WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK Eight – Part 1 – The Age of Charlie Blossom)

An underground Chicago newspaper.

I’m only about half-way through this chapter and what a roller coaster ride it’s been already! You might be wondering, “Who the heck is Charlie Blossom?” Well, Terkel has an answer for us in his first interview and wow, I have so many feelings.

Note: I was originally gonna include two other interviews but this took so long and I wrote enough as is so I’ll include them in a future post!

Charlie Blossom (Copy Boy)

Just who is Charlie Blossom? He’s a man in his mid twenties, born of a “…upper-middle class family” (437) and interested in a life of activism, one that’s ideally divorced from his parents funds. Blossom has been living on his own for a while now and Terkel describes Blossom’s narrative skills as resulting in a “…somewhat discursive” (ibid, e.g. tangential) story-telling.

I think Terkel is being generous but let’s see where Blossom takes us:

My first real job was in a factory. I was hired to sweep the shit off the floor. They saw I was a good worker and made me a machine operator. I was eighteen and a conscientious objector. I told ’em at the factory I didn’t want to do any war work, any kind of contact with any military institution. I tried to adhere to my politics and my morality.

Since that time and through different jobs I’ve been led into compromises that have corrupted me.,

Ibid

This is pretty cool stuff, right? People trying to live by their own convictions and willing to speak up about it is de facto respectable, even if those convictions may not be the best. But here, not wanting to help the war machine even on an individual level is admirable as heck. I’m not sure it makes much of a difference, because what we need is structural change (whether now or in the 70s!) but if it helps people feel morally uplifted and gives them the strength to address systematic issues, why not?

Side note: The conflict between “lifestyle anarchism” and Everything El is an overwrought divide. Changing individual behavior can be a great path to getting more collective and systematic results. These two things are not mutually exclusive and don’t have to take away from each other.

So good for Blossom!

On the other hand, Blossom thinks he’s doing nothing:

I had a real battle with myself [because of my job]. If I had any real guts, I’d say, “Fuck it,” and walk out. I would be free. All this emotional tension was making me a prisoner.

If I would just get up, I would put this down and say, “This is bogus, it’s bullshit, it’s not worthy. I’m a human being. A man, a woman shouldn’t have to spend time doing this”—-and just walk out.

I’d be liberated.

But I didn’t.

437-38

I hate to be a downer but Blossom is A) putting way too much pressure on himself via his moral values. And I know all about feeling like a failure, feeling like I’m not living up to my own morals in really important ways. It’s different than it is for Blossom, but I still can understand that sentiment. Ultimately though, feeling like you don’t have the guts to do better isn’t going to help. What Blossom (and by extension myself) want to do with this sort of rhetoric is shame ourselves into being better.

And I don’t know if y’all have read any Brené Brown but shame doesn’t work as a motivator. It in fact works as a de-motivator because, surprise, it makes you feel like shit. You don’t want to accomplish your goals, let alone do that while simultaneously adhering to your own morals. Shame convinces us the mistakes we’ve made define us.

And to clarify, I’m not against guilt. Shame isn’t not guilt because guilt is, “I made a mistake and I feel bad” while shame is (and I’m quoting Brown), “I am a mistake and I am bad.” and while it may seem like Blossom isn’t going that far, I think that’s the beginning of his train of thought. “I can’t live by my values! I have no guts! I would be free if I could do this but I’m weak.”

On top of that, there’s a few things wrong with this sentiment:

  1. He’s not doing it because he’s weak but because the economic effects of capitalism are so pervasive and all-consuming. Just because you can’t beat up a giant, doesn’t make you weak if you can also beat up everyone in your village easily. And there’s strength past physical strength, the emotional strength to tell your boss you don’t want anything to do with the war? That’s huge! I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do something, though then again, I’d never work in a place that had direct influence over the war in the first place, if I could help it.
  2. But here’s the deeper issue: Blossom wouldn’t be liberated at all. The sad truth is that Blossom would still need another job unless he decides to reconnect with his parents who have money to spare. You aren’t constrained by an individual capitalist or boss after all, but an entire class of them, a whole system built around them. Sure, maybe Blossom would be free for a little while, but not long.

