It strikes me as funny that many of the laborers in our workforce don’t actually get to call labor day a holiday. It’s part of our complicated history of attitudes about work, about people who work, and about the jobs they do. A few years ago, famously, a banker left a “tip” for their server of no money but a scrawled note that said, “get a real job.” I ask you, which is a real job – serving people food that’s necessary for life, or playing around with arbitrary numbers that have some confounding and imaginary relation to money? I’ve been thinking about what defines something as “work,” in America, what makes a job “real,” and, of course, the answer is money.
If you get paid to do something, it becomes work. And the more money you’re paid to do it, the more the work is valued, rather than the other way around. Being an artist or writer or musician is only a real job if somebody pays you handsomely to do it, and this distinction is not always determined by talent, vision, or passion. Often to pursue such a career you need to have two not-real, not-very-well-paying jobs. Cooking food to feed your family is seen as drudgery, but chefs in fine restaurants have enviable careers. Sometimes I imagine an alien race drifting down to observe humans as we labor away in our wide array of jobs. I wonder if they would be puzzled to see that certain jobs are rewarded over others–to see that, say, the CEO of a company that makes weapons that kill people is given much more money than the nurse who cares for us when we’re at our most vulnerable, scared and, probably fairly sickening, in our time of sickness.
America has always been a country that values hard work, it’s part of our myth of who we are as a people. We work hard, we’re proud, self-sufficient, we are entitled to certain things, but only if we work hard enough to deserve them. The problem, of course, is that plenty of people work incredibly hard and still don’t get those things. Many of the jobs that require long, unforgiving hours doing work nobody else wants to do aren’t well-paid, don’t come with health insurance, paid vacations, job security, or any benefits at all. And yet America as we know it could not exist without them. The truth of our history is that if we’ve ever thrived and flourished, it’s because we took advantage of the unpaid or poorly paid labor of people our founding fathers and their moneyed descendants had the soul-crushing arrogance to look down upon as fundamentally inferior.
It’s clear to me that working with and for people, serving them and caring for them, is in fact sure to heighten sensitivity and, if not provoke empathy, at least a warmer understanding of the human heart and the human mind. And this is why artists who have such jobs often create deeper and more meaningful art than those who see themselves as above all of that. William Carlos Williams worked as a family doctor, writing his poems on prescription blanks, or any piece of paper he could grab. Williams wrote poetry about what he knew, “and as a doctor this was in the lives, worries, joys, and bodily trials of the citizens of Rutherford New Jersey. Williams’ poetry is infused with such a deep sense of humanity, in all of its frailty and strength, that it becomes both most relatable and most remarkable.”
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that artists are a refined class unto themselves, with supersensitive souls and delicate constitutions. History is full of unlikely artists, people who worked seemingly unremarkable day jobs, with little exposure to art or access to materials, who somehow found a way to get their voice heard. People with little formal education, who created work as beautiful or more beautiful than anyone else because they had to find their own way to say it. Elizabeth Cotten worked as a maid most of her life, but she taught herself to play guitar upside down. She was “discovered” when she worked as a maid for the Seeger family. Big Bill Broonzy who worked as a sharecropper, pullman porter, cook, foundry worker, and custodian, made himself a fiddle out of a cigar box, and played with his friend Louis Carter, who played a homemade guitar. He was always thinking about music, and while he worked he must have always had tunes in his head. Henry Darger was orphaned at a young age, and grew up in a succession of boys’ homes and asylums. At the age of 16, he escaped, and found work as a custodian in a Catholic Hospital, a job he held until he retired in 1963. He used junk he found in the streets to create over 15,000 pages of writing and art, a vibrant, beautiful, terrible world bursting out of him.
During the pandemic we heard a lot of talk about “essential workers.” I wonder what the overlap would be in a venn diagram of jobs most Americans consider essential, and of those they consider real. The pandemic also caused a slight shift in the way we view work, and in the way we’re willing to count out our hours at a job we don’t find rewarding. Oddly, after having so many hours to ourselves, time has become more important than money, in many ways. Perhaps the creativity that used to sustain us through hours of tedious labor–the songs and stories and pictures in our heads–has become more important than the labor itself. You can hear the slight panic in the voices of newscasters and pundits when they speak about “the great resignation” or “quiet quitting.” What has happened to the Great American Work Ethic if people who are poorly paid only want to put in the effort needed to get their job done well, or don’t want to do the job at all?
And so it will slowly drift back. People who have never had to work a day in their lives will disparage people for not wanting to work at terrible jobs, and be terrified that they’ll stop working. They’ll undervalue, underpay and disparage jobs as unreal, but express dismay that nobody wants to do them. Just as they always have. In an ideal world everybody would find work that fulfills them creatively and keeps them lively and alive, and is financially rewarding enough that they have food to eat and a roof over their heads, that everybody is comfortable. Everybody would find work that feels both real and essential, for themselves and the people and the world around them. But it will never be this way. So we make do, and do our jobs as well as we can, and know that nobody can ever take away the songs and stories and pictures in our head, which we will find time to make real and to share.