I LIKE TO THINK OF myself as an artist, because that’s the part of my job I enjoy, but in truth, it’s only part of it. My boss likes to think of me as a salesman — and, in fact, pays me commission as an incentive — because that’s how I mainly make money for the company. My fellow Patch Factorians think of me as The Computer Guy, because I have a knack for figuring out what the little beasties are up to.
But, really, if you had to describe me in a single, vocationally-accurate word, I am a printer.
No, I don’t run the machine that puts the marks on the paper, although I can and, at times in the past, I have. But, as someone who works in a print shop, at one of a galaxy of specialties that serve the core function of putting marks on paper, I am a printer.
Within the trade, those specialties have names — including the ones which time and technological advancement have obsoleted. They are colorful and reflect the long history of the printing crafts. There’s the actually prosaic artist — a.k.a. pasteup mechanic, layout artist — and the related specialties of designer, typesetter, illustrator, and art director, all of which job functions I have performed. And, as you’d expect in a shop using photo-offset printing techniques (well, latterly), there’s a cameraman. But there’s also stripper, (which title, when ours was a foxy woman named Bernadette (not really) we had a lot of fun with). And there are pressmen of various machines — offset, one-color, or multi-, letterpress, rotary, gravure, flexo, web, silk-screen, and all manner of variations and combinations in-between. And there are bindery specialties: cutter, folder, bookbinder, and the ubiquitous nail (which is a strictly local term for the women who do all the hand work and keep the department humming).
In small job-shops, nobody is a pure specialist. As Heinlein said, specialization is for insects. You learn to shift a ton of paper without a follow-on visit to an orthopedist. You learn how to — and develop the muscles for — jogging paper in “lifts” of 500 or a 1000 sheets. And you learn why they designate paper in the weights they do. If a machine operator has a particularly tough one and needs someone to catch, you get over there and do your best Johnny Bench at the delivery and catch. If the plate-maker is sick, or there’s a rush job of a hundred thousand of anything to have picky and boring hand-work done to it, you turn to with your rubber fingertips and your glycerin and you do the boring and repetitive shit.
And everybody has to be a mechanic. You have to know your machine at least well enough to set it up for a run, to adjust it, to do routine maintenance, and when it gets cranky, to know when you have to call in the multiple-hundreds-per-hour PRO mechanics. You have to be familiar with — even own your own set of — the fundamental tools of cutting, striking, turning, and when and where it’s appropriate to use them.
There are a lot of skills that go into making a book. Or a business card. Or… anything that has ink or toner on it and is produced in mass quantities to professional standards of quality. And a lot more have been lost. In my career in the field, which, to date, has spanned 32 years man and boy, (as Chick MgGee puts it), I have worked on typesetting machines from hot lead to the latest wiz-bang desktop computers. I have shot lith film and stripped up negatives to burn metal plates and I have sent PostScript code to a Lino imagesetter. I have seen hundred-year-old technology and the skills to make it magic obsoleted even faster than overnight — with the snap of your fingers. And there has been terrible attrition. At the height of our labor force, the Patch Factory employed thirty full-time workers and ran five offset presses. We are down now to under ten employees and have sold all the big iron — the Heidelberg Druckmachinen. Nowadays, everything is digital. I suspect that, within a year or two, even the diecutting equipment will be replaced with lasers.
And, as it has every step along the way, our products will improve behind it in quality, lower price, and greater flexibility.
I guess what I’m getting at is that, although I sit at a desk and wander around offices where we sit in comfy chairs and natter at each other all day to get what we call “work” done, I do think of myself as a working man, and not an executive, white-collar type, although I’d guess a government bureaucrat would think of me so.
And, although my main off-hours avocations principally comprise and revolve around computer-centric activities, I also enjoy immensely working with my hands in my off hours. That’s why, when I do a quick bio, I include carpenter or cabinetmaker in my list of skills or activities, even though its been more than that 32 years I’m a printer since I made a living at them. (And, boy howdy, have THOSE fields changed in the interval!)
So, Mike Rowe is a guy I like and admire. And, although I think his political ecumenism is naive — Democrats do not mean good things for the working man; get used to the idea — I do like his ideas about trying to persuade the government to get on board with a national conversation about work, jobs, skills, training, and the like. I particularly like the open letter he sent to Mitt Romney. (And, Holy Crap! Mitt read it!) I would encourage all and sundry near and far to join in and urge your political representatives to do the same. As Walter Russell Meade has observed, the Blue Model is dead, and, if we’re to survive the twitchings of the corpse, we need to build a new model. I think Rowe has a piece of it.