Subjects? Hardly. Talking casually, sometimes disjointedly and hesitantly, or unleashing long suppressed feelings in an angry torrent, these are not clinical case studies but complex, fully human people whose humdrum reminiscences of long hours, days and years on the job are almost painfully involving. Even their laughter, abrupt and nervous, will make you wince because in Terkel's words, "This book, being about work is, by it's very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body." "You're nothing more than a machine. . . . They give better care to that machine than they will to you. They'll have more respect, give more attention to that machine," says the twenty-seven year-old spot welder at Ford. "I'm a mule," says the steelworker. Nor is the sense of waste and futility confined to blue-collar workers. Terkel talks to shipping clerks and sports figures, copy boys, hospital aides, salesmen, press agents, a doorman, a barber, a fireman, a cop, a pharmacist, a piano tuner, a stockbroker, a gravedigger...and yes, there is a common chord. Pride, the pride of craftsmanship is harder and harder to sustain; the old work ethic seems to many like a dirty trick. Strikingly, the only people who seem genuinely to exult in their work are those who deal directly and intimately with other people—like the Brooklyn fireman who muses, "You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that shit. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be."
For the rest, Terkel finds "the desperation is unquiet" and here, at least, it's eloquent.