WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SIX – Part 1 – The Quiet Life)

I’m not quite sure about the title for this section, “The Quiet Life”. If you ask me the only possible life that could be quiet is our first prospective interviewee, the book binder. But as for the pharmacist and the piano tuner (who literally works with sound everyday) I find myself a bit skeptical about their level of respective lower volumes.

My theory is that Terkel just wasn’t sure where to put these folks and their professions. Or maybe he was highlighting the way they lived instead of the jobs they worked? Seems like something you would do in a book called LIVING, but hey.

Regardless, we’ve got a solid amount of material this time around, so let’s dive in!

Donna Murray (Book Binder)

Perhaps most likely to live an actually quiet life, Murray spends much of her time working alone in the solitude of her house, with the exception of having her husband around. She’s been at it for 25 years and seems to make a decent enough living to have an assistant. She fell into the job through her father’s collection and trying to take care of it.

This is perhaps one of the few jobs in the book so far that I feel like I wouldn’t mind doing. It’s a very purposeful experience and you get to save old books from decaying or their binding from falling apart. Saving books is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard about recently. Then again, my clumsy hands likely aren’t up to the task.

Here’s the deal with book binding (who am I? Seinfeld?):

You take them apart and you make them sound and you smash them in and sew them up.

That’s all there is to it. (p. 309)

To get more specific Murray spends much of her time reconstructing and restoring or sometimes entirely replacing a book spine and she talks about turning back the pages very carefully and her enjoyment of that most of all. Sometimes books are coming apart only on the back and Murray must use certain chemicals to make them restored.

It’s an arduous thing, but I suppose it’s important because if that kind of thing didn’t happen, the books would just disintegrate. … I usually arrive at ten thirty. I work as long as it pleases me. If I fill up the table and the books are oiled, I often leave at four or six. I might work for one client two or three weeks.

(pp. 310-311)

One of the reasons this job appeals to me besides the low amount of physical labor is how little human interaction you need to perform it. Of course, it’s nice to see people once in a while. Even at my retail job (which I hate) I have some customers who almost consistently put a smile on my face and it’s nice to see them to one degree or another.

But I’m a rather introverted person and can often go a day or so without interacting with anyone besides maybe my roommates a half dozen times or less. I don’t need a lot of human interaction to stimulate my days and the fact that I would be spending a lot of my time making books readable again would be something I could take solace in.

Murray has some interesting opinions, she’s a bit of an environmentalist and a book purist:

I was reared in California where I saw the redwoods that are now being systematically destroyed. And there’s some redwood trees in Japan that relate to what you’re thinking, oh dear (softly). … I only enjoy working on books that say something. I know this is anathema to people who insist on preserving books that are only going to be on the shelves forever—-or on coffee tables.

Books are for people to read, and that’s that.

I think books are for the birds unless people read them. (p. 311)

Speaking as someone who has a pretty disheveled book case and a bunch of books I’ll likely never get around to, I think this is a bit too far for me. The stuff about the environment is A+ and good to denote though and even though I’ve never thought of it, doesn’t it make sense that someone who works with books would care about the trees?

I think books are to read, chiefly. But I also think there’s value in keeping them so we can revisit them when we’re older. We can also keep them like photographs that hold a bastion of memories as well as mementos of old friends long gone. We can keep books around and have them collect dust but maybe realize eventually that letting them go into a friend’s hand or a family or just someone in need is a better idea and let them go.

Books can be a great way to practice detaching ourselves from our possessions and the world around us. Things that are very precious to us may get even more use from others and not just collected dust. On the other hand, as I’ve already mentioned there can be some benefits to keeping books around.

Still, I can sympathize with Murray’s view here.

Nino Guidici (Pharmacist)

Perhaps my favorite interviewee in this section also has the job I’d like the least out of the three. Working in a retail store where the pharmacy is a big part of its revenue has shown me how hard pharmacists often have to work. And being trans I get to interact with them on a semi-frequently basis on top of my working experience, fun!

Guidici is old-school, perhaps one of the oldest schools in the book. He has been a pharmacist for forty years, since 1926 and is seventy years old at the time of the interview. It’s hard to imagine sticking with a job choice for that long, let alone knowing many people who I have ever seen. In the interview Guidici comes off as a modest, down to Earth guy who didn’t expect much out of life, got what he wanted and is just enjoying what’s left of it all.

Towards the beginning of the interview Guidici denotes that smaller time drugstores are going away. In today’s world we all know that to be the way things are and have been for a while. Most drugstores these days (at least in my area) are Rite Aids, Walgreen’s or CVS and…that’s it. I don’t usually see much else besides these three.

