Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new book from StoryCorps about loving work compiles interviews with referees, subway conductors, teachers, and more.
There are many books that promise to teach readers how to be exemplary employees and reap the benefits. They peddle hard-won wisdom from the boardroom or start-up incubator; they’re manuals for living a particular kind of life. Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work ($26, Penguin Press) is emphatically not that kind of book.
“There are no millionaires, billionaires, or tech executives in this book,” says Dave Isay, the book’s editor and the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps. “There’s no one with tons of Twitter followers. 99.99 percent of the world isn’t like that.”
My colleague Laura Bliss recently wrote about how maintainers, not innovators, keep our cities afloat. Callings, the new collection of 53 work-focused oral histories archived by StoryCorps, is an ode to those same types of often-anonymous laborers. The book is a “love letter to people who don’t get celebrated often enough for the work that they do,” Isay says.
The book’s subjects aren’t splashy or famous, but they’re deeply, remarkably invested in what they do. Readers meet a basketball referee, a dentist, a funeral director, an ICU nurse, a public defender, and a bricklayer who checked up on her apprentice application until she wore down the committee: “And at some point I guess they realized I wasn’t going away,” she told her daughter. There’s a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, who watches alligators hatch and a second-generation Chicago firefighter who always knew he would follow in his father’s bootsteps. In a discussion with his father, he recalled:
“You know, kids grow up saying they want to be like their dad, and it’s usually just a phase that they go through. But I never strayed off that path.”
When he finally graduated from the academy, he added, “I felt like that was my championship round right there. It was the Bears winning the Super Bowl, the White Sox winning the World Series. I mean, any magic moment you can think of, that’s how I felt—and then some.”
In the introduction, the editor Dave Isay reflects on how the book began to take shape at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the organization’s kiosk at Grand Central Terminal. Isay recounts an admonishment from the legendary historian Studs Terkel, who was on hand for the festivities:
“’We know who the architect of Grand Central was,’ shouted a stone-deaf ninety-one-year-old Studs at the launch. ‘But who were the brick masons? Who swept these floors?’ Studs implored us to celebrate these stories, and we’ve devoted ourselves absolutely to the task since that day.”
The stories were recorded all across the U.S., in Baltimore; in Jackson, Florida; in Atlanta; in Laramie, Wyoming. The locations differ in terms of demographics, landscape, weather, and habits, but Isay tells CityLab that the content of the interviews remained surprisingly consistent across the country. “The structures, occupations, and accents change, but what people care about, from the biggest cities to the smallest tiny blips on the map, are very similar across these interviews: the people they love, their families, their dreams, death, and work,” Isay says.
The book romanticizes the notion of a magnetic pull towards a vocation, but Isay acknowledges that the dogged pursuit of a far-off goal isn’t always immediately possible, especially when people are navigating the pressing responsibilities of caring for a family. But the book is peppered with stories about people who deferred their dream jobs for the sake of a secure career before zeroing in on their passion in life. One retired accountant described his career trajectory:
“I never loved accounting, and I never thought that I was the best accountant out there. But it was important for me to make a living and take care of my children. My accounting career spanned twenty-five or thirty years. I decided to retire, and I was thinking, What am I going to do next?”
He found his second wind gunning for the perfect slice of salmon as a slicer at the Zabar’s deli on New York’s Upper West Side. “I hope that the book gives people hope,” Isay says. The message, perhaps, is that it’s never too late to find your lox.
Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, $26 at Amazon.