Archive for the ‘Studs Terkel’ Category

Work and Other Sins

September 3, 2008

New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies.  They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying.  Only dreamers come to New York.  As a matter of course, few people have control over their lives.  You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke.  On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is most exciting thing there is.

And so begins Charlie LeDuff’s book of character sketches of the nobodies that inhabit the city.  I love reading stuff like this, real stories about ordinary people.  I also love reading blogs of strangers and getting a glimpse of the day to day lives of people.  Everyone has a story worth telling.  LeDuff shows that the nobodies of the city are somebodies.  Profiled in this book are local drunks hanging out in the bar, circus midgets, freaks from the Coney Island side shows, transgendered prostitutes, firefighters, aging fishermen from Sheepshead Bay, Russian showgirls from the Brighton Beach nightclubs, Polish maids from Greenpoint, homeless bums, used car salesmen, and old guys who spend too much time at the Aqueduct race track.  I love it.  These are the people who make New York the special place it is. 

This being a book profiling the lives of working nobodies, race is often a topic of conversation.  There are tensions between hispanic and white, hispanic and black, black and white, American Indian and everyone else.  But more often than not, people try to be understanding to their fellow workingman or woman, in spite of racial differences:

Two Hispanic men come in [to the bar] for a shot and two burgers to go.  They leave without saying hello.  ‘You figure these guys come to this country and can at least learn the language,’ says one road worker to the bar, lined with blacks and whites.  ‘Take it easy, bud,’ Jimmy Williams tells him.  ‘Didn’t you see their hands?  They were working men.  One of us.’

This book was reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s Working, which also celebrated the lives of ordinary working men and women, which I wrote about here and here.  This type of anthropological writing really gives value in what “ordinary” people have to say about issues more typically discussed in general media by professors and researchers.  Race, class, gender, politics; all that good stuff are in these books.  This type of writing lets people speak for themselves and allows their words stand on their own.  There is something so valuable about having the opinions, thoughts and stories of the people written down on paper (or blogged online).


March 6, 2008

when i read books like i really like, i keep tabs of my favorite parts. here’s some of things from Working that really stood out to me.

Eric Nesterenko, Professional Hockey Player (his section was one of my favorites, he is such an eloquent speaker):

It can’t be just a job. It’s not worth playing just for the money. It’s a way of life. When we were kids there was the release in playing, the sweetness in being able to move and control your body. This is what play is. Beating somebody is secondary. When I was a kid, to really move was my delight. I felt released because I could move around anybody. I was free. That exists on the pro level, but there’s the money aspect. You know they’re making an awful lot of money off you. You know you’re just a piece of property.

I still like the physicality, the sensuality of life. I still like to use my body. But the things I like now are more soft. I don’t want to beat people. I don’t want to prove anything. I have a friend who used to play pro football, but who shares my philosophy. We get into the country that is stark and cold and harsh, but there’s a great aesthetic feedback. It’s soft and comforting and sweet. We come out there with such enormous energy and so fit.


Mike Lefevre, Steelworker



I want my kid to look at me and say, “Dad, you’re a nice guy, but you’re a fucking dummy.” Hell yes, I want my kid to tell me he’s not going to be like me . . . I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. (Laughs.) I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and where a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.

If a carpenter built a cabin for poets, I think the least the poets owe the carpenter is just three or four one-liners on the wall. A little plaque: Though we labor with our minds, this place we can relax in was built by someone who can work with his hands. And this work is as noble as ours.



Roberta Victor, hooker

I was in control with every one of those relationships. You’re vulnerable if you allow yourself to be involved sexually. I wasn’t. They were. I called it. Being able to manipulate somebody sexually, I could determine when I wanted that particular transaction to end. ‘Cause I could make the guy come. I could play all kinds of games. See? It was a tremendous sense of power . . . The overt hustling society is the microcosm of the rest of the society. The power relationships are the same and the games are the same. Only this one I was in control of. The greater one I wasn’t. In the outside society, if I tried to be me, I wasn’t in control of anything. As a bright, assertive woman, I had a no power. As a cold, manipulative hustler, I had lot. I know I was playing a role. Most women are taught to become what they act. All I did was act out the reality of American womanhood.

Dog and Books

March 6, 2008

Meet my puppy, Leo. He’s pretty much the best dog ever and everyone who knows him agrees.
he’s my been my buddy this week while my mom is vacationing in california visiting her friend. leo and i have the house to ourselves for 10 days. so far its been really nice, except that i have to drag my lazy ass out of bed 30 minutes earlier to walk and feed him. but just look at that face! he’s so worth it. so its been nice living by myself again. go work, take care of the dog, pay some bills, buy some groceries, cook some food, do some laundry, wash some dishes – all on my own time. manny was able to spend a few days here which was nice and we cooked up some amazing chicken burgers with salsa. thankfully, its been a pretty uneventful week, with the exception of this minor commuting crisis that i was able to avoid because my awesome supervisor let me leave early and my awesome friend gave me a ride home.

