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Episode 939: The Working Tapes Of Studs Terkel

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Episode 939: The Working Tapes Of Studs Terkel

Episode 939: The Working Tapes Of Studs Terkel

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Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Work is sort of the center of the PLANET MONEY universe. You know, it's where all these big ideas about money and the economy collide with the real everyday lives of billions of people. And when we heard this podcast about work that our friends at the show Radio Diaries did, we knew it would make a fantastic episode of PLANET MONEY. By the way, there is one curse word in the show. Here it is.


STUDS TERKEL: The nature of the work you do - well, this is a book about work, jobs people do. How would you describe your work?

THOMAS FISCHETTI: Let's see. How would I describe my work?


JOE RICHMAN, BYLINE: In 1974, Studs Terkel published a book with an unwieldy title, "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do."


RICHMAN: It was a collective portrait of America. It was based on more than a hundred interviews Studs did around the country. And after "Working" came out, something surprising happened. It became a bestseller, even inspired a Broadway musical. Something about ordinary people talking about their daily lives in their own words struck a chord.


RICHMAN: It certainly did that for me. This is the sound of my copy of "Working" from high school. But it's one thing to read the interviews in the book, and it's another thing to hear them. And very few people have. Studs recorded all the interviews on his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. But after the book was released in 1974, he packed those raw interview tapes into boxes and stored them away. And there they stayed, untouched until he died.

We at Radio Diaries and our friend Jane Saks from Project& were offered the chance to make a radio series out of these recordings. For me, as a proud archival tape geek, this was like uncovering the Dead Sea Scrolls.


RICHMAN: In this episode, we bring you our series The Working Tapes of Studs Terkel. And as you'll hear, we tracked down some of the people Studs interviewed in those tapes more than 40 years ago.


RICHMAN: In some ways, listening to the "Working" tapes is like opening up a time capsule. Some of the jobs Studs profiled no longer exist. In our first story, Studs interviews a telephone switchboard operator in Waukegan, Ill.


TERKEL: I'm talking to Sharon Griggins. You're about 17, going 18, and you work for Illinois Bell.

SHARON GRIGGINS: Oh, yes, Ma Bell. See, when you dial the operator, that's what you get. You get someone like me when you dial O.

TERKEL: Oh, when they dial O, we get you.

GRIGGINS: That's it, because this is the only telephone office in Waukegan.

TERKEL: Could you describe it?

GRIGGINS: So it's a big, long room, about half the size of a gymnasium, I would say. And down both sides, there's a whole row of switchboards.

TERKEL: How close is the girl sitting next to you?

GRIGGINS: Very close. I would say she'd be sitting not even 5 or 6 inches away from me.

TERKEL: You're that cramped?

GRIGGINS: Yeah, we're cramped.

TERKEL: Yeah. So now describe it step by step...


TERKEL: ...As though you were telling a little child what it is.

GRIGGINS: OK. Now, first of all, in front of you you've got about seven pairs of cords and all these lights that tell you where the calls are coming from. When a light goes on, it means there's someone waiting there, and you plug in. And you ask them what they want.

TERKEL: Do your arms get tired?

GRIGGINS: No. Your mouth gets tired. It's the strangest - you get tired of talking when you've been talking for so long, because you talk constantly for six hours, and it's hard.

TERKEL: Keep going on this point.

GRIGGINS: Well, you get to feel just like a machine because, essentially, you're on this level of about seven or eight phrases that you use.

TERKEL: Like what?

GRIGGINS: You say, good morning, may I help you? Operator, may I help you? Then it's, what number did you want, or, I have a collect call for you from so-and-so, will you accept the charge - something like that.

TERKEL: You said it's pretty hard.

GRIGGINS: It is because what you're doing is, like, monotonous work. But for me, it's a great temptation to talk. Like, when I'm bored, I make some little comments or something, or I talk with a Southern accent or a Puerto Rican accent. You try and make your voice really sexy just to see what kind of reaction...

TERKEL: You mean you horse around?

GRIGGINS: Yeah, I do. But if you get caught talking with the customer, that's one mark against you.

TERKEL: Because the company says you can't get too personal, yeah.