Let’s keep it going:

I was enjoying my job [as a copy boy], because I was answering the phone most of the time. People would call up and complain or have a problem. I’d say, “This is a capitalist newspaper and as long as it’s a capitalist newspaper it’s not gonna serve you … It’s purpose i is to make money for an owner. If you want some help …”

And I’d refer them to the Panthers or the Seed*. People were very grateful. They’d say, “Thank you very much.” After they talked to me forty-five minutes or so they’d say, “I’m glad I talked to you. I didn’t know the Panthers were like that.

*A popular Chicago underground newspaper at the time.

439

While Blossom’s boss would hang up angrily and be short and to the point with people, Blossom viewed these people as, you know, people. He wanted them to feel heard, respected, but to also know that they’re barking up the wrong tree (economy?) if they’re looking for a newspaper that serves their interests as individuals. Capitalism doesn’t serve the individual, it serves the profits of the ruling class, especially capitalists. And that’s a hegemonic collective if I’ve ever seen one, not a boot-strapping individual.

Terkel asks Blossom if anyone ever complained about Blossom’s methods but apparently they didn’t because he brushes the complaint aside. Blossom maintains he was polite and at times even went so far as to tell people to write letters to the editor or even seize the means of production so the newspaper would run better. He doesn’t seem to take Terkel’s further question about anyone complaining very seriously either.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the calls that got Blossom in trouble but a “severe personal relationship” (440) which caused him to become “obnoxious” (ibid). A reporter hung up on someone who made them upset, called back and Blossom called him a racist, etc. Then the boss found out about the other calls and Blossom feels like he was “just trying to convey my feelings to the people” (ibid). But obviously a capitalist newspaper wouldn’t want him to do that, so why wouldn’t he understand even if he disagrees?

But then…there’s this huge leap:

My fantasies all spring at the paper was getting a machiune gun and coming in and shooting them. Getting psychedelic hallucinogens and putting them in their drinks. Getting a gun and walk into the editor’s office and shooting him. Maybe pointing a gun at him first sand say, “Okay, how do you face your death?”

I saw a Japanese movie once where two guys met their deaths in two different ways. That’s the kind of fantasies I had, cutting ’em up with knives.

Ibid

You know that meme about how X is “braver than the troops”? Well, I think Studs Terkel is braver than the troops for sticking around with this guy any more than past this quote. Up to this point the interview has seemed fairly normal and standard leftist stuff. A little out of place here and there but nothing major. But once Blossom starts discussing his violent fantasies is when the interview goes off the rails.

On one hand, I can understand wishing violence against an illogical and violent system. As the anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre argued:

The hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act,—desperately!

McKinley’s Assassination from the Anarchist Standpoint

I get that it feels dis-empowering as heck and sometimes our only go-to recourse is to incur violence back. I’m not a pacifist (which Blossom surprisingly claims he is!) and I don’t think “violence is never the answer” is a good revolutionary tactic. But the sheer thought, detail and interest Blossom has in violence here is disturbing, to be honest.

Blossom is likely long dead but for anyone who thinks these sorts of actions would actually accomplish anything, make sure you read the Prison Memoirs of Alexander Berkman. Again, I just want to be clear that I completely understand and can even sympathize with the urge to do violence against violent people. “Eye for an eye” is a popular saying for good reason, it has intuitive force behind it. But that doesn’t make it a good idea in most situations, even when it’s justified in self-defense.

There’s also the part where it seems less about striking a blow against capitalism and more of a personal vendetta.

And please, no Guy Fawkes jokes, thanks.

But hey, that’s not Great but at least it’s understandable right?