anyway, I’m still getting through Working which is the most fascinating book I’ve ever read. its people taking about their jobs. we hear from policeman, firefighters, various factory workers, miners, maids, janitors, car salesmen, bank tellers, secretaries, professional sports players, housewives, flight attendants, stockbrokers, truck drivers, accountants, and a whole lot more. it was published in 1972 so the jobs have changed a lot since then but the issues are still the same. basically, you should read it. my favorite part was the section on bureaucracy. some employees of a federal government anti-poverty program were interviewed and they really spoke to the frustrations of working in a huge government machine where divisions and agencies are constantly reorganized and restructured but NOTHING is accomplished. one program manager got in trouble after they found out she was getting involved with union organizing. they took away all of her responsibilities but couldn’t fire her because she was a high ranking employee. so they gave her a paper to write about the economics of poverty which was due in 6 months to keep her busy. but she kept organizing for the union during her work hours and every time someone came into her office she had to shove all of her union papers off her desk. and she didn’t feel the least bit guilty about it. she would write the paper a few days before it was due because she knew nothing would ever be done with it. she said:

It’s extremely frustrating. But, ironically, I’ve felt more productive in the last few weeks doing what I’ve wanted to do than I have in the last year doing what I was officially supposed to be doing . . . When you do something you’re really turned on about, you’ll do it off-hours too. I put more of myself into it, acting like I’m a capable person. When you’re doing something you’re turned off on, you don’t use what talents you have. There are a lot of people in our office who are doing very, very little, simply because their jobs are so meaningless.

Some of these jobs will appear meaningful on paper. The idea of the antipoverty program is exciting. But people are stifled by the bureaucratic decisions and non-decisions. When you’re in the field and get into sticky situations with politicians, you can’t count on your office to support you. You’ll be punished. (p 346)

You know when someone says something and expresses how you’ve been feeling so much better than you could, and all you can say is “Yes! Whatever she said, I feel.” Yeah, as a government employee myself, what Ms. Lilith Reynolds said sums it up for me. There’s really nothing else to add.


February 23, 2008

OK, I know this blog wasn’t supposed to be all about me complaining about my life. But reading Working really makes a person think. So here it goes.

I feel lost. And stuck. I really need to make things move forward in my life. My co-worker told me yesterday that she knows that I want to quit soon. When I asked her how, she said she could see through my handwriting that I was loosing interest in this job. I am a pretty good judge of character and very few people surprise me. But her perceptiveness surprised me. And she’s right. I cannot really complain about this job. It’s a comfortable desk job. I starting working one week after I graduated college in the field I studied. This job is what I studied. I get health and dental benefits. I’m in a union. I have a pension and retirement plan. My co-workers are nice. How many college grads get these things? I really did like working here in the beginning. But things have changed. Our grant was increased by a lot of money and we expanded and hired about 25 new people. So now have fewer things to do. Actually, I only have to do 3 things: make phone calls for other people and answer phone calls for other people and enter data in excel spreadsheets. And I don’t want to do those things anymore I’m bored out of my skull all the time.

I am also hating the city and hating working in an office. This weekend I went with the family to Boston to visit my brother, and on our way home we stopped at Hampshire for some lunch. I haven’t been there since Manny’s graduation in May. I got out of car and remembered how much I loved to be surrounded by land rather than buildings. Being surrounded by hills and farms and fields renews me in a way that the city never does. Sometimes I love the city. Sometimes walking past beautiful old buildings, or looking at the skyline, or walking the streets of Brooklyn that generations of family have walked before helps me feel renewed. Being around my family and loved ones makes me happy. I love the city, I really do. It’s my home, my entire family is here and my life is here. But sometimes it is so stifling. Sometimes being around so many other people just chips away at me making me angry and impatient and makes me hate people I don’t even know. I do not want to feel that way. Times like these really make me want to move out of New York and look for a job elsewhere. There’s job opening in my dad’s union in Washington DC that I’m very tempted to apply for. But I don’t want to leave my loved ones here. And I don’t want to go from one boring desk job to another. Which brings me to my next point.

I don’t know if I want to study public health anymore. Maybe its just because I’m sick of this job. I really want to do something that involves me being outdoors and some other aspect of health. I was thinking of environmental science. I am going to look into getting a MS in environmental studies rather than an MPH. I want to be outside, in all sorts of weather. I don’t mind working in a cubicle sometimes, its comfy. But not 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Also, I think I’m done working on 9/11 health issues. I want to continue revising my Div III thesis, but besides that’s it. I’m so burnt out on this; I’m so numb to this issue I just don’t care anymore about what happens. And it’s starting to affect how I talk to people who call me for health information and referrals, which isn’t good. I need some distance.

So not only do I feel stuck career/job-wise, but also in my personal life. I have either lost touch with my friends from college or they live far away. My friends from home have moved in with their significant others so I see less of them. I still live at home with my mom. I live out of the city in suburbs and anytime I want to see my friends in the city I have to take 2 subways, a train, and a taxi to get home. This journey could take me anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, which is OK on weekends but gets to be drag when I have work the next day. I have a boyfriend of 5 years and we hardly spend any alone time together because we both live at home. I am in a really good place financially but I cannot afford a place by myself. Well, I probably could but all of money would go to rent and I wouldn’t be able to save any for going to back school. I feel like a jerk for complaining, I mean really I don’t really have any reason to complain. Even though I feel unhappy now, I know I have it pretty good and it could be a lot worse. I just feel stuck. I want a little more independence; I want things to start rolling. So I’m going to:
1.) Open high interest savings account and start saving like mad (Check this off the list! Just did this online)
2.) Look into internships and jobs in environmental science
3.) Look at MS program requirements
4.) Keep learning Spanish
5.) Do more work on revising my Div III (I am leaving to do this now right after I publish this post)