p. 247-8)

But the thing is (and this will surprise approximately no one reading this): They really don’t.

Companies are not built on the principle that worker should get more money (much less an appropriate amount of more money) for more work. Raises are a thing, allegedly, but in all of my years at retail (6+) I’ve never had it happen once or even heard of it happening for any of my friends. Even for the year and a half I’ve been at my current job.

The closest thing I have seen is a person get promoted to be a manager and then get a small pay raise or more recently a friend taking on another job and then getting a small pay raise. But that’s not the same thing as a normal hotel clerk (or service clerk) getting a pay raise but staying in their lowly position.

In any case Pritchard is qualifying what a worker must do way too many times to make it practical anyhow.

Recently I’ve gotten back into a trading card game called Yugioh. In this game a lot of cards just aren’t good because they’re way too steep with something called an activation cost. In order to activate a certain card you may need to have two different cards on the field at the same and they had to get there in a specific way. That’s a bad card.

Similarly, it becomes a more specious idea for workers to get paid more as you lump more requirements on.

To make matters worse:

I’ve had people talk to me just like I was some sort of dog, that I was a ditchdigger, let’s say. You figure a fellow who comes to work and he has to have a cleanly pressed suit and a white shirt and a tie on—-plus he’s gotta have a big smile on his face—shouldn’t be talked to in a manner that he’s something so below somebody else. (p. 248)

Usually when people ask me what I do I say it’s nothing much. I’m a service clerk at a dumb retail chain that is soul-sucking and a terrible experience in general. I don’t really need people to look down on me or take pity on me or think I’m less than them. If they’re really going to do any of those things then I figure I don’t need those people in my life.

Now, if it’s just a random stranger or a family member or something maybe I will call them out. Maybe I’ll get peeved and say, hey it’s not a great job but it pays my rent, my bills and helps me get food and water in my mouth. I’m not proud of it in the slightest (except in the ways I game the system) but I don’t want to be demeaned for it either.

Luckily, I’ve never really dealt with people demeaning me explicitly. Maybe they all have their thoughts about me that are negative but that’s fine, I’m used to that. If people want to look down on me for the job I hold I would not necessarily blame them (it’s a shitty job after all) but there’s no reason to take it out on me. What does that accomplish?

Sadly, Pritchard has been in this job for many years when the interview takes place. He’s in his fifties and has been doing it since his early twenties. He talks about wanting to leave a lot but just never having quite the money to and feeling stuck in his job. For me, it’s about a lack of personal transportation, funds, options for meaningful employment, etc.

Here was an interesting part:

The clerk in the hotel is rarely tipped. The bellboys, rather, get all the tips. A fellow that comes into the hotel to do a little cheating will always tip the bellboy heavily. The boy can’t help him at all … It’s the clerk who watches his mail, watches his messages, and watches who comes in and out to see him. It’s really the clerk who covers for him. But he never seems to realize that. If the manager wishes that he be ejected from the hotel, it’s the clerk who can save him. The bellboys couldn’t do a thing for him. (p. 249)

This is fascinating because I shared the cultural conception that the bellboy was the one who counted.

Duly noted.

Lastly, Pritchard notes that we’re all in such a rush these days. He laments that we could live in a much more relaxed society but we would rather rush other people with our problems.

I think I know a solution to that problem…

Hots Michaels (Bar Pianist)

The winner for weirdest name of this chapter (book?) is also the winner of my favorite individual for this chapter as well. Michaels seems like a really nice guy who doesn’t put up with racists, mean customers and is just happy to do his job and get paid. He says that even if he had 4 million dollars he’d do what he’s doing and that’s the damn dream.

The most surprising thing to me about Michaels was that he was completely self-taught. He has no experience with lessons and he’s never been in a band, he just learns by ear, which is an impressive skill (talent?). He takes breaks when there are no people but will otherwise play for hours on end, he really enjoys being around the hustle and bustle.

Michaels is also humble about his job. He recognizes early on in the interview that his job is just incidental to the bar. Nobody is coming to the bar so they can hear him play, they’re going to the bar because they’re lonely and want to have a few drinks or they’re meeting up with friends or whatever. He’s not the main star and he knows that (and owns it).

Sadly, it’s all coming to a close soon as the bar he works at will be razed to make way for a high rise.

In the meantime I found this part of the interview interesting:

Every minute of my life I deal with a drinking public. I’m not knocking it, they pay my salary. But you have to treat them a certain way after they have a few martinis. They change that rapidly. It doesn’t bother me unless they get rough. If he offends somebody around the bar, some wild vulgarity, I get up and get him out.

