Table of Contents
Other Books by Studs Terkel
Lost and Found
Giants of Jazz
“The Good War”
An Oral History of World War II
An Oral History of the Great Depression
Hope Dies Last
Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times
My American Century
Talk About Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Them
Talking to Myself
A Memoir of My Times
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
For Jude Fawley; for Ida, who shares his vision; for Annie, who didn’t.
As in two previous works,
Division Street: America and Hard Times
, my benefactors were friends, acquaintances, and wayfaring strangers. A suggestion, a casual comment, a tip, a hunch: a collective thoughtfulness led to the making of this book.
Among these singularly unselfish scouts were: Marge Abraham, Joe Agrella, Marvin David, Lucy Fairbank, Lou Gilbert, De Witt Gilpin, Bill Gleason, Jake Green, Lois Greenberg, Pete Hamill, Denis Hamill, Noel Meriam, Sam Moore, Bill Moyers, John Mulhall, Bryce Nelson, Patricia O’Brien, Jessie Prosten, Al Raby, Kelly Sanders, Florence Scala, Ida Terkel, Anne Thurson, Warren Weaver, Steven Yahn, Beverly Younger, Connie Zonka, and Henry de Zutter.
For the third time, Cathy Zmuda transcribed hundreds of thousands of spoken words—perhaps millions in this instance—onto pages that sprang to life. Her constant good humor and perceptiveness were as rewarding to me as her astonishing technique. Nellie Gifford’s acute observations as a volunteer editor, at a time the manuscript was
gargantuan, helped immeasurably in cutting the lean from the fat. A perspective was offered by both that might otherwise have been missing.
My gratitude, too, to Nan Hardin, for her generosity of time and spirit, as a knowing guide during a memorable trip through Indiana and eastern Kentucky. My colleagues at radio station WFMT, notably Ray Nordstrand, Norman Pellegrini, and Lois Baum, were once again remarkably understanding and ingenious during my prolonged leaves of absence. I know I gave them a hard time, but theirs was truly grace under pressure.
Especially am I grateful to my editor, André Schiffrin, whose idea this was, as twice before. His insistence and quiet encouragement, especially during recurring moments of self-doubt, are evident in all these pages. And to his nimble associates, Myriam Portnoy and Dian Smith, for their bright-eyed look at what was becoming burdensome matter—a salute.
Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
—I Corinthians 3:13
You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.
The “work ethic” holds that labor is good in itself; that a man or woman becomes a better person by virtue of the act of working. America’s competitive spirit, the “work ethic” of this people, is alive and well on Labor Day, 1971.
—Richard M. Nixon
I like my job and am good at it, but it sure grinds me down sometimes, and the last thing I need to take home is a headache.
—TV commercial for Anacin
Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker for nearly thirty years, is proud of her dexterity in moving items along the conveyor belt. If asked, she will do a little dance, showing how she hits the keys on the cash register with one hand, pushes the food along with the other and intermittently whacks the conveyor-belt button with her hip. She knows what everything costs—the price list on the register is, she says, only “for the part-time girl.” Almost everything amuses her, especially the rich ladies who drop in to shoplift meat. “I’m a couple of days away,” she says, “I’m very lonesome for this place.”
Ms. Secoli’s is one of the dozens of throaty, acerbic voices in
Studs Terkel’s oral history of working life, which was published thirty years ago this spring. When it appeared,
was a revelation, a window on the thoughts of Americans who were rarely heard from: hospital aides, skycaps, gravediggers. Many of the interviews follow a similar, surprising trajectory, beginning with mundane workplace details but quickly moving on to existential thoughts. Even for the lowliest laborers, Mr. Terkel found, work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, “for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”
The oral histories in
are wistful dispatches from a distant era. The early. 1970s were the waning days of the old economy, when modern management practices and computers were just beginning to transform the American workplace. In the last thirty years, productivity has soared, but job satisfaction has plummeted. It is hard to read
without thinking about what has gone wrong in the workplace.
Mr. Terkel’s ragtag collection of little-guy monologues was a runaway bestseller. Part of its appeal was the unusual, occasionally illicit glimpses it offered into the ways of the world. “If you work nights and it’s real quiet, I don’t think there’s an operator who hasn’t listened in on calls,” a switchboard operator says. “The night goes faster.” A gas-meter reader tells of the codes meter men put on customer cards when there was an attractive woman in the house.
Mr. Terkel’s interlocutors also offer deeper insights. A parking lot attendant holds forth on why working people are better tippers than Cadillac drivers. A prostitute reflects that she was “the kind of hustler who received money for favors granted,” not the kind who “signs a lifetime contract for her trick,” or who “carefully reads women’s magazines and learns what it is proper to give for each date, depending on how much. . . [he] spends on her.”