Eines Arbeiter’s Weltreise

by | Oct 8, 2006 | Literature

Indian Summer is over.  Yesterday was wonderful cycling weather, low 70’s and patchy clouds, but today is about 50 and drizzling, with similar forecast for the foreseeable future.  There will no doubt be a few rideable days before winter sets in, but bicycle season is officially over.

The other day, the possibility of a day job readred its ugly head, and not just any day job but one that would pay $17 an hour.  In Colorado Springs, that’s a lot.  And, knowing that bicycle season was drawing to a close, I thought pretty seriously about applying.  My mother would be terribly relieved if I did, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do it, not in the middle of getting this book off the ground.  I’ve been unemployed now since June, a circumstance that has finally given me the time to finish the novel, and to take a job at this point in the game would seem to indicate a distinct lack of faith.


Years ago, rummaging through a used book shop in Alton, Illinois, I came across what is now certainly one of the most curious and amusing books in my library.  It is called Eines Arbeiters Weltreise, which means A Worker’s World Tour.  In 1910, Fritz Kummer, a Socialist and skilled mechanic, finding himself temporarily without gainful employment, decides to go on a trip.  He wants to investigate working conditions in various countries, supporting himself by taking jobs along the way and also by writing articles for a Socialist newspaper back home in Stuttgart.  The cover has an illustration of Fritz striding across the globe, one sturdy boot in Germany and the other about to land on New York, walking stick in one hand and a satchel slung across the opposite shoulder.  Strapped to the satchel are some mechanics tools, a quill, and a bottle of ink.  On his face is an expression that displays anything but Kummer, which means sorrow, or worry, or affliction, or care.

I would love to translate the whole book for you, but will limit myself to describing one typical incident.

While in New York, he takes various jobs, and on the weekends explores the surrounding area.  He becomes fascinated by a factory complex that goes on for several miles, and decides that he simply must find out what goes on in such a place.  Does he take a resume in to the HR department, and ask to fill out an application?  Not Fritz.  He buys himself a beer at a tavern just outside one of the many factory gates, and asks the bartender what he might have heard about job openings.  You’re out of luck, Mack, replies the barkeep.  Lately, all they’ve been doing is laying people off.  Wonderful, says Fritz; then they will have plenty of positions open for me.  The bartender, rolling his eyes, goes off to wipe down the other end of the bar, and Fritz saunters across the way to the factory gate.

He gives the guard there what he calls an ‘American handshake,’ which is a handshake with a quarter inside, and asks him what he knows about job possibilities.  Well, says the guard, all he knows is that they’ve been trying without any success to fill one specific position in one of the shops.  Fritz gives him another American handshake and mentions that he sure would like to find out exactly what they’re looking for.  The guard steps inside, returning with one of the factory hands, who tells Fritz that it’s a real technical job operating hydraulic presses.

Our hero then finds his way to HR, where nobody is very interested in talking to him, but eventually someone has a minute free.  They’re not hiring, he’s told, but they’ll take his information and get back to him if something opens up.  What sort of work is he qualified for?  Well, nothing special, says Fritz.  Over in Germany he just used to operate hydraulic presses.

Several minutes later he is introduced to the press he will operate, and to his assistant.  He tells the assistant that there are several ways that guys run presses – what was the usual procedure around here?  So the assistant runs him through the drill, and Fritz nods and tells him that that is a good way to do things, so he will do it that way, too.