Sunday, November 9, 2008

Books of a Feather: Workin' 9 to 5

I couldn't think of anything at all to write about today, and in the car on the way to Wendy's, I asked my boyfriend for a "Books of a Feather" theme. He had two awesome ones: books written in or about the 1920s or books about bunnies (actually, he said children's books, but I turned it into bunny books after he cited The Velveteen Rabbit and Watership Down.) Unfortunately, I couldn't think of books for either, not ones that I was familiar with enough to write about that way.

So I came home, and stared at my shelves. I remembered hearing that Studs Terkel had died last week, and I thought of the first book I'd ever read by him, Working. Then I knew I had my theme.

So, I'll start with that one. The premise of the book is exceedingly simple. In the 1970s, Terkel interviewed people who held a wide variety of jobs, and wrote down what they told him. In each case, he opened the dialogue by simply asking them to explain what they did, and how they got into it. He got some very surprising answers, and the book remains a favorite of mine because of that. He met a nurse's aide who hates people. He met a grocery store clerk who loved her job so much that she didn't even like to take vacation time, and a dentist who couldn't wait to retire. His interview with a model made it seem like the least glamorous job on the planet (taking public transportation while carrying half the clothes you own? Aw, fun!). His interview with an industrial spy made that job sound more intriguing and stimulating than James Bond's work (the man's profession was to pretend to be an ordinary employee at places that suspected worker theft). Many of the jobs don't even exist anymore, although not many of the ones who saw ahead to their own obsolescence (like the bathroom attendants).

The other two books I picked for this theme deal with the transient nature of work today. The Working Stiff's Manifesto is by Iain Levison, a former English major who had held over 30 jobs by the time he was in his late 20s. Levison's odyssey in this book takes him from a high-end grocery store in New York City, to a job with a friend driving a moving van, to several commercial fishing establishments in Alaska. Every job he holds is basically a shit job. He talks about running across a water-filtration scam, and the other, more subtle 'scams' that lie in wait within many legitimate jobs. For example, he gets fired from the fish market two days short of when his health insurance would have kicked in, for no reason that he can determine. He also gets conned into a managerial position at a chain restaurant, where he's immediately put on salary and required to work almost 80 hours a week, averaging out to less than minimum wage.

Bitter is the New Black, by Jennifer Lancaster, is not such a tale. Lancaster had a great job as a vice-president, and was well-paid, well-liked and well-respected. The bottom dropped out for her the week of September 11th. She lost her job at the worst possible time and had to scrape for another one. Despite being educated, skilled and connected, she actually never did find another job in her field, and became a writer instead. She, too, was the victim of a couple of scams. She was up for a position at a start-up, where they asked her to put together a sample business plan and sales presentation as part of her interview. She dutifully did her homework, and as she was presenting it to the panel that interviewed her, it began to dawn on her that something was wrong, that they were all a little too interested in what she had to say...and predictably, she never heard from them again.

The prime difference between the two authors is that Lancaster seems to have much more knowlege of the way the world works, and much more drive and ambition than Levison, who makes the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes, you want to shake him and scream: "You accepted a job moving furniture up and down the stairs and you're surprised it's shitty? Really?" Lancaster's tale shows that office jobs are far from idyllic (she's employed for approximately 1/3 of the book), but cutting fish, gutting fish, and moving sofas are not what anyone's dreams are made of, really. But what prevents either story from being mere complaining is the humor.

This seems to be a universal among work tales. Most people feel that work is sort of funny. Terkel's book was full of people's strange and humorous tales from their jobs. People loved describing their craziest co-worker or their nuttiest customer to him. But the main thing I took from Terkel's book is that job satisfaction seems to depend more upon the individual than the job. I often think of that grocery store clerk. She sounded happiest of everyone in the book, and he interviewed Stanley Cup winners, doctors, lawyers, writers, all kinds of people you would expect loved their jobs. Levison's biggest problem, it seemed to me, was that he was a malcontent. He always wanted more, and there was no way for him to get it.

Lancaster, in contrast to him, had it all. Her life story was particularly galling to the reader, because she didn't so much blow it as she had it taken away from her. And then, she was down the rabbit hole. Her experience kept her from getting lower-end jobs. When she went on interviews, she was up against hundreds like herself. Her former connections didn't want anything to do with her because they were afraid of it happening to them. It was a mystifying case of a bad thing happening to someone who didn't deserve it, subtitles to the contrary.

Terkel's book is more hopeful than either Lancaster's or Levison's. Both of theirs showcase individual negative experiences in the workplace. But Terkel also shows you the deeply satisfied grocery store clerk, industrial spy, and piano tuner (that was a neat one too). He also talks about people who got out of bad situations (the newspaper saleswoman) or people who managed to make something out of a bad situation (the suitcase felter, who was also the union president and newsletter-writer and considered her suitcase factory co-workers as good as family). His book will leave you feeling much more hopeful than the other two. However, in fairness to them, their books are much funnier.

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