Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium

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For the last several years, the editors of Word, the pioneering Web magazine, have been sending interviewers -- nearly forty in all -- across America to talk to people about their jobs. They wanted to document reality, not to advance any overarching thesis or political agenda. Their sole position on work was that it's a fascinating topic and an elemental part of nearly everyone's life. They were certainly not disappointed with what they found; this wide-ranging survey of the American economy at the turn of the millennium is stunning, surprising, and always entertaining. It gives us an unflinching view of the fabric of this country from the point of view of the people who keep it all moving.

Recalling Studs Terkel's 1972 classic best-seller, Working, the more than 120 roughly textured monologues that make up Gig beautifully capture the voices of our fast-paced and diverse economy. The selections demonstrate how much our world has changed -- and stayed the same -- in the last three decades. If you think things have speeded up, become more complicated and more technological, you're right.

But people's attitudes about their jobs, their hopes and goals and disappointments, endure. Gig's soul isn't sociological -- it's emotional. The wholehearted diligence that people bring to their work is deeply, inexplicably moving. People speak in these pages of the constant and complex stresses nearly all of them confront on the job, but, nearly universally, they throw themselves without reservation into coping with them. Instead of resisting work, we seem to adapt to it. Some of us love our jobs, some of us don't, but almost all of us are not quite sure what we would do without one.

With all the hallmarks of another classic on this subject, Gig is a fabulous read, filled with indelible voices from coast to coast. After hearing them, you'll never again feel quite the same about how we work.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In the tradition of Studs Terkel's Working comes Gig. The people behind the popular online publication sent nearly 40 interviewers across the country to interview some 150 workers of various stripe, from a Wal-Mart greeter to a medicine woman to an Elvis Presley interpreter. The interviews were then edited into seamless monologues that offer insightful glimpses into the working life.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Edited by's Marisa Bowe (editor-in-chief), John Bowe (freelancer) and Sabin Streeter (senior editor), here's an engaging oral history for the dot-com era. This fat book originated as a weekly column on the site of, a hip, general-interest e-magazine; it's a smart, Studs Terkel-like examination of how we work now--temporary and permanent; at home and in cubicles; 20 and 100 hours a week. In place of a seamless, analytical account, the book instead collects more than 100 personal testimonies from a range of workers--from the anonymous (a flight attendant, a UPS driver, a pretzel vendor, a dog trainer) to the famous (Heidi Klum, Julian Schnabel, Debra Messing, Barney Frank). Each testimony reflects a history, an identity and an age. Nonfiction and fiction lovers, employed and unemployed alike, will enjoy this book and its captivating real-life characters. In one account, a transvestite prostitute speaks of the dangers of working the streets, his $150,000 home in Queens, N.Y., and his early "retirement." In another testimony, a retired educator, now a Wal-Mart "greeter," declares, "My favorite thing about the job is just the fact that I have a job." By grouping these personal testimonies according to broad categories such as Workers and Managers, Buyers and Sellers, and Bodies and Souls, this well-considered, expertly crafted book manages to illustrate how work defines our lives while successfully dodging the tendency to impose a political angle on workers and their work. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Commissioned by the online magazine Word, this volume of 124 detailed and intensely readable interviews captures the everyday experiences and personal reflections of workers ranging from a retired school principal who is now a greeter at Wal-Mart to Will & Grace sitcom star Debra Messing to a workfare street cleaner. Many of the four- to five-page interviews address the impact of technology on the speeding up and de-skilling of occupations, the decline of loyalty to and on the part of employers, and the pressures of managing work and family responsibilities. The editors neither reveal their interviewing methods (which makes the eloquence of the respondents somewhat suspect) nor indicate whether the subjects are representative of their race, class, and gender in their given field. Moreover, they offer no analysis to help readers grasp whether the interviews uncover sweeping trends or the experience of an individual. The book does not aspire to social science, yet it does provide a glimpse behind the curtain of "boom-economy" rhetoric into the often dire circumstances of ordinary workers. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Paula R. Dempsey, DePaul Univ., Chicago Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Admirers of Working (New Press, 1997), the authors combined many of Studs Terkel's techniques with their own in a column for the Webzine, Word. Over two years of columns and man-on-the-street interviews are combined in 125 entries. Divided into 14 categories, they run the gamut from a Wal-Mart greeter in "Welcome" to a funeral director in "Bodies and Souls." They cover everything from an advertising executive to a workfare street cleaner and people who are legally and illegally employed. Readers discover the reality of life for a heavy-metal roadie, a poultry-factory worker, and a crime-scene cleaner. Readers see a highway flagger whose feet hurt, back aches, and who is constantly cursed for holding up traffic in a new light. Terkel's book was banned from high schools because of a few expletives; 25 years later, the expletives have increased exponentially. Readers will dip into this 500-page book thinking that they will read just one or two interviews, but they may find that it's hard to stop.-Jane S. Drabkin, Potomac Community Library, Woodbridge, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609605882
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/23/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 588
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Marisa Bowe is the founding editor-in-chief of Word, and Sabin Streeter is a senior editor. John Bowe is a freelance writer and filmmaker.

