Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Like most people, throughout the course of my life, I've worked at some pretty lousy jobs. In junior high, I lied about my age and got a job drying cars as they exited a car wash; the three dollars an hour I earned seemed like manna from heaven (and was promptly spent on records and other non-essentials). When I was old enough to get working papers, I sold shoes at the local Thom McAn. Once, when professors at my university went on strike, I got a job in a warehouse for a mail-order catalog that sold novelties such as ice-cube trays in the shape of women's breasts and camouflage toilet paper. This job more than any other motivated me to do better in school and get, what would be considered by most people (except my parents), a "real job."
Of course, for many of us, these unfortunate positions are only temporary pit-stops in our personal development, rites of passage to recall nostalgically. We may congratulate ourselves for doing what was needed to transcend the cul-de-sac of menial, unskilled labor, thankful that, no matter what else we've done with our lives, at least we don't have to do that anymore.
The jobs that Gabriel Thompson writes about in Working in the Shadows: A Year Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do make even the worst jobs I've held seem like a month at the country club. Donning workingman's clothes, Thompson tackles jobs that, frankly, I wouldn't even consider before reaching a significant level of desperation. In the course of picking lettuce in the fields of Yuma, Arizona, and hauling chicken parts around a processing facility in Russellville, Alabama, (among other occupations) Thompson explores this segment of American labor like a latter-day E. P. Thompson, relating their lives and working conditions with a minimum of editorial intrusion.
Gabriel Thompson's agenda is neither one of the white man's burden or migrant worker agitprop. Rather, he simply takes these jobs and reveals to the reader their backbreaking and often mentally stultifying requirements, at times performed in harsh (but not inhuman) environments. After weeks of picking lettuce, Thompson hasn't gotten that much better at the job nor gotten past the pain that bending over repeatedly in the hot sun creates as much as he has "[forgotten] what it's like to not be sore." While working in the frigid poultry plant, he aspires to be promoted to the de-boning department, which, while more toilsome and monotonous, is less physically demanding than hauling around buckets full of chicken remains.
While Thompson is not nearly as eloquent about his proletarian experiences as George Orwell or Barbara Ehrenreich (both of whom are name checked in the book), he nonetheless conveys lucidly the dignity of his co-workers without resorting to emotional manipulation or sensationalism. When writing about these workers, he merely describes their personalities, their generosity toward him and each other, and the fact that, above all else, they have the same aspirations as anybody else striving for the American dream. At one point, he describes the process by which the chickens in the poultry plant are slaughtered, which is anything but pleasant, but easily could have been taken to Upton Sinclair levels of luridness in another writer's hands.
Another subtle gift from Working in the Shadows arrives early in the book, when Thompson attempts to connect how we all benefit from the toil of laborers who make just above minimum wage. He writes, "In the field, it can be hard to remember that the lettuce I harvest will end up in someone's salad....Harder still for the recipients to imagine our crew out here with swollen hands and sweaty shirts." Again, no editorializing is needed. In a short passage, Thompson reminds the reader that there is a continuum that stretches from the fields of the American Southwest, where many toil in obscurity, to the dinner plate of the affluent, who probably aren't thinking of the labor required to bring them a head of iceberg lettuce for around a buck.
You may not finish reading Working in the Shadows with the kind of outrage that titles like Nickel and Dimed, Fast Food Nation, and Omnivore's Dilemma provoke, but you'll at least, surely, think twice before uttering "You couldn't pay me enough to...."
Books mentioned in this post