»  The Straggler, No. 94

September 20th, 2010

   Labor Pains

August lived up to its reputation as the Silly Season this year, the news dominated for several days by JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who quit his job August 9 in a sensational manner, venting his grievances over the plane's PA system then exiting via the emergency chute. (Fortunately the plane was stationary on the tarmac.) Though there are open questions about what triggered the incident, Slater's deed returned an echo from many a wage slave's breast, and he was a folk hero for a week or so there in the dog days of high summer.

The world of ordinary work and its discontents makes the news much less often than, it seems to me, it ought — when you consider, I mean, the sheer quantity of work that gets done every day. When such stories do show up in the press, I take down my copy of Studs Terkel's 1974 bestseller, Working.

Terkel was an old FDR lefty, a graduate of the Federal Writers' Project in fact. He made his name with oral history, which is to say, writing down what people told him about their lives. Working is in that genre. Terkel sat 133 people down in front of his tape recorder and had them talk about their daily work. The occupations cover a good range: jockey, bureaucrat, car salesman, dentist, miner, stockbroker, … Some have drifted towards extinction since 1974: switchboard operator, elevator starter, supermarket bagger. A handful of the participants are famous: Rip Torn, actor; Pauline Kael, film critic.

Working didn't offer any insights into Steven Slater's particular vexations. There was no such thing as a flight attendant in 1974. The nearest subject Terkel gives us is an "airline stewardess," who grumbles at length about the rigors of "stew school" ("We'd go through a whole week of make-up and poise … They showed you how to smoke a cigarette …") and the wandering hands of her clientele ("The majority of passengers do make passes …") It all seems like a very long time ago.

(National Lampoon did a clever parody of Terkel's book in their November 1975 issue under the title "Shirking." We heard from several people who make a living doing nothing much: cop, panhandler, disk jockey, auto mechanic, etc. Most are fictional, but in a nice recursive touch they included Studs Terkel, writer: "This kid from the university … operates the tape recorder … I just pretend to listen, with my Pat O'Brien look on my kisser. Then Cathy types 'em up …" Also the late Ed McMahon: "I sit down and talk to Johnny for a few minutes. Mostly what I do is laugh at his jokes … I have what's known in the business as a hearty laugh. So I laugh for a few minutes and then I'm done for the night …")

The world of work has been much on my mind lately, with Mrs. Straggler retraining for a new career and our daughter earning her first paychecks from a summer internship. I am shamefully aware that I have never been much good at work, though I've been employed in a wide range of occupations. There was always something that seemed more worth thinking about than the job at hand: a book I wanted to write, a trip I wanted to take, the girl in the next office. This is not unusual. Unworldly, imaginative, bookish people rarely make good employees. One such, the poet Philip Larkin, asked "Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?" Another, Mark Twain, told us that "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and … play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." Idleness is of course soul-sapping and, as the old sailor's preventive for sea-sickness has it, one must keep busy with one's eyes on the horizon; but busyness somehow loses all its savor when one is paid a wage for it.

That's a bad attitude, of course. A great many people find satisfaction in their work, even work of the lowest kind. I was once a kitchen porter, teamed up with another young ne'er-do-well who had surprising zest for our greasy, ill-paid labors. In occasional moments of idleness he would concoct quizzes to keep our minds on the job: "Name the location of every waste bin in this establishment …"

And then there are jobs that are so much fun it seems absurd to call them work at all. The rumor is that when big-name Hollywood actors are gathered together in private, there comes a point when they look at each other in silence for a moment, then all fall down laughing, thumping the carpet and shrieking in their helpless mirth: "To think they pay us for what we do! Hoo hoo hoo!" The labor market is a strange place. In strict justice, very desirable jobs should have negative salaries, as used to be the case, and perhaps still is, for waiters at the poshest hotels. (Who paid the maître d' out of their abundant tips.)

Biologically speaking, we were not made for work. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors back in the Paleolithic didn't work much. "If they had full stomachs and their tools and weapons were in good shape … they hung out: They talked, gossiped, and sang." (Cochran and Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion.) Real hard work came in with agriculture — and stayed with it, to judge by the still-current saying that "if you've once worked on a farm, nothing else ever seems like work." With industrialization came the alternative of a twelve-hour day at the mill or down the mine. People resigned themselves somehow:

Men must work and women must weep;
And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep.

Now work is ebbing. As machines get smarter and more productive we are slipping back to Paleolithic standards of idleness. Certainly the dignity of labor is a long-lost concept, swallowed up by the myth of "jobs Americans won't do." Where now are those novelists whose dust-jacket biographies boasted heroic lists of past employments: lumberjack, carnie barker, firefighter? Jonathan Franzen, our current literary lion, seems never to have done anything but write. Perhaps Steven Slater will give us a novel.