Word is "a kind of hip, low-fi New Yorker magazine for a new generation" (New York Times).

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Read an Excerpt

Neal Smither

I'm the President and owner of Crime Scene Cleaners. We clean up death scenes, like homicides. You know, the room where someone gets murdered. We also handle suicides, accidental deaths, meth labs, things like that. A lot of people have the assumption that police take care of the cleanup after a crime. That's not true. It's never been true. If Johnny or Sally gets shot in your house, or your store, and there's brains everywhere, it's your problem. You have to do the cleaning. It's not the police's responsibility at all. You clean it. Or else you call my company or one of my competitors.

The idea to start this business came to me six years ago. I was twenty-five years old. I'd just been laid off from my job as division manager at a mortgage banking firm. And there I was, wallowing for weeks in my unemployment misery, when one day, bam! I was watching the movie Pulp Fiction. And you know that scene where they blew the guy away in the back of the car and then had to bring in Harvey Keitel to clean the whole thing up? Well I saw that scene and I thought, wow, that's intriguing. Are there people out there doing this kind of job in real life? And I did some research and found out that that the answer was yes. But there were only a few companies, and they weren't marketing themselves to a broad based range of clients. They weren't selling effectively. Well, I knew I could sell, I just didn't know if I could do that kind of cleaning. So I made some phone calls.

I called every janitorial company, anyone who had anything to do with cleaning. I made literally thousands of calls. I'm a neat freak, typically, but I didn't know how professional companiescarried out their work. So I took a job with Merry Maids for a couple of weeks. Merry Maids is a residential cleaning company, sort of the McDonalds of maids, really cheap, really shitty. But working there taught me a lot about technique.

Then, next, I started contacting coroners and police, because they were going to be my target audience. I was gonna give them a percentage to give me business referrals. You know, so like somebody dies, the cops show up, they're like, "Hey, we know a guy who'll clean this up." They send me the business, they get a cut of my fee. Good idea, right? No. Wrong. Because what I found out is that they're not allowed to give out referrals, due to liability. They can't give one, they have to offer a list of cleaning companies, so there's no issue of favoritism. That was a bit discouraging, but whatever, I was into it by then. I just changed gears and I started targeting the people at mortuaries. They can give referrals.

My first job came on referral from a mortician. The victim's sister hired us. It was a lady down in Marina Bay area of Richmond. She had terminal cancer and she'd blown her brains out -- shot herself in the head with a .357. Experience-wise, it wasn't too messy -- just enough to cut my teeth and kind of get an indicator of whether I could do this. And I learned I was capable of doing it. And when the cleanup was done and I named my price, the client started cutting a check without any hesitation whatsoever. I knew immediately that this work was for me.

Of course, back then, I was totally inept. My partner and I -- I used my wife as my partner on that job -- we were there for three hours and I only charged two hundred and fifty dollars. Now, I'd be there an hour and we'd charge five seventy-five. So I've learned. I've learned so much.

