For all of the national conversations about a universal income, unemployment rates, the threat of automation, politicians’ promises for more jobs, etc., the daily experiences of individuals and their jobs can get lost. That’s one reason why Studs Terkel’s 40+ year-old interviews with American workers still resonate today.
Terkel published his iconic book in 1974. It was called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do. The book honored the ordinary. Or rather, it brought the unique challenges and glories of the lives and reflections of these workers into the light. And it became a bestseller.
Audio tapes Terkel recorded in preparation for the book, interviews he conducted all over the country, sat in boxes in his house where they were discovered when he died in 2008. Last year Radio Diaries and Project& collaborated to bring some of these stories to the air, tracking down still-living interviewees for updates, editing and presenting the best of the stories then and now.
The edited interviews include a telephone operator, an auto repair mechanic, a steel worker, a gravedigger, a private investigator, and a police officer. (Listen in on twelve of the stories on the Radio Diary website.)
Some of the themes are perennial. A steelworker wished that skilled laborers would be publicly recognized for their work. A black Chicago police officer talked about the racism he saw every day. A female advertising executive was regularly mistaken as the secretary. And it goes on. These interviews really do speak to us from the past.
One of my favorite interviews is with Helen Moog, a plain-talking taxi driver from northeast Ohio. Terkel usually scheduled his interviews in advance, but when he met his driver one morning on the way to the airport, he decided to start recording.
She said she loved to drive and liked meeting different kinds of people. Although she worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, she didn’t look forward to retirement: “You get bogged down in nothing and you do nothing and you wind up nothing,” she said. “Cuz when I’m not busy I get very weary.”
When asked what she thought about the future of work, she worried that automation would reduce working hours and create unemployment. “I’m afraid it’s not for the best interest. Idle hands make an idle mind, and I’m not in favor of the short hours.”
She ended on a positive note. “People are interesting, no question. And when people say thank you for helping them, and you don’t even know how you have helped them, it really makes you feel nice inside. And I don’t think there’s anything th’could take its place.”
I also loved Thomas Fischetti’s stories about being a private eye from Brooklyn (he goes by a pseudonym in the interview): “Ninety percent of the job is the ability to move around to different places without causing any suspicion. And you gotta be a quick talker. [A private investigator] has one thing and one thing only, and that is his wits. He can’t pull a badge out in a bind and say hey, police department …Undercover investigators are the best actors in the world. You gotta be.”
Fischetti shared a story about catching a butter thief. This guy had been stealing 70 lb. cartons of butter from a bread factory every week for months. The total loss was in the thousands of dollars. Fischetti went undercover as an employee, a dough mixer. He hid on top of the walk-in refrigerator 8 hours a day for four days and finally caught the guy in the act. You can’t make this stuff up.
In the end, these interviews offer us much. We learn about and from the work experiences of others. We enjoy the stories and come away with greater perspective on our own work. We learn to laugh and cry with people. We might even be reminded of the dignity of strangers from all walks of life. Yes—all of these.
But I’m most grateful for the simple reminder that it’s better to know people than not. And how do we come to know people? We look for them. And when we’ve found them, we care enough to inquire about their lives and their work. Thank you, Studs Terkel. In a time when social fabric seems to need mending, you show us how to reweave what has unraveled.
Benjamin Norquist is the Assistant Director at Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and work at Wheaton College. Benjamin is fascinated by the complex world of higher education and how to build productive partnerships between colleges and marketplace leaders.