Studs Terkel’s Working is possibly the most depressing book I’ve read. It was also one of the hardest books I’ve read too. The book is a collection of interviews Terkel did over the years talking to a variety of people across the country about their jobs. The difficulty in reading the book is not the prose, but it’s because the interview subjects in the book dislike their job with such fervent passion it was bleak to read. Working made me assess both my own employment situation and the 21st century’s.

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An Anecdote Without a Punchline

I’ve told this story several times and it always lands with a thud. It goes like this.

I went to a work conference a few years ago. My coworker, Lisa, got drunk and lost her backpack containing her work laptop. Another coworker, Rose, found her backpack and gave me possession of the backpack and indicated this would be a problem. HR calls me in the morning and asks me to go through the backpack. I return the backpack to Rose. I’m told by HR that if Lisa asks where the backpack is, say Rose has it.

Rose flies home to Denver with Lisa’s backpack. I run into Lisa and she’s incredibly apologetic. I tell her that Rose has her laptop.

At some point that day, Lisa is fired. I don’t see her until the following day at the airport’s security line. I give her a somber wave. She looked sad. Her fiancé looked furious.

What I later learned was Lisa was an alcoholic, and had other incidents like this during her tenure. Her behavior at the conference was the last straw.

Everyone has a conference story. You would think my Thunderdome-esque tale – two employees enter, one leaves – would make a great conference story, but its weak. It lacks anything profound. It’s elicits more of a “huh” response than a “woah.” It’s certainly a crazy conference story, but it’s a little underwhelming.

I’ve wondered what the lesson of the story is for several years now, and I just can’t come to peace with how ambiguous this event is.

I’ve tried changing how I tell the story – adding and omitting details – but the response from the audience is still “huh.” After telling the story again today, I think I’m going to retire it.