Charlie LeDuff's Work and Other Sins on everyday life in the city

Charlie LeDuff's Work and Other Sins on everyday life in the city
Photo of Charlie LeDuff's Work and Other Sins, taken by me

Charlie LeDuff's book "Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts" is about places in New York that working people frequent like barbershops and bars, places where people like to chit chat. Visiting such places, the book provides a glimpse of everyday life for the working people of New York. In small fragments that are around 2-10 pages long, LeDuff also conveys these people's personal lives, their view of their place in the city, or their take on current events. But most importantly, the book is a testament to the vastly different dimensions and experiences of everyday life in a city like New York.

Aside from places like bars and small shops, LeDuff's portrayal of New York includes images of everyday life from places that are unfamiliar to most people, like graveyards and slaughterhouses. The stories that people who work at these places tell often refer to events that are so tragic that one does not realize how usual they actually are. For example, a gravedigger mentions how bad he feels burying babies or "the cheap particleboard coffins ... that come straight from the nursing home." He adds: "No rabbi comes, no family, and you're wondering how this person must have lived."

Similarly, other people go work at slaughterhouses everyday, under horrible conditions, and this becomes the "everyday life" for them, a part of their routine existence. The book reminds the reader that the burials of babies and murder of animals are in fact very usual events albeit not what comes to mind when we hear the phrase "everyday life." The book emphasizes that what we call "everyday life" in the city can be vastly different depending on factors like class and race.

According to LeDuff, all these tragic everyday events that almost happen in the background, behind the scenes, are "real life." The middle-class everyday life in the city, in comparison, seems like a façade that conceals the traumatizing realities of life. The slaughterhouse workers and gravediggers spend everyday dealing with death which is pushed to the outskirts of the city so that the routines of everyday life in the city remain undisturbed. The everyday life of these workers is indeed the "real life" as they deal with the harshest realities of life in the city that determine the rhythms of everyday life for more privileged people.

Yet reality often finds a way to pierce through this façade. The book is published in 2004, and it is suffused with the tragedy of September 11 attacks. While it does not change the everyday routines of New Yorkers, we see in the book that it certainly weighs on and bothers New Yorkers as they continue their lives.

Yet people's worries only find expression in certain types of places like bars and barbershops. A customer at a barbershop mourns the death of hundreds of civilians: "So much death. It's depressing. The closer you live to it, the more depressed you are."  And the barbershop claims:

"The hair never a-changes, really. You do. It grows a-long a-maybe, but that's is. . . It's-a just that there's something bothering you. That's when you go to the barber. You sit down and have a drink an-a a talk about it."

If we actually think of everyday life in the city as an act that conceals the tragic realities of life, getting a haircut is also a symbolic way of dealing with the reality that underlies our everyday experience.

The phenomenon of people expressing their worries in very particular public places, like barbershops, is an interesting one. Paying attention to this phenomenon has led to initiatives like Cuts and Conversations, which creates space for Black men to talk about their lives at barbershops. For example, a small barbershop in Delray Beach brings in a therapist once a month to help customers who often confide in their barbers. One cannot help but wonder what is special about hair and what is the connection between the hair and one's inner self.  

Perceiving the hair as an extension of the self and "the physical manifestation of thoughts" is nothing new. Native American belief systems indicate a strong connection between one's hair and spirituality. There is also the ancient biblical myth of Samson which is about a supernatural man who loses his abilities after his lover cuts his hair. In modern western societies, there is the popular phenomenon called post-breakup haircut; cutting the hair symbolizes renewal and change and suggests an enduring connection between one's mental state and one's hair.

While in both Native American tribes and ancient cultures, long hair is usually associated with power and good intuition, in modern life, the hair seems to accumulate bad energies, experiences, and worries in life, and one feels the need to get rid of it, as implied by words of the barber at LeDuff's book. The two-page chapter about the barbershop in LeDuff's book addresses the feeling of discomfort and distress that occasionally befalls one while moving to the predictable rhythms of everyday life. The hidden dimension of everyday life on the margins of the city, "the real life," occasionally surfaces and finds symbolic expressions in people's physical being.

While it is certainly not a page-turner, Charlie LeDuff's book offers fascinating images of everyday life in different parts of New York.