In the early 1970s, radio host and oral historian Studs Terkel went around the country with a tape recorder, interviewing people about their jobs. He collected more than 130 conversations with a variety of people, including a waitress, a car parker, a jockey, a baseball player, a farm worker, a press agent and a sports team owner.
The result was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. When it was published in 1974 it became a best-seller — something unprecedented for an oral history collection.
But after the book came out, the interview cassettes were packed away in boxes and stored in Terkel's home office. Terkel died in 2008.
This year, producers Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Jane Saks of Project& were given access to all the original raw field interviews — most of which have never before been heard publicly.
Among them is an unexpected interview with Helen Moog, a taxi driver. Most of Terkel's interviews were planned well in advance, but his conversation with Moog was a moment of serendipity that arrived when he called for an early morning ride to the airport in Youngstown, Ohio.
After they began talking, Studs quickly unpacked his tape recorder and microphone. Moog told him she enjoyed her work because she liked driving and meeting people from all walks of life.
"Many people have problems, but oftentimes it's good to know they can talk to someone who's a total stranger to them," she said. "They have a habit of confiding in that person because they feel that they'll never see the person again."
Moog said she regularly worked 12-hour days — and expected to put in 19 on the day she drove Terkel. But the grandmother of five said she thrived on the work and actually got more tired when she wasn't busy.
"I don't feel retirement is exactly the best of things for people," she said. "When you retire, you sort of go into a shell and you're like the forgotten person. You get bogged down in nothing and you do nothing and you wind up nothing."
At the same time, Moog saw long hours fading out of the American workplace and had an oddly keen vision of the future.
"Idle hands make an idle mind. And I'm not in favor of the short hours," she said. "Automation will cut work down; it'll also cut a lot of jobs down. I read an article here not too long ago regarding this future, and I think it will also increase unemployment. Unless they can come up with something else that would make for more employment, which is, who knows what could be."
In the meantime, she said interesting people helped her working hours pass quickly.
"When people say thank you for helping them — and you don't even know how you have helped them — it really makes you feel nice inside," she said. "I don't think there's anything that could take its place."
This story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Jane Saks of Project &. Over the coming year, they will be digging through more of the tapes from Working. You can find more excerpts from Terkel's tapes on the Radio Diaries podcast. Thanks to The Studs Terkel Radio Archive (studsterkel.org).
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In the early 1970s, radio host and oral historian Studs Terkel went around the country, tape recorder in hand, interviewing people about their jobs.
STUDS TERKEL: I am somewhere - some industrial area. I'm sitting at the office of very well appointed one of his - talking to a jockey, Eddie Arroyo. Eddie's home here with his family. I'm seated with Joe Freedman in her Greenwich Village studio. She's a photographer and a -talking to Steve Hamilton, pitcher. Nick Lindsay, who are you?
NICK LINDSAY: I'm a carpenter from South Carolina.
TERKEL: This is a hospital. Now, where are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now, what do you mean - where am I?
TERKEL: Thank you very much. I can use this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I think you can. Yeah.
TERKEL: OK. Great. Thank you.
CORNISH: Studs Terkel collected more than 130 interviews, and the result was a book published 40 years ago called "Working." People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. And something very rare for an oral history collection - it became a best-seller. "Working" struck a nerve because it elevated the stories of ordinary people and the most ordinary parts of their daily lives.
After the book came out, the cassettes were packed away in boxes and stored in Terkel's home office. This year, producers Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Jane Saks of Project And have been given access to all of the original raw field interviews, most of which have never been heard publicly.
Today, we bring you an excerpt. It's a moment of serendipity. Studs planned most of his interviews well in advance, but one morning, he was in a taxi on the way to the airport in Youngstown, Ohio. The driver was a woman named Helen Moog, a grandmother of five. They began talking, and Studs Terkel quickly unpacked his tape recorder and microphone and began rolling.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TERKEL: (Unintelligible). Oh, this thing is way - oh, I see. I'm in the car - that's why. It's okay. It's about six o'clock, early morning, and I'm riding with Mrs. Moog - Mrs. Helen Moog - who's a limo driver - one of several drivers for this company.
