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.
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.