Cases come to mind.
While riding the el, I was approached by a singularly tall stranger. Hearing me talking to myself (as I have a habit of doing), he recognized my voice as “the man he listens to on the radio.” He told me of his work and of his father’s work. His reflections appear in the sequence “Fathers and Sons.” He told me of two of his students: a young hospital aide and a young black man who works in a bank. They, too, are in this book.
There was a trip to eastern Kentucky to see the remarkable Joe Begley, who is worth a book by himself, though none of his reflections are found in this one. It was his suggestion that I visit Joe and Susie Haynes, who live in the hollow behind the hills. They, in turn, guided me to Aunt Katherine. One life was threaded to another, and so tenuously . . .
It was a young housewife in a small Indiana town who led me to the strip miner, with whom she had some words, though recognizing his inner conflicts. She told me, too, of the stonemason, who, at the moment, was nursing a beer at the tavern near the river. And of the farmer having his trials in the era of agribusiness. And of the three newsboys, who might have a postscript or two to offer readers of Horatio Alger.
“I realized quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted, were meaningless. Conditioned clichés were certain to come. The question-and-answer technique may be of some value in determining favored detergents, toothpaste and deodorants, but not in the discovery of men and women.”7
There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature—at the beginning: the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. The talk was idiomatic rather than academic. In short, it was conversation. In time, the sluice gates of dammed up hurts and dreams were opened.
As with the other books, there are deliberate omissions in this one: notably, clergymen (though a young priest is here), doctors (there is a dentist), politicians, journalists and writers of any kind (the exception is a film critic; her subject, work as reflected or non-reflected in movies). I felt that their articulateness and expertise offered them other forums. My transcribing their attitudes would be nothing more than self-indulgence. I was interested in other counties not often heard from.
Choices were in many instances arbitrary. People are engaged in thousands of jobs. Whom to visit? Whom to pass by? In talking to the washroom attendant, would I be remiss in neglecting the elevator operator? One felt his job “obsolete.” Wouldn’t the other, too? In visiting the Chicago bookbinder, I missed the old Massachusetts basket weaver. I had been told about the New Englander, who found delight in his work. So did my Chicago acquaintance. Need I have investigated the lot of an assembler at the electronics plant, having spent time with spot-welders at Ford? An assembly line is a line is a line.
An unusually long sequence of this book is devoted to the automobile—its making, its driving, its parking, its selling. Also its servicing. There is its residue, too: traffic, noise, accident, crime, pollution, TV commercials, and human orneriness at its worst.
“The evil genius of our time is the car,” Barry Byrne, an elderly architect, observed several years ago. “We must conquer the automobile or become enslaved by it.” (He was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, who spoke of the
nature of things. “It was his favorite word. When you look at a tree, it is a magnificent example of an organic whole. All parts belong together, as fingers belong to one’s hands. The car today is a horrible example of something not belonging to man.”) Less than a year after our conversation, Mr. Byrne, on his way to Sunday mass, was run down by a car and killed.
As for the men and women involved in its manufacture, a UAW local officer has his say: “Every time I see an automobile going down the street, I wonder whether the person driving it realizes the kind of human sacrifice that has to go in the building of that car. There’s no question there’s a better way. And they can build fewer cars and resolve many of the human problems . . .” Though the sequence is headed “The Demon Lover,” the title of another Child ballad might have just as appropriately been used: “The False Knight upon the Road.”
But it provides millions with jobs. So does ordnance work (another euphemism called upon; “war” has only one syllable).
As some occupations become obsolete, others come into being. More people are being paid to watch other people than ever before. A cargo inspector says, “I watch the watchman.” He neglected to tell who watches
A young department head in a bank finds it amusing. “Just like Big Brother’s watching you. Everybody’s watching somebody. It’s quite funny when you turn and start watching them. I do that quite a bit. They know I’m watching them. They become uneasy.”
Here, too, grievances come into play. The most profound complaint, aside from non-recognition and the nature of the job, is “being spied on.” There’s the foreman at the plant, the supervisor listening in at Ma Bell’s, the checker who gives the bus driver a hard time, the “passenger” who gives the airline stewardess the gimlet eye . . . The indignation of those being watched is no longer offered in muted tones. Despite the occasional laugh, voices rise. Such humiliations, like fools, are suffered less gladly than before.
In the thirties (as rememberers of “Hard Times” remembered), not very many questioned their lot. Those rebels who found flaws in our society were few in number. This time around, “the system stinks” was a phrase almost as recurrent as “more or less.”
Even the “company girl” had a few unexpected things to say. I was looking for an airline stewardess, who might tell me what it was really like. Pressed for time, I did what would ordinarily horrify me. I called a major airline’s public relations department. They were most cooperative. They suggested Terry Mason (that’s not her name). I assumed it would be a difficult experience for me—to find out what it was really like, under these circumstances. I underestimated Miss Mason’s spunkiness. And her sense of self. So, apparently, did the PR department. She concluded, “The younger girls don’t take that guff any more. When the passenger is giving you a bad time, you talk back to him.” Her name may be Terry, but obviously nobody can “fly her.”