Just by being nice. Most people you can talk to. It’s much more difficult with a woman who is drinking. Sher can be difficult. You can’t put your hands on her. (p. 251)

It’s nice to see that, as a general rule if nothing else, that folks can still be spoken to nicely and respect your wishes to leave a given space…even if they may have little to no idea what you’re talking about.

This part was great:

I have seen brutal racial vulgarity right in this hotel. People from a certain part of the country would talk abusive to black waiters. Aw, brutal. Back in 1952, ’53, Chet and I would step in. When that happened he either pays his check right away and gets out or he does an about-face, “Can’t you see I’m joking?” I’m a person who gets involved—sometimes too much. It’s best not to get involved in everything. (p. 251-2)

This alone makes Michaels a favorite for me.

Teddy Grodowski (Elevator Starter)

“A what?” You say as you stare into the sun until your pupils burn out of existence.

Yeah, I have no idea either. A person who…starts the elevator for others?

Grodowski says he enjoys it because he gets to know people and their habits. To me…that sounds boring. I don’t care about people’s habits or what they are really into. If I’m at a really boring job I guess it’s more entertaining than just thinking about nothing but it doesn’t exactly top my list either.

Grodowski follows the sort of policy I have at my job for folks he finds suspicious. He just tries to talk to them and ask them, if he can help them in some way, maybe try to get a fix on what they’re asking for. I’m not really sure this works at all, sure it lets the suspect know that you’ve got your eye on them, but shit, some people just don’t care.

I saw someone rob the store I work at and just walk out of the door with a full case of beer. All the while the store manager was near-yelling at him to stop and return the item. It was pretty funny in retrospect though I was left sort of off-guard and speechless at the time. Some people just don’t care if other people know or not that they look suspicious.

Frankly, I don’t have much to say about this interview. It’s short (two pages) and the interview makes it out to be as boring as it is to probably work it. Grodowski closes the interview saying he wouldn’t know what else to, he likes the public.

Good luck to you then.

Tim Devlin (Janitor, Ex-Salesman)

Hoo boy. This one is a rough one, to say the least.

So, this guy is a bit of a racist. I mean, dropping the n-word in an interview I presume he knew was going to be published in a book levels of racist. He doesn’t say too much about people of color (thankfully) but the little he does say on the subject (“you don’t associate with people like that”) is quite enough for me, thanks.

If I could armchair psychoanalyze for a second, I would suggest his own self-hated stemming from him being a janitor is part and parcel of why he feels so much hatred towards others. He’s projecting his disgust of himself onto the people he works with or perhaps his natural disgust with people of color on to himself because it’s “their job”.

Either way it’s fucked up.

Devlin feels enough shame in his job that he lies to his friends about his job. He lies about his job when he is at parties. Generally he feels like he’s reached a dead end but also doesn’t want to stay in that dead end. He went through a somewhat recent nervous breakdown before the interview (a year before) and it stemmed from his previous marriage:

Shortly after I was married I found out that my wife—I’m not blaming her—was interested in money. She was judging me against other people my age. Was I a financial success? I put in long hours. I got this feeling I was just a machine. I felt at the end of the week, Here’s the money. Now do you love me? (p. 255)

Devlin said he began to question the marriage and that’s what caused it to fall apart. I would say it’s much more likely his wife was abusive and manipulative and him questioning her abuse ended it.. Sadly, he feels guilt about his new beliefs that maybe the system isn’t working. He says he’d be called a communist and doesn’t seem interested in discussing it.

Generally Devlin is just dealing with a lot of identity issues. He thinks he should love the American Dream but ultimately can’t accept it after trying it out for himself. Even after having it beat into his head for many years as a kid by his father, he stills ends up thinking about the American Dream as nothing more than a marginal profit rate.

Add to that, Devlin’s father lost everything through his many schemes towards attaining the supposed American Dream. Eventually cynicism won the day for him (Devlin) and he ended up blaming God, the system and everything so he could cope with his divorce, his lost job and the broken promise of the American Dream.

I’m not saying any of this to make you feel like, “Hey, racists can still be good!” Or something trite like that. But I do think it’s worth denoting in what ways the system fails all of us, even those who want to deeply entrench its power against marginalized groups. People put so much emotional stock in having a job that people look up to, losing it destroys them.

I don’t know everything about this guy, of course. Maybe he was a racist before his nervous breakdown, that’s definitely possible (if not likely). Either way, I found this interview perhaps the most interesting and challenging, if not slightly revolting at times. But you don’t learn much by only reading about those you like and agree with.

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