GRIGGINS: Yeah, you can't. You know, some people will say, operator, I'm lonesome, will you talk to me?

TERKEL: People do say that, really?

GRIGGINS: They say, I'm lonesome, will you talk to me?

TERKEL: And what...

GRIGGINS: And you couldn't. I say, gee, I'm sorry. I really can't. But you can't.

TERKEL: You're doing a great deal of talking, but the talk has nothing to do with actual human communication.

GRIGGINS: Right. That's very true. It's not really a lonely profession or anything, but it's one where you - not a whole lot of communication even though that is your job.

TERKEL: Sharon, you're quite marvelous for me.

GRIGGINS: (Laughter).

TERKEL: Do you see yourself as a telephone operator for the rest of your life?

GRIGGINS: No. No, no, no. Never. Never.

(Laughter) I did not become a career telephone operator. My name is Sharon Griggins. Back in 1972, I was a telephone operator in Studs Terkel's "Working." You know, I really remember working there very vividly. And I don't know. Maybe that job helped me develop a keener ear for what people need and what people want. I think I became a really good listener.

But let's get real. I don't think there's much romance in the work of a telephone operator. I think about some poor person at the end of that line who's sitting in a cubicle somewhere, saying the same things, taking down the same numbers for eight hours a day. You know, automation is great in today's world, but it's hard to automate everybody's wishes and wants. I mean, we've all had those situations where all you want to do is talk to somebody and all you have is a list of menu options. You know, I still tell my kids, just always pick zero.


TERKEL: Do you feel a machine could replace you one day soon?

GRIGGINS: Oh, sure. Sure. It'd have to be some machine, though, because if people knew how funnily they talked, how badly they pronunciate (ph), how hard it is to understand some people, a machine would have a hard time (laughter).

RICHMAN: Telephone switchboard operator Sharon Griggins, interviewed by Studs Terkel. If you pick up a copy of the book, Sharon appears under the pseudonym Heather Lamb. She's now the director of communications at the Seattle Public Library Foundation.

Studs didn't just ask people to describe what they did for a living. He asked them how they felt about it.


GARY BRYNER: It was boring, monotonous work. I don't give a shit what anybody says. It was boring and monotonous to work on an assembly line.

RICHMAN: That's Gary Bryner. He was 29 when Studs interviewed him at an auto factory in Ohio.


TERKEL: I am somewhere between Youngstown and Warren, Ohio - it's an industrial area - steel, automobiles - talking to Gary Bryner. Gary Bryner is the president of Local 1114 United Auto Workers - no, 1124.

BRYNER: One-one-one-two.

TERKEL: One-one-one-two. Well, what sort of plant is this?

BRYNER: It's the General Motors Vega plant in Lordstown.

TERKEL: The most automated plant in the world, isn't it?

BRYNER: Right. It's the fastest line speed in the world. And they've got the most modern equipment, the Unimates. They got 22 in a row, 11 on each side of the line.

TERKEL: Describe the Unimate.

BRYNER: Well, it looks like a robot, you know? And it reminds me of a praying mantis. When they took the Unimates on, we were building 60 an hour prior to the Unimates. And when we came back to work with the Unimates, we were building 101 cars per hour. See, they never tire. They never sweat. They never complain. They never miss work. They're always there.

TERKEL: Yeah. So what happened to the guys in the plant that are working there now?

BRYNER: It's a funny thing. You know, when they revamped the plant, they'd try to take every movement out of the guy's day so that he could conserve seconds and time so they could make him more efficient, more productive.

TERKEL: Is the assembly line approach dependent upon the fact each guy's exactly like the other guy?

BRYNER: Right. GM's reason for trying to be more efficient is if they could take one second and save a second on each guy's effort, they would, over a year, make a million dollars.

TERKEL: One second.

BRYNER: That's right. You know, they use the stopwatches. And they say, look; we know from experience that it takes so many seconds to walk from here to there. We know that it takes so many seconds to shoot that screw. We know the gun turns so fast and the screw's so long and the hole's so deep. We know how long it takes. And that's what that guy's going to do.

And our argument has always been, you know, that's mechanical. That's not human. Look; we tire. We sweat. We have hangovers. We have upset stomachs. We have feelings, emotions. And we're not about to be placed in a category of a machine.

