Congratulations to Kevin Cramer on the release of American Grunt: Ridiculous Stories of a Life Lived at $8.00 an Hour!
Kevin was gracious to answer some quesitons about his book and the experiences he had that led him to writing and publishing it. We hope you enjoy this interview with Kevin and Bethany Marshall, CEO of Publishizer.
BM: American Grunt is a unique blend of humor and reflection on the challenges of blue-collar work. How did you balance those two elements in your writing?
KC: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I set out to balance them to be perfectly honest. I just told the stories I thought were interesting and I guess I most distinctly remember the lighter moments. Work itself, no matter what you do is pretty absurd. The hierarchies, the clashes of people’s wants and needs, everyone’s varying degrees of commitment – you’re going to end up with a ton of funny moments any time a group of people are forced together who aren’t necessarily on the same page. For most of us, work is mostly having to do crap you’d rather not be doing. As Red Foreman said in one of the great TV quotes of all time on That 70’s Show, “That’s why they call it work and not super wonderful crazy fun time.” I try to remember that quote whenever I’m digging a ditch in the rain or tearing down a soot laden ceiling or something.
BM: What avice would you give to someone who feels stuck in a dead-end job and is struggling to find meaning in their work?
KC: To be blunt, I’d say, “don’t search for meaning in your work.” Search for meaning in the human you are and how you have positive effects on the people around you. Somewhere along the line (and I think it’s very recently) we’ve been duped into thinking our occupation has to have some greater meaning. But I know my grandfather wasn’t searching for meaning while going to the same workstation for forty years and assembling railroad switches. His meaning came from playing cards with his friends, raising his family, working on his car, having an ice cream with his grandkids, etc. I doubt he ever said to himself, “A factory worker? Is this all I am?” We’re all so much more than our occupation, but we’re trained from an early age that who we are is defined by our job. When we ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” answers are typically, “I want to be a firefighter. A doctor. A baseball player.” Kids don’t typically say, “A good person.” But maybe we should be looking at it that way instead.
BM: Yes, maybe we should. So, in your opinion, what is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about blue-collar workers?
KC: Ha. Probably that we’re all dumb, uncultured cavemen. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with a ton of absolute morons in all of my blue collar jobs, but I’ve also worked with a lot of well read, introspective people who just happen to have followed a path that society doesn’t typically associate with a high level of intelligence. Two of my uncles repaired power lines. Another is the maintenance guy at a steel mill. My best friend is a butcher. And as a collective, their worldview is more expansive and interesting than most of the people I met in grad school.
I was once driving some customers home from the rental car place in Pittsburgh where I worked washing and fixing vehicles. They were in town for a theatre conference and started discussing various things that only theatre people find interesting and the woman in the passenger’s seat said to me, “I’m sure we’re boring you with all of this playhouse talk. I apologize.” I replied, “Actually, I ran a small theatre out in Los Angeles for a few years so I’m silently nodding at everything you’re saying.” Now you gotta realize at the time I was wearing a dirty mechanic’s uniform and smelled like motor oil. The woman looked at me as if I told her I eat chainsaws. It was the last thing she expected based on my job and appearance. Getting that look from people is really fun and it happens more often than you’d think.
BM: We really appreciate your storytelling! American Grunt, is a memoir of sorts. Was it difficult to write about your own experiences, and how did you approach the process?
KC: I think it would’ve been really difficult if I wasn’t obsessed with writing everything down. I’m not sure why, but when I was fifteen I decided to start keeping a super detailed journal, which is the only reason I can remember as much as I do about a ton of dumb jobs that I’m certain I’d have completely erased from my head by now. I wrote down snippets of dialogue I’d overheard, conversations I’d had, and tiny particulars about certain places that allowed me to easily go back and feel the moments I was writing about.
BM: We're so glad you did. Can you share with us one of the most ridiculous experiences you've had on the job?
KC: Well a majority of them are in the book and I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, there’s been an insane amount of moments where I thought to myself, “I’m getting punked right now. Everyone here is an actor except me.”
I’d say one of the dumber things that happened recently (and thus after I completed the book) was at a restaurant I’d helped remodel for the small construction company I now work for. They had a big thunderstorm that sent water cascading down the back stairs, seeping under the steel door and flooding the prep kitchen in two inches of water. After we came in, cleaned up and sanitized everything, my boss realized we needed to put a drain in the center of the landing at the base of the back door - which required me to spend half a day jackhammering a bunch of old concrete that wanted to turn to dust instead of break up in nice tossable chunks.
The biggest nuisance was that I had to get it all done while the restaurant was open because get this - neighbors don’t appreciate jackhammering at 2AM. I was working on the exit that the employees used to duck outside for their smoke breaks, so I briefly thought to myself, “Maybe I should put up a sign on the other side of the door telling everyone that I’m working, and they should use the side exit instead.” But then I thought, “Nah, I’m using one of the loudest, most obvious machines known to man. Nobody’s going to open the door and step into a tiny, localized earthquake. I turned the jackhammer on and got to work.
