What we talk about when we talk about work
Photo from Facing Change: Documenting America, a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.
Distribute the earth as you will, the principal question remains inexorable—Who is to dig it? Which of us, in brief word, is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest, and for what pay? Who is to do the pleasant and clean work, and for what pay? Who is to do no work, and for what pay?
—John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1864
Judging by the literature of my contemporaries, I am part of a generation that does no work. Most of us have jobs, I suppose: you, me, the people who write the stories and novels about people who do no work. We do something, at any rate, and though we may well spend long hours making money, for a variety of complicated and deeply entrenched reasons I will never really be able to convince myself that I am—or that we are—earning money or toiling in any true sense. It is almost a mockery that there is soap in the restrooms of the offices where we pass our days sitting at desks and staring into computer screens. Our books, television shows, and movies—our stories, in other words—are seldom about what people do for a living.
One of my oldest memories is of my father hunched over the bathroom sink after a long day at work, furiously scrubbing away at his filthy and callused hands with a bar of Lava soap. Why were my dad’s hands so dirty, and why were they never truly clean?
Dean Zellar toiled in a tire shop, and spent much of his day crouched next to and sprawled under farm tractors and trucks, up to his elbows in grease. Throughout my childhood he smelled perpetually of gasoline and rubber. When he came home and scrubbed his hands, he was simply trying to make himself presentable for the dinner table.
My hometown was, and is, a case study in class integration. It’s a modest-sized community (population of around 22,000), located in mostly rural southern Minnesota. It is also home to the corporate offices and meatpacking facility of a Fortune 500 company, and so has muddled along for a century with executives and their families living elbow-to-elbow (although not quite so elbow-to-elbow anymore) with factory workers and their spawn.
The children of the hog boners and the men who waded the blood room in rubber boots attended the same local public schools as the kids of the folks in the corporate office; people worshiped at the same churches and shopped in the same stores, and it all made for a weird sort of crucible of class consciousness. There were obviously huge and apparent income disparities; kids seemed born with a heightened sense of inequity and injustice, even as the experience tended almost to inure them to class resentment. Almost. Class is such a versatile word, and it’s a word whose meanings we all seem to instinctively understand. It’s also a perilous word in this day and age, followed as it so often is by warfare.
Let Catholic writers take care, when defending the cause of the proletariat and the poor, not to use language calculated to inspire among the people aversion to the upper classes of society.
—Pope Pius X, Apostolic Letter to the Bishops of Italy on Catholic Church Action, 1903
Every jukebox in my hometown—or at least the jukeboxes in the places frequented by the working class—had a well-played copy of Hoyt Axton’s “Boney Fingers” (“Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers”). The children of the blue-collar workers quickly learned from their parents what poet Sharon Olds has called the “craft of oblivion.” Yet there was no avoiding the class chasm that existed between them and so many of their classmates and friends; these kids could certainly look into the shopping carts of the other people at the grocery store. They saw the clothes the other kids wore at school. They could drive by the larger, nicer houses of the richer kids, located increasingly in better neighborhoods that were constantly moving further and further into the new developments outside of town.
Our family would, in fact, undertake frequent informal parades of these local homes; my dad would pile us into the station wagon, and on the way to or from the Dairy Queen we would cruise slowly through the “rich neighborhoods,” where the houses seemed to grow bigger by the year. I never sensed any resentment from my father when he would drive us, marveling, past these houses. If anything, he seemed to have a genuine sense of wonder about the whole thing, and some weird, ingrained respect for whatever the people who lived in these places had done to deserve such homes.
I recognized from an early age that we were, on these Sunday drives, not dreaming, but merely sightseeing, gawking with barely repressed desire at what T.B. Macaulay called, with such cruel accuracy, the “visible symbols” of America’s “mythological fables for the vulgar.” We were a family of used cars, hand-me-downs, and dreams deferred, and that never failed to piss me off. I felt like I was condemned to live out my life as the character in Hank Williams’ “A Mansion on the Hill.” Time and again I committed the terrible sin of envy, until it became wholly ingrained in my makeup and I eventually developed a chip on my shoulder that I felt no amount of accomplishment would ever manage to erase.
We are, by our occupations, education and habits of life, divided almost into different species, which regard one another, for the most part, with scorn and malignity.
—Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 1751
There is, of course, among blue-collar parents all across America—and perhaps it’s there in some form as well in white-collar homes—a fierce and prevailing desire that their children will never have to work and struggle as they have. This desire is a national myth of long standing and represents on some levels a wished-for betrayal; these parents want nothing less than that their children will grow up to be richer, softer, alien, that they will never in their adult lives have need of a bar of Lava soap, let alone of a novel or a poem or a film that might remind them of the world they left behind.
This dream of our parents’ has become a reality for millions of us, but it also, inevitably, comes at someone else’s expense and, to a lesser extent, at our own. The real work now is mostly done by some invisible other, and increasingly this other is made up of legions of immigrants. These people, of course, aren’t truly invisible; we just don’t see them. Many of us have largely forgotten where we came from. We seek perhaps unconscious corollaries for the grunt work we no longer do in hard living, extreme sports, and adventure; we punish ourselves at health clubs, run marathons, and strive rather than truly toil. When and if we stumble across issues of class or portraits of real work in the culture we consume—which is more of a long shot all the time—we’re not likely to recognize these characters and issues as anything but cartoons and conceits from the imaginations of professional writers.
And our hands seldom get dirty anymore in anything but a purely germicidal or baldly metaphoric sense. As I move further and more uneasily away from where I come from and what I might have been, however, and when I feel, as I so often do, like an interloper in all worlds, I sometimes find it oddly comforting to recognize that there are, in fact, two characters in “A Mansion on the Hill.” There is, of course, the covetous, lovelorn wreck in his humble cabin in the valley, gazing with hopeless longing at the lights of the mansion in the distance. And then there is the other person, the object of that longing, living alone in that “loveless mansion on the hill,” and as likely as not reading a book about people who do no work.
A version of this essay originally appeared in SpeakEasy, a now defunct Minneapolis-based magazine produced by the Loft Literary Center.
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.