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Kings Didn’t Build the Pyramids

By Robert O’Connor


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last one in the series was Hard Times.]

Working is probably Studs’ most famous work. If not that, it’s his most adapted work. Stories from this book have been adapted into songs by the likes of James Taylor, made into a comic by Harvey Pekar and was adapted into a musical by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell).

In some ways, Working is the best peak into Studs’ hopes and concerns about his kind of history. He said on occasion that he wanted to be remembered as curious. He was always curious about “what’s it like” to be someone else. Indeed, many of the interviews in his books look like he just asked “what’s it like being you?” and the person just talked. This time, the question is “what’s it like being a working man,” or a car salesman, or a gas meter reader, or an actor.

Working looks at what people do, and what they bring from their jobs. A common theme is that people work for satisfaction in their daily lives, not just money. There are a few, Studs writes in the introduction, that find satisfaction in their jobs. But he wasn’t interested in them, since this relationship tells more about them rather than the work they do. He wanted people who could talk about what they do with some distance. People who could take a step back and comment on what they do with some objectivity.

In that introduction, Studs tells for the first time a story he would often tell later – of a woman who heard her voice for the first time on his tape recorder, and she exclaimed “I never knew I felt that way before.” The revelation to him was that he could capture the voice of what he called the “un-celebrated people,” the people who don’t appear in the newspaper headlines, photographs or in any kind of preserved media. What the woman learned, Studs would later tell, was that “she had a voice, and that it counts.” The thought going into Working was that these people who are uncelebrated and never heard from have dreams, thoughts and grievances that are bottled up, and with a tape recorder present, they would pour them out.

Another story he’d often retell is of Conrad Swibel, a gas meter reader. The way he’d tell it later would go something like this:

I asked him what’s on your mind most of the day, and he says “dogs and women.” Well, the first is the reality, and the other is the fantasy. And he told me of how he’d go into one house and the woman is sunbathing on the back porch. She’s in a bikini, lying on her front. And her bra is unbuttoned, so the sun hits all of her back. “Now what I do,” he says, “is I creep up very, very slowly. And just when I’m right next to her I yell ‘GAS MAN!’ and she turns around!” And I ask him how does it make him feel, and he says “I get chewed out an awful lot, but it makes the day go faster.”

The story doesn’t appear quite that way in the book. The most interesting tidbit of it is that the other gas meter readers talk about dogs and women, and cute girls have a “Q” next to their name on the customer list. Their houses are checked for sure.

Some people who appeared in previous books appear again – Studs quotes Lucy Jefferson from Division Street about needing a “feeling tone,” and how once you don’t have it, you’re done. Pauline Kael is interviewed again, but her interview is about how work is depicted in movies, rather than her experience as a film critic.

Working is divided into nine books. Each book has between one and four themes and each theme has between one and nine interviews. There are several different approaches Studs takes, with one theme being “Cradle to the Grave” where he interviews people who take care of people from birth to death. Book one is dedicated to farmers and miners, people who work the land. Book four is dedicated to cars – those who make them, drive them, sell them and fix them.

The book’s first interview is with Mike LeFevre, a laborer. Studs uses his interview to make an analogy involving the pyramids: who built the pyramids? Not the pharaoh. The pharaoh imagined them. The laborers built the pyramids, and yet the pharaoh is remembered more than them. Lefevre isn’t happy about his job, and is discouraged by it, since he can’t point to his work and say “that is mine.” Artists can, but not him.

The book is dedicated to Jude Fawley, the protagonist in Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.” Studs admired Jude Fawley’s quest for knowledge despite all the obstacles he had to endure, and they share many similarities. Studs always said he wanted his epitaph to be “curiosity did not kill this cat.”

[Next: Studs listens to himself in Talking to Myself]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 8th, 2012.