When I was 11 years old, my mother gave me a book called Working, by Studs Terkel. It catalogued hundreds of interviews with people all over the United States, asking them about their jobs and how they felt about what they did. People were honest and forthright. It had none of the sheen of today’s social media friendly personal narratives. This was raw and exposed and I fell in love with these portraits of real people with real feelings and I thought, “I too will grow up and become a real person.”
That same year I got two other things: a camera and my first photography job. I was a paperboy. At 5:30 a.m., I would get two stacks delivered to my driveway: one was the news and the other was advertisements. I would put them together, wrap it with a rubber band and stick it in my shoulder bag. The first day I tried to ride my bike with a full shoulder bag and couldn’t do it. I stood there and cried. Gathered myself and thought about it. Then I emptied half of it, delivered what I had and came back for the rest. It was inefficient and I hated it, but according to the book, this was work. And as promised, it came with more than a paycheck – it made me feel like I was becoming someone.
This push to define myself through my work went on and on. I worked through college, and then spent the next 30 years pedaling forward, up the ranks of marketing agencies as an Art Director, a Creative Director and, eventually, Chief Creative Officer. Then one day, only two weeks before my 50th birthday, I was fired. This happens in marketing; one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. It’s not personal. Well, it’s all personal until they let you go, then it’s not personal.
That day I went down to the beach. It was raining. I stood in it and looked out at the ocean. For the first time in almost 40 years I was without a job to define me or to be my portrait. I would need to figure out what was next for me. Instead of feeling scared, I felt excited. I felt… 11.
Remember that camera I got? Well, I’d always kept it close. Over the years, the photography had taken on its own life – a parallel one to the career. Many had said that it was my “true calling.” Was it? Without the outside structure to hand me my assignments, I decided to make one up for myself.
In my mind, the state of working in America had changed – for me, for America. It was more of a feeling than anything else. By all counts, our low unemployment rates seemed to paint a picture of a country with its head down, working hard. But I sensed something else. And this notion gave me an idea. What if I went and found out? A journey across the U.S. that would perhaps reveal the state of work in the country and also, maybe, paint a roadmap for me of what’s next.
I pitched the concept (“America at Work”) to a publisher who helped me organize and finance it. After a month of planning, I was packing up my car and saying goodbye to my family and going to find out.