Shadowing: A Modest Proposal

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            The summer between high school graduation and my freshman year of college, back before teen-agers were casualties of unemployment like everyone else, I worked alongside my father in the Garment Center in Manhattan.  He had approached his boss in the women’s coat factory that had employed him for many years as a sewing machine operator to ask if his “boy” might earn a few dollars that summer to help with school expenses.

            The boss obliged and there I was serving as all-purpose stock boy, shipping clerk, go-fer and shop mascot.  It was the year Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination for president against an invincible Ike.  We all listened to the proceedings attentively as we went about the task of filling the heavy racks of Lord & Taylor, Best and Company, Macy’s and department stores unknown to me in Kansas City, Minneapolis and St. Louis. Then I pushed them through rivers of traffic, delivering the upcoming season’s new stock to the loading docks invisible on Fifth Avenue or 34th Street.

            By far the most important part of those three months in what we never, back then, would have dreamed of calling “the workplace,” was the opportunity to see my father at work. As far back as I could remember I had been watching him leave for “the shop,” lunch bag in hand, and return with the pay envelope from which he shook the meager bills and coins at the end of his arduous week.  What happened in-between was a mystery, as it is for most children.  In my wife’s family, there is a story that, asked by a stranger what his father did, her brother replied that Daddy collected pencils and grew whiskers.

            Seeing the elegant coats emerge from my father’s machine and the respect he received from his co-workers for his exacting craftsmanship gave me a whole new perspective on this man who at home was so passive and self-effacing.  A summer in the heat, dust and incessant whine of the machines also helped me understand why he never lasted more than a few minutes in his easy chair after dinner before his eyes closed over the newspaper draped across his lap.

            Fast forward.  I am in the office of the governor of New Hampshire with my friend Lew Feldstein.  Lew is the president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and this is one of the many stops on his busy agenda.  I am trying desperately to tuck my sandal-shod feet as far out of sight as possible since Lew did not forewarn me that a visit to the governor was on this summer’s schedule during my vacation visit.

            For years, Lew and I shadowed each other’s work lives.  We arranged our work and vacation schedules so that we could spend a day each year tagging along behind one another as we did what all of us tend to do out of sight of friends and family for a substantial portion of our waking hours.  For Lew, those hours were spent, until his retirement, driving the roads of the beautiful state which was once my home too, where he met with agency heads, planners, policy makers and just plain citizens interested in preserving what is good about this place and changing what isn’t working. The sheer number of miles he covered was daunting, but more impressive still was the way I observed him listening hard, asking questions, respecting the opinions of everyone he encountered no matter their situation or status. These were the very same gifts that were in evidence at the many dinners we shared in our social lives, but to see the magic they performed at work was a revelation.

            Lew and I have done many things together in the 55 years we’ve known each other – cooked and eaten countless meals, baked bread, boiled sap into maple syrup, planted gardens, watched basketball playoffs – but these shadowing experiences added a dimension I had insufficient imagination and experience to conjure up myself.

And Lew: 

            For three decades for one day each year I shadowed Marv at his workplace as he moved from New Hampshire to Houston to Chicago.  I watched him teach white rural children in a small NH town and black children in Chicago’s South Side; in classrooms that ranged from light, airy spaces with real blackboards and wooden wainscoting to a former boys’ room in a Chicago school, with the urinals and stalls removed but the tiling still in place.

            It’s not that there are great surprises. But each year when I followed Marv into his classroom, I learned more about my friend.  No accumulation of second-hand accounts fully prepared me for actually observing him as he worked with children and teachers.  I got to see Marv among strangers, in a setting central to him, that occupied almost half his waking hours, and was core to his sense of himself.  I came away from each of these days deeply moved by his work. 

            It plays both ways.  When he visited me, I loved this extended chance to talk about what I did.  It’s like an 8-hour Show and Tell.  My colleagues at work came to look forward to his annual visits, and his observations and questions about our work.

            The shadowing we did of each other provided grist and context for the rest of the year.  We came to know that much more about each other’s worlds and work when we exchanged shorthand about how the year was going, about problems and triumphs on the job, about our workplace colleagues with whom we spent so much of our lives.

            What I shared with my father in his lint-covered factory loft and what Lew and I shared in our more white-collar settings is something no amount of conversation could have conveyed.  We are, more than most, a work-oriented society. We define ourselves by our labor and, unlike people in many countries we are quick to ask those we meet what they “do.”  Yet the compartmentalized lives we live rarely allow us to share our day-in-day-out experience with those who are closest to us.

