As someone who has spent most of his life in the volatile field of journalism, I’ve often had to take part-time work between jobs or when things are slow, which has been frequent since the digital revolution. These gigs have ranged from the rewarding (substitute teacher), to the luxurious (housesitting and pool maintenance for summer vacationers) to the downright hellish (tree removal).
All of them, however, have one thing in common: They all made me a better journalist.
The reason is that manual labor keeps you in touch with people of truly divergent views and opinions. Such jobs also keep you humble and take you out of the house and away from the house of mirrors that is social media. I recently wasted a day on Twitter and Facebook and felt spiritually drained. It was like being stuck at the snarky cool kids table for hours. Liberal website Vox has just posted a YouTube video commenting on the nature of other YouTube videos. This isn’t an echo chamber; it’s an asylum.
My real-world job right now is at a liquor store. It’s a well-run place staffed by nice people. On my first day, when the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. so I could be there to load the 600-plus cases of booze that would be on the 7:00 a.m. truck, the world of internet squabbles, inane comments, dumb flame wars and alt-right vs. alt-left invective disappeared. In his excellent book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Jesuit scholar James V. Schall argues that the most important things in life are the times that we are trained to believe are not important—playing, dancing, gardening, flirting. These are the things that remind us that we cannot create utopia and should not spend our lives trying to.
In the same way, being a retail lifter-and-mover offers a respite from much of the petty background noise of journalism and allows room for more humane impulses, like conversation, to flourish. My coworkers are recent immigrants, part-time government contractors, semi-retired older dudes, teachers and coaches (interestingly enough, there are no college students). Being quickly tossed into manual labor with a group of strangers allows for easy acclimation as no one is trying to impress anyone. If you’re all guys, which we are on truck day at the store, the conversation turns to sports, women, music, books, and the kind of slapstick mishaps that can happen in retail operations. There’s thankfully no talk of Trump or Clinton or abortion or guns.
After a few weeks of this, you begin to understand just exactly how insular is the world of “crusading” journalists and internet warriors. Step just a few yards away from the computer, and you find Americans of all races, creeds and colors getting along with each other, loving their families, cheering their favorite teams and making friendships. It’s like waking up from The Matrix.
Our modern era makes it easy for people who are young and inexperienced but have big mouths to post videos or Twitter rants and call themselves journalists, but quick notoriety often shelters them from doing the necessary work of keeping a foot in the real world—the place where traditionally you find interesting leads for new stories. One of the guys who works at the liquor store is an older former cook who used to do barbecue for a popular NFL team. Within an hour he had become a source for some great stories and insights into the after-hours NFL. He didn’t trade in gossip or anything salacious, just fun human interest stuff. Another guy is an Indian immigrant working his way up to manager, and we compare notes on Indian food.
Spending the better part of a day unloading and shelving and talking about life in general with people I would never meet if I was hunched over a keyboard has in fact been a more effective method for understanding the world today than following professional journalists’ attempts at insight or wit on Twitter, or watching cable news. If you want to understand your fellow human beings, it helps to walk, live—and yes, work—beside them. You might be surprised by how much you learn.
Image: Flickr/Hector Alejandro