[Author’s note: This story is from my new book, In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring Publishing. Three of the essays in the book (“At the Wall,” “Taking the Pledge,” and “Minstrel Show”) have appeared in Counterpunch, and I thank the editors for publishing them. In the essay below, I ask readers to remember that it is written from the perspective of a boy of twelve.]
If I had some money, I would walk down the steep path to town, landing on Seventh Avenue, and past the row houses and small neat homes, make my way to Petroleum Sales. My eyes gleamed in anticipation for this was a store filled with a child’s delights: gumballs, exotic stamps, airplane kits, baseball cards, and fake cigarettes which smoked when you blew into them. These cigarettes were a special favorite of mine. With one of them dangling out of the corner of my mouth, I could pretend that I was a tough guy hanging around my uncle’s dairy store looking cool and hard in jeans hung low on my hips, held up with a thin pink belt. Once in the alley behind the school yard, “Scoop” Folta, dazzling in his sunglasses and d.a. haircut, actually asked me for a cigarette. “Got a weed?” he said. I felt for a moment that maybe we could be friends, but then I shamefacedly remembered that my cigarette wasn’t real.
Bald old Mr. Ringler kept a sharp eye out for youthful thieves, but they didn’t have trick mirrors and store dicks in that poor town, so you could pocket a treasure or two if you were careful. Mean-faced Mr. Ringler! I never minded stealing his trinkets. He wore a suit and he looked like my dad’s bosses. He was rich. Probably a Jew. Surely he would never miss a set of triangle stamps from Monaco or a baseball or a pack of those cigarettes.
Petroleum Sales was in the middle of a block on Fifth Avenue, between 7th and 8th streets. On leaving, I always turned left toward the stores downtown. I might be a little apprehensive because my pal Jack’s mother could come stumbling drunk and disheveled out of the side door of the bar at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Slobbering, toothless, and in a flimsy housecoat, she would babble out some wild tale, trying all the while to grab and kiss you. More than once Jack and I witnessed this together. He would swear and tell her to get the hell home. I would pretend not to notice, and we never talked about it. Jack liked me, and I was glad for that. I knew he liked me because he invited me home even when his mother was there. Oh, I saw some terrible scenes. At eighth grade graduation, our parents were invited to a communion breakfast after morning mass. Jack’s mother came, in a pretty dress and wearing makeup, trying hard to make small talk and mingle among the parents unnoticed. But no one except my mother would speak to her. Poor woman. She was like an old and broken plate, shoddily glued together and with all of the cracks showing. We waited for her to break, the meaner among us snickering as her voice rose and her speech thickened. The nuns shared knowing glances with the parents, secretly blaming Jack for the sins of his mother. Funny how these angels of mercy had so little compassion for those who needed it and how easily they were impressed by all of the material things which they had forsaken. Finally, she announced, almost in a shout, that she had to go home to turn off the stove. We watched her leave in silence and then returned to our eggs and toast, basking in the glow of our parent’s pride. All but Jack. He had no appetite. Tonight there would be a violent argument. His mother would screech at his bookkeeper father. Jack’s dad could add faster than a calculator, but he didn’t have speed enough to avoid the flying shoes and the screams of “Eddie, you bastard. “Eddie, you cocksucker.”
When I think of Jack’s mother, I remember something she told my grandmother. Grandma was working at Greenbaum’s department store, and one day she was accosted by Jack’s two aunts who tried to sell her some pies which they had just bought on sale at the supermarket. Jack’s mother sidled up to my grandmother and said, sotto voce, “you have to watch out for my sisters. They’re crazy.”
The Fifth Avenue Hotel was a three-story gray tenement, buttressed by fire escapes. It was home to an assortment of derelicts, old bachelors, and shady deals. Through the side door oozed the cool, sickening smells of dirt and stale beer. Ceiling fans muted the sodden chatter of the barflies and petty racketeers who drank away the afternoons there. I longed to walk in there and order a coke or ask for change for the pinball machine. Maybe Ruben or Shannon or Jumbo Lawrence would say, “How’s it going kid?” On the other hand, crazy Johnny Luscatoff might goose me, or the gangster bartender, Pauly DiRenzo might tell me to get the fuck out of there. So, I never did go in. Instead, I turned left on 9th Street and headed for the park. If it was early, I might cross the street to look longingly at the gobs in the window of Kunst’s bakery. Later when I learned that “kunst” means “art” in German, I had fantasies about the bakery: a banner with huge, sensuous letters cut out of construction paper which said “Cakes decorated by Matisse;” or fancy breads shaped and ornamented to look like Picasso’s harlequins. Mr. Kunst could have made a fortune.