Well…like I said, the interview:

A copy boy is a kind of [n-word]. You stand around in a room full of people that are very ego-involved in a fantasy—they think they’re putting out a newspaper. These are the reporters and editors. Somebody yells, “Copy!” Sometimes they yell, “Boy!” You run over—or you walk over—and they give you a piece of paper.

You take that piece of paper someplace, and you either leave it there and go back to waiting around or you get another piece of paper and bring it back to the person that originally called you.

440

…goes off the rails.

I was floored when I read this part. I’m pretty damn sure Charlie Blossom is not typically a name black folks tend to have. And having middle class and well-to-do parents makes it less likely he’s a person of color. We never know for sure but the context clues tell me that Blossom thinks it’s cool to compare white working class people to the conditions of people of color historically as a racial slur. A slur he apparently thinks he gets to use freely?

I don’t know why I was floored. White, middle class dudes painting themselves as the same as people of color isn’t anything new and continues to this day. Comparing themselves to people whose churches often burned (and still are), who were and still are routinely harassed by the cops and were literally hung from fucking trees.

But no, Blossom clearly has it just as bad because someone says “Boy!” and they don’t bother to say his full name. Because they treat him like any other worker would be treated, except, you know, if they were a woman, or black or literally anyone else except a cis white dude they’d be much worse.

If you continue the interview after that (and much to my chagrin I did) the interview keeps going in circles. Blossom begins to explain why he got fired and lists his shoes and their bad soles as the reason. But then he diverts into a rant about how capitalism sucks (it does) but also discusses how he wanted to shoot Marshall Field if Bobby Seale was shot. When Terkel asks him what would it accomplish Blossom nonchalantly replies:

Oh well, you can’t look at it as accomplishing anything.

441

…And then continues about how he wanted to “…smash [Marshall Field’s] head in” but with his hands and not a baseball bat.

See? This is what I mean. It doesn’t seem like Blossom cares about attacking capitalism (he says it himself that he doesn’t see it as accomplishing anything). Rather, it just seems like a way to siphon his rage and fantasies into a solid object he can get his hands on.

The interview goes on…for way longer than necessary, honestly. From here Blossom discusses the problems management had with his shoes (as I said earlier, pp 441-43), a samurai pose in his city office (where it’s quiet?, pp 443-44,), looking at flowers (444), then it was refusing to come in on time (444) and finally (445):

At five-thirty somebody walked in and said to me, “Here are some clips. Can you go and get ’em?” I said, “No, I’m leaving.” Another copy boy says no, too. The next morning the editor came to me and said, “You left early … blah,blah,blah,blah … And you refused to get the clips.”

“I said, “Let me explain.” And he said, “That’s entirely unacceptable. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

To me it was like the one that broke the pig’s back.

445

I am cutting out a lot but that’s actually what got Blossom fired and it’s all he needed to say. And it’s not like Terkel asked (at least not in the notes we see here) why Blossom got fired. Blossom says earlier in the interview, he asks if Terkel wants to know why he got fired.

But it takes him what must have been 5-10 minutes of various tangents about other workplace issues to get there. And of course, they are all interconnected, but only on the loosest levels. Especially when the above quote is all you need to begin with.

Anyways, Blossom goes on unemployment, tries to talk back to his boss (who, according to Blossom, gets defensive after Blossom cries). Then he talks about how a woman told him to get a number in line for the unemployment money and he says. to Terkel..well…

I want to tell her, Fuck you. I can wait outside your apartment and knock you over the head and steal your money. Fuck your money. It’s not your money in the first place. It’s mine. I worked for it. And if you don’t give it to me, I don’t give a fuck, ’cause I’ll live anyways.

446

Clearly you aren’t upset.

When I was younger and applied for a job, and the guy wouldn’t give me a reason for not hiring me, I would say, “It’s okay.” I wouldn’t yell at him, “You’re a racist pig.” I’d think, Fine, Mao Tse-tung will hire me to kill you. Or I could be a bank robber. But that bitterness, I don’t like being bitter.

I’m a pacifist.

Ibid

cue laughter

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