TERKEL: This is something new, isn't it? The workers in the plant - they feel that they have a right in determining the nature of their work, too - the working men.

BRYNER: We do now. We have some kind of pride being able to stand up to the giant General Motors Corporation and say, look; this is what I think is fair, and I'm willing to fight to show you that it's fair. I just think they want to be able to be treated with dignity and some respect. And, you know, that's not asking a hell of a lot.


BRYNER: (Laughter) Well, it takes me back. I'm Gary Bryner, retired, have been for 11 years. I didn't plan to be a union guy. I just wandered into it. In 1966 through '75, maybe later, the company and the union were bitter enemies. Every gain we made usually came out of a strike. And that's just the way it was. But the job of the union today is much tougher than it was for me in 1970 because the strength of the union has been so weakened. And, look; the union's not perfect. I'd be the first to say it. But, you know, what we did in the union is to create this middle class that were able to do things, enjoy their life outside of work. And I worry about these things that we're losing. But, listen; you got to have a job. No matter what it is, you got to have a job. It's one of those things that must be.


TERKEL: Picking it up with Gary. You feel this is the shape of things to come?

BRYNER: I hope that it is because I think what we're doing is right. You know, we're putting humans before profits, and I think that's necessary. I think if it isn't that way in other places, it should be.

RICHMAN: Going through all these tapes from the 1970s, it's fascinating to hear how different things were back then. Unions were powerful. You talked to an actual operator to make a long-distance phone call. But the interview that really struck me the most wasn't about how much had changed over the past four decades but how much hasn't.

RENAULT ROBINSON: Fifty years later, it just feels like deja vu.

RICHMAN: After the break, the story of Renault Robinson, Chicago police officer and one of the founders of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League.


TERKEL: I'm talking with Renault Robinson, and I'm thinking, Renault, why did you become a policeman?

ROBINSON: Well, a policeman is looked upon in the black community as an important thing. Even though people are afraid of them or people have bad thoughts about them, the position itself is still one of importance. I quit a job paying more money to become a police officer. And sometimes I wonder if that was the best decision to make.

TERKEL: Could you describe your day, the day of a policeman in uniform?

ROBINSON: Well, first of all, you're given an assignment and a partner. Most of the white guys are wondering what black they're going to get today. And the black guys are wondering the same thing - which one of these fools am I going to get today? The black cop is saying, the only reason I'm with this white cop is because they want to protect his life while he's riding around the black community - to ward off the bullets. And so, you know, there's hard feelings on both sides.

TERKEL: Well, what happens, then, during these eight hours you're sitting with this white guy?

ROBINSON: Say nothing to each other at all. Can you imagine that for eight hours?

TERKEL: So there's no conversation?

ROBINSON: Very little or none. Very little or none.

I told Studs exactly what the situation was. My name is Renault Robinson, and when I first started on the police department, I went in there to do the best job I could as a policeman. But that became very difficult once I realized what the true circumstances were.


TERKEL: What led to your disenchantment?

ROBINSON: I think it was just seeing blacks being treated one way and whites being treated another. You know, the majority of the policemen in my station were white. The opinions that they have of black people are that they're all criminals, they have no morals, no scruples, they're dirty and nasty, et cetera, et cetera.

TERKEL: So the trouble is with an ordinary citizen. Could you dwell on this?

ROBINSON: Well, I would say about 60% of police-citizen contact start on a traffic situation. Certain units have really developed a science around stopping the automobile. In other words, in their minds, if they stop a hundred cars in the black community, the likelihood of them finding one or two or three violations of some sort is highly possible. Now, of course, after you've stopped a thousand, you've got 900 people who are very pissed off - teachers, lawyers, doctors or just average working people who haven't broken any law and are very irritated and aggravated about being stopped by the police. And black folks or minority - tolerance of that police brutality has grown very short.

TERKEL: They won't accept it anymore.

ROBINSON: They won't accept that treatment. They won't accept that dehumanizing, degrading treatment. That's why more young kids are being killed by the police than ever before.

