What Work Is

Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium

In 1851, an English journalist named Henry Mayhew invented a new genre. The idea was to interview obscure people and publish what they said, which became “London Labor and the London Poor.” Mayhew sought out puppetmasters and pickpockets, got them to tell him what they did and how they lived, and, with some Victorian editing and embellishment (for these were not generally people who were acquainted with Victorian self-censorship), put it down into book form.

Since Mayhew’s time, the interview with the man in the street has become commonplace. Still, books that simply present the raw voice are rare. Mostly they adopt the method used by Shere Hite in the Hite Report, and sprinkle extracts of “testimony” in some ultimately author-driven narrative.

The exception to this in modern times is Studs Terkel’s Working. Published in 1970, Working is still a sensational read. Terkel did Mayhew one better by staying out of the way of his subjects’ stories, to the extent that he suppressed the questions he asked his interviewees. If you have ever done an interview, you know the devil of it is making the transitions work, finding a continuous story within a mass of sometimes unrelated details. Terkel’s people always sounded on topic, while magically retaining their idiosyncrasies. Collectively, Terkel’s book took a picture of a cusp moment in America. It was a year in which the work ethic and the industrial society that arose out of the Great Depression and World War II began to come apart at the grassroots level.

Gig, which was produced by a crew of interviewers and edited by the staff of Word.com, is openly emulative of Terkel’s method. This economic moment is no less rich than that of 1970. If the older form of 20th century capitalism is dead, what is replacing it? The New Economy of the Bulls? Globalism? The books that advance these theses usually rely on macroscopic evidence. “Gig,” however, is about the changes on the micro level, and it advances no thesis. It does, however, irresistibly invite one. Or even more than one.

There are 120 interviewees in the book. They range from an 18-year-old hooker in Wichita, Kansas to a 36-year-old mother in Manhattan. The interviews are clustered into sections with names like Artists and Entertainers, but within each cluster they not only include obvious professions – for instance, Julian Schnabel is interviewed in the Artists and Entertainers section – but obscure, although necessary, laborers (such as a semi-retired Heavy Metal Roadie). There are too many stories here to assimilate easily into quick generalizations. I was struck by at least two patterns, however.

One is that, although the current economic regime is different in several ways from that explored by Terkel, there are definite continuities in the American experience which partially shape the different phases of capitalism.

Foreign visitors to the United States, as far back as Tocqueville, have noticed two things about Americans: a love of money and a lack of culture. If you come from a traditional culture, Gig will re-affirm those stereotypes. But if you look at these patterns without pre-conceptions, you see something different. Money is not the same thing in America as it was in Europe. In Europe, money was primarily thought of as accumulation. For Americans, money is chance. American money is gambler’s money. Consequently, Americans have developed a special gambler’s intelligence – an eye for the small detail, an awareness of possibilities and a superstitious love of omens (which now come as polls, or futurists reports). And knowledge that gets in the way of the gamble is ignored.

The most spectacular illustration of this in Gig is the interview with the Crime Scene Cleaner. This man, like millions of people, watched the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where John Travolta, after blowing a man’s brains out in the backseat of a car, calls on Harvey Keitel to get rid of the evidence; Keitel effectively cleans the stains from the upholstery. Neal Smith smelled an opportunity: “Well, I saw that and I thought, wow, that’s intriguing. Are there people out there doing this kind of job in real life? I did some research and found out that the answer was yes.”

And so begins the saga of Smith’s ascension within the dog-eat-dog world of crime scene cleaning. Many of the people in this book make a living at something they more or less found. There aren’t a lot of people inheriting their fathers’ businesses in this book, or going directly from college to some assured position. IBM marketers become comedians, nurses become Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center franchisers. Even the prisoner, whose story was the most depressing in the book (competing for claustrophobic sadness, oddly enough, with the mother’s story), robbed a department store in a rather innovative way.

This sensitivity to possible money-making schemes produces an incredibly busy population, but also an incredibly philistine one, at least according to the standards of high culture. The subtle rapture of art, which Yeats spoke about, is not a vivid presence in most people’s working lives, including the artists. And the disconnect between education and career is startling, to say the least. The person who seemed most deeply cultured is the plastic surgeon, who with his quotes from Plato, seems to be a genuinely educated man. But much more typical is the attitude summed up by the Film Development Assistant: ‘Film school is a total fucking waste of time. People hate you if you went to film school. Studio producers will laugh you out of their office if they find out you have a film degree.”

Neal Smith watched the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where Harvey Keitel cleans a man’s brains out in the backseat of a car and smelled an opportunity. ‘Well, I saw that and I thought, wow, that’s intriguing. Are there people out there doing this kind of job in real life? I did some research and found out that the answer was yes.’

The other theme that deserves comment is the emotional trajectory in these interviews. As interviewees detail and reflect on their jobs, many of them show signs of repressed depression. Others, while not personally depressed by the choices they’ve made, have extraordinary moments of Realpolitik. The Steelworker is typical: “Jobs like this are disappearing. The best real ones are going to be gone.” That sense of obsolescence haunts the American workplace.

But the emotional coloring in the interviews with these workers isn’t simply derived from economic reality. There is more questioning now than in 1970 about the purpose of binding oneself to an activity. This results in some extraordinary confessions, such as that of the Mother, summing up her experience caring for two children: “It’s an exhausting, almost debilitating routine. And it affects every part of me – my body, my soul. I feel ten years older than I did when I started, three years ago. I look it, too.” Or this, from the UPS man: “The thing about UPS is, it takes your time. That’s the worst thing, it takes so much of your time. You can get a day off when you want, but still, it takes all your time.”

Not that every jobholder is unhappy. Most of them seem to be at least involved in their jobs, and there are a good third who are quite happy. But the other two-thirds are happy to the extent that they don’t think too hard about what they are doing. From the Homicide Detective who is disillusioned with the police force to the Nurse who says, ‘I like being self-employed, but nowadays, there’s basically nothing else I like about this job,” there is a real dark strain of disappointment running through the energy in this book. Economics has something to do with it, but the cumulative effect is existential. Where, in the past, the theological conundrum of meaning might have been resolved in churches and synagogues and families, or in art, or in politics, reality now is that work has become the forum within which we work out the meaning of existence.

Which is why worker discontent has such a baffled fierceness that the workers themselves often suppress it – for what goal could possibly be achieved by indulging in one’s complaints? It used to be that there were objective political courses of action to this rage, but these have more or less disappeared from the American scene. This book indicates there is certainly the potential for them to re-emerge abruptly.

Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, Sabin C. Streeter (Crown; ISBN: 0609605887)

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