Scenes from a longshoreman’s—and veteran fruit tramp’s—life, as told by working stiff Theriault (How to Tell When You’re Tired, 1995).
Here is a hodgepodge of working-class stories, experiences, and ruminations. Though rudderless—we skip from proper work gloves to the genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables, from how to store bails of cotton in a ship’s hold to the vibrant presence of Wobblies in early unionization efforts—this is captivating for a host of reasons, not least that Theriault is describing a dying species: the unionized, blue-collar worker. And such is the quality of the writing—composed, trustworthy—that the author actually makes fruit-packing seem not only fun, but like artwork. The meat of his concern is the gradual but now accelerating disappearance of dignity in the workplace, pride in work, and camaraderie. Theriault comes out of the tradition that expects one to do the best at whatever task is at hand; if you can’t stand the work, go out and get another job. Problem is, as Theriault hasn’t missed, blue-collar work is getting scarcer every day, and unionized work—like his longshoreman’s job—even more so. Spangled among the tales of life during the Depression in San Francisco, of work on the waterfront, of “goon”-bashing and fighting scabs, and among descriptions of the rules of order at a union meeting and the cultures of different ports up and down the West Coast, are critiques of American economic policy (principally the export of blue-collar jobs abroad and the importation of foreign labor for exploitation to the fullest) and the Democratic Party, which the working class is abandoning in droves due to its support of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.
Circuitous, but all about the importance of work. Theriault understands that what removes us from our labors removes us from our lives.