Fifty years later, whether it's Chicago or Baltimore or Detroit, the same thing is happening in all of these cities. It just feels like deja vu. At the time I joined the Chicago Police Department, I was young, and I guess I was very energetic about doing something about racism. You know, I remember they forced us to put sawed-off shotguns, police-issued, in the squad cars, loaded with 00 buckshot. If you're a hunter, you know what that is.

I and, you know, a handful of other black police officers just felt that that was wrong. You're chasing a kid or chasing a stolen car and you got something that could tear somebody's head off. So the Afro-American Patrolmen's League - we raised hell. We picketed. We marched. We did everything to get the police department to take those guns out of the squad cars.

Of course, speaking out like that on a regular basis made me a popular fellow in the police department. When you go into your locker room and you see in your mailbox is human feces and cigarette ashes and trash, you kind of know what that means. You go in the bathroom and there's a picture of you on the wall dressed as a native with a bone in your nose, you know how they feel. They were all knicky-knack (ph) stuff just to try and force me out of the department.


TERKEL: I know the fact that you now have the reputation of speaking out, speaking your mind, every now and then, you're suspended.

ROBINSON: I've got a 30-day suspension pending now.

TERKEL: What do they use as grounds?

ROBINSON: Well, this latest one, I was being suspended because I was passing out literature at a police station to black policemen about the patrolmen's league. I was arrested in the station, and I'm being suspended for conduct unbecoming a policeman.

In the end, I knew I had to go. I mean, I had fractured too many feelings and too many people who didn't want to hear what I had to say, and I left. I get a small pension now, and the beat goes on.


RICHMAN: In 1973, Renault Robinson and the Afro-American Patrolmen's League filed a landmark discrimination suit against the Chicago Police Department. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the patrolmen's league. Renault Robinson retired from the force in 1983. He still lives in Chicago.


RICHMAN: While he was collecting interviews for his book, Studs went to visit Duke and Lee's Auto Repair in Geneva, Ill., just outside Chicago. Studs went there to talk about the work of fixing cars, but what he found was a different story about fathers and sons working together and the tensions within a family business. We went back more than four decades later and found the family business still intact, tensions and all. We'll start with Studs.


TERKEL: We're on the south end of Route 31, Geneva, Ill. And we're sitting here in the office of this service station talking to Duke Singer. I'm looking at the sign - Duke and Lee's. That's father and son. And your son, Lee, is how old?

DUKE SINGER: Twenty-four.

TERKEL: He's 24. He's your partner.


TERKEL: And, Lee, you've been working with your father how long?

LEE SINGER: Well, more or less ever since I've been 12 years old.

TERKEL: So let's talk about the work you do, Duke.

D SINGER: Oh, I love it. There's never a day long enough, you know?

TERKEL: It's the automobile. It's tinkering with cars you like?

D SINGER: It's not tinkering.

TERKEL: No, not tinkering. I'm sorry. Repairing, fixing, you know?

D SINGER: For instance, this morning, a man came in. We repacked his wheel bearings, aligned his front-end. And he didn't know it, but he had only one tail light working, so we fixed that. You know, see, all we sell is service. And if you can't give service, then you might as well give up.

TERKEL: Let's talk a little about that, Duke, the matter of service. I mean, you're proud of it, quite obviously.

D SINGER: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Well, in fact, my wife tells me that I take my business more serious than a doctor. And I told her, if I didn't take it serious, you know, who would?

TERKEL: Now, your son - is Lee's attitude toward the job the same as yours?

D SINGER: No. He's a little bit - well, see, for instance, a person's car is broke down. It's on a Sunday or a Saturday night or something, and maybe it'd take an hour to fix it. Why, I'll go ahead and fix it. But Lee's the type that'll say, well, leave it sit till Monday, you know?

TERKEL: Yeah. I'm talking to Duke's son now, Lee Singer. Lee, do you feel - now, this is a big question because this involves generations - do you feel there's a difference between his attitude and your attitude toward the job?

L SINGER: I have pride in what I do. But, see, this day and age, you don't always repair something. You renew.

TERKEL: Go ahead. Tell me more about this.

L SINGER: Take a water pump. Back in his era, you rebuilt water pumps. But now, you put on new ones. His ideas are old, really. He's kind of old-fashioned.