Not that being young makes one rebellious. Another well-nurtured myth we live by. This may be “The Age of Charlie Blossom,” but Ralph Werner, twenty, is far more amenable to the status quo and certainly more job-conscious than Bud Freeman, sixty-seven. And Ken Brown, a tycoon at twenty-six, respects the “work ethic” far, far more than Walter Lundquist, forty-eight. It isn’t the calendar age that determines a man’s restlessness. It is daily circumstance, an
of being hurt, and an inordinate hunger for “another way.” As Lundquist, who gave up a “safe” job for “sanity” puts it: “Once you wake up the human animal you can’t put it back to sleep again.”
Perhaps it is time the “work ethic” was redefined and its idea reclaimed from the banal men who invoke it. In a world of cybernetics, of an almost runaway technology, things are increasingly making things. It is for our species, it would seem, to go on to other matters. Human matters. Freud put it one way. Ralph Helstein puts it another. He is president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. “Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful—not just as the source of a buck— you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules any more. Society does not need them. There’s no question about our ability to feed and clothe and house everybody. The problem is going to come in finding enough ways for man to keep occupied, so he’s in touch with reality.” Our imaginations have obviously not yet been challenged.
“It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” Mike LeFevre, the steelworker, asks rhetorically, “Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors . . . you can’t sock a system.” So, at the neighborhood tavern, he socks the patron sitting next to him, the average working guy. And look out below! It’s predetermined, his work being what it is.
“Even a writer as astringent and seemingly unromantic as Orwell never quite lost the habit of seeing working classes through the cozy fug of an Edwardian music hall. There is a wide range of similar attitudes running down through the folksy ballyhoo of the Sunday columnists, the journalists who always remember with admiration the latest bon mot of their pub pal, ‘Alf.’
Similarly, on our shores, the myth dies hard. The most perdurable and certainly the most dreary is that of the cabdriver-philosopher. Our columnists still insist on citing him as the perceptive “diamond in the rough
social observer. Lucky Miller, a young cabdriver, has his say in this matter. “A lot of drivers, they’ll agree to almost anything the passenger will say, no matter how absurd. They’re angling for that tip.” Barbers and bartenders are probably not far behind as being eminently quotable. They are also tippable. This in no way reflects on the nature of their work so much as on the slothfulness of journalists, and the phenomenon of tipping. “Usually I do not disagree with a customer,” says a barber. “That’s gonna hurt business
It’s predetermined, his business—or work—being what it is.
Simultaneously, as our “Alf,” called “Archie” or “Joe,” is romanticized, he is caricatured. He is the clod, put down by others. The others, who call themselves middle-class, are in turn put down by still others, impersonal in nature—The Organization, The Institution, The Bureaucracy. “Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors . . .” Thus the “dumbness” (or numbness or tiredness) of both classes is encouraged and exploited in a society more conspicuously manipulative than Orwell’s. A perverse alchemy is at work: the gold that may be found in their unexamined lives is transmuted into the dross of banal being. This put-down and its acceptance have been made possible by a perverted “work ethic.”
But there are stirrings, a nascent flailing about. Though “Smile” buttons appear, the bearers are deadpan because nobody smiles back. What with the computer and all manner of automation, new heroes and anti-heroes have been added to Walt Whitman’s old work anthem. The sound is no longer melodious. The desperation is unquiet.
Nora Watson may have said it most succinctly. “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
During my three years of prospecting, I may have, on more occasions than I had imagined, struck gold. I was constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people. No matter how bewildering the times, no matter how dissembling the official language, those we call ordinary are aware of a sense of personal worth—or more often a lack of it—in the work they do. Tom Patrick, the Brooklyn fireman whose reflections end the book, similarly brings this essay to a close:
“The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be.
“I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers. But I can look back and say, ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.”
WHO BUILT THE PYRAMIDS?
Who built the seven towers of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? . . .
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? . . .
—Bertolt BrechtMIKE LEFEVRE
It is a two-flat dwelling, somewhere in Cicero, on the outskirts of Chicago. He is thirty-seven. He works in a steel mill. On occasion, his wife Carol works as a waitress in a neighborhood restaurant; otherwise, she is at home, caring for their two small children, a girl and a boy.
At the time of my first visit, a sculpted statuette of Mother and Child was on the floor, head severed from body. He laughed softly as he indicated his three-year-old daughter: “She Doctor Spock’d it.”
I’m a dying breed. A laborer. Strictly muscle work . . . pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down. We handle between forty and fifty thousand pounds of steel a day. (Laughs) I know this is hard to believe—from four hundred pounds to three- and four-pound pieces. It’s dying.
You can’t take pride any more. You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how many logs he stacked. He built it and he was proud of it. I don’t really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me. I would be tempted to get in there and kick the carpenter in the ass (laughs), and take the saw away from him. ’Cause I would have to be part of it, you know.
It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it. (Muses) I worked for a trucker one time. And I got this tiny satisfaction when I loaded a truck. At least I could see the truck depart loaded. In a steel mill, forget it. You don’t see where nothing goes.
I got chewed out by my foreman once. He said, “Mike, you’re a good worker but you have a bad attitude.” My attitude is that I don’t get excited about my job. I do my work but I don’t say whoopee-doo. The day I get excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker. How are you gonna get excited about pullin’ steel? How are you gonna get excited when you’re tired and want to sit down?
It’s not just the work. Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building—these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.