All we do is count pills. Count out twelve on the counter, put ’em in here, count out twelve more … Today was a little out of the ordinary. I made an ointment. Most of the ointments come already made up. This doctor was an old-timer. He wanted something with sulfur and two other elements mixed together.

So I have to weight it out on the scale. Ordinarily I would just have one tube of cream for that.

(p. 313)

It’s no surprise to me that a pharmacist would have requests like that. Given they work in the retail industry, pharmacists, like many others, are often asked to almost improvise with whatever customers want in the moment. Most of the time you feel like you’re in some sort of contentious deal with customers and they could change the way the wind blows any time.

Guidici doesn’t have a high opinion of the profession though he doesn’t knock it either. He’s honest that a pharmacist in this day (the early 70s) is more of a dispenser and order filler. He says the real pharmacists are in the manufacturing firms who actually make the medicine, not him.

Still, Guidici says he likes it better this way. Guidici praises how far technology has come and says that customers wouldn’t be able to get their medicines as quickly or helpfully without it. It’s nice to see someone who is a bit older than many of the other interviewees embrace technology even though he could very well be bitter towards it.

There’s been some difficult (to put it mildly) situations Guidici has dealt with:

I had a butcher over here, he’s cut his artery with a knife. Boy, he was bleeding like the devil. Tell him to go to a doctor? He’d bleed to death. I stuffed it with rags. Jeez, the guy pretty near died on top of it. It was all right. I might have saved him, but you don’t get credit for anything like that. (p. 314)

Side-note: How does Guidici know how the devil bleeds? Does the devil bleed red? How much?

Kidding aside, Guidici likely saved this man’s life. Yet Guidici, later in the interview thinks little of himself or his profession and his aptitude for it, or how much people appreciate both and even come to the store partly become of him.

On another note, here’s Grace Johnson, a co-worker of his on being a woman and a pharmacist

When I say I’m a pharmacist—oooohhh!!! Oh, that’s marvelous! You must really be a brain or something. The idea of a woman pharmacist. It’s like being a woman doctor. But I don’t think a pharmacist really gets credit enough fro what we do, as a liaison person between the patient and the doctor. (p. 314)

This is probably true as people tend to form much closer bonds with their doctor’s then their pharmacists. And besides, it’s a lot easier to switch up the latter than the former. I’ve likely changed pharmacies more times than I’ve switched doctors, though for as often as I’ve moved around in my life, perhaps it’s closer than most folks.

Here’s where that “quiet” part comes in (back to Guidici now):

I enjoy working. (Laughs.) I like to be around people. I coulda quit work five years ago. It’s not that I don’t like home, but it’s monotonous to sit around. … I’m not saying I love people, but you miss ’em. …

Jeff, the manager, who is thirty, interjects: “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to be away from work—except Nino.” … A lot of people, it’s drudgery to go to work. Not me. I don’t say I love work, I don’t say I hate work. I do it. It’s a normal thing for me than just not doing anything. I figure that I’m kinda needed. If you don’t show up, you might be putting somebody out a day. (p. 315)

Although I’m happy for Guidici and that he gets some level of satisfaction out of his job I’d suggest that, especially at his age, there may have been better ways to feel needed. Community service, helping out his wife, trying to help organize around a cause he’s passionate about, help out at local events, etc.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or invalid to feel needed at your job and get positive feelings for that but at the same time I worry about folks being dependent on that sort of validation when they really don’t need the money anymore. And in Guidici’s case, he’s getting enough money through taxes and social security, he’s not working for the money anymore.

To his credit Guidici addresses this by saying there’s not much he can do at his age but I’m not so sure about that. He of course knows himself better than I do but plenty of older folks have gone on to lead perfectly happy and productive lives  without jobs. Whether it’s hobbies, social clubs, organizing or just getting personal time for themselves, maybe travel!

Good Guy Guidici here:

I’ve been boss all right. I managed stores. I use to see girls on the soda fountains at five, six dollars a week. That was the going pay. I’m the kind of guy, I couldn’t ask anybody to work for nothing. To be a success, you have to take advantage of help. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to be successful you have to be a rat but you have to do things—-I realized long time ago I wasn’t that type of man.

Not that I’m such a good man. I’m not a good person, but I don’t want to ask people to do things I wouldn’t do. (p. 316)

This part really struck me because Guidici is so humble about himself and honest about the sort of person he actually is as opposed to what someone might see him as. This passage and a few others I’ve already noted are why I love this interview so much. The best interviews are the ones that make you really feel like you know the person and that you almost wish you could get to know the person a bit better yourself and just hang out with them.

