Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium

Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium

Edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter

Crown, 548 pp., $25

In their introduction, the editors of Gig remind us that "You're born, and before too long, you have to start spending most of your time working to sustain yourself." Since they are admirers of Studs Terkel's Working, the classic 1972 treatise that got people "talking frankly about their jobs," the editors used that book as the model for "Work," the weekly column in their webzine Word. Two years' worth of "Work," and the editors knew they had the beginnings of a book on their hands.

Gig, like its parent, is a sophisticated yet unassuming study of American life in the new millennium and, thus, the new economy. The 120 fascinating monologues collected in Gig give readers an unflinching view of the complex circumstances that Americans encounter at work. The idea behind Gig, Marisa Bowe explains, is "to document whatever we found, without imposing any sort of theme upon categories of workers or work as a whole." Some 40 interviewers contributed to the book. Others wrote to the Work editor saying, "My buddy's a heavy metal roadie," or "I know a guy who raises buffalo." John Bowe, a hitchhiker in a former life, combed the United States for subjects and taped them chatting about their jobs. The result is story after story, voice after voice, without interference of any kind. The effect is profound.

Some workers love what they do, others don't, but every voice speaks the same language of dedication and stick-to-itiveness. Emotional and eye-opening, each compelling description offers insight about the job itself and, more importantly, an intimate view of a single human life.

This compendium of mini-memoirs includes a few celebrities -- Jerry Bruckheimer (film producer), Julian Schnabel (painter), Heidi Klum (supermodel), but the majority have no name recognition and toil in positions far more mundane. We hear from a Wal-Mart greeter, a telemarketing group supervisor, an adhesives company sales representative, an art mover, and a steelworker. Their stories are personal, uncensored, and brimming with wit and more than a little frustration. Some are purely heartbreaking. There is a lyricism inherent in documentary storytelling like this that becomes even more sophisticated, more emotional, when the stories are about what we do. A corporate securities lawyer, for example, has lost faith in humankind after a client tracked him down at the hospital to "curse me out when my wife was about to give birth. I told him what was going on, you know I'm at the hospital, my wife, you know, a baby can I call you later? And he wouldn't stop. What kind of person does that?" He goes on to explain, "I'm not a happy guy."

But then there's the long-haul, truck-driving team, a husband and wife who are nearly giddy with their luck at happening upon such a blissful occupation. After raising their daughter, they turned to trucking. "So we thought, well, let's drive the big ones. Let's see the country. We can make good money at it." Their monologue is woven through with laughter, and they finish each other's sentences -- unedited, intimate communication.

Indicative of the casual wisdom found in Gig are the closing lines of a systems administrator. "My life is really a flash in the pan," he says. "So I should go out and hike those hills and I should go for those walks while I'm still young while I can still do that kind of stuff instead of just sitting here wasting away. I really should."

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John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, Sabin Streeter, Jerry Bruckheimer, Heidi Klum, Julian Schnabel

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