The park took up a whole block, between 9th and 8th Streets and 4th and 3rd Avenues, a pretty park and large too for a small town, with a bandstand in the middle, just right for patriotic speeches on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Near the bandstand was the flag-bedecked statue of John Ford, the town’s founder. On a summer day, women would watch over their children from the park benches conveniently located along the walkways and under the tall trees. At one corner of the park, across the street from the factory gate, pensioners would play checkers and talk, some smiling because their days as working stiffs were over and some wistful because they were locked out of their second home. In 1957 the park was a peaceful place. But a dozen years later, when my classmates trooped back from Vietnam, time bombs, bearded and wearing peace signs on their olive drab fatigues, the park became a war zone. We desecrated the flag, smoked dope, painted our faces, and fought with the police. The park was ours, and who could blame the matrons and retirees for seeking shelter elsewhere.
I have always been obsessed with being on time, so I usually arrived at the park twenty or thirty minutes before shift change. I had come to town to meet my father at the factory gate. To kill time, I would walk around and through the park, chewing on a toothpick and daydreaming. If no one were looking, I would practice my pitching motion, kicking my right leg high like Warren Spahn, but quickly shifting into calling the play-by-play. If you can picture this, you’ll understand why the neighbors said that they could always pick me out at a distance by the way I walked.
At about five minutes to four, I would try to get a seat on one of the benches near the Works 6 gate, which was located across from the northwest corner of the park, and wait for the whistle to blow. Strung out along the river, from the bridge at the lower end of town to 13th street, over a mile in all, the factory was divided into three units: Works 4, Shop 2, and Works 6. Works 4, the largest, was one long assembly line, starting at the Batch House where sand, cullet, chemicals, and the other ingredients used to make glass were mixed and cooked, to G & P where the finished plates of glass were ground and polished. From Shop 2, came the journeymen who did all of the factory’s carpentry, painting, electrical repair, and general maintenance; it was here too that apprentices learned the various trades. Finally, at the northern end of the factory, was Works 6, where my father worked. Works 6 was special because the glass was still made in small batches, by skilled workers. Huge kettles of molten glass were cooked and poured by hand, and then the plates were cut into basketball bank boards or aircraft windshields so thin that they could be bent. The men who cooked the glass worked irregular stints, sometimes doing a double shift, sometimes coming out in the middle of the night, and sometimes just sitting around waiting for the spectacular pouring of the glass. They had a kitchen outfitted with stove and refrigerator, and they weren’t very friendly to strangers. My father was an examiner then, although he had had many different jobs, from lowly packer to skilled cutter. He checked the plates for flaws in front of a high intensity lamp in a dark room; rejecting those pieces with more than a certain number. He told me that the company didn’t like to ship bad glass, but the foremen weren’t happy when he rejected too many plates either. That was a company for you.
My father was a precise man, but not as precise as his father, who also worked at Number 6. Well, grandfather wasn’t actually a worker. The truth is, he was a time-study engineer, a regular Frederick Taylor who worshipped efficiency and the piece-rate. I admired my grandfather, mostly because he was such a good bowler, but I didn’t quite trust him. He wore a suit and tie, always, like Mr. Ringler. My father never wore a suit and tie, and he never went to church on Sunday. Grandfather tithed at the Baptist Church and supported Temperance and the Republican party. He voted against Roosevelt four times. But my distrust was small by comparison to that of my father’s work mates. They hated grandpa’s stopwatch and always slowed down when he made his rounds. I wonder if his son did too.
I got excited when the whistle blew. The gate faced 3rd Avenue, but it was at the end of a long tunnel under the railroad tracks, so it would be a couple of minutes before anyone came out. Maybe Jack’s aunts, who spent eight hours sitting in a dimly-lit room checking thin pieces of optical glass and who that morning could have been seen flying down the street to punch in at 7:59, would be the first to surface. Or more likely it would be the slackers like Frank Swain, who always got to the time clock first. Then small groups of three or four, some smoking and backslapping, others sullen and pensive, would stream steadily up the steps and onto the street. A human machine, breaking into its component parts, and then, as if by magic, decomposing into solitary faces. I looked for people I knew. Roy, with a plate in his head. Moe, the union vice president. Dom, a premature greaser with a Harley and an armful of tattoos. Nick, my dad’s best friend, a solid, heavy set Russian with a sly sense of humor. I liked those men, but my father was the main attraction. He would be in the middle of a row of buddies, smoking a Lucky Strike. So handsome with his jet black hair, perfectly parted and always in place, his shirt smartly tucked into his creased trousers. Many of the men had potbellies and wore old-fashioned caps, but he was slim and bareheaded. He never had a five o-clock shadow, and his shoes were always bright and shiny. And while Dom might smell so strongly of sweat that it was hard to breathe, dad always smelled as if his clothes had just come off the drying line. He was sharper, finer, and I was proud that he was my father.
When I saw him, I would wave to catch his attention, and then walk over to join the exodus. His buddies might pat me on the head and say, “Bud, is that your boy,?” or “Hi, Mike,” or “Boy, he’s getting big.” When we got to his black ‘51 Chevy, we’d say goodby to his friends. Someone would surely say, “See you at work.” We’d get into the car. I’d show him my booty, but I wouldn’t tell him how I got it. He’d offer me a stick of Beechnut gum, and we’d drive home.
MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class, from which part of this essay has been adapted. He encourages correspondence and can be reached at email@example.com.