HELEN MOOG: Yes, I am. Yes, I am.
TERKEL: Now, I think as we're heading now toward the airport at Youngstown - that sun is fantastic. We see part of the red, don't we?
MOOG: Yes, it is. That's something that an artist can't catch.
TERKEL: How long have you been doing this work?
MOOG: Well, I've been doing it for a couple years.
TERKEL: Now, I come in the case with what my book is about - about you and what you're doing now, as a limousine driver. Before your work, most of your life was what?
MOOG: Well, I did secretarial work, and when I was much younger, I did waitress work.
TERKEL: Does the work day seem long?
MOOG: Surprisingly, not as long as you would think. First of all, I love to drive. And secondly, you make people from all walks of life. And many people have problems, but often times, it's good to know they can talk to someone who's a total stranger to them. They have a habit of confiding in that person because they feel that they'll never see the person again.
TERKEL: So a lot of your passengers tell you things.
MOOG: Oh, yes. Liking people - I think that's what makes it really...
TERKEL: Yeah. Before I pay you for the cab, could you do this - describe a day from the moment you get up in the morning? Could you do that, you know? About what time would you say you get up in the morning usually?
MOOG: Well, like, this morning I was up at five 'cause I had an early morning pick-up at six. So I came out. I see a beautiful sky and a beautiful sun, so I know I have a good day ahead of me.
TERKEL: And you work from about five until when? When you get home?
MOOG: Well, if I'm lucky, I'll be home by 12:30.
TERKEL: At night?
TERKEL: So there's a good - that's about 19 hours right there, isn't it?
MOOG: Something like that today. When I don't have an early morning pick-up, I can average out around 12 hours.
TERKEL: Do you look forward to retirement?
MOOG: No. I'm scared of it. I don't feel retirement is exactly the best of things for people. They - when you retire, you sort of go into a shell, and you're like the forgotten person. You get bogged down in nothing, and you do nothing, and you wind up nothing.
TERKEL: Yeah. That's interesting. So here you put in a minimum of 12 hours a day.
TERKEL: Seven days a week.
MOOG: Right. Oh, yeah.
TERKEL: But you'd feel more tired...
MOOG: ...If I didn't.
MOOG: This is true 'cause when I'm not busy, I get very weary. So if I was to retire, with nothing to do, I don't think I could stand it.
TERKEL: It's work, though, that you see. Work is the prime part of your life - work.
MOOG: Yes, very much so. I think everything hinges on it and doing a good job on it...
MOOG: ...'Cause I'm a firm believer if you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, or don't do it at all.
TERKEL: Now, do you think a time will come, though, with automation and more and more machines that the hours will be shorter and shorter - people will have tremendous leisure time?
MOOG: I'm afraid they will, and I'm afraid that it's not for the best interest. Idle hands make an idle mind, and I'm not in favor of the short hours. I think eight hours is fine. But like you say, automation will cut work down. It'll also cut a lot of jobs down. And I read an article here not too long ago regarding this future. And I think it'll also increase unemployment, unless they can come up with something else that would make for more employment. But which - who knows what it could be?
TERKEL: We're coming back to the question of work itself - work and life. You see the two connected, don't you?
MOOG: Very much so.
TERKEL: Work and life.
MOOG: They work hand-in-hand.
TERKEL: That's why the hours, then, go fast for you.
MOOG: I would say, yes. And people are interesting - no question. And when people say thank you for helping them, and you don't even know how you have helped them, it really makes you feel nice inside. And I don't think there's anything that can take its place.
TERKEL: Do you look forward to each day?
MOOG: I do. I do because I never know what's going to happen the next day. And it's always interesting to find out. If you don't go out there, you're not going to find out by sitting at home.
CORNISH: Tape from four decades ago. Taxi driver Helen Mogg in Youngstown, Ohio. It was recorded by Studs Terkel - one of his many oral histories of people and their work. Studs Terkel died in 2008.
Our story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Jane Saks of Project And, with thanks to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. Over the coming year, they'll be digging through more of the tapes from Studs Terkel's book "Working," which is 40 years old this year. And you can find more excerpts from the "Working" tapes on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.