My second job was so hardcore -- I'll never forget it. When I think of how little I knew, doing a job like that, it just makes me laugh. It was at a fairly upscale condominium complex in Oakland. A hugely fat guy had died on his hide-a-bed. Weeks, weeks and weeks had gone by and no one had discovered him. He was a loner. No one knew he was dead until they smelled it outside and by that time, it was atrocious. My assistant and I -- this time it was my sister -- opened the door and this ungodly smell just slammed us, big time. We hadn't learned about wearing respirators yet. We hadn't a clue. Well, the whole bottom of this guy's bed was encased in plastic from the manufacturer, and the plastic had trapped all these fluids. So I was moving the bed around, and it started stirring up these juices. And when I tip the bed over, not realizing what's going on inside of it, this rushing torrent of maggot-filled liquid spews out all over the place -- all over the carpet and all over my clothing. I vomited several times. My sister started gagging uncontrollably until she just couldn't take it anymore. So she ran out the door, and jumped over the deck, right into the pool! That one still rates as the worst "decomp" we've ever done. And we knew so little about equipment, disposal techniques, the whole thing.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction x
Wal-Mart Greeter 1
Workers and Managers
Ups Driver 5
Corporate Headhunter 9
Telemarketing Group Supervisor 13
Software Engineer 17
McDonald's Crew Member 21
Workfare Street Cleaner 24
Construction Foreman 26
Steelworker 31
Ford Auto Worker 36
Slaughterhouse Human Resources Director 40
Chief Executive Officer 45
Temp 48
Goods and Services
Systems Administrator 53
Kinko's Co-Worker 60
Automobile Parts Specialist 66
Merchandise Handler 70
Corporate Identity Consultant 72
Clutter Consultant 77
Crime Scene Cleaner 80
Computer Chip Layout Designer 86
Tofu Manufacturer 89
Taxidermist 93
Bar Owner 96
Buyers and Sellers
Lemonade Salesmen 101
Hallmark Gift Shop Saleswoman 106
Gun Store Owner 109
Drug Dealer 112
Adhesives Company Sales Representative 115
Advertising Executive 123
Financial Advisor 126
Traveling Salesman 132
Hat Saleswoman 135
Highway Flagger 139
Long-Haul Truck Drivers 142
Gas Station Attendant 148
Bus Driver 151
Train Engineer 154
Flight Attendant 158
Plants and Animals
Campground Maintenance Worker 165
Lawn Maintenance Man 168
Florist 171
Dog Trainer 174
Research Biologist 177
Commercial Fisherman 180
Buffalo Rancher 183
Poultry Factory Worker 187
Waitress 191
Smokehouse Pit Cooks 195
Diet Center Owner 198
Pretzel Vendor 203
Produce Stand Owner 206
Food Stylist 209
Film Producer 213
Film Development Assistant 217
Film Director 220
Actress 227
Casting Director 232
Supermodel 236
Paparazzo 239
Journalist 246
Book Scout 250
Anchorwoman 253
Television Guest Coordinator 259
Television Station Receptionist 263
Artists and Entertainers
Songwriter 267
Advocate for Rappers 270
Mc 274
Heavy Metal Roadie 278
A&R Executive 282
Painter 290
Art Mover 293
Web Content Producer 297
Carnival Worker 302
Video Game Designer 305
Comedian 309
Elvis Presley Interpreter 313
Sports and Gambling
High School Basketball Coach 317
Professional Hockey Player 324
Professional Snowboarder 328
Professional Basketball Player 332
Sports Agent 337
Squash Instructor 340
Bookie 343
Casino Surveillance Officer 350
Escort 355
Porn Star 359
Stripper 365
Adult Webmistress 369
Transvestite Prostitute 372
Children and Teachers
Labor-Support Doula 377
Mother 382
Toys "R" Us Marketing Executive 387
Second-Grade Teacher 391
High School Math Teacher 395
College Professor 399
Lawyers and the Law
Personal Injury Trial Lawyer 405
Corporate Securities Lawyer 412
Social Worker 416
Fbi Agent 421
Border Patrol Agent 426
Homicide Detective 432
Bounty Hunter 439
Prison Guard 446
Prisoner 449
Government and Military
Sailor 455
Army Psychological Operations Specialist 458
Air Force General 462
Environmental Protection Agency Specialist 467
Lobbyist 471
Public Utilities Specialist 475
Town Manager 479
City Planner 482
U.S. Congressman 487
Political Fund-Raiser 494
Bodies and Souls
Nurse 499
Anesthesiologist 502
Orthopedic Surgeon 507
Plastic Surgeon 513
Pharmaceutical Company Sales Representative 518
Psychiatric Rehabilitation Therapist 523
Medicine Woman 528
Minister 530
Palm Reader 533
Telephone Psychic 536
Funeral Home Director 540
Credits 547
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Interviews & Essays

