What follows is not intended to be mean about Studs Terkel. Working is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read, the man turns 95 tomorrow, and we all have stories that we like to dine out on. (Plus, I don’t want to risk a permanent ban from the Chicago area—-I have too many friends and family members there.)
But if you’re in a position to interview the oral historian, perhaps in the context of his upcoming memoir, Touch and Go, please, please, consider not using the story about Labor Day, the yuppie couple, and the bus stop.
So one day there’s this one couple, they ignore me completely. So my ego is hurt. And I say, “The bus is late.” And I say, to make conversation, “Labor Day’s coming up.” And the man just turns and looks at me — Brooks Brothers, under his arm, the latest Wall Street Journal. And she’s a beauty. Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s. She’s got Vanity Fair in her hand. And he turns, looks at me, and says, “We despise unions.” And then he turns away.
And I said, “You what?” And the bus hasn’t come yet. “Do you know that in 1886, ’87, four guys got hanged? How many hours a day do you work?”
He says, “Eight,” reflexively. I said, “How come you don’t work 18 hours a day? Four guys got hanged for you. Did you know that?”
They think I’m crazy. They’re scared. (Laughs.)
Now I’ve got him pinned against the mailbox. He can’t get away.
The story sounded mighty mighty familiar, and true enough, Terkel breaks out this gem a lot. Examples after the jump.
Rolling Stone, 2001:
Let me tell you a story: I can’t drive, so I take a bus to work each day. And at the bus stop one morning there was this very handsome couple who ignored me, and my ego was hurt, of course. The guy was right out of Gentleman’s Quarterly—he has on a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit, Gucci shoes and the Wall Street Journal under his arm. And she’s a stunner, right out of Harper’s Bazaar, and she had a copy of Vanity Fair under her arm. So the bus is late in coming, and I wanted to make friends, so I said, “Labor Day is coming up.” It was the wrong thing to say. He looked at me as Noel Coward would have. Now I’m really hurt, so I said, “On Labor Day we used to march down Michigan Avenue, banners flying—UAW, CIO. We’d sing ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved “… and the man turns to me and in a voice of ice says, “We despise unions.” So now I’m the Ancient Mariner and fix him with my glittering eye, and I say to him, “How many hours do you work?” He says, “Eight.” I say, “How come you don’t work eighteen or twenty hours a day?” I take a step toward him, see. “You know why? Because four men got hanged back in 1886 at Chicago’s Haymarket Square fighting for the eight-hour day for you.” She dropped her Vanity Fair and, very courtly, I picked it up and gave it back to her. “And back in the Thirties,” I added, “men and women got their heads busted for you.”
Daily Herald, 2000:
So I was waiting at the bus stop in my neighborhood and I like to talk to people while I wait. I guess you can tell, I’m a talker. Every day there was this well-dressed young man, I guess you might call him a yuppie although I think the word is overused. He’d have a Wall Street Journal under his arm. His wife would be waiting with him and she was a real beauty, a stunning woman. She always had a Vanity Fair under her arm.
“Every day I’d try to strike up a conversation with them and I couldn’t get a word out of them. This insults my ego, see.
“So, I eventually said, ‘Labor Day is coming up.’ And he looked at me like Noel Coward looking at a bug.
“‘You know,’ I said, ‘We used to march up and down Michigan Avenue with the UAW and the CIO chanting ‘Solidarity Forever!’ He looked at me and said, ‘We despise unions.’
“That’s when I knew I had a live one.
“I said, ‘Let me ask you a question, how many hours a day do you work?’ He says eight. ‘Why not 16 or 18 hours a day? Did you know four guys in 1886 got hung for your right to work 8 hours a day. See I was bringing up the Haymarket Square (riots).
“Then I asked him how many hours in a week he works. Forty, he says. ‘Why not 100 or 150 hours? Did you know that people in the ’30s got their heads busted for the 40-hour work week?’
“I don’t see that couple much anymore.”
Los Angeles Times, 2000:
“I [was] talking . . . to people waiting for the bus, and there was this couple waiting with me one day. Yuppies. He’s in Brooks Brothers clothes. Got the Wall Street Journal in his hand. She’s in Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s and has Vanity Fair. I say, ‘Labor Day is coming up.’ He looks at me the way Noel Coward would look at a flyspeck. ‘We used to march down State Street,’ I say. ‘Waving flags. Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved. UAW. CIO.’ He looks at me and says, ‘We despise unions.’
“I ask him, ‘How many hours a day do you work?’ It’s a non sequitur, but he says, ‘Eight.’ I say, ‘You know why you don’t work 18 hours a day? Because four guys in Chicago [died] back in 1886. It’s called the Haymarket Affair. They were hanged for you, for the eight-hour day.’
The bus is late, and she’s tremulous, like Fay Wray in King Kong. I ask her how many hours a week she works, and she says, “40.” And I say, “You don’t work 80 because, back in the ’30s, men and women got their heads busted for you.”
All Things Considered, 1995:
I live on a have street in an area of have nots in known as Uptown in Chicago. And there’s a bus along the lake front there. And I’m waiting for the bus daily and there’s this couple I might see there. I nod and they don’t encourage conversation so I don’t do what I like to. And so he has, one day, it’s the day before Labor Day like now, a couple years ago, and he has The Wall Street Journal folded neatly under his arm. She has the latest edition of Vanity Fair under her arm, very handsome couple. And I say, ‘Hey Labor Day’s coming up.’ Silence. I said, ‘You know in those days there were marches and labor unions were being celebrated and he says, ‘We loathe unions.’ ‘Uh oh,’ I said, ‘I got a pigeon right here.’ And the bus is late in coming, so I said how many hours a day do you work, kind of a non sequitur. He says ‘Eight hours.’ `How come you don’t work 18 hours a day? You know why you work eight hours a day? Your grandparents worked 18 hours a day, or great-grandparents. Because four guys got hanged in Chicago, 1886, for you, for the eight hour day. Did you know that?’ And this time, I got him pinned against the mailbox, he can’t get away. And I’m the Ancient Mariner, with my glittering eye I fix them. And the bus is late in coming and I got them again on the 40-hour- By this time the bus comes, he rushes in with his friend. I never saw them again.
The Guardian, 1995:
“I was talking to this young couple once, you know, holding their Vanity Fair. It was Labour Day, and the guy said “I hate unions”. And I couldn’t help asking how many hours a day he worked. “Eight,” he said. “And how come it’s not 18?” I asked. Of course they were hoping the bus would hurry up and I felt like the old Ancient Mariner. They thought I was just some old nut. You can’t blame them; all they knew about was “downsizing”.
The Progressive, 1992:
I hate to use the word yuppie because yuppie is not what most of the young are. Most are bewildered and lost and worried stiff that they are not going to do as well as the old man. But I bumped into this couple on the street who really are yuppies. So I’m waiting for a bus where I live. I’m on a street of haves in an area of have-nots. This couple are the ones you see in the suds-sex-beer commercials. They have plenty of bucks in their pockets.
So I just talk out—-because I talk everywhere—-while we’re waiting for the bus. It’s a few days before Labor Day, so I say Labor Day is Coming up, a celebration of American trade unions. I’m talking to these kids. I don’t know them.
“Unions.” they say. “God. we despise unions.”
“Oh, you do?” I say. “How many hours a day do you work?”
“Why don’t you work eighteen hours like your grandparents or maybe your great-grandparents did? You know why? Because four guys got hanged so you could work eight hours a day. The Haymarket martyrs [in 1886]. Don’t you know that people got their heads busted in the 1930s fighting for the forty-hour week?”