The time study men of the General Motors Assembly Division made this discomfiting discovery in Lordstown. Gary Bryner, the young union leader, explains it. “Occasionally one of the guys will let a car go by. At that point, he’s made a decision: ‘Aw, fuck it. It’s only a car.’ It’s more important to just stand there and rap. With us, it becomes a human thing. It’s the most enjoyable part of my job, that moment. I love it!” John Henry hardly envisioned that way of fighting the machine—which may explain why he died in his prime.
There are cases where the job possesses the man even after quitting time. Aside from occupational ticks of hourly workers and the fitful sleep of salaried ones, there are instances of a man’s singular preoccupation with work. It may affect his attitude toward all of life. And art.
Geraldine Page, the actress, recalls the critique of a backstage visitor during her run in
Sweet Bird Of Youth.
He was a dentist. “I was sitting in the front row and looking up. Most of the time I was studying the fillings in your mouth. I’m curious to know who’s been doing your dental work.” It was not that he loved theater less, but that he loved dentistry more.
At the public unveiling of a celebrated statue in Chicago, a lawyer, after deep study, mused, “I accept Mr. Picasso in good faith. But if you look at the height of the slope on top and the propensity of children who will play on it, I have a feeling that some child may fall and be hurt and the county may be sued. . . .”
In my own case, while putting together this book, I found myself possessed by the mystique of work. During a time out, I saw the film
in Paris. Though Freud said
lieben und arbeiten
are the two moving impulses of man, it was the latter that, at the moment, consumed me. Thus, I saw on the screen a study not of redemption nor of self-discovery nor whatever perceptive critics may have seen. During that preoccupied moment I saw a study of an actor
He was performing brilliantly in a darkened theater (apartment), as his audience (the young actress) responded with enthusiasm. I interpreted her moans, cries, and whimpers as bravos, huzzahs, and olés. In short, I saw the film as a source of a possible profile for this book. Such is the impact of work on some people.
A further personal note. I find some delight in my job as a radio broadcaster. I’m able to set my own pace, my own standards, and determine for myself the substance of each program. Some days are more sunny than others, some hours less astonishing than I’d hoped for; my occasional slovenliness infuriates me . . . but it is, for better or worse, in my hands. I’d like to believe I’m the old-time cobbler, making the whole shoe. Though my weekends go by soon enough, I look toward Monday without a sigh.
The danger of complacency is somewhat tempered by my awareness of what might have been. Chance encounters with old schoolmates are sobering experiences. Memories are dredged up of three traumatic years at law school. They were vaguely, though profoundly, unhappy times for me. I felt more than a slight ache. Were it not for a fortuitous set of circumstances, I might have become a lawyer—a determinedly failed one, I suspect. (I flunked my first bar examination. Ninety percent passed, I was told.)
During the Depression I was a sometime member of the Federal Writers’ Project, as well as a sometime actor in radio soap operas. I was usually cast as a gangster and just as usually came to a violent and well-deserved end. It was always sudden. My tenure was as uncertain as that of a radical college professor. It was during these moments—though I was unaware of it at the time—that the surreal nature of my work made itself felt. With script in hand, I read lines of stunning banality. The more such scripts an actor read, the more he was considered a success. Thus the phrase “Show Business” took on an added significance. It was, indeed, a business, a busyness. But what was its meaning?
If Freud is right—“his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community”3
—was what I did in those studios really work? It certainly wasn’t play. The sales charts of Proctor & Gamble and General Mills made that quite clear. It was consideredwork.
All my colleagues were serious about it, deadly so. Perhaps my experiences in making life difficult for Ma Perkins and Mary Marlin may have provided me with a metaphor for the experiences of the great many, who fail to find in their work their “portion of reality.” Let alone, a secure place “in the human community.”
