By Curtis Price
June 11, 2020
When I was younger, I remember my father – a railroad worker – coming home from work and hiding out for hours in his workshop in the basement. His improvised workshop was full of tools of different sizes and shapes; he poured over copies of Popular Mechanics, studying the schematics, drawing his own blueprints. I’d look at the Popular Mechanics and feel intimidated by the complexity of the designs – they made no sense but instead looked like some sort of secret code interpretable only by the initiated of some secret brotherhood, a Templar Knights of hacksaws and hammers.
Much later, when my father separated from my mother and had moved out, self-isolating to a house in a patch of the woods that he called “Poverty Hollows” – yes, he’d actually answer the phone “Poverty Hollows –he turned the garage into a workshop. (I should add he got out of a couple decades of working with a full railroad pension for having a diagnosis of vertigo; a vertigo though that didn’t stop him from driving to shop and drink beers at the local bar anytime he chose.) When he died, we had to sift through the wreckage – “clutter” is too generous a term – the turned over, abandoned chicken coops, the old refrigerators and car-carcasses in the yard straight out of rural Mississippi and a workshop where everything had rusted. Perhaps a fitting symbol for the whole scene was a mummified rat that had somehow gotten trapped in its death throes dangling from a stopped wall-clock.
Now, for many men of my father’s class and generation, the home workshop was an arena of self-expression and self-mastery, qualities that were probably lacking on their jobs. Working with your hands and tools outside of the demands of paid employment was a form of creative play, perhaps in a small way close to Marx’s famous observation from “The German Ideology” about hunting in the morning and criticizing in the evening without becoming either a “hunter” or a “critic”.
A couple years ago, I was browsing magazines in a bookstore and opened Popular Mechanics. The majority of articles were product reviews of some new whiz-bang gadget; the self-help schematics relegated to a distant second. In a tiny way, it illustrates to me the onward march of the commodification of leisure, where instead of building you now buy objects from the Sharper Image. In its small, almost insignificant manner, it signifies yet another step toward deskilling, of replacing the active ethic of the producer with the passive ethic of the consumer.
But there are two exceptions to this general trend. One, which I’m only superficially aware of, is the tinker movement, which strives to recapture some of the old skills of the home workshop, even if most of the tinkering is done with electronics. But its enthusiasts are young IT and creative types, not blue-collar workers.
The second is repairing and messin’ around with your own car. This is more widespread in the South than in the north, in part because of more relaxed zoning and code enforcement so that you can fill your yard with old cars without racking up city fines. Now, in part, this self-help repair is out of necessity and not from creativity: since people are poorer down here, working on your car becomes a responsibility and not a hobby, especially in car-dependent Southern cities. Noel Ignatiev once wrote about how auto industry supervisors complained of lazy line workers, yet these same workers spent hours off the clock fixing and souping up their own cars. It’s true: Removed from the compulsion and the regimentation of labor, a worker’s creativeness can flower.
Where I live – a low-income apartment complex – on weekends there are at least a half a dozen men with their hoods up, staring intently inside, banging and pulling at something, what I can’t see. Often their labor becomes a communal affair; others come up and watch – or pitch in. A black guy will call up a white co-worker to help him with his car – and vice versa. (1)It’s just part of the informal mutual aid that comes easier in the South, with workers of different races interacting freely and un-self-consciously; true, an infinitesimally insignificant act in the grand scheme of things but a tantalizing glimpse that prefigures a different mode of living than our present.