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Review: Good 'Gig'

'Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium'
Edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter
Crown Publishing Group, 588 pages

graphic
  WHAT ABOUT YOUR GIG?
See our "a day on the job" feature and use the submit form there to let us know if you'd like your gig profiled. Punch in.


In this story:

Gore galore

After life

Lighter side

Working riffs

Hard for the money

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- Twenty-eight years after publication of Studs Terkel's acclaimed book, "Working," we have another tome in which Americans wax philosophic about their jobs.

"Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium" comprises interviews with 126 people talking -- eloquently, poignantly, humorously, profanely -- about what they do for a living. And in keeping with the book's late-century arrival, it's been put together by the New York-based team that brings you "Word," an online zine now studded with promos for this book.

"We just need bodies in this place. We're desperate. Because even though we pay a decent wage, the working conditions are terrible. It's not a job that normal people want anymore. It's a special kind of person who wants to work in a meat-processing plant."
— Sandy Wilkins, slaughterhouse human resources director

Some of the more interesting interviews are with people who work at jobs that rank high on the gross-out or titillation meter: A death-scene clean-up magnate, a slaughterhouse employee, a porn star, a transvestite prostitute. But there are surprises, too, in interviews with people working in presumably blander jobs such as a financial advisor.

"Word" founding editor-in-chief Marisa Bowe writes that she and her co-editors, "Word" senior editor Sabin Street and writer John Bowe, "don't feel qualified to say anything in particular about 'work in contemporary American society' -- 'contemporary American society' speaks pretty well for itself."

"Gig" proves them right.

Gore galore

Take Sandy Wilkens. She's the human resources director at a slaughterhouse. Possessor of a master's degree in counseling and guidance, Wilkens graphically describes the hellish environment of her workplace: cows suspended 20 feet in the air, floor awash in two inches of blood, a rendering department in which the stench is as subtle as a hot branding iron. It's enough to convert a cattle rancher to vegetarianism.

  QUICK VOTE
On the whole, would you say most people you know love their work?

Yes, most of us are in it because we love what we do.
I think many are attracted as much by money as by love of their work.
No, I know a lot of people who really hate their jobs but feel trapped.
View Results

"We just need bodies in this place," Wilkens says. "We're desperate. Because even though we pay a decent wage, the working conditions are terrible. It's not a job that normal people want anymore. It's a special kind of person who wants to work in a meat-processing plant."

Or a desperate kind of person. Wilkens scours jails and halfway houses for workers. About two-thirds of her employees are recent immigrants, she says. She does a three-hour orientation, although many of them don't understand English.

New hires don't undergo a reference check or drug testing. Some go to work high, and some get hurt at work. "There are times when the ambulances come in and out all day," Wilkens says.

Wilkens comes across as thoroughly decent, the only person some of the slaughterhouse workers have to turn to when they're in a jam. She works six days a week, 12 hours a day, usually without a break. "I'm just worn out," she says.

After life

As ghastly as the slaughterhouse is, it's pristine compared to Neal Smither's line of work. He founded a company that cleans up after a murder, suicide or deadly accident. He got the idea when he saw the 1994 film "Pulp Fiction."

"The baby boomers are going to be dropping dead, the largest population in history. I think the next five to 10 years are going to be our record years. My goal is wealth, bottom line."
— Neal Smither, death-scene cleanup specialist

You may want a shower after you read Smither's description of his first -- and worst -- "decomp" job. Today his business is so big that he has more than 300 people on retainer nationwide ready to respond as needed when there are human remains to be cleaned up.

The day he was interviewed, Smither said he was leaving his wife, who had wearied of his 14-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. "I have no life outside of this," he says without regret. "Because the company is my girl, my dope.

"The baby boomers are going to be dropping dead, the largest population in history. I think the next five to 10 years are going to be our record years. My goal is wealth, bottom line."

Lighter side

Death doesn't figure into everybody's job, of course, and some of those interviewed in "Gig" tell wonderful anecdotes about their work.

Flight attendant Carrie Warren describes her seven weeks of "Barbie Doll Boot Camp" before she was assigned to work by United Airlines. And she regales readers with a story of a belligerent passenger who threw a hamburger into her face.

"You're seeing human beings at their worst. You're not seeing anything uplifting throughout the day, you know? Very few acts of kindness. Maybe I just need a vacation, you know, get out on the beach. See some daylight."
— Kim K., casino surveillance officer

Warren screamed that she wouldn't serve other passengers lunch until the man apologized, then stood at the rear of the airplane and waited. Eventually the passenger apologized over the plane's public-address system, and lunch was served. Warren was suspended for a week without pay, but she makes it clear she feels it was worth it.

