Going into labor

When I was fresh out of school and working at my first real job (i.e., one that looks good on a resume and might actually lead to something better…though it didn’t), I met a retiree who had worked for the Budd Company, a Philadelphia corporation best known for manufacturing stainless steel railroad cars.  The old guy told me that whenever he met somebody and told them how long he had worked on the shop floor, they always said, “Let me see your hands.”  Why?  It was common knowledge that anyone who worked for Budd for any length of time had probably lost one or more fingers.

Well, today we have OSHA but we don’t have the Budd Company any more.  I don’t know who makes railroad cars these days, but it’s probably happening in some foreign country, so now there are fewer mangled hands in America.  But as is the case with progress, something is always lost.  We have heard and read much of the economic losses that occur when manufacturing jobs leave the USA.  We don’t hear so much about the loss of job satisfaction that comes with working with one’s hands.

The tools of the trade change with the trades, which change with the times.  I remember going to a movie several years ago (can’t remember the name of it) which showed a guy getting fired in the first scene.  There was no clue as to what his job was or what type of business his employer was engaged in.  But the man had a phone and a computer on his desk.  What else do you need to know?   What difference would it make if you did know?  The world is filled with high-rises, low-rises, office parks, and sprawling corporate campuses rife with rooms or cubicles where everyone has a phone and a computer.  Those two essentials are all most people need – and that’s why so many people have been able to work at home during the pandemic.

Working from an office or at home involves a welter of paperwork.  Not so long ago you could at least print out a hard copy of a document you had worked on, but the paperless craze has taken away even that tangible result.  It is possible to work all day and literally have nothing to show for it at quitting time.  Sure, you have the proverbial indoor job with no heavy lifting, you never break a sweat, and you never get your hands dirty, but something is missing.

Imagine a young man today who likes to work on cars or build things in his spare time.  He is also a good student and on track to go to a good college.  One day he informs his parents – both professional people – that he enjoys working with his hands and would rather earn his living that way than sitting in a stuffy office all day.  The parents would likely do everything in their power to dissuade him from following that path.  He would probably meet with less obloquy if he donned a dress, began a regimen of estrogen injections, and started shopping around for estimates on penectomies.

It’s not a matter of earning potential.  Skilled labor doesn’t come cheap – and it isn’t hobbled by crippling amounts of college and postgraduate/professional school debt.  But blue-collar jobs – across the board – are lower on the status totem pole than white collar jobs even when the pay is good.  If mom and dad are at a cocktail party and someone asks how Junior is getting along these days, it’s preferable to say he’s pre-law and beginning his senior year at Nanny State University than admit he’s working as an apprentice plumber.  Never mind the fact that we all depend on a reliable supply of running water.

Oh, people still make like Gandhi and pontificate about the dignity of labor (especially when Labor Day weekend rolls around), but they don’t really mean it.  If labor is so wonderful, why have we invented so many labor-saving devices?  Not much work for hewers of wood and drawers of water these days.  The ultimate irony: we celebrate Labor Day by taking a day off – by not laboring!

Throughout most of history, the majority of workingmen were mechanics (which used to mean anyone who worked with his hands, not someone who worked on cars).  Most men, urban and rural, got dirt on their callused hands.  There were, of course, merchants, clergymen, scribes, and professors, but they were few in number.  Today those with clean hands – literally if not metaphorically – are much more numerous, and not just because of ubiquitous hand sanitizer.

Now I’m not trying to bromaticize hard work.  I remember back when I became old enough to entrust with caring for the yard.  That was when our power lawn mower crapped out.  For whatever reason we never got another one and hired a lawn care service.  Do you think I begged my parents for a power lawn mower so I could go out and cut the grass on hot, humid days?  Hell, no.  If I ever get around to writing my memoirs, the chapter on my adolescence could be entitled, “I Was a Teenage Slug.”

For better or worse, I’ve worked in offices for almost half a century.  And I am no DIY (do-it-yourself) freak.  If a job requires skills I don’t have and expensive tools I don’t possess, I will hire someone who has them.  But I can perform unskilled labor.  I can cut my own grass, do my own edging, trim my own hedge, rake my own leaves, clean out my own gutters, and pull my own weeds.  Recently I’ve been prepping and painting the window frames and screens on my house.  No arcane skills are required to do these things, though even the humblest task can be performed better thanks to on-the-job learning of proper techniques.

Most importantly, you get to see the results of your work because you are working in a physical world, not a virtual world.  When you are done your house or yard (actually, your world) no longer looks the same.  You have transformed it to some degree.  Oh, the results may be ephemeral; before you know, it, the grass will grow taller and the weeds will return, and if there is ever an autumn when the leaves don’t fall, we are all in big trouble.  But at the end of the day you can survey what you have done.  You have made a difference, at least for a while.  The results of some tasks (i.e., painting) will last longer.  Some will outlast you.  Constructing my rock gardens took some heavy lifting, but I will crumble into dust before they do.

