Video: Animation directors, the Rauch Brothers, and Story Corps, present a conversation between two Manhattan sanitation workers. (StoryCorps and NPR)
After leaving high school, my father worked in factories and drove trucks. College was never in the cards for him. Though a good thinker — the Navy put him in a program dominated by college grads — he never excelled academically. And in any case, he had parents and young brothers to support.
A successful family business radically improved my father’s fortunes, later enabling him and my mother to join the leisured retirees in a plush Florida community. My father would banter with the golfers, the round-the-world travelers and patrons of five-diamond restaurants, but he never could become one of them.
My father identified with the plumbers, barbers, waiters and handymen. He found them not only friendlier but, to his mind, better informed in ways that mattered. To him, there was no greater source of expertise than the manager of a hardware store.
A friend who worked as a senior editor at Princeton University Press once told me that his most interesting authors were people who had held ordinary jobs at some point in their lives. Before obtaining their advanced degrees, they had worked in construction, at a sporting goods store or as a bus driver.
We immediately recalled the famous line written by Herman Melville, author of “Moby-Dick”: “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
My father felt some awe in the presence of polished executives, but he never wanted to hang around them. And it wasn’t that he didn’t respect their work ethic. His corporate lawyer neighbors had put in long hours on often stressful cases.
It’s just that the term “sweat on the brow” didn’t apply to them. These people didn’t work with their hands. They were paid not in blue-collar wages but often by hourly billing rates that didn’t bother with the pennies. They may have had good years and not-so-good years, but they were never one paycheck away from losing their house.
I went to college and all that. And I won some honors in my competitive field of journalism. But when it came to my working life, my father was never so proud of me as when I returned home from a summer job wearing a Teamsters badge. (My employment at a tour bus company required membership in the union.) My father beamed at the sight: My daughter, a Teamster!
When I was later hired for a low-level job at a news service, my father ran out and bought me a lovely briefcase. My mother at the time was thinking marriage, my father a working life.
As a young family, we lived in what fancy real estate agents call a starter house. My sister and I slept in a bedroom the size of a walk-in closet. My brother got his own tiny room. The five of us shared one full bathroom. We thought we were living like kings.
Nowadays, so many other good Americans eager to work hard but lacking a college degree face great hardship. There was a time when it was socially unacceptable for executives to make millions while treating their employees like faceless beasts of burden. No working American should go without health care or be expected to bow down in thanks for some crummy-paying job.
Other rich countries have preserved their blue-collar elites through labor regulations, training and social safety nets that smooth the edges of global competition. On that score, this country has a lot of work to do.
As Labor Day marks the end of summer vacation for those lucky enough to have a vacation, the nation should honor those who toil day after day. There’s nobility in being a hard worker. It should be a badge of honor.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.