Workin' It: Blue-Collar vs. White-Collar

Humorist Roy Blount, Jr., once wrote an essay about his experiences as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was out in some podunk town interviewing a football prospect, moaning and whining about his deadlines, his editors, and his less-than-inspiring surroundings, when an older man stopped him to ask him about his work. He launched into an enthusiastic complaint, only to be brought up short when the man said, "Bet you don't have to sweat to do that."For all I know, Blount made up this story. As one of Blount's faithful readers, I think it's likely he did. But as an anecdote, it raises a lot of questions. Does the guy who toils in the field have it a lot harder than the guy who sits under humming fluorescents? If he does, and I think he does, then why does he generally get paid less? And is the woman who becomes vice-president of Widgets, Inc., any happier than the woman on the factory floor?Okay, so this is a subject that fascinates me. I am the person for whom the labor history section in used bookstores was created. I've always regretted the lack of tales from the front, stories told in workers' own voices about what work means to them. Publishers, thankfully, are finally filling this void. The Cliff Walk (Little, Brown) by Don J. Snyder is one such book, although at times it seems like less of an autobiography than a moralistic warning tale for yuppies. Snyder, who was raised in a poor, working-class home with a father who was rarely employed, took advantage of the scholarships and encouragement handed out to promising baby boomers. After becoming an academic, bouncing around from school to school in the quest for bigger and better teaching appointments, he was refused for tenure. His book follows his desperate job search, his descent into depression, and his ultimate redemption through manual labor.Snyder holds back nothing, and some of his actions make him a decidedly unsympathetic character. He won't let his wife work, despite their having four small children to care for, and when she finally insists on taking other people's children in, he zonks himself out daily on booze and sleeping pills so he won't have to see them. He splurges on gifts for the children, knowing that his wife has to play the meanie by taking them back. At his lowest point, he considers volunteering his wife as a surrogate mother to a childless couple. After awhile, though, his brazen honesty and exaggerated sense of injustice become fascinating. Snyder is a competent writer who maintains tight control of his story. His account of taking his infant daughter to see the signs students have hung in protest of his firing is almost cinematic in its detail. The end, where our hero learns that painting houses is more honest than grading papers, seems a little fake, cribbed from It's a Wonderful Life, but that doesn't mar the book's ultimate impact. Reg Theriault, the author of How To Tell When You're Tired: A Brief Examination of Work (W.W. Norton), is Snyder's opposite.Theriault, raised as a migrant fruit picker, also went to college, but rather than use his education as a path to a white-collar position, he took what he learned back to a succession of blue-collar jobs. Variously a longshoreman, a factory worker, and a hobo, Theriault spins an entertaining, opinionated story of work and the men and women who do it. More a collection of separated vignettes than a memoir, the book shows Theriault to be an irreverent, smart, gifted writer. He has a laborer's heart: the inability to look at a product without feeling the sweat and toil of those who put it together. As a writer, he is not so much concerned with the politics of labor as he is with the idea that those who work hard share a common bond. Of the mythical Sisyphus, doomed to keep pushing a rock up a hill, he writes, "Is there a stick of wood handy that he can grab and throw under the rock to chock it so that he can pause long enough to catch his breath? I know what his human condition is, but what are his working conditions? What is the weather like? Is it cold? Is he getting rained on? I know he does not have any gloves." This is a wise and sly book by a wise and sly writer. Add Snyder's to it and you emerge with part of a complex and vivid portrait of what work is.

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