You can’t take pride any more. You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how many logs he stacked. He built it and he was proud of it. I don’t really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me. I would be tempted to get it there and kick the carpenter in the ass (laughs), and take the saw away from him. ‘Cause I would have to be a part of it, you know. (From Working by Studs Terkel)
I was angry for no good reason back in 1997. At the time I’m sure there was a reason, but in reflecting, I can’t figure what it was. Life probably. I was a janitor and a student, a 21-year-old kid with a head that wouldn’t shut off. I wanted to be a writer. At work I used to chain smoke with a woman named Holly. She was in her 50s and was similarly pissed off at the world. Her anger seemed more justified. She’d been working —wirkin’, as she liked to put it—her entire life, or at least for the past 30 years after what she described as partying days spent riding around on the backs of Harleys. She had a son and a daughter and didn’t have too many good things to say about either of them. More than anything she liked when I talked, wanted me to tell her stories and liked to brag on my behalf that I’d wind up being a writer at some point as long as I stayed at it. I didn’t see how that was going to happen, but I kept up with telling her stories during breaks or while I pushed the mop along and she ran a dust rag over something.
One day she asked why I was pissed. I said, “Because people don’t care about workers,” or something like that. She asked what I wanted to write. I told her I didn’t know, but that I enjoyed interviewing people and wanted to write about people at work. The next day she showed up with a beaten back-pocket copy of Working by Studs Terkel. “Read this,” she said. “It’s what you should do.”
Her point was that there are millions of stories out there just waiting to be accessed, waiting to be told. I didn’t have to “make stuff up” to be a writer; I just had to listen. Over the next dozen or so years, between trying to write the next On the Road or create the next Holden Caulfield—token dilemmas that plague plenty of young anglo janitor writers—I would drift back to the role of listener, of observer, of recorder, always nodding, if you will, to Studs Terkel.
Back in 2000, Terkel read at Harry Schwartz bookshop in Milwaukee. Mostly he told jokes and made people shake their heads. I stood in the back of the room and listened, then waited in line to get my back pocket copy of Working signed. The anger I carried around back in ’97 had transformed into a blend of uncertainty, disillusion and anxiety. I was working as a janitor someplace new, smoking my breaks away with new coworkers who’d been working as long as Holly or longer. After work I went home and tried to wedge the next Holden Caulfield into the next On the Road.
I kept rehearsing something to say while I waited in line. I wanted Studs Terkel to write some bit of wisdom or guidance, to tell me to keep plugging away, keep sitting down, keep going after it. When I finally got up to him he smiled and asked my name. I choked and had to mutter “Dave” twice before he heard me. I walked away with “To Dave” on the cover page.
I haven’t looked at the book in years, but pulled it out this morning when I heard Terkel died last night. The sub-head beneath the title reads as follows: “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” I’m lucky to be writing all day, but I’m most fortunate when I get to sit and talk with someone else about what they do and how they feel about it. In the back of my mind I’d hoped to interview Studs one day, but I guess I’ll have to wait for our next pass through. In the meantime I’ll keep my recorder at the ready and do my best to capture the few stories he didn’t get to.