Is it any wonder that in such surreal circumstances, status rather than the work itself becomes important? Thus the prevalance of euphemisms in work as well as in war. The janitor is a building engineer; the garbage man, a sanitary engineer; the man at the rendering plant, a factory mechanic; the gravedigger, a caretaker. They are not themselves ashamed of their work, but society, they feel, looks upon them as a lesser species. So they call upon a promiscuously used language to match the “respectability” of others, whose jobs may have less social worth than their own.
(The airline stewardess understands this hierarchy of values. “When you first start flying . . . the men you meet are airport employees: ramp rats, cleaning airplanes and things like that, mechanics. . . . After a year we get tired of that, so we move into the city to get involved with men that are usually young executives. . . . They wear their hats and their suits and in the winter their black gloves
Not that these young men in white shirts and black gloves are so secure, either. The salesman at the advertising agency is an account executive. “I feel a little downgraded if people think I’m a salesman. Account executive —that describes my job. It has more prestige than just saying, ‘I’m a salesman.’” A title, like clothes, may not make the man or woman, but it helps in the world of peers—and certainly impresses strangers. “We’re all vice presidents,” laughs the copy chief. “Clients like to deal with vice presidents. Also, it’s a cheap thing to give somebody. Vice presidents get fired with great energy and alacrity.”
At hospitals, the charming bill collector is called the patients’ representative! It’s a wonderland that Alice never envisioned. Consider the company spy. With understandable modesty, he refers to himself as an industrial investigator. This last—under the generic name, Security—is among the most promising occupations in our society today. No matter how tight the job market, here is a burgeoning field for young men and women. Watergate, its magic spell is everywhere.
In a further bizarre turn of events (the science of medicine has increased our life expectancy; the science of business frowns upon the elderly), the matter of age is felt in almost all quarters. “Thirty and out” is the escape hatch for the elderly auto worker to the woods of retirement, some hunting, some fishing. . . . But thirty has an altogether different connotation at the ad agency, at the bank, at the auditing house, at the gas company. Unless he/she is “with it” by then, it’s out to the woods of the city, some hunting, some fishing of another sort. As the work force becomes increasingly younger, so does Willy Loman.
Dr. John R. Coleman, president of Haverford College, took an unusual sabbatical during the early months of 1973. He worked at menial jobs. In one instance, he was fired as a porter-dishwasher. “I’d never been fired and I’d never been unemployed. For three days I walked the streets. Though I had a bank account, though my children’s tuition was paid, though I had a salary and a job waiting for me back in Haverford, I was demoralized. I had an inkling of how professionals my age feel when they lose their job and their confidence begins to sink
Dr. Coleman is 51.
Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell. It is perhaps this fear of no longer being needed in a world of needless things that most clearly spells out the unnaturalness, the surreality of much that is called work today.
“Since Dr. Coleman happens to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, he quit his ditchdigging job to preside over the bank’s monthly meeting. When he looked at the other members of the board, he could not keep from feeling that there was something unreal about them all
Something unreal. For me, it was a feeling that persisted throughout this adventure. (How else can I describe this undertaking? It was the daily experience of
their private hurts, real and fancied, that I was probing. In lancing an especially obstinate boil, it is not the doctor who experiences the pain.)
I was no more than a wayfaring stranger, taking much and giving little. True, there were dinners, lunches, drinks, some breakfasts, in posh as well as short order places. There were earnest considerations, varying with what I felt was my companion’s economic condition. But they were at best token payments. I was the beneficiary of others’ generosity. My tape recorder, as ubiquitous as the carpenter’s tool chest or the doctor’s black satchel, carried away valuables beyond price.
