Very early in my childhood I, along with some Banfield Elementary School classmates, was dragooned into staking out a position outside a tunnel through which third-shift workers at the Hormel meatpacking plant would exit on their way to the parking lot. It was winter, sometime in the 1960s, and it was still dark when we gathered with our UNICEF collection cans.
As the first bruise of daylight appeared in the sky, the men started coming down the concrete tunnel. We began shaking our cans. As the men trudged out into the morning they moved in clouds of steam that seemed to be expelled by their bodies. They were slow, quiet, dirty and their tired eyes looked right through us, even as — almost to a man — they fished in their pockets for money they would stuff in our cans.
For years I was haunted by that experience. I remember seeing a guy from my block, and being frightened by the absolute absence of recognition in his eyes. Many years later a friend recalled similar experiences growing up in the shadows of the slaughterhouse. “It was,” he said, “like a parade of extras from 'Night of the Living Dead,' leaving the set after a hard night of shooting.”
My father didn't work for Hormel, but he did come home every day covered with grease and dirt. Much of his business involved repairing and replacing tires for beet and potato farmers in a small town north of Austin. The first thing he did when he came home from work was go into the bathroom to scrub his hands with a bar of Lava soap.
I was irresistibly drawn to his dirty shop in Hollandale, Minn., to the noise of the place and the ding of the gas pumps out front; to the dusty machines that dispensed peanuts and cold bottles of Orange Crush; and to the rough but colorful clientele and the racks of gigantic tractor tires. Many of my favorite memories are of talking to my dad's Red Wing boots while the rest of his body was sprawled on a mechanic's creeper beneath a tractor or truck.
Austin was unmistakably a blue-collar town, but it is also one of the most complex and fascinating socioeconomic studies I've ever encountered. Despite a population of just under 25,000, it remains the home of both Hormel's flagship packing plant and its corporate offices. It's also surrounded on all sides by farms. As a result I grew up with all sorts of conflicted ideas about work and class. My father had friends who were mechanics, farmers, carpenters, lawyers, accountants and ministers. I had my early ideas about which ones had the easier lives.
What I couldn't get my head around, though, was which life I wanted, or belonged to, or perhaps deserved.
I liked manual work — baling hay, de-tasseling corn and getting dirty with my dad at his shop. When I left town after high school I gave up on the idea of college and worked a long and exhausting series of grunt manual jobs.
The 1985 Hormel strike had profound effects on my hometown, and on my own conflicted thoughts about work. It also, I'd argue, had equally profound effects on the status of blue-collar workers all over the country. The people working in a profitable plant where wages had been frozen for almost a decade objected to a 23-percent wage cut, and the people in the corporate office felt such measures were necessary to remain sustainable in a competitive industry.
Folks can make up their own minds about who was right or wrong in the 10-month strike, but there can be no doubt about who won and who lost. Go to Austin, or go to any beleaguered industrial city in America's Rust Belt. None of those towns are the towns people of my generation grew up in, and the people who still do those jobs — who grow, raise and make the things the rest of us take for granted — have all but disappeared from our collective consciousness and our culture.
Check out the status of blue-collar literature, for instance.
Real work is virtually non-existent in these virtually non-existent books, and most of the stuff that carries the tag is grim fare, voyeuristic and full of unemployment, squalor, despair and abuse — stories of “hard, brutal lives,” as the publicist might describe it.
You could, of course, go back to older writers such as Dickens or Steinbeck — both of whom I loved as a teenager — for obvious precedents for this sort of thing, and Raymond Carver — whom I also loved — was credited with bringing "working-class realism" back to fiction in the early 1980s, even as he established a glum template for today's practitioners of blue-collar noir. Yet Dickens, Steinbeck and Carver didn't have to contend with reality TV, methamphetamine and the radical Red State/Blue State divisions that have increasingly turned the struggles of average Americans into fodder for both spectacle and white-collar punditry.
Most of today's blue-collar novels aren't about work at all, but about lives that have been leeched of purpose and dreams. I don't know, maybe that makes them more authentic, but I suspect most of the people who read them may as well be reading about the Balkans. Rarely anymore — other than in hokey truck commercials — do we hear about the pride, dignity and satisfaction of work. Surely it feels as satisfying to make a shoe, shovel or automobile as it does to make a spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation or even a book, but which costs more to the person who makes it?
At some point in my 30s I spit the bit and ended up doing work that involves little more than sitting at a desk and pushing words from my head to my fingers. Yet I've never been able to shake the feeling that I'm an interloper and an uncredentialed fraud in the white-collar world.
Many nights I lie awake tormented by the fact that somewhere down in the darkness of my basement is a set of tools I received as a gift more than 20 years ago, tools that have never been used and will likely never be used, the loneliest tools on the planet, institutionalized by my uselessness as a handyman.
Look at these soft hands, I'll say to no one. So clean. There is nothing in this world I can fix, nothing I can repair. It's no wonder I can't sleep.
And then I will think: Thank God there are people who can, and who do.
Brad Zellar has written and published fiction, and worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines. A former senior editor at City Pages, The Rake and Utne Reader, Zellar is also the author of "Suburban World: The Norling Photos," "Conductors of the Moving World" and "House of Coates," which was reissued last fall by Coffee House Press. He most recently collaborated with photographer Alec Soth on The LBM Dispatch, a traveling newspaper project that chronicled American community life in the 21st century.