[Marxism] In and out of the working class

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 28 09:07:28 MDT 2009

Counterpunch April 28, 2009
In and Out of the Working Class
At the Factory Gate


     [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 
mikedjyates at msn.com.

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