Coming clean about ‘Dirty Jobs’

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What makes consumption so easy is its focus on what makes it to the shelf; capitalism’s byproducts are hidden away, necessary consequences best left unseen.

Mike Rowe, who hosts the Discovery Channel immersion show “Dirty Jobs” (9 p.m. Tuesdays), has spent the last several years not only shining light into the dark corners of industry but also on the people who live and work there: “Hardworking men and women,” he said in last week’s episode, “who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

Rowe has salvaged a truck from the bottom of a lake, farmed maggots, tested shark-repellent suits, recycled tires and tried out plenty more unforgiving professions. (This week, “Dirty Jobs” will air a retrospective episode.) And dirty though they may be, these are jobs. In this brutal economy, noses cannot be thumbed at them, especially because, more often than not, this work at the beginning of the food and product chain is probably more reliable than other categories of employment. Someone will always have to do the scut work


“We’ve had our hands on the country’s infrastructure,” Rowe said, echoing Barack Obama’s New Deal-esque ideas about job creation. “The kinda work that just might get this country back on track.”

Rowe is George Plimpton as played by Tim Allen, a casual enthusiast on a range of subjects with a common man touch; never does he appear to be talking down to the men and women who, day in and day out, actually do the jobs he’s moonlighting at.

Last week in Boise, Idaho, at MotivePower, a company that builds locomotives, “Dirty Jobs” tackled its 200th task, with Rowe amiably stumbling his way through several steps on the factory line: cleaning kerf residue left behind by a plasma steel cutter, blasting clean a train in preparation for painting, scraping sludge from inside a mammoth engine.

These jobs are indeed filthy -- not in the Upton Sinclair sense, but in the classical way. Most of his work is unpleasant and likely requires multiple showers to wash away. But Rowe has a utilitarian perspective and doesn’t discriminate between tasks. Or, as he told one worker last week, “I’m gonna wander off, find another building, find another guy doing another thing.”

“Dirty Jobs” isn’t generally interested in the larger narrative of the industry it’s spotlighting, only in its menial and unforgiving tasks. Sometimes the show exposes significant ingenuity gaps -- there’s a $250,000 machine to cut steel, but not one to clean up the residue it leaves behind? -- that remain unaddressed.

Rowe takes things as they are, just as most workers have to. Invariably, the men and women he speaks with aren’t impressed with their own feats; many have had these jobs for decades. Some offer the sort of time-earned pearls of wisdom that end up coming off like impromptu poetry.


“I don’t know what they pay you, but you should ask for a raise,” Rowe tells a bald gentleman whose job it is to don an airtight helmet and blast the locomotive’s surface, after giving it a try himself.

“I’m used to it,” the man replies. “I enjoy it.”

“Where does your mind go when you’re doing that?”

“You can go anywhere you want, but you better like who you’re in that helmet with.”


Concluding last week’s episode, Rowe said, “People often tell me that ‘Dirty Jobs’ reminds them of a time when hard work was something to be celebrated, when craftsmen and tradesmen were seen as role models.” This is part of the show’s charm. But “Dirty Jobs” does an even dirtier job: providing comfort about what’s going on behind the scenes to allow most of us to enjoy our lives untroubled. As long as someone else is getting dirty, we might not have to.