WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK Seven – Part 4 – Ma and Pa Courage)

Probably doesn’t look like this but who knows? Who can say?

My school semester is finally over which means I can dedicate time to this site once more. I will be writing at least one post a week until late Summer and spoilers(?) but most of the posts will be about this book, Working.

Working has been my big project for checks notes for over a year and I know that may not sound like a lot, but for me it is! The book is huge and we are still not done with it. It is my aim to finish Book Seven before I go on my vacation to Colorado next week. That will not be difficult given I only have two sections left, but I want to pace myself, so I’m starting off easy.

This section about “Ma and Pa Courage” only focuses on two people and they’re a couple who own, basically, a country variety store somewhere in Chicago. Talking about work for them is mostly a discussion on how their neighborhood has changed and how that’s changed their perception about what works means to them. They’re two old white people, from the sounds of it, so naturally we’re gonna get into some discussions of xenophobia.

Sorry to stereotype, but I think it is pretty fair here as you’ll see.

And honestly, most people don’t react well to change around them. If anyone had their neighborhood radically changed over a short period of time, it may take them some getting used to. That doesn’t excuse prejudice, much less racism, but it makes it more understandable. The thing to do is to embrace change (carefully and thoughtfully) and try to get along with it, not make it out to be the enemy of progress.

So yeah, a lot of this chapter won’t tie directly back to anti-work but some of it towards the end will, I promise.

Let’s get back into it.

George and Irene Brewer (Neighborhood Merchants)

The interview begins with one of the couple (for once, Terkel does not specify) telling us about how “Ma, pa stores are foldin’ fast because they don’t have enough variety. Like chain stores, where they can get everything and anything they want” (414). This sentiment has not gotten any less true over the years with stores like Walmart using everything from zoning laws, eminent domain and state subsidies to overpower local businesses.

The Brewers felt the strain early on, trying to incorporate more produce such as milk until they eventually became “the old country general store” (ibid). One of them comments that they feared they would become a “slave” (ibid) to it and by the sounds of this interview, their fear was not misplaced.

Still, their attitudes about the neighborhood leave something to be desired:

“This used to be an old-time Polish, Lithuanian neighborhood. Now it’s more young, mixed, Puerto Ricans, hillbillies. Blacks are movin’ closer, nothing here yet, but closer. It’s not as clannish as it used to be. In the old days if you offended one, you’d have the whole block mad at you. Now it doesn’t matter. The next will come in and take the place of [them].

p. 415

There are upsides and downsides to this sort of relationship with your customers which I feel the Brewers tend to overlook. While it is nice to have a personal connection to customers (I have had many customers I liked OK and it makes work a little nicer at times) it can also be nice to have a sense of anonymity between strangers. I don’t want to get to know everyone in the neighborhood and I am fine treating everyone as if they are an individual and not a part of some “clan” as the Brewers put it.

It makes it easier, as it’s pointed out, to not have to watch your back every time you upset a customer. And yes, there can be situations where a customer is unfairly upset at you as a retail worker. I had someone tell me I was racist for asking their ID. I’ve had people yell at me for not having the right things in stock (something I cannot control) or having things at too high a price or for doing some small social routine wrong.

I know the word “offended” can be a bit tough coming from older people and I get that, but I think the Brewers have a point. Customers can act entitled and sometimes allow for little breathing room as far as the workers are concerned. That said, this does not excuse treating people poorly or individualizing them to an extent so we act as if they do not matter.

On the other hand, the Brewers bring up the fact that the “personal touch” (ibid) is gone and that much of their transactions are “transient” (ibid) in nature. I think there is also something to be said about wanting a connection with your customers, if, for no other reason, than to give you something small to look forward to.

When I used to work at Walgreens it was nice to see customers who were regulars and who were also kind to me. Some regulars were not great to see (the drunks, the drug addicts, the sleazy people) but even amongst these folks I could tell they weren’t bad because of their addictions or even because of their nature. I tried to have sympathy and think about how shitty their lives must have been and how capitalism screws us all.

I think something the Brewers also miss, and we’ll touch on this in the next quote, is they blame where people come from, their racial or national background, in a conversation that should be centered on folks political and economic circumstances that they grow up with and have little choice over.

Irene: If we take a chance and cash a check that does bounce, we find ’em walkin’ on the other side of the street. They don’t want to acknowledge they’re in the neighborhood—for a measly five dollars. The people, they’ve changed in such a way it’s unbelievable. We had magazines and books, but we took ’em out two years ago because the theft was so bad.

Ibid

I can imagine this is a frustrating experience and I don’t deny it happens. But the change isn’t some sort of mystical happenstance whereby people randomly moved into their neighborhood. People don’t just up and move for no reason at all. There are often huge economic reasons why people go into some neighborhoods as opposed to others. Whether its the aftereffects of segregation (especially in the early 70s), racism more generally, the way poverty is treated under capitalism or whatever else.

