There was a wood table covered with slick plastic in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen. My Uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, would come in from work, soiled denim, his face smeared with soot, and wash at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up, angling his arms under the faucet. He’d settle in at the table where my grandmother had placed a large plate of steaming macaroni. A fork in one hand, a big chunk of bread in the other, Frank ate with a focus and capacity that I can still remember. As I always did, I’d ask him questions about the railroad. He’d pause, and in the learned, methodical way he had, he’d explain in detail how something worked. Then he’d tear off another piece of bread and lean back into his plate, a deep pleasure against the bitter cold and exhaustion of the roundhouse.
I grew up around physical work, my uncles in the railroad, then the auto industry, my mother putting in split shifts as a waitress to keep food on our table. This kind of work represented security and competence to me, and it shaped the rhythms of our lives, the stories told at dinner, the satisfaction of warm food, the tired relaxation after, then bedtime, and the cycle begins again. Through my mother’s iron-willed determination, a string of committed teachers, government aid, and unexpected opportunities, I do a very different kind of work today: I study teaching and learning and the many manifestations of intelligence in the schoolhouse and the workplace. In The Mind at Work, I tried to bring these two worlds of mine together, examining the sometimes hidden intelligence of the kind of work my forebears did with the analytic tools of social science—but also using my forebears’ work to test these analytic tools and revise some of our commonplace ideas about skill and intelligence. I wanted to change the way we see the everyday work that surrounds and sustains us.
Once the book was out, there were letters and emails and radio interviews where listeners could call in. I heard from waitresses, welders, and carpenters, a drill press operator and a landscaper, a hairstylist and an electrician. They all described some aspect of their work: its pleasures and difficulties, what they saw as key to expertise, a success or horror story, frustration at the lack of understanding of what they do. It was particularly gratifying when people would write that they had been reading the book in a restaurant and started watching the waitresses with a fresh eye or that they bought a copy for their hairstylist, so that they could talk about the work. A sociology professor who assigned the book wrote to me about one of his students whose father was a waiter, and how she began to “look at the work he does in a different way.”
Many people wrote or spoke about their families: a tanner, a stonemason, a milk-truck driver, farmers and factory workers, day laborers and beauticians, a butcher whose “mental arithmetic skills were prodigious,” a missionary father who could repair anything, including grinding the valves on the old mission truck, a mother who was a welder during the second World War, and an uncle “who made money for everyone on his crew because he was so smart and strong and hacked more brick than anyone else in any of the five brickyards around.” A number of the people being remembered had limited formal education and acquired their knowledge and skill from others and by doing the work itself. And some of the forebears were immigrants, bringing their skills with them, repeating a pattern that is as old as the republic.
People also bore witness for others beyond family, for local tradespersons or friends who had dropped out of or barely made it through high school. A physician characterized the young man remodeling his kitchen as brilliant in the way he could figure out angles and visualize what he was going to do. Another writer described a specialty machinist who rebuilds auto and marine engines from the 1890s to 1940, fashioning some of the parts himself. And some people who contacted me were professionals who either from their blue-collar upbringing or through years of trial and error had become competent at carpentry, mechanics, or a craft—and, in a few cases, had abandoned their white-collar occupations for the physical challenge and satisfaction of working with their hands. “We’ve been imprisoned,” one wrote, “in our heads.”
Some of the people I met through this book were, like me, studying the mind at work. A former NASA employee was doing research on aircraft maintenance, for example, and a small team of social scientists was detailing the many skills of so-called unskilled immigrant laborers. There were also community activists involved in labor education and living wage campaigns. And there were sobering reminders of work being lost. A woman teaching in a retraining program for silversmiths describes “the pride these men felt for their craft, and the sadness they felt as they saw their work disappearing.”
During the time I was writing an earlier book about our nation’s public schools, I drove across the United States to try to get a feel in one long arc of this vast, diverse country, its varied landscape, its languages, dialects, and cultural practices, its local economies, its multiple histories, manifest in everything from residential patterns to a figure of speech. Sorting through the radio notes and correspondence generated by The Mind at Work, though a stationary and solitary act, had a similar effect. So many of the themes are central to who we are right now, to America finding its way through the early decades of a new century: the nature and meaning of work and the connection of work to one’s identity; the loss of work; social class and class divides; education; immigration; maximizing our national intelligence. All of this emerged from particular stories, particular lives, a machinist in California, a cabinetmaker in South Carolina, a New Englander reflecting back on the work that surrounded him as a young boy. A wide sweep of work in the moment and in memory.
* * *
When my mother, Rosie, would come home after a long day waiting tables, she used to spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. It was old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.
I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, and of gas for the car.
There is a direct line between those tips and being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and that of all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses and waiters in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.
There are roughly two million home healthcare workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and one half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelters. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farmworkers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.
Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, and at times slip out of sight. I wrote The Mind at Work to document their ability and pay homage to it.