Springsteen as Working-Class Hero Watching Bruce Springsteen at the Continental Airlines Arena recently, I couldn't help feeling mixed emotions. He's a great performer, whatever you think of his recorded output. But having been raised working class and lectured in print by rock critics and columnists about how I should prostrate myself before Bruce's working-class altar of song, I'm afraid I still didn't understand all this malarkey about darkness and dreams and desperation. I wondered how I fit into all this. I'm working class anymore in memory, not reality?the son of a factory worker who walked a financial tightrope all his life, like millions of others. The few experiences I've had with manual labor have been nothing like Springsteen's songs, more like a cross between a Three Stooges episode and a Celine novel.
When it came time for me to make money for college, I landed a summer job in the factory my father was working in. Most kids I knew weren't going to college and either opted for the armed forces or factory jobs that were a swift, blunt introduction to adulthood. This was assuming they were lucky enough to find a job. I considered myself lucky not to get stuck in a fast-food monkey suit at the local mall. In my dad's factory, I was hired as the equivalent of an intern. In an office, that might have meant picking up sage, career-minded advice from a vice president. In a factory, it meant handing the wrong wrench to pissed-off grease monkeys who would tell stories about lost nights in Filipino whorehouses and the worst drunks they ever had.
When not a mechanic's helper, I got cushy assignments like weatherproofing ducts and walkways on the factory roof, which meant getting an incredible tan with a paintbrush in my hand. While corporate interns might get a taste of their futures, factory internships were more a taste of "no future"?the idea was to get us money for a college education to avoid this shit. I saw what it meant to work, which, frankly, wasn't that bad. It was the monotony more than anything, the slow-motion inertia of every passing day, the factory itself permanent and impervious as a mountain. It felt like high school all over again, complete with dick jokes and locker rooms. I saw the value of coworkers who, far more often than not, weren't out to stab each other in the back or instigate power plays. I've never felt camaraderie like that in a workplace since?certainly not in white-collar corporations. I didn't understand it then, as I had nothing to measure it against, but there's a reverse sanity to the working class: Less money going around means people don't get as crazy, especially if their lives are in order outside of work.
Born in the USA came out during one of my summers there. While it may have been a transparent play for superstardom, I thought it was also a great album and listened to it four times the night I bought it.
As far as the guys in the factory were concerned, Bruce Springsteen could kiss their big white asses. No one liked him. The older guys (mostly Korean War vets) were into big band, country or polka, and the younger favored heavy metal. This was assuming they listened to music at all?most guys simply didn't and considered it kids' stuff. To attach any value to it beyond entertainment was a bad hippie mistake.
This came out in the lunchroom, the only place we could all talk and relax for two short breaks and a half-hour lunch. I still recall one conversation I had with a coworker, a guy who was about five years older than I was who had asked me what I was listening to these days.
Me: I'm nuts about that new Springsteen album. Album of the year.
Coworker: He ain't nothing but a million-dollar faggot.
Me: What makes you say that?
Coworker: Bill, he's a rock star. Only a college kid would fall for that.
Me: But if you listen to his songs, they're all about the working class.
Coworker: So what. He's a millionaire. And I bet he's never worked a day in his life in a place like this.
Me: You shouldn't hold that against him. His old man drove a bus for a living, like Ralph Kramden. If he hadn't gotten lucky with music, he probably wouldn't be doing much better.
Coworker: Whatever. Fuck Bruce Springsteen. All that shit about darkness. That ain't my life. Even if it was, I wouldn't want my nose rubbed in it. I'd rather hear Jimmy Page kicking ass on his guitar...
It was a rude awakening for me. Who was buying these millions of records besides me? Other college kids? Where I grew up culture wasn't a learned thing to us. Our idea of it was having that month's copy of Reader's Digest on the bathroom radiator. I was considered strange and uppity for reading books in the breakroom.
Leaving that factory in late August felt good, but it didn't fill me with some profound sense of escape. I hadn't felt imprisoned or even burdened all that much. It was great fun in such a small dose. The place was full of characters, most of whom offered to break my legs if I ever returned for good. And I had to admit, Springsteen's songs didn't make any sense in the context of day-to-day work.
The summer before my senior year, the factory discontinued their internship program with no explanation. I immediately got hired on in a Home Depot-style lumberyard where I envisioned myself hustling wood into pickups and flatbeds. I spent most of my time alone in a cramped back room, assembling picnic tables and being ignored by the low-level sales associates, all of whom had attitudes about "college boys." The customers were invariably "home improvement" assholes who spent every spare moment working on their houses to avoid human contact.
Two weeks later, after accidentally flooding their toilet, I simply walked off the job. It had been like working on Mars. No one even blinked. Running with the wood theme, I found another job in an actual lumberyard where raw lumber was cut into wood. Midnight shift. I showed up my first night and all the other guys were camped out in their used cars, staring at the gate. No one spoke or made eye contact. After a while I realized that I knew most of them as either jocks or stoners from my old high school.
It was a strange night. No one would tell me what to do or even acknowledge my presence. At lunch, I finally started talking to the guys out of desperation, and they already seemed like a bunch of old men, save they didn't have that weathered sense of the world. Afterward, a few of us went out to cut a load of 2-by-4s. One of the guys, in a polka-dot train engineer's hat and Black Sabbath baseball shirt, told me about a situation they had a few nights earlier:
"Yeah, one of the guys wasn't paying attention and ended up cutting his hand off on this saw."
