Magazine article The Christian Century

Working People

Magazine article The Christian Century

Working People

Article excerpt

WHEN STUDS TERKEL, described by Donna Seaman as "oral historian, writer of conscience and raconteur-on-a-mission," died on Halloween in 2008, he left a tall stack of books behind him. None affected me more than one called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book led me to think not only about all the jobs I have worked in my life but also about all the people whose jobs make life in my small town work.

The day I moved to Clarkesville, I walked from the church to the post office, where I came up a quarter short on a book of stamps. "Don't worry," the pretty blond clerk behind the counter said. "Just bring it back before we close at five." Her nametag said "Elaine." When I brought the quarter back, I told her my name but she already knew it. Eighteen years later, I have learned to stand patiently in line as Elaine greets her customers by name.

Last week a white-haired woman lingered at the counter, speaking of things that had nothing to do with the U.S. Mail. There were six of us behind her, but Elaine never rushed her, never stopped smiling. When my turn finally came I raised my eyebrows as I slid my package across the counter.

"She lost someone close to her a while back," Elaine said in a low voice so only I could hear her, "but I don't mind. I like hearing the stories. Plus, I learned a long time ago that people aren't going to stop talking until they have said what they want to say."

And to think I paid perfectly good money to go to seminary.

Bunny works at the Laundromat across the street. When the water in my well is running low, she sometimes helps me with the sheets for a dollar a pound. Other times we stand around talking as we watch clothes go round and round in the dryers. This is how I learned that Bunny put up the posters with the face of a beat-up woman on them, right above the telephone number of a shelter for women fleeing physical abuse. She knows all about that, she says.

Bunny lets other people put up posters too, but only if the signs are in Spanish as well as English. She says one regular customer calls every week to ask "when the Mexicans will be there" because they "make her uncomfortable."

"I know it's mean," Bunny said, "but the man who comes with her has one leg and I thought about telling her that it makes people uncomfortable for him to be in here with one leg. …

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