There are reasons why the Brewers are having such a hard time giving checks to reliable people. And it isn’t just because the neighborhood changed but there’s been a huge paradigm shift in folk’s economic thinking, their opportunities (or lack thereof). But the Brewers, with their white privilege, likely cannot see this as clearly. They’ve likely never dealt with those experiences of discrimination and so to them it’s “unbelievable”.

People are stealing eggs, lunch meat, money, books, etc. And the Brewers just don’t know what to make of it. But I think it is clear that many of these people are desperate for resources. It doesn’t necessarily excuse their theft but I think it makes it more understandable. If you’re poor and stuck in a place you may not want to be, one of the few ways you can resist is to get something with very little cost to yourself. Even if that means stealing.

That said, Irene makes a good point, along with George:

Irene: …It’s hard to tell anymore by looks who’s all right and who isn’t. Some of ’em are the worst lookin’ people but they’re really all right when you get talkin’ to ’em.

George: The worst lookin’ hippie things that come in the door are so polite and some of ’em, the ones that are very well dressed, are so ignorant.

p. 416

So the Brewers, while fearful, are not completely prejudiced and do try to keep something of an open mind. Though, it’s hard to defend “hippie things” as something someone open-minded would say. Still, the Brewers are open and frank with their experiences being held up several times (even at gunpoint) and so, again, it’s hard to not at least understand the Brewers.

It may not be completely fair for them to be prejudiced but not much about the capitalist system is fair. It makes it easy for us to turn against each other because of our economic and political desperation. Whether that’s because of white supremacy, economic exploitation from your landlord or boss or trouble with the bank, much of it is stacked against us. And especially for people of color and especially in the 70s.

Let’s move on:

There isn’t that much sleep. We used to average two, three hours. That went on for ten years that way. Now we get an average of four hours. Sometimes you have time to eat breakfast.

In the morning I mop the floors, haul fifteen [to] twenty cases of of soda from the basement, throw it in the cooler. … You might open with a $200 bank in the morning. By two in the afternoon, you’ve paid out $197 and taken in $6. Then your evening trade starts. We switch hours between meals. I wouldn’t say we’re tired at the end of the day, we just drop.

(Laughs.)

p. 417

So, at least that’s not fucking depressing huh? These people, after 14 years of working get almost no time to themselves. They get very little sleep (that amount cannot be healthy, I don’t care what age you are) and they barely are able to take a break except when they’re unconscious.

Look, I know all of my readers are super Woke when it comes to capitalism and how much it sucks. And we can all agree that the Brewers decide (“decide”) to take on this responsibility of being business owners. But Jesus, do you really think these people are the enemy? Like, I think most of my readers are smart enough to distinguish between these small-time business owners and, say, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, I’d expect that much.

But there’s still some vitriol even to small business owners who go through this sort of life every day. I’m not saying they’re completely in the right but these are everyday folks who are barely getting by and hardly making a profit off of their business and killing themselves doing it. I’m not saying it’s laudable or worth reproducing, it’s just fucking horrifying.

Not to mention the conversations between the couple seems absolutely wrecked and I’m not even sure how they’re together! George says they get to say hello and goodbye to each other and that’s it. They feel they can justify it though because they “raised three kids” and “made a decent living out of it” but of course, when they say living, they mean money.

One thing George and Irene couldn’t be blamed for is feeling anger towards chain stores. But whether they’re “better” than that or bottle it inside (who knows?) George at least is not:

Chain stores don’t bother me. People gotta have a place where they can run for a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, or somethin’ for a snack, a pint of ice cream or a bottle of soda. Instead of goin’ in the chain store and standing in line. The cold indifference. They still get the personal touch here, the chatter back and forth, the gossip and the laughter.

p. 417

It’s worth pointing out this contradicts the earlier claim that the personal touch is “gone” but you know, whatever it takes to make them sound more appealing than chain stores, I guess?

The next few pages are about kids and the Brewer’s experiences with that social group. That and prank calls and all sorts of jokes the Brewers tell to the customers when they come in. The interesting (and awful) part is:

We’ve been turned in for everything. We had a raid here. It was a set-up deal. A couple of crooked cops had some guy bring in cans of lunch meat. The guy said he’s goin’ out of business and he had a couple cases. I got a good price off of him. I set it in the aisle.

About a half an hour later in walks these two guys. ‘That’s stolen merchandise. What else you go that’s stolen?’ they went through the house. ‘We’re gonna have to take your television. We’re gonna have to take this. This is stolen. That’s stolen. We know how things are. Give us a thousand dollars and we’ll leave you alone.’

p. 420 (no, I’m not joking)

And of course, the cover up went “all down the line” (ibid) of city officials and the Brewers were harassed as much as the city could afford. Simply for trying to show that a few cops had tricked them into committing a crime and then used that as an excuse to rob and extort them. Eventually George and Irene went to Internal Investigations and dropped the report.

Funnily enough, things quieted down after that.

ACAB.


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