"That's awful," I said, genuinely shocked.
"Oh, it wasn't so bad," he responded, "we threw it in a baggy on ice, and they sewed it back on. He'll probably lose two or three fingers, but he still has his hand. Ruined his jeans, though."
He laughed like a donkey braying. I noticed his eyes?stoned and blank. All I could hear besides the saw was an occasional train passing beyond the fence. During breaks, the guys would sit around staring at each other, hardly saying anything, even the ones I had personally known in high school. It felt like a morgue.
I left that morning and never went back. With no urge to get a crappy, minimum-wage mall job, I spent the rest of the summer sleeping late and watching foo-foo hair metal and new wave bands on MTV.
The last blue-collar job I had was helping a friend treat telephone poles. This involved driving around in a pickup truck, locating the poles on a map, digging a three-foot hole around the pole, slapping creosote on the pole's base with a paint brush, stapling tar paper around the creosote, then filling the hole and moving on to the next pole.
Sound easy? The pole lines often went through farmland. I got snagged on electrified barbed wire twice; it feels like getting thumped every two seconds with a hammer. Sometimes I'd be up past my ankles in swamp and mud. A few times I took swipes at copperhead snakes with my shovel. I got so used to stepping in cow shit that I didn't even notice it. The creosote, a smelly, black paste, would get all over my hands and clothes. Two weeks into the job, I had poison ivy rashes on my hands, chest, face, forearms, dick and balls. A few times, I found myself on the wrong end of a farmer's shotgun, nervously explaining that I was not there to steal his cattle, just simply doing my job. And to top it all off, using a pick and shovel all day was nasty work?the topsoil around a pole was invariably peppered with large rocks for support. Anyone who's spent an hour unearthing a small boulder snarled in a tree root knows the backbreaking drudgery of which I speak.
The only good part of the job was being in the countryside and having no bosses, as my friend and I simply went out in the morning with supplies and did our route. It was dawning on me that I was kidding myself. Most of the reason for going to college was to avoid shit like this. What was I clinging to? It made no sense for me to do work like this. Maybe if I had been raised with money and wanted to get a taste of the other side, fine, but I knew shit jobs like this led nowhere, were no fun and didn't turn one into some mythological working-class hero. They turned one into a tired old man.
One day, my friend staked out a farm for me, and the pole line ran straight up to a barn. I anticipated the usual: a gap-toothed farmer with a sixth-grade education giving me the once-over like I was there to rob him blind, then warming up to me as there were so few people around, and finally not being able to shake him as he wanted to talk all day. But no one was around. I noticed something odd as I approached the pole. There were two dogs fucking by the barn. I also saw two chickens fucking. Two cats were yowling at each other, no doubt in some mating dance. It was like Old MacDonald on Viagra.
I took my gear behind the barn and ran into a herd of grazing cows. This was already a ritual. The cows would think I was there to feed them and encircle me, nudging me with their huge heads and slobbering all over my jeans. Cows piss and shit at will, so a few would be cutting loose, often splashing me. If I ignored them long enough, they'd walk away.
I went about digging my hole. About two minutes later, I heard this ungodly sound: a banshee wail and thuds like a fist pounding flesh. A shadow crept over my back. I turned around to see a bull on its hind legs, eyes rolled up, violently mounting a sloe-eyed cow from behind. The earth was literally shaking as the bull jumped up and down.
I dropped my shovel and ran, spouting gibberish like Curly Howard. That was it. I didn't have to be there. What was I trying to prove? I could spend the rest of my life doing shit like this, if I wasn't careful. A week later, I was staying at my cousin's place in Manhattan. Two weeks later, I had an entry-level job in an ad agency and a place to live in the Bronx.
Twelve years on, and I've floated from one low-level corporate job to the next, writing all the while and making fairly good money. Springsteen fell by the wayside for me. I learned more about the music business and found it hard to believe anything a musician on a major label said or did. Springsteen clearly has something genuine about him, but his new hometown of Rumson may as well be a million miles away from Freehold.
And this is good. Isn't this the whole point of being raised working class? To surpass your father? Springsteen is a lot like me in that he was raised working class, but ran like hell to get away from it. Only to find that he was running from a sense of identity that wasn't so horrible, especially if he managed not to live that way. I'm not sure Springsteen's fans fully understand his best work is well-meaning fiction loosely based on reality he most likely has gleaned and absorbed from friends, which is nothing to be ashamed of. I do it all the time, as does any writer.
Being raised working class is like being raised with religion: You might think you've left it behind, but you never really do. It's a blessing and a curse. I still have a lot of unhappy friends with pure grunt jobs. They seem to think that money will take care of everything, despite my constant reminders that the most miserable people I've ever met have been overpaid white-collar workers in New York. But we're all being brainwashed into believing lies and false promises about class and money.
If I respect Springsteen for anything, it's that he beat the system. He put faith in his art and it paid off, like a slot machine. For a small-town boy whose neighbors all thought he was nuts, that must be the ultimate vindication. I understand where he's coming from, and it's a strange place, where distance offers a sad, broken-hearted comfort. In some ways, I'll always be working class. The older I get and farther away I feel from there, the more I long for it.