On occasions, overly committed, pressed by circumstance of my own thoughtless making, I found myself neglecting the amenities and graces that offer mutual pleasure to visitor and host. It was the Brooklyn fireman who astonished me into shame. After what I had felt was an overwhelming experience—meeting him—he invited me to stay “for supper. We’ll pick something up at the Italian joint on the corner.” I had already unplugged my tape recorder. (We had had a few beers.) “Oh, Jesus,” I remember the manner in which I mumbled. “I’m supposed to see this hotel clerk on the other side of town.” He said, “You runnin’ off like that? Here we been talkin’ all afternoon. It won’t sound nice. This guy, Studs, comes to the house, gets my life on tape, and says, ‘I gotta go’ . . .” It was a memorable supper. And yet, looking back, how could I have been so insensitive?
In a previous work, a middle-aged black hospital aide observed, “You see, there’s such a thing as a feeling tone. And if you don’t have this, baby, you’ve had it.” It is a question I ask myself just often enough to keep me uncomfortable. Especially since my host’s gentle reprimand. Not that it was a revelatory experience for me. Though I had up to that moment succeeded in burying it, this thief-in-the-night feeling, I knew it was there. The fireman stunned me into facing up to it.
(Is it any wonder that in some societies, which we in our arrogance call “primitive,” offense is taken at being photographed? It is the stealing of the spirit. In remembering such obscenities, a South African “adventure” comes to mind. In 1962, on the road to Pretoria, a busload of us, five Americans and thirty Germans, stopped off at a Zulu village.
As the bare-breasted women ran toward the tourists, the cameras clicked busily. “Tiki! Tiki!” cried the women. A tiki is worth about three cents. The visitors, Reetmeister cigars poised on their pouting lips, muttered, “Beggars.” They were indignant. A simple quid pro quo—and a dirt cheap one, at that—was all their subjects had in mind. Their spirit for a tiki . . .)
The camera, the tape recorder . . . misused, well-used. There are the
and there is Walker Evans. The portable tape recorder, too, is for better or for worse. It can be, tiny and well-concealed, a means of blackmail, an instrument of the police state or, as is most often the case, a transmitter of the banal. Yet, a tape recorder, with microphone in hand, on the table or the arm of the chair or on the grass, can transform both the visitor and the host. On one occasion, during a play-back, my companion murmured in wonder, “I never realized I felt that way.” And I was filled with wonder, too.
It can be used to capture the voice of a celebrity, whose answers are ever ready and flow through all the expected straits. I have yet to be astonished by one. It can be used to capture the thoughts of the non-celebrated—on the steps of a public housing project, in a frame bungalow, in a furnished apartment, in a parked car—and these “statistics” become persons, each one unique. I am constantly astonished.
As with my two previous books, I was aware of paradox in the making of this one. The privacy of strangers is indeed trespassed upon. Yet my experiences tell me that people with buried grievances and dreams unexpressed do want to let go. Let things out. Lance the boil, they say; there is too much pus. The hurts, though private, are, I trust, felt by others too.
When Andre Schiffrin, my editor, who persuaded me to undertake the other assignments
(Division Street: America
suggested this one, I was, as before, hesitant. I am neither an economist nor a sociologist nor The Inquiring Reporter. How am I to go about it?
Seven years ago, seeking out the feelings of “ordinary” people living out their anonymous lives in a large industrial city, “I was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique.” Three years later, I was on the prowl for the memories of those who survived the Great Depression. In each case, my vantage was that of a guerrilla. I was somewhat familiar with the terrain. In the first instance, it was the city in which I had lived most of my life. It concerned an actual present. In the second, it was an experience I had shared, if only peripherally. It concerned an actual past. But this one—in which the hard substance of the daily job fuses to the haze of the daydream—was alien territory. It concerned not only “what is” but “what I imagine” and “what might be.”
Though this was, for me, a more difficult assignment, my approach was pretty much what it had been before. I had a general idea of the kind of people I wanted to see; who, in reflecting on their personal condition, would touch on the circumstances of their fellows. Yet, as I suspected, improvisation and chance played their roles. “A tip from an acquaintance. A friend of a friend telling me of a friend or non-friend. A face, vaguely familiar, on the morning bus. An indignant phone call from a listener or a friendly one. . . .”6