Cutting Class

What we talk about when we talk about work

| January-February 2011

  • cutting-class
    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.
    Carlos Javier Ortiz /

  • cutting-class

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.

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