Making GIG: An Essay by John Bowe

July 14, 1999, 11 p.m. I'm in a motel room in Wichita, Kansas, calling the Betti Le Boop escort service:

Me: "Hello, umm, [nervous, exhausted] I've got a strange request."

Woman's Voice: "Yeah, well, we get lots of those. What's your deal?"

Me: "I'm a journalist -- I'm working on a book -- and I was wondering if I could interview one of your escorts."

Woman: "Is this, like, some weird fetish thing?"

Me: "No, no, this is for real."

Woman: "And this is for what? A book?

Me: "Yeah."

Woman: "You just"

Me: "Mm-hmm."

Woman: [pause] "All right. I'll come over myself. My name's Simone. Gimme about a half hour."


In April of 1999, we -- Sabin Streeter, my sister, Marisa Bowe, and I -- signed a deal with Crown Publishing to produce GIG, a book of interviews with people from all over the United States talking about their jobs. We'd already gathered a number of interesting interviews and printed them in my sister's webzine. All we needed were three or so dozen more. No big deal -- we thought. However, even with people emailing us from all over the country with ideas for subjects, we realized that if we were going to even attempt to do justice to the occupational, geographic, temperamental, racial, economic, etc., etc. diversity of this country, we needed to go out and get specific types of interviews we weren't getting.

So I spent the summer of 1999 logging what ended up being 30,000 miles, criss-crossing the country; working the Internet, the Yellow Pages, bars, restaurants, parking lots, and playgrounds; sleeping in Motel 6s, drive-thru dining at McDonald's, chatting up clerks, weirdos, aunts and majordomos, always looking for that next missing subject: the blackest, the whitest, the east-est, the west-est, the most funny, the most sad, the most normal. The operative question and impulse were always the same: Does it feel like life yet? What are we forgetting? Who are we forgetting? How can we take every sight, smell, voice, vibe, chuckle, memory, and reverie, and cram it all into one book that captures the spirit of our times in something less than 12 million pages?

The day after I interviewed Simone, the Wichita escort, I drank Pabsts in a Kansas City ghetto ballpark with two barbecue chefs. The day after that, I sped up to Minot, North Dakota, to interview a Jenny Craig Diet Center franchise owner I'd located online. The next morning, I walked into a Billings, Montana, television station, hoping to interview a newscaster. The receptionist charmed the pants off of me, and I begged her to let me interview her instead. She was a knockout.

A day later, driving through Yellowstone, I called home from a parkside pay phone. With a herd of elk on one side of me and a rainbow sprouting up what seemed like four feet away on the other, I heard my message machine inform me that after enduring immense pestering, Congressman Barney Frank and supermodel Heidi Klum had both agreed to let me interview them. Derek Jeter, however, was out, as were Susan Sarandon, Steve Case (then the mere CEO of AOL), the cell-phone tower installer from Lincoln, Nebraska, and a depressingly large host of others. The imam from the central mosque in Oklahoma City had not called back, nor had the Human Resources lady from the CD manufacturing plant in Huntsville, Alabama. And the PR guys from Microsoft, Citibank, Sun Microsystems, Smith & Wesson, R. J. Reynolds, Mattel, etc. weren't getting back to me either. Nor would they ever. (Evidently, PR stands for "Please Retry [me later, so I can continue to be overpaid while ignoring you yet again].")