I’d say on that front Guidici’s interview does that in spades.

Towards the end of the interview Guidici tries to put himself down for not doing much but both his manager and his co-worker try to snap him out of it. The interview ends with him feeling abashed and not sure what to say about their praise. It’s a super sweet moment and I’d love to highlight it but I honestly I think it’s worth reading for yourself.

Eugene Russell (Piano Tuner)

Eugene (his wife Natalie joins in once or twice so I’ll use his first name) has been at this business that I wasn’t even aware was (and still is!) a business for 15 years at the time of the interview. He enjoys his job and loves music more generally, growing up around pianos and trying to tune them for himself when he was 14.

Ironically when he was a musician he played (wait for it) the clarinet. Go figure.

Here’s how his days go:

Every day is different. I work Saturdays and Sundays sometimes. Monday I’m tuning a piano for a record company that had to be done before nine o’clock. When I finish that, I go to another company and do at least four pianos. During that day there’s a couple of harpsichords mixed in. (p. 318)

Like many people there are versions of Eugene’s day that are good and bad but specifically applies to his job. For him, a bad day is when he’s got to tune nothing but “uninteresting” instruments then the day goes by slow for him. Eugene especially appreciates good sound and explains that this is the core reason he does what he does for a job.

This was a humorous exchange:

Natalie: It’s an electronic thing now. Anyone in the world can tune a piano with it. … Eugene: It’s an assist, but there’s no saving of time. You get to a point where you depend on it like a crutch. Somebody using it for a long time may think it’s valuable. (p. 318)

It’s funny to think about how much this applies to those conversations your teacher may have had with you (if you’re a millennial like me) about how kids are too reliant on calculators and you’re never going to be able to take them everywhere. I’m honestly happy smartphones happened just so folks like that would be showed up.

Welcome to Pettyville!

There are fewer younger men in tuning because you don’t make money fast enough in the beginning. Most people in it are musicians, who are having a hard time and are looking for something in their idle time.

There’s as much piano tuning as there ever was. It’s strange, but during a recession or depression, the piano tuning business goes ahead. People have more leisure time and they want to develop their artistic capabilities. (p. 319)

Eugene also speaks to how the job works for anyone of almost any age. It appeals especially to the older because the job can become a mellow alternative for older musicians who want something simpler to do. There’s also a brief discussion about how Eugene and Natalie’s son knows all about his career and is proud of his dad.

I didn’t find it important enough to quote but it’s a nice little moment. Eugene also talks about how he feels no shame in his profession and that he’s happy with what he does. What’s especially notable is that because Eugene has such a job that requires tools on the go, he has to carry around a case with him for his tools.

As you might expect this can cause trouble for him: He needs to be cleared by security at times when he enters a certain high rise building (especially if he’s not dressed well) and the cops, well…

“I’ve been stopped by the police and they’ll ask me, ‘What’ve ya go in ‘at case?’ And I’ll say, ‘A do-it-yourself bugler kit.’ … They actually stood fifteen feet away with drawn guns while I took the cap off to show them there was nothing in [a metal cylindrical tube, which I use for blueprints].”

There’s another scenario but it’s much the same and a little longer so not worth laboring over. But I did want to note that I had an experience when I was still in high school somewhat similar to this. I was walking back to my house after visiting a partner’s home and I had my bass guitar on me for one reason or another and it was in its case.

I only walk down the street a few minutes before a cop car pulls up and the cop asks me to tell him what’s in the case and where I’m going. I have the guts to say that it’s a guitar but that he doesn’t need to know where I’m going. At this, he gets out of the car and personally confronts me. Feeling like I’m easily overpowered I back down and tell him where I’m headed (home) and what street I’m on.

Suffice it to say, cops love to use anything they can as an excuse to exercise authority over others.

But if you’re reading this, you probably already knew that.

Natalie briefly touches on Eugene’s modesty which made me reflect on my own modesty when it comes to pet sitting and how much I charge. I still likely undercharge for the sort of service I tend to give to folks but I also want my service to be as accessible as possible and it’s not like this is my career, it’s sadly more of a hobby right now.

There’s a bit more to the interview, but I think finishing here is good:

Eugene: I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I’m like the window washer who was asked, “Do you enjoy washing windows?” He said, “No, I don’t.” They said, “Why don’t you quit your job?” He said, “What else is there to do?” (Laughs.) I love that. (Quickly.) Of course, I enjoy my work. (p. 322)

I hope that someday us anti-work folks will be able to help that window washer in all of us.

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