Two minutes later….
JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING
The door opens revealing a surprised waitress with a cigarette hanging from her lips. “Oh my god, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were working out here.”
“No problem. Just tell everyone to use the side door.”
JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING
Door opens. Surprised prep cook this time. “Oh shit, man, I didn’t realize there was anyone out here.”
“Yeah, as I told the waitress, just have everyone use the side door for now.”
JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING JACKHAMMERING
Door opens. Surprised dishwasher. “Can I still get out here to smoke? You should let people know you’re working on the back stairs, man.”
“Bro, I’m using a jackhammer. You can’t set it to silent.”
Long story short, I had to make the sign.
For more ridiculous stories about the summer I spent stealing rental cars back from deadbeats, how I got fired from a teaching job on suspicion of witchcraft, the mysterious case of the Barnes & Noble butter bandit, and tons more, check out the book!
BM: What was your motivation for writing American Grunt, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
KC: The motivation was pretty much pandemic boredom. I’d written a comedic memoir called “Universe Point,” about my time playing championship level ultimate frisbee that came out in 2017 through a small press in Seattle. I enjoyed writing and promoting it and got a lot of great feedback from all around the world. (When you’re not a big time author, seeing random Instagram posts from a stranger in Finland or Denmark who’s enjoying your book is unreal.) When the pandemic started I knew I needed a project to keep my mind occupied. I just didn’t know what. And then I woke up at 4AM one morning struck with a thought - “Universe Point, but about all of my crappy jobs!” I ran downstairs and wrote the introduction right there.
Honestly, it became a bit heavier than I intended it to be. I said a ton more about American society and what works and doesn’t for people like me than I meant to. I envisioned it being a bunch of ridiculous stories with a foggy and undefined thruline but as I wrote I realized there was actually a relatable mental health journey behind it all. I’d gone from idealistic kid who came within an eyelash of all of his hard work paying off to a middle-aged man who watched his dreams die due to economic factors outside of his control. The resulting drudgery of everyday life led to anger, depression, and eventually after a number of years… something resembling acceptance.
I hope what people get out of the book that it’s ok to fail as long as you put everything you have into what you do. Success and failure are really pretty arbitrary and despite what we’re told about upward mobility in America, often come down to how much wealth you were born into. If you change your view of what constitutes success, most of us are indeed successful - at something. It could be little things like being dependable or helpful or good to your neighbors. (Ya know, all the stuff Mr. Rogers preached) Those things are super valuable as well.
If you don’t have all that you thought you would or aren’t where you planned on being when you were young, it’s ok. Most of us don’t make it and settle into routine lives that no one knows or cares about, and that’s perfectly fine. Especially because a lot of people who DO make it are insufferable douches.
And I really hope people laugh a lot at the stories. I hope reading this book makes their day better. I laughed a ton while remembering everything and writing it down.
BM: On a not-so-funny note, you mentioned that you've almost died at work three separate times. Were you joking? And can you tell us more about those experiences?
KC: Not joking! One time in 1996, I barely dodged a thousand pounds of window and door tracks that fell off a forklift - in 2012 a bolt of lightning hit right next to me while I was washing cars, and in 2020 I fell sixteen feet through the floor of a building we were renovating, landed on a concrete floor and walked away. Ok, limped away. But somehow, I survived three incidents I probably shouldn’t have. I go into a lot more detail in the book.
BM: Finally, what's the best piece of advice you've received throughout your writing and blue-collar work journey?
KC: On the cusp of my graduation, I once had one of my professors ask me how I was feeling. “Honestly, unsettled,” I said. I expected him to reassure me and say that everything would work out just fine but instead he laughed and said, “Live an interesting life and you’ll always feel that way.” I don’t know why, but that piece of advice really hit home. His words were essentially permission to value the stories and memories I was picking up along the way as much if not more than a paycheck. At that point I knew the path I was taking probably wasn’t going to lead me anywhere near wealth, so I had to strike that concept as a measuring stick for accomplishment or I’d always fail like a failure.
I’m not always successful in following that advice, i.e. that unease is ok, but that advice does settle me down quite a bit when it seems like everyone else is passing me by in terms of the material properties they’ve acquired. A lot of times I’ll say to myself, “I’m forty-six years old, shouldn’t I have more to show for it all?” But if you think of it less in terms of bank account and cars and houses and gadgets and shit and give greater value to friends and laughter, I feel like a huge success. That professor’s advice allowed me to shift focus away from what society tells me is worthy of praise and create my own value system.
Although honestly it took a long time to implement it, i.e. just say, “eh, fuck it, I’m doing ok.”
BM: We really love that perspective. Thank you, Kevin! And congratulations again on the release of American Grunt!