Casino surveillance officer Kim K. describes the funny and bizarre things she and her colleagues observe on the gaming floor: People groping each other or themselves; patrons stealing tokens from their neighbors; even a creep who surreptitiously snips women's hair with a small scissors.

  'GIG'-BYTES
Want to talk about your gig? Join us on our CNN.com/career message boards. Try Downsize this if you're living through layoffs. Or discuss Job discrimination if you're seeing or experiencing it. Maybe Careers to come are your focus -- have you given up on the career at hand? And does Bad management have an impact on how you feel about your career?

There's also a chilling side to this view of the gaming life. Kim K. says her casino has 900 cameras watching patrons. "You're seeing human beings at their worst," she says of gamblers. "You're not seeing anything uplifting throughout the day, you know? Very few acts of kindness.

"Maybe I just need a vacation, you know, get out on the beach. See some daylight."

Working riffs

An interview with actress Debra Messing provides insight into the power of television. Messing plays Grace on the NBC sitcom "Will & Grace," about a heterosexual woman and her homosexual male roommate.

"They don't want Debra. They want Grace."
— Debra Messing, about "Will & Grace" fans who meet her

Messing relates the story of a 14-year-old boy who wrote to her, saying he had recently revealed to his mother that he's gay. His mother was coming to grips with the news but his best friend had stopped speaking to him.

The teen said he wished he had a Grace in his life, Messing says. "Can you imagine getting a letter like that? And he said that his mother is getting through this transition in her family by watching 'Will & Grace' with him every week."

When she's recognized on the street, Messing says people inevitably call her Grace, even after she explains that her name is Debra. "But they don't want that," she says, apparently less annoyed than amazed. "They don't want Debra. They want Grace."

Hard for the money

Some of the people interviewed in "Gig" seem like regular folks who work in occupations with unsavory images. Sports agent Kenneth Chase, for example, represents pro-football players almost exclusively. He says their average career is four years and salary cap restrictions severely restrict his leverage in negotiations.

Like many of those interviewed for this book, Chase says he loves his job. And when he says one of the big satisfactions is helping jocks make and manage money so they're not broke and clueless when their careers are over, he sounds like he means it.

As with "Working," one of the pleasures of "Gig" is reading people's discussions of their work in their own words. It doesn't always pan out: The interview with an owner of a Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center reads like one long sales pitch on the program's benefits.

Personal-injury trial lawyer Jamie Wolfe may surprise some readers who regard anybody in his line of work as a greedy ambulance chaser. Wolfe says initially that personal-injury lawyers are motivated by the little guy who's been injured and deserves relief. Then he discloses that what really keeps him going is neither idealism or money. It's vanity.

"Getting a million dollars when, say, another trial lawyer may not have been able to get that kind of money," he says. "Or examining a witness who is very hard to impeach, and then suddenly you hit pay dirt. That's what I love. That's why I do it."

As with "Working," one of the pleasures of "Gig" is reading people's discussions of their work in their own words. It doesn't always pan out: The interview with an owner of a Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center reads like one long sales pitch on the program's benefits. In another case, a company CEO lapses into corporate mumbo jumbo -- "I was interfacing with security analysts" and life insurance is worthwhile because "you're protecting the human life value."

But more often there are gems and the occasional, presumably inadvertent, pun.

"We're bleeding people," Wilkens says of the worker turnover at the slaughterhouse.

"I get on people like stink," Smither boasts of aggressive self-marketing of his crime-scene cleanup business. And, "If your operation's not tight, you're dead."

"Gig" is enjoyable on two levels. It offers insights into jobs that most of us are only dimly aware of. Who knew that a savvy paparazzo relieves himself in his car in order to avoid missing a photo op?

And through the words of those interviewed, "Gig" expresses the hope and dread, joy and despair, the meaningful and meaningless nature of work in our lives.

 

RELATED STORIES:
Review: An exercise in the obvious
October 9, 2000
On trying to work safely in harm's way
October 6, 2000
Review: O, brave new TempWorld
September 29, 2000
Summer jobs abound, candidates don't
June 17, 2000
Web art gets a foot in museum door
October 6, 1998
Studs Terkel at 85: Still speaking for the common man
September 11, 1997

RELATED SITES:
Word, a Web zine


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