April 08, 2020

“What a piece of work is a man,” observed Hamlet, soliloquizing upon the noble reason and infinite faculties of the species shortly before he and his entire circle of acquaintances poison and stab each other to death.

“What’s a piece of work, man?” asks Random House, enamored of the melancholy Dane’s telling phrase, wanting to add it to a new slang dictionary, knowing what makes a person a piece of work but unsure just how to define it.

You know: “He’s a real piece of work,” or “Jeezum, ain’t she a real piece of work.” Everybody knows at least one piece of work; no one, it seems, can formalize piece of workness.

It’s a style thing. It’s flash, flair, panache, savoir-faire, elan, a certain cut of the jib. It’s there, it’s real, but you just can’t put your finger on it. It’s your basic je ne sais quoi.

The esteemed Washington Post took note of the conundrum recently, ran a list of who’s a piece of work (Bill Clinton, P.T. Barnum, Casey Stengel, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Mae West, to name but a few) and who’s not (Al Gore, Steven Spielberg, Elvis, Meryl Streep, John Tesh), and asked its readers to submit nominations of their own.

Certainly, what’s good for Post’s readers is good for ours. Folks in the Beltway have seen their share of pieces of work, but Maine is cheek-to-jowl with the ilk. The floor is open for nominations.

The true piece of work may have a touch of the scamp, the scalawag, the rogue, but not necessarily and, if so, in a thoroughly likeable way. The piece of work may have views with which you disagree, but you will defend to the death his/her right to piece of workitude. The piece of work always lucks out and the luckless cheer. The piece of work is larger than life. Here’s a few examples to get you started:

In the category of current events, Mary Adams, who happily quipped the Forest Compact to death from the right, is a piece of work. Jonathan Carter, who bored it senseless from the left, is not.

That left, once cheerily irreverent, has become awfully somber lately, which is why anyone who can save the world and whistle while she works — like Nancy Oden — is a piece of work. No one who ever said the words “RESTORE:The North Woods” and meant it could ever be.

On the right, the Rev. Buddy Frankland — forgiven and coming back — is one. You can’t keep a good piece of work down. Tax activist Carol Palesky had promise, but she seems to be squandering it on mere lawbreaking and whining.

Entertainment is fertile ground for the type. Dick Curless, rest his soul, was a made piece of work the very first time he sang about big rigs. Folk singers, especially those who sing about sailing ships? Forget about it.

Politics would seem to be prime turf, but, as the Post notes, the increased need to be media savvy is stripping the field of its pieces of work. The likes of Big Bill Thompson, LBJ, Marion Barry, James Michael Curley may never be seen again.

Maine has not had an authentic piece of work in high office since Gov. Jim “Think About It” Longley. There is a promising candidate on the horizon, a legislator who either wants Northern Maine to seceed or who wants to govern the whole shebang. Only the coming gubernatorial campaign will reveal whether Rep. Henry Joy is the genuine article or a pretender.

Write to us. Tell us about the piece of work in your neck of the woods. Perhaps it’s a neighbor, a friend, a selectman, an in-law. Perhaps it’s you. This has been a long, distinctly unpleasant winter with more to come. You’ve split enough wood, toted enough water, thought enough about equal vs. special rights, revenue surpluses and equitable education funding. Pour yourself a cup, get comfy and celebrate this (not vanishing, we hope) breed.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like