ONE DAY LAST winter, during morning rush hour, a cold front hit the city with unusual speed and intensity -- a high wind coming straight in from the north, temperatures dropping by the minute. People on the streets, not quite dressed for the weather, stepped up their pace, hurrying to get into the office and grab a cup of coffee. Fifty or sixty feet above them, meanwhile, a mostly unnoticed lesson was going on. Several window washers, at the end of long ropes on what looked like kids' swings, were swaying in the bitter wind, making their way slowly down the building. They might have been from Mexico or El Salvador -- some place where the wind doesn't barrel in from Canada and turn your wet hands to stone -- and yet they kept on working, story by story, along the building's face. They had a job to do.

We Americans are coming to be seen as quite peculiar in our attitude toward work -- at least by our well-off contemporaries in other industrialized countries. We work more hours than Europeans, take work home with us, come back in on weekends to finish up. A great number of us genuinely like what we are doing.

But as we can see if we look up or around us a little more closely, a lot of those who work the hardest are driven by necessity, laboring to get by, sacrificing for the future -- theirs or their children's. At the root of it is the idea of a job as an opportunity -- not a sinecure or a benefit but an opening, a chance to achieve better things. That's why jobs are one of the subjects of presidential campaigns. What government can dispense to us may be on many minds, but it's not what we talk about when we get down to the basics. We talk about work -- dignified, decent jobs, the basis of one's self-respect.

In wealthy English homes, members of the household staff were once expected, when they encountered their betters in a hallway, to turn and face the wall so that their presence wouldn't have to be acknowledged. This seems abhorrent in a modern, egalitarian society such as ours, and yet we have developed our own version of invisibility for working people -- from the man dangling outside your office window to the night cleaning crews getting illegal wages in the stores where by day we go looking for the best price. Residential patterns separate us by income and occupation, extending the invisibility to yet another part of life. Too many people do not see much chance that their work will lead to anything better.

In a way it's not hard to understand why candidates would prefer to bicker about one another's character or their supposed fitness for office, or lack of it. It's much easier for them to argue over these things than to talk seriously about what can be done to save the connection between our work and our highest hopes. But they, and the rest of us, need to keep in mind that if we lose that connection, we are lost.