The summer became a feverish, hyperbolic rush of successes and failures. On July 23rd in a Laramie, Wyoming, coffee shop at 1am, I met a husband-and-wife trucker couple, Mike and Darlene Yockey. The second they began talking, it was clear that they were perhaps the most in-love people I've ever had the privilege to meet. Then, half an hour into their story, we realized my tape recorder had been jammed the whole time. I imploded: I'm an idiot, I thought, a bush-league piece of shit -- I have lost A++ material, and worst of all, I have wasted these people's time. To my amazement, Mike and Darlene were unperturbed. "Just start the damn thing over again! We've got all night." The second go-around was even better than the first. I was saved.

The failures are as memorable as the successes. August 7th, 2am, at a juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi: I am in the middle of a cornfield, listening to the best DJ mix I've ever heard (modern-day electric blues guys fused with old-schoolish rap, like LL Cool J's "Goin Back to Cali"). Everyone is drunk, stoned, countrified, black, dancing; I am sober, urban, immobile, white, and feeling just a wee bit out of my element. I get the interview with the two brothers who run the juke joint. They're great talkers, but later, we realize that because I made the mistake of interviewing them both at the same time, they come off as too similar to the KC rib guys. We can't use them. Oops....

Then there's the moonshiner from Sneedville, Tennessee. Once I've assured him that I'm not part of the "Jewish-controlled media conspiracy," he takes me to his mom's basement, shares his top-shelf liquor with me, shows me his homegrown ginseng (explaining that it "keeps your dick hard all night long"), talks a bit about his love for his Klan brethren, and disappears on a three-day bender. The interview never happens.

Finally, there's the Human Resources woman in Huntsville who, despite 14 or so phone calls, never gets back to me. So I show up at her CD plant one day, hoping for some Southern hospitality. The beefy female security chief says it's no go without official permission. I troll the parking lot, trying to snag someone getting off the morning shift. Before anything happens, the security chief comes outside with two enormous male guards and kicks me off the lot. As I skulk away, she says, "I do hope you have a pleasant rest of the day."

And I do, because six time zones earlier, in Honolulu, the top general of the entire Pacific command of the U.S. Air Force is waiting for my call, and he gives a great interview. I fly home, and the next day I'm eating some nouvelle something-or-other with Heidi Klum, trying (transparently, no doubt) to act casual as we chat about her new calendar.

Gig, and the job of making it, was the kind of project I've always dreamed of. More than a journalistic, sociological, or anthropological document, it's been something akin to a religious experience. I mean this in a very specific, and, I hope, unpretentious way. It is sustenance for me to know that people and their thoughts are more interesting than the movies, advertising, technology, sexy airheads, drugs, and myriad other things we're bombarded with and urged to think about all the time.

Some of the people in the book are happier than others; some more altruistic, some more memorable. Very few are jerks, and very few are saints. Many of the people I spoke with seemed confused, almost saddened by the task of delving into their feelings about their occupations. After a while, it dawned on me why: As a group of people, we Americans have been given unprecedented free rein to do anything and everything our hearts desire. This is not to say our society doesn't have problems, limitations, or inequities. But to read through Gig is to see person after person confronting the central problem of our society: In a world where one can do almost anything, how does anyone ever know if they've done the right thing? There's no answer to the question, of course. But what emerges from the varied, contradictory voices of this book is a thoughtfulness we seem to normally do our best to hide.

—John Bowe

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2000

    One of the best books I ever read in my life.

    I particularly like this book because I can relate it to a musical I performed in for my high school. The musical was called 'Working' and in it, people told the story of their life. Gig also tells stories about peoples lives and I find it to be very interesting reading material. For a fun and interesting book, I suggest you read Gig. (I personally hate reading and this is actually a book I wanted to read!)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2000


    I have been reading word for a year now and i think the interviews with workers are one of the best things about their site. I am going to buy two copies for me and a friend!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2000

    excerpts in the NYer rocked!

    Have you ever stared into an office building at night and wondered what those tiny figures under the fluorescent lights are thinking? Reading Gig, I felt like the angels in 'Wings of Desire',that I was hearing the thoughts of those strangers. Mercifully free of a politic agenda, Gig seems at the vanguard of an un-named, simmering zeitgeist. Better than fiction, and more compelling than the news. I can't wait to read the rest.

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