TERKEL: In what way is he old-fashioned? In what way?

L SINGER: Like, judging people. Anybody with long hair is no good to him - anybody with long hair, even me.

TERKEL: I should point out that Lee's hair isn't long, but it's longer than the usual for a conventional haircut. Do you like your work?

L SINGER: Yeah, I like my work - in a way.

TERKEL: What do you mean by that?

L SINGER: I play music.

TERKEL: What kind of music?

L SINGER: I play in a rock group.

TERKEL: Play drums?


TERKEL: Bass. And you feel that there's something else outside the work you're doing here.

L SINGER: Oh, yeah.

TERKEL: There's other worlds, whereas to your father, this is the world.

L SINGER: Right. But I'm in now pretty deep, you know? It's one of those deals where the son does carry on the family tradition.

TERKEL: Lee, thank you very much.

L SINGER: How you doing, Phil (ph)? You got any warranty on that baby? We fixed the transmission shift on it yesterday.


L SINGER: Duke and Lee's, how may I help you?

I am Lee Singer. My dad died - I think it was May the 6 of 2005.

You guys have a good one, all right?

He was old-school. He could pinpoint rattles, squeaks, noises from an engine or transmission or differential. I mean, we could put him in a trunk of a vehicle, shut the lid and go drive it around the neighborhood, hit some bumps. And he'd holler out, OK, take it back. And he'd tell you right exactly what it was (snapping) like that.

I mean, I really did appreciate what my dad knew, you know? But as far as our relationship, he always kind of looked down on me, you know? I don't know what his problem was. I mean, well, I had friends, and I know they had a lot better relationship with their dad than I ever did, but they weren't with their dad as much as I was, either. So, you know, a family business, it's totally different.

SCOTT SINGER: Yeah, it's tough. Father and son working together is tough. It is.

L SINGER: This is my son, Scott.

S SINGER: I mean, I don't think our relationship is as bad as how you and grandpa were, but it's like you said, he was old-school. Well, now you're old-school because you're like Grandpa. You don't want change.

L SINGER: And I...

S SINGER: I said that because we're in that new generation, that new era where everything's getting even more advanced. And it's all going electronic and hands-free. So you've got to be able to adapt to that if you're going to succeed.

L SINGER: I mean, I'm not going to be Duke. You know, I'm not going to be here till I can't walk or - anymore. I'm not going to do that. I need to step back more. And if this place is to continue, well, that all depends on Scott.

S SINGER: I mean, you have to be willing to make change to survive with the new era. And if I'm going to run the show, I'm going to run the show, hopefully for another 40 years.

L SINGER: Just don't forget about service to your customer.


L SINGER: Duke and Lee's, how may I help you?

RICHMAN: Duke and Lee's Auto Repair. By the way, if you pick up a copy of the book, it was called Glenn and Dave's. Not long ago, Lee Singer's son Scott officially took over the family business, and now Scott has a new employee, his 24-year-old son Austin (ph).

If there's one thing you learn from reading "Working," and you can also hear it in the tapes, it's that while people work because they have to, that's only part of the picture. As he went around the country with his reel-to-reel tape recorder, Studs heard people talk about wanting to be occupied, looking for structure, community, pride, meaning. As human beings, we're wired to search for these things. And if we're lucky, we find them in what we spend most of our waking hours doing.

In the introduction to his book, Studs Terkel writes this, which I love, (reading) work is about the search for daily meaning, as well as daily bread, for recognition, as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor - in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.


RICHMAN: This episode came from Radio Diaries. And Radio Diaries is produced by me, Joe Richman, with Sarah Kate Kramer, Nellie Gilles, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and our collaborators at Project&. You can hear more stories from The Working Tapes of Studs Terkel on the Radio Diaries podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

And if you're new to Radio Diaries, we make stories about forgotten history, and we give people tape recorders and work with them to report on their own lives. We've done stories with teenagers and octogenarians, prisoners and prison guards, gospel preachers and bra saleswomen and many more. You can hear all our stories at radiodiaries.org. We're also part of the Radiotopia podcast network from PRX.

Thanks to PLANET MONEY for letting us take over their show today. You're listening to PLANET MONEY from NPR.

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