None of these tasks is fun, but they do involve exercise (you’d be surprised how much your muscle tone improves from routine labor).  Of course, exercise is readily available at your local gym, or you can work out at home.  You might transform your body, and if you’re a narcissist, you can admire your post-workout self in a full-length mirror.  But you haven’t done anything to change the world around you.

What would workers of old have thought if you told them that in the future there would be places called health clubs, special places with special machines where people go to exercise?  (Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed how modern fitness centers resemble medieval torture chambers?)  Sweat and exercise used to be as automatic as breathing.  People didn’t need workouts; they had work.  Through their labors, they literally made their mark on the world, even though they might have been bone-tired at the end of the day.  Creature comforts on the job were nonexistent.  An employee lounge?  Are you kidding?

A couple of months ago the air conditioning went out in our office for a week.  Most of the employees were working at home anyway, but the boss gave everyone else permission to leave.  I set up a box fan and kept working.  Well, I appreciate climate control as much as anybody, but, honestly, it wasn’t that bad – certainly not to the point where one might get overheated while performing a sedentary job.  I can only imagine what men who labor outdoors every day would think of office workers who evacuate at the slightest breach of room temperature.

Discomfort in the workplace used to be the norm for men.  We chopped down trees, we uprooted stumps, we hauled lumber (or rocks) to build shelters and fences.  Mechanization has made these and other tasks much easier.  At the end of the day you can see more results than ever.  But the crane operator or bulldozer driver would have to admit that even though he changed the landscape, his machine did most of the work.  But there are long-term benefits.

For a construction worker, the time span erecting a large building may be a matter of years.  The day-to-day changes may be minuscule but eventually a structure will result.  Long after the worker’s labors are over, he can gaze upon the building and remember when it was just a vacant lot.  He can drive by it with his kids in the car and say, “I did that.”  Kids dig Lego so they can appreciate the results.  I suppose a CPA could point to a spreadsheet he set up on Excel and say “I did that” to his kids, but even if the wee folk are computer savvy and good at math, I don’t think they’ll be all that impressed.  On the other hand, if he retreats to his man cave to pursue his woodworking hobby and turns out some custom toys for the kiddos, then they might take notice.

We have an abundance of people who want to change the world by making phone calls, soliciting donations, delivering speeches, pamphleteering, or marching in demonstrations.  “Peaceful protesters” aside, they have little if any effect on the physical world.  The numerous litterbugs who participate in marches don’t count because the debris they leave behind was actually made by someone in a factory.  The factory worker proposes; the litterbug disposes – improperly.  The blue-collar guy in a factory changes the physical world every day simply by churning out stuff.

My humble work in the house and yard has never resulted in a paycheck.  But I can see that my actions have had an effect on the physical world.  I can’t say the same for my office work.  I’ve never gone home at the end of the day with blisters or sore muscles after eight hours of watching pixels dance across my computer screen.  With blue collar work, you feel you have worked; with white collar work, you might get fatigued but you’re not tired.  It’s not the same.  For one thing, you sleep better when you’re physically tired.

Granted, grunt labor requires little in the way of intelligence or skills.  If you’re working with power tools you do have to pay attention to what you’re doing – mindfulness, as they call it today – to ensure you don’t end up like an old-time Budd Company employee.  On the other hand, routine but less potentially lethal tasks, such as raking leaves or weeding, allow your mind to drift while you work in a way that isn’t possible when you’re sitting at a keyboard or on the phone.  You can work out a lot of things in your head while working in the yard.  It’s almost as good as sleeping on it.  Or, for those religiously inclined, laborare est orare – to labor is to pray.

Today, thanks to our increasingly neo-paganistic worldview, we are entreated to tread lightly when we make our carbon footprint.  Mother earth has been sexually harassed if not raped by generations of laborers – horrid men who tear up the world and never stop to think about how their actions disrupt all those fragile fire ant colonies and termite mounds.

Today, on and off the job, we have more and more people spending more and more time staring at a screen.  Computers…smart phones…televisions…video games…is there anyone left who can get through the day without resorting to at least one of these electronic devices for work or recreation?  The more time you spend with these gadgets, the more likely you will leave nothing behind in the real world after an entire day’s waking hours…unless your toilet doesn’t flush.

Is it possible that the latest riot du jour is not a result of racial unrest or political divisiveness but because we now have so many people who cannot notice any change in their world at the end of the day.  Thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns, it is harder than ever to do anything in the real world.  The individual is more ineffectual than ever.  The physical world is barely aware of his existence.

Ah, but if one goes on a rampage…arson, looting, graffiti, vandalism…one has surely changed the landscape.  One can go home after one’s labors satisfied that one has made a tangible, visible difference.

And if the cities don’t rebuild (and I’d be surprised if they did), then one day the Antifa/BLM participant can hike with his kids through the streets and neighborhoods he ravaged and point out boarded-up buildings, charred rubble, weed-infested sidewalks, and boast to his offspring:

“I did that!”