Dave Isay and StoryCorps carry the torch of Studs Terkel and advance the oral history of American workers of all stripes in the new book, Callings.
Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $26.00, Hardcover, April 2016, ISBN 9781594205187
The moment I picked up Callings, I thought of Studs Terkel. I had the same reaction when I came across Po Bronson's What Should I Do with My Life? and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alex De Botton. Both were books of interviews with working men and women about work and, it seemed to me, carried the torch of Terkel’s book, Working. What I didn’t know about Dave Isay’s new StoryCorps book, but found just a few pages in, is that Callings has a very direct link to Terkel.
StoryCorps (for those that don’t know) is an oral history organization that is dedicated to the “collecting, sharing, and preserving of people’s stories” through interviews between two people. It has launched “MobileBooths” that travel the country, in which people can record their interviews with loved ones, and has released four books to date. Callings is the project’s fifth book. But it all began with one StoryBooth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and Studs Terkel literally cut the ribbon on that first StoryCorps booth. Dave Isay tells the story of what he said that day and how it eventually led to this book:
“We know who the architect of Grand Central was,” shouted a stone deaf ninety-one-year-old Studs at the launch. “But who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors?” Studs implored us to celebrate these stories, and we’ve devoted ourselves absolutely to the task since that day.
Work, Studs wrote, is about the search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Callings is in many ways a 257-page proof of Terkel’s proposition.
The beautiful thing about is that, through these interviews, we feel the intimate connection not only between the interviewer and person being interviewed, but to so many of the people who touched their lives and led them to their calling.
In Part I of the book, we meet the “Dreamers,” but we also meet through their stories those that helped instill the dream in them. There is the eighth grade teacher that passed her love of the stars onto a young Herman Heyn. Now 83 years old, he has been a street-corner astronomer since 1987, passing that love onto passers by and onlookers in the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore. And when the Hale-Bopp comet came around in 1997, the Baltimore Sun did a story on him, asking how he got into astronomy. He told them about Miss Wicker, and she ended up reading the article, which led to a reunion in her retirement home.
There’s a single mom who, while filling out financial aid papers for her daughter to attend college, said to the woman helping her “Geez, I sure wish I could go to school.” That woman offered to help her do just that, and Sharon Long, who “had been working four or five jobs a day, seven days a week, for twelve years,” is now a forensic artist who has worked for the Smithsonian making molds of skulls on Easter Island.
There’s the story of a bookmobile coming to a migrant farmworkers’ field in the Northwest, and finding a young girl there who had been “beaten and abused and neglected” by her alcoholic parents who tells her son she had learned to fight with a knife before she learned to ride a bicycle:
The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.”
She tells of how she wasn’t allowed to have books before, because they are heavy and the family moved a lot, which meant they needed to keep possessions minimal. But that day she took three books home with her:
I took them home and devoured them.
I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find my place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word.
Storm Reyes ended up becoming a library assistant, passing that love on to others.
There’s a bridgetender in Jacksonville that tells us,
I took a pay cut for this job, and that was hard. But you know, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and if that happens I want to have woken up that day and not thought, Ugh, I don’t want to go to work today.
There are doctors and an astronaut and professors and scientists and police, and even an NBA referee, but the most passionate person in the book may be a dentist from Laramie, Wyoming, who tells us that the “happy moment that stands out in his life,” even more than the day he was married or of the births of his five children, was the day he was accepted to dentist school. Fittingly, he tells this story not to a family member as most do, but a patient.
Part II of the book is on “Generations,” and is all conversations with children and their parents, or stories from people about their parents or children, many of whom have followed their parents’ line of work. It is here where we see how our work so greatly affects the lives and histories of our families, and begins with a heartwarming story of a son that has followed his father into the Chicago Fire Department.
It is in Part III “Healers” that reminds us of how our work ties us to a larger human family. It brings stories from healers you might expect, from cancer ward nurses and hospice chaplains, but also from those many you might not, like the story of iron workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, whose job involves talking to people who come out to the bride to commit suicide. It also contains a story from another firefighter and his sons that is heart-rending. One son was a firefighter, the other a detective, and they both perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
And finally, in Part VI, you’ll find the “Philosophers.” This is where you’ll find one of my favorite interviews, Josh Gippin talking with his grandmother “Crazy Rose” Brudno. It begins with a great question and response:
Josh Gippin: What were you doing in 1959?
Rose Brudno: I was disliking my husband intensely, and I was dumping him.
She goes on to tell how she bought a rough-and-tumble bar in a neighborhood of rubber workers in Akron, how she’d stash drunks’ checks in the safe instead of cashing them and comp them drinks so they wouldn’t spend up all their family’s money on payday (my father tells a similar story of my Grandpa Rolly, who had a tevern in Galena, Illinois, for a time), how she tried to get her own employees to unionize against her, and how when they wouldn’t she started a profit-sharing program for them. Josh tells his grandmother how he remembers the day his first girlfriend broke up with him, how he came to her crying, and how she handed him a mop and bucket and put him to work. “It brought me down to Earth,” he tells her. There is just so much pluck and everyday wisdom in this four-page story, with lessons about how you treat people and the value of work and independence. It will definitely stay with me.
Reading all these stories, I only wish that the StoryCorps booth would have been in Grand Central terminal back when it was being built, to get the stories of the brick masons (there is a great mother-daughter interview with a 62-year-old female bricklayer in Baltimore, who worked until she was eight months pregnant with her interviewer) and those who swept the floor, those that Studs Terkel championed.
StoryCorps is on a mission to make sure our oral history is more complete and well documented in the future. Callings is a great addition to that mission. It also reminds me that I should call my parents, which is always a good thing.