Studs redux: working in the 21st century


There are a rare few books that, once you’ve read them, permanently change the way you see the world. One I’ve written about before, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, makes it impossible to see a cluster of trees in a forest as inanimate ever again. Then there’s The Soul of an Octopus by our friend Sy Montgomery. Once again, reading about Sy’s relationship with an octopus at the New England Aquarium awakens you to the idea that humans are not the only sentient beings on the planet.

I had the same reaction to my first encounter with Studs Terkel’s Working. I’m doing this from memory, so apologies for any inaccuracy, but I’m recalling that one of the opening interviews with workers in a wide variety of fields introduces a laborer in a steel mill who spends his day moving steel beams from one area of the factory to another. But when he stops for a break, he pulls a paperback book out of his back pocket and becomes absorbed in a different, faraway world. That image forever ended my regrettably stereotypic view of people who live by their physical labor– a complete paradigm shift.

I’ve always been fascinated by watching people at work. I love visiting factories, an experience that’s harder to come by than it once was because of safety and insurance concerns. Perhaps that was born watching my father and his co-workers producing women’s coats in New York’s garment center or noting the subtle skills of the waiters in the catering place that was the site of my first paying job.

No matter what the task was, from collecting my garbage to repairing my car, it was, and continues to be, thrilling to see someone doing their work with pride and with an eye to excellence. I’m excited to see Wim Wenders’ new movie, Perfect Days, about a Tokyo cleaner of public toilets. Based on the reviews I’ve read, he seems to embody that vision of the potentially ennobling aspects of work. Before you dismiss me as a soft-headed romantic, let me say that I’m also all too aware of how many people find their work far from ennobling and can’t wait to get as far away from it as possible.

I was so taken by Studs’s book that I built a whole unit around it in my high school English class in Houston. We used the book [it] as a jumping off point for discussions about the students’ own aspirations for their future work lives, their observations about their parents’ occupations and the stereotypes they harbored about people’s jobs. We even read and performed scenes from Stephen Schwartz’s musical adaptation of Studs’ iconic text.

So, you can imagine my delight at learning that our good friend Mark Larson had been invited to do an updated version of Working. Mark was a particularly appropriate candidate for the task. I guess you would call him a disciple of Studs’. (Mr. Terkel just doesn’t seem like an appropriate appellation for the kind of guy he was.) In fact, Studs interviewed Mark for one of his later books, at a time when Mark was working as an award-winning high school English teacher. Mark had demonstrated his own considerable gift at interviewing in his previous book Ensemble: an Oral History of Chicago theater. I can testify to his ability to draw out of people insights about themselves that they had previously been unaware of. In the interview he did with me for a different project, I appreciated the fact he didn’t come with a set of prepared questions. Instead, he allowed the exchange to emerge organically, making our session feel more like a conversation than an interview.

The same skill is visible in the dozens of interviews collected in Working in the Twenty-first Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation, published just weeks ago after four years of work, much of it under the incredible difficulties presented by Covid. Many of the jobs included were not even dreamed of when the original book was published fifty years ago, all the more reason this newer version was needed in the light of what those years have brought in technological innovation, war, plagues and contested elections.

I’m not in the habit of writing about books I haven’t even finished reading, but this is a special case. Mark’s book is like a poetry collection or a book of short stories, which you might not want to read in a single gulp. I’ve been sipping it in quantities of two or three at a time, then reflecting on their impact on me. The amazing thing is that I’m having experiences that parallel my original encounter with Studs’ steel worker. Let me give you some examples:

  • Kevin Blackburn is a police officer and SWAT team member in South Carolina. I wish I could reproduce here the whole interview with him, which made me feel much more sympathetic to the difficulties of police work, particularly post-George Floyd. He ends by saying, “there’s a whole lot of these situations that, unless you’ve been in it, it’s easy to make a judgment based on what you see on the news or in the media…but it doesn’t necessarily capture the full complexity of a situation.” You can’t read an interview like this without at least questioning a bit more than you have in the past the easy, quick judgements you make of people just trying to do their job.
  • Jack Victor, whose interview follows Officer Blackburn’s, is a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. A risk-averse guy like me has real trouble imagining how someone willingly chooses to do such potentially life-threatening work. When Mr. Victor reveals that he is paid only $16/hour, a salary he could match in a fast-food job, I want to find a picket line on which I can protest in his behalf.
  • Finally, there’s Meghan Hilliard, an emergency room nurse, whose daily encounters with tragedy and loss are almost unbearable to read about. “I had the parent of a young child who died and when she finally had to leave, she said, ’I just don’t want my baby to be alone’ while waiting transport. I promised her ‘I will hold your baby till it is time.’ I walked around that trauma room holding this passed infant, keeping my promise… that this baby wouldn’t be cold and alone.” Work like Meghan’s is, at the same time, unbearable and uplifting.
  • I’ve barely been able to dip your toes – and mine – in this vast sea of human emotions relating to the way most of us spend most of our waking hours. The book is so rich in opportunities for insight and empathy that I’m eager to go back and meet Mark’s next set of interviewees. They’re not all high drama occupations either. There are truck drivers and accountants who also have stories we need to hear. I’m grateful that Mark has taken the trouble to introduce them to me. In the process he’s invented a new job of his own that’s on display in this magnificently realized interviews.

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Marv Hoffman

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