            I’m convinced we started something that deserves to be emulated.  Alongside the traditions of “Bring your child to work” days, what if we instituted “Bring your friend to work” days? These shadowing experiences with both my father and Lew deepened my respect for them in immeasurable ways. They’re sure to have a similar effect on you.

About the author

Marv Hoffman

14 comments

    • I loved hearing your stories about visiting your father in his frame shop and the different perspective it gave you on who he was.

  • Marv, my friend, thanks for sharing these precious pieces of yourself. It seems our lives are a collection of special memories that help us define who we are.

    We sometimes live, what feels like a series of treadmill events that preclude quiet reflection. I appreciate you sharing these vivid memories about special people in your life and their impact.

    • I think a major factor in the strong bond we established was that it was rooted in writing, and for that I am eternally grateful. We shared so many pieces of ourselves in all those writing workshops we did with teachers and literacy coordinators.

  • Thank you Marv. We’ve heard you tell about the exchange of workplace visits you and Lew have carried on for years, but the story of origin we have never heard before. A true window into your origins and so moving. And Jay! Thank you!

    And indeed, you have opened a door for me too of the Saturday mornings my sister and I would crowd into the front seat of my father’s truck and off we’d go down the street and through town with the big welder bouncing and rattling behind.

    First stop was The Sugar Bowl where we would sit at the counter and have breakfast. Cherry pie and milky coffee for Jo and I.

    Once at “the shop” we would stop in to say Hi to Mary. Her desk might be graced by a moquette (sp?) or 2 of Calder’s stabiles. He lived and worked in Connecticut and many of his pieces were made there, at Waterbury Ironworks.

    The shop mainly worked in structural iron, fire escapes and such. It was a cavernous, dark space marinated in the strong, sweet, mineral smell of friction. Of fused iron. Sparks flying, our father taught us (yes, his daughters) to weld. We would don the eye protecting helmets and make “sculptures” from the scraps always strewn around the place. Eventually we managed grander projects of candelabras and tables. He so quietly and happily showed us the workings of his work. I thought about this recently when our second son had his second daughter!

    He was also a wonderful storyteller and many of the guys were featured in his stories. And here they were in person. Quietly we would take it all in. The constant friendly rassing. The sweet camaraderie.

    • How wonderful! I’m thrilled that pieces like yours and Jay’s were inspired by my posting. It speaks to the generative power of writing. Interesting, but not surprising that all of our pieces are about fathers because they were born in an era when woman didn’t “work>” What they did at home was visible to us, not shrouded in mystery. In the agrarian days this was true for men too, but industrialization began the separation of home and work, except for a lucky few.

  • I’m so glad I read this post, Marv! It’s characteristically beautifully written, evocative, and wise. What a great idea to take your friend to work!

    • Thank you, my dear Adrienne. I’m delighted to know that you’re dipping into the posts. They’re my equivalent to the place that story-telling has had in your life.

  • A lovely piece and a good idea. My older brother and I used to walk down from the Bluff in Yokohama, Japan to the courthouse (now City Hall, I hear) in which our father tried cases as a defense lawyer in the trials of Japanese sodliers accused of war crimes by the Allies and the US occupation. I was not an uncritical admirer of my father (my brother was), but it was a revelation for me to see a first-rate trial lawyer who loved the work and did a fantastic job defending his clients. I was 6 and 7, my brother 10 and 11; he explained enough to let me see some of the thinking that went on behind the legal moves. The Japanese army like the US army in WW2 made ample opportunities for genuine war crimes, but many of the men my father defended were if not innocent, at least not clearly guilty. And, as my father thought, they all deserved a fair trial. The parallel experience of seeing a friend at work is also a wonderful thing. My favorite of such experiences over the years has been hanging out in the classrooms of good friends who were teachers. What name should we give to this excellent practice?

    • Thanks,Jay, for this story which is a perfect illustration of the way in which your world is enlarged when you see someone you think you know performing in an arena you’ve never seen. When you ask what we should name this excellent practice, does that mean that Shadowing doesn’t do the trick?

  • I LOVE this writing, of course, and I love the idea. It would be so interesting to shadow friends and acquaintances in all kinds of lines of work — teachers, journalists, stock brokers, trash collectors, TV producers, nurses…. You’ve got me thinking, as always, and as always, I thank you!

    • Oh Mark. I should have dedicated this one to you. Any disciple of Studs would appreciate the impulse behind this piece. And how sweet of you to post about it on FB. Your network is much larger than mine, so lots more people will get a chance to see it and possibly pick up on the idea. Thank you.

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