The kind of stories I love best are about ordinary people who become heroic when put into extraordinary situations. It’s why I read so many books about war and business. With violence and money, there is no room for excuses or feeling sorry for yourself, even when it makes sense. You have to step up to hard challenges and do more than you thought you could. Some people luck out and have it easy, but we don’t remember them.
Unless they get elected president. Then we have to.
Studs Terkel was an American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He’s best known for his oral histories, including the Pulitzer Prize winning The Good War, which I will be finally reading next week when it arrives in the mail.
I have his book Working. Each chapter is about a different person who does a different kind of job in America. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I did read the chapters about the kinds of jobs I’ve held myself. It’s remarkable how little has changed in these careers in the decades since the book was written. Sure, computers made a lot of noise, but the way people feel about these jobs isn’t really much different. I’m reminded again of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and its grandchild, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
Terkel was a master of conversation and always managed to get people to go into engaging personal detail. He asked about and wrote about things people thought about. In one interview someone asked him about what men cared about and he said something like “women and dogs.” He might not speak for everyone in this age of fractured gender politics, but he certainly sums my interests up here.
In my writing and copywriting I aspire to venerate the working men and women who excel at what they do. This doesn’t mean everyone who punches a clock deserves consideration, though. People just going through the motions in between episodes of Seinfeld and trips to Carl’s Jr. can be forgotten. It’s cruel, but that’s just the way it is. Not everyone is important.
What Studs Terkel shows is this: not everyone might be important, but everyone has a story to tell and can achieve excellence if they answer the call to do so. Terkel shows America’s scars and foibles, but he also illuminates the glory of the average citizens who quietly go about their business, being good and kind to each other.
After this year of blog writing is complete, I have two projects I’ll be shifting my time towards. The first is a young adult book in the fantasy genre I’ve been scribbling on for years. I want to get it done and see what it can do. The kind of book it’s going to be will either flop or make be undeservedly rich. I’m hoping for the latter so Mrs. Lott will finally leave me alone.
The second project is a podcast or writing series that’s very much inspired by Studs Terkel, but oriented towards food. I don’t want to hear much from celebrity chefs (as if they’d take my call anyway). I want to hear hair raising stories about sous chefs who escaped Cartels and work 120 hours a week to send money home. I want to interview cowboys and slaughterhouse workers. There is an army of interesting weirdos that help fill your belly.
For the most part, their stories are either ignored or crafted into sad stories for liberal foodies who think even the most useless member of a kitchen deserves $15 and hour, but scoff at the prices at Whole Foods.
This is a long winded way of saying I want to be Studs Terkel when my career grows up. Hopefully you’ll keep reading and listening.