Where's our old-fashioned government jobs program?

It's intolerable that 15 million people are unemployed and many more underemployed. Work is redemptive

Published April 7, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

I think of myself as conservative and that's why it was so irritating last Sunday in church when we were instructed to cry out gladly on cue, "He is risen indeed, Alleluia," and so I did not. An invasion of privacy, and when the trumpets blared, trying to goose us into jubilation, I wished we could roll the rock back over the tomb with them inside it. I don't do jubilation on command, and I don't grin just because a photographer tells me to. I am irked at the cancerous spread of flutey mood music in public places and the plague of nannyistic warning signs in our nation ("Caution: coffee is hot." "Road may be slippery when wet."), and I avoid committees of earnest, well-meaning people. I believe in the entrepreneur, the impassioned individual. I'm a conservative.

On the other hand, I don't like an individual to whistle in a crowded elevator, not even quietly. It is just too creepy.

It's the conservative in me that wishes we had an old-fashioned government jobs program, such as FDR's Works Progress Administration, which hired unemployed people to work to build roads, libraries, public toilets, hiking trails, tens of thousands of small useful projects. (When my dad saw the initials WPA on the cornerstone of a building, he said it stood for "We Poke Along," but he could afford to be disdainful since he'd been hired after high school by his uncle Lew to pump gas at Lew's Pure Oil station.) My inner conservative thinks unemployment is wasteful and damaging to the spirit -- 15 million unemployed, many more underemployed -- a disaster, a blight upon the land. Intolerable.

Work is redemptive. When I was hired, right out of high school, to wash pots and pans at a hotel in Minneapolis, I felt real jubilation. After the deaths of James Dean and Buddy Holly, I had adopted a tragic view of life and imagined I'd die in a crash or else become a hobo and wind up destitute, but instead I was paid actual money to run racks of dishes through a machine. It felt princely at the time.

Two years later, I worked the night shift at a morning paper for a cigar-smoking city editor named Walt who liked to bark out my name and see me jump. When he told me to call the hospital and find out if the kid who'd been struck by the hit-and-run driver last night on Selby Avenue was still alive, I called. The kid was alive. I wrote up the facts on a manual typewriter and passed it to a blotchy-faced cadaverous man at the copy desk and it went into the paper that landed on people's doorsteps the next morning. Page 14, bottom. I felt I had a place in the world. I was easily replaceable but felt exalted anyway.

Back in those days, I used to visit relatives on their farm and they always found jobs for me to do. It was not right or decent that a healthy man should sit and stare out the window, so I was allowed to run the manure spreader. I reached back from the tractor seat and pulled the lever that engaged the drive mechanism and the scrapers moved the wet manure to the rear where the big teeth on the revolving drum flung the clods onto the corn stubble. I did this about as well as a person could.

Years later, I got a job in radio thanks to my willingness to get up at 4 a.m. and sound cheerful on the air. I could've gone into manure spreading instead, but it seemed too specialized and didn't offer enough hours, so I chose radio. Two different career paths but there are similarities. You can't do radio fast, and you can't run a manure spreader in high gear: You're apt to clog up the works and have to stop and clear the mess by hand. Both jobs, done well, contribute to society in some small way and give you, the professional, a crucial sense of well-being.

When you have shoveled tons of wet manure and broadcast it across 40 acres of stubble, you feel you have given a good account of yourself. Sometimes radio is like that too. You talk about your salad days along the Mississippi and a truck driver hears it as he barrels west through Montana and years later you meet him in a cafe and he tells you what you said. It's a job. We all need one.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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