Studs Terkel was a big inspiration for Labour of Love.
Studs was failed lawyer, who went on to become a radio broadcaster and oral historian who interviewed hundreds of workers in Chicago during the early 1970s to produce an extraordinary book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
He describes his work – “I was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique.’ Instead of a shed in a park, he was on the road, looking for leads, following tips, encountering strangers in bars, interviewing over breakfasts or parked up in a car.
From the very first, the characters in Working grab you by the throat – the book starts with a diatribe by a steel mill worker who admits he gets in brawls in bars because really he wants to punch his foreman. He might get barred from his drinking hole – but he’ll still have his job.
This book is a witness to what Studs describes as “the violence done to them by years of work, their bosses, the system.” One of my favourite workers is Delores Dante, a waitress in the same restaurant for 23 years. Delores Dante – what a name!
‘I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me? I can’t go to everyone. So they have to come to me. Everyone wants to eat, everyone has hunger. And I serve them. If they’ve had a bad day, I nurse them, cajole them. Maybe with coffee I give them a little philosophy. They have cocktails, I give them political science. …
I have an opinion on every single subject there is. In the beginning it was theology and my bosses didn’t like it. I speak sotto voce. But if I get heated I don’t give a damn. I speak like an Italian speaks. I can’t be servile. I give service. There is a difference.
It would be tiring if I had to say “would you like a cocktail.?” And say that over and over. So I come out different for my own enjoyment. I would say “What’s exciting at the bar I can offer?” I can’t say “Do you want a coffee?” Maybe I’ll say “Are you in the mood for coffee?” Just rephrase it enough to make it interesting for me. It becomes theatrical and I feel like Mata Hari and it intoxicates me.’
“People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think or have any other aspiration other than to serve food. When someone says to me “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress.” Just a waitress. I’d say, “Why don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. It makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all.”
The devil or Delores is in the detail. She takes pride in every little thing.
“Some don’t care. When the plate is down you can hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art…it is a certain way I can go through a chair no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage.”