Many years ago during college summers, I was one of those above-it-all hotshots who found temporary work in my dad's country club pal's scrap yard next to the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. The work was hard. Always filthy, exhausting and, in my mind, mindless. But jobs were hard to come by back then. And then there was Dad's non-negotiable term of agreement: "You'll work there because you need to get your hands dirty."
Most of the lifers in the yard snubbed me and my feckless attitude. They knew I was there for the short term and showed no interest or pride in lifting and stacking aluminum ingots without dropping and breaking them, learning to identify precious metals and separate them dexterously from heaps of filthy, sharp scrap metals and unloading aluminum scraps from long lines of dump trucks and pickups quickly and efficiently. That's because looking back I'm sure I sent 20-year-old-I'm-college-educated-and-you're-not vibes. For a while, I saw no value in these yard workers' labors.
Until one drizzly morning when this happened:
There were two four-man teams of yard workers in our section of the yard, who on Tuesday and Friday mornings had a contest. A serious one. At Terry the Foreman's signal, they commenced stacking 10-pound aluminum ingots lifted from two helter-skelter, 10-foot piles formed the day before as fast as they could. Which team would finish stacking their piles first and break the least number of ingots in the process? Would either team beat the yard's long-standing stacking record of under 90 minutes? And which team's pyramid-like stacks were the most symmetrical, as judged by Terry the Foreman?
I, the shunned intruder, was not allowed to participate. Instead, I hand-scraped stubborn sticky residue from the walls of the still-warm outdoor furnace while the stacking contest took place behind it.
One Friday morning, Ivan called in sick. That was rare. Absenteeism hardly existed and was unheard of on Tuesdays and Fridays — "stacking days." Reluctantly, Terry the Foreman assigned me to Ivan's team.
If looks could kill. Theirs and mine.
The ingots were cumbersome, slippery, some still hot to the touch. There were hundreds of them. What a waste of energy and pointless effort, I remember thinking. I was given a quick how-to "stacking" demonstration and told by Ernie, one of Ivan's teammates, "Don't mess this up" but in more definitive terms.
On Terry the Foreman's signal, the stacking contest began.
When it was over, both teams stood near their workmanship, sweating, breathing heavily but quietly smoking in the drizzle. No words. I stood apart from them, but I could see in the winners' and losers' eyes a self-admiration of a job done well.
The winning team won nothing. The losing team lost nothing.
After that, everyone crushed out their Chesterfields and Old Golds and went about their assigned tasks for the rest of the day.
In his iconic book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" (1974), writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel transcribes interviews he conducted with people about their jobs (e.g., a farmworker, heavy equipment operator, dentist, car salesman, jazz musician, practical nurse, grave digger, alternative schoolteacher, firefighter). Many speak joyously about their jobs. Many others joylessly. Either way, most of the interviewees say this about their jobs or "work," as summarized by Terkel in his classic introduction:
"The Job … It is about a search too, for daily meaning … for recognition … for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying … ."
This past summer, convalescing from surgery, I've had plenty of time to watch workers from my front porch as they tear up the street and sidewalks manually and with heavy machinery to bury new pipes and fiber optics, then patch them up and lay new grass sod carefully on the meridians.
A team of three workers synchronizes their movements as they work — like a choreographed routine of muscle and machine: cut, dig, fill, flatten, trim, sweep — repeat. It's laborious and ultraprecise work. When the job is finished, one of them high-fives the other two and they move farther down our street to begin again. They're really good at what they do. And they know it.
I envy them.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.