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New Yorkers Reflect on the Meaning of Work

Monday, 7 Sept., is Labor Day in America, a day most Americans associate with a three day weekend and a farewell to summertime. However, this national holiday is also a time to honor workers and the central place their labor has in our lives. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with some New Yorkers about what work means to them.

"Work is what you do to earn a living; it's what you do all day to get your paycheck," says John Collins, a young insurance broker-turned law student. But Collins concedes there are other reasons people work. "Some people do what they love, or they do volunteer work [and] they are clearly working for more than money alone."

For Vab, who sells homemade rap CDs to passersby, working is all about trade, whether one is working a regular "nine to five" job, or selling clothes. "Like, right now, I am standing on a corner and I'm stopping people to collect donations for my music," he says. "That's my hustle. That's work to me."

Many immigrants, like Colombia-born Ricardo A. Lopez, work to realize their American Dream. For 28 years, he's been driving a taxicab 13 hours a day, six days a week, but has yet to tire of it. "It's not a greatly skilled job, but the money is good," he says. "You take care of your family. You pay all the debts, and all the bills. I paid off two houses!"

Lopez says the dignity of coming to work every day makes one proud. "Otherwise, you'd be walking the streets. Like I know a Cuban guy over here that stays the whole day and the whole year doing nothing, and he's happy! I'm not [like that]! I have dignity!" he says with a grin.

Software engineer Puru Vandansetty says he gains both self respect and respect from others through productive work, because his labor benefits others. "Imagine [if] no one worked," he says. "You wouldn't have these buildings. You wouldn't have anything. [There would be] no development. So we are constantly working toward making the world a better place."

Vandansetty adds that when he works, he also generates employment for others. "I am spending my money. I am buying food or something. Other people are able to sell it. They are able to survive. So this whole chain has to go on." He says that most of his life goes into his work, "and then I try to 'steal' some time for fun."

Not every New Yorker feels that way. Robert Grossman, a well-known artist and political cartoonist, does not find it necessary to sacrifice fun for work. He believes that, to a significant extent, "if one likes doing it, it's not work. But all work involves overcoming resistance," he says, "that is, getting something done that would not be done otherwise." But to Grossman, drawing cartoons and painting pictures as he does, "seem intrinsically more fun than other things I can think of to do, like heavy duty shoveling."

Shoveling is just one of the jobs 62 year old Richard Tarver is always glad to do. These days, Tarver is a handyman and mostly does building maintenance, but he also knows how to cook, paint and do many other tasks. "I love work!" says Tarver. "It keeps me going. It keeps me young. It keeps me able. It keeps me strong." For him, work is about lots more than cash. "It's about doing something, and doing something for yourself… to make you look like somebody."

In a restaurant uptown, longtime writer Dale Burg also likes to be identified by her job. Burg points out that in urban areas it's common to ask someone you meet what their profession is. "And I am I am happy to be defined as a writer," says Burg. "It implies being creative and imaginative and interesting."

Burg says while work gives her a role to play in society, the work-place gives her a social context in which to work closely, even intimately, with others. "If you are with people that are smart and on the same page as you are, those people become not just your colleagues, but also your friends."

Burg says that work can bring out qualities - competence or skill or imagination - for example - that one may not even perceive with a romantic partner. "There's this wonderful interweaving of work and play that is just a fabulous way to keep yourself alive!"

Work as livelihood. Work as play. Work as productivity. Work as a social bonding and enterprise. Indeed, there seem to be as many reasons why people work as there are types of work to do. And this Labor Day, Americans will once again have an opportunity to reflect on what their work means to them, and to rededicate themselves to the labors ahead.