Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Labor Day

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day

I was out all day enjoying a break from labor, and now that I'm back, I don't have much time to post before the day is through. So I'm going to fall back on a Labor Day anecdote Studs Terkel has related a number of times. (This would've been better posted this morning, but what can you do?)

This passage comes from an interview with Studs conducted at UC Berkeley in 2003. It's part of the Conversations with History program at Berkeley's Institute for International Studies.

So here I am -- and this is the anecdote -- I'm waiting [for a bus]. I talk a lot, as you can gather, and sometimes down the street I go, talking to myself. I find the audience very appreciative. And so they know me at the block. They know I wrote some books. But they also know me as the old gaffer talks to everybody.

So I'm waiting for the bus. But this couple, I cannot reach. There's a couple, I have to call them yuppies, because they are. Most young people are not. Most young are lost in the world, and wondering what ... but these two are. He's in Brooks Brothers, and he's got the fresh-minted Wall Street Journal under his arm. And she's a looker. She's got Bloomingdale, Neiman-Marcus clothes, the latest issue of Vanity Fair. But I can't ... they won't recognize me. My ego was hurt, you know. Everybody knows me! We start talking. The bus this day is late in coming. So I said, "I'm going to make conversation with them." So I say, "Labor Day's coming up." That is the worst thing I could possibly have said. He looks at me. He gave me that look that Noel Coward would give to a speck of dirt on a cuff, and he turns away.

Now I'm really hurt, you know, my ego is hurt. The bus is late in coming. So when I say something, I know it's going to get them mad. The imp of the perverse has me. And so I'm saying, "Labor Day, we used to march down State Street, UAW-CIO. 'Which side are you on?' 'Solidarity Forever.'" He turns to me and he says, "We despise unions." And I say [to myself], "Oh, I've got a pigeon here -- no bus!" Suddenly, I fix him with my glittering eye like the ancient mariner, and I say, "How many hours a day do you work?" And he says, "Eight." He's caught! "Eight."

"How come you don't work eighteen hours a day? Your great grandparents [did]. You know why? Because in Chicago, back in 1886, four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day -- it was the Haymarket affair -- for you." And I've got him pinned against the mailbox. He can't get away, you know. The bus [hasn't come], and he's all trembling and she's scared. She drops the Vanity Fair. I pick it up; I'm very gallant. I give her the Vanity Fair. No bus. Now I've got them pinned. "How many hours of week do you work?" He says, "Forty." "How come you don't work eighty hours, ninety hours? Because your grandparents [did], and because men and women got their heads busted fighting for you for the forty-hour week, back in the thirties."

By this time the bus comes; they rush on. I never saw them again. But I'll bet you ... See, they live in the condominium that faces the bus stop. And I'll bet you up on the 25th floor, she's looking out every day, and he says, "Is that old nut still down there?"

Now, I can't blame them, because how do they know? Who told them? What do they know about unions? So that's what I mean about a national Alzheimer's disease. It's that aspect. So all these books deal with memory as well. What was it like during World War II? What was it like during the Depression? What's it like being black in a white-dominant [society]? What's it like growing old? What's the job of a teacher or a welder like?

This is a good reminder of why we commemorate Labor Day, but it's also a good explanation of why the U.S. is in the position it is these days. As someone recently reminded me in an entirely different context, George Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Or at least suffer for it.


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