Through the factory door the crane was heard: Ivory was already at work. The foreman’s assistant arrived at six. He knocked the concrete blocks from their steel forms, lit the asphalt furnace in the factory yard, outside. Its stink of tar cleared Lou’s head, as he fumbled through his keys in the doorway. His fingers selected a square-headed key, turned it counterclockwise. The door swung open; the shrill alarm went off; his arm shot up to silence the gray metal box. He switched on the light, a stack of casebooks in one arm, and slipped a second key into the padlock. Turning it and removing the lock from the latch, he placed the padlock on the hinge of the door frame. As the whirring crane climbed the scale – starting and stopping with a short metallic click, he remembered riding the crane as a kid on his very first visit to the family firm.
Up he soared – carried high into the air, between walls of blocks and burial vaults stacked in canyons of gray concrete. He swung back and forth, clinging tight to the iron hook. While below stood his dad – with his Old Spice smell; he’d reeled in the cables with a black-buttoned box. ‘Mr. Siegel’ was what they called him (in a special tone of deference used with the boss). Then he’d met Ivory – a newly-hired man, young and straight as a ramrod. He had shaken his strong black hand.
But, since that day, Ivory’s hair had turned white. His body slowed down; his brow had creased; he walked with a slight stoop forward. But his gentle voice and patient smile remained.
Now a third key was turned, unlocking the room to his right. He climbed the stairs from the plant to the office. After two more keys were turned in their locks, he shoved the door open, bolted it behind him and switched on the bright florescent lights. He set his casebooks on the table and hung his coat in the corner closet. Turning to retrieve his books, he saw the portrait of his grandpa Alex. Above the table’s stacks of trade magazines hung the image of the founder of the firm.
Old Alex built the business half a century ago out of the garage of his own backyard. On the vacant lot, next door, had risen Rosenberg Steel. It was sold at a loss, a few years back (due to Japanese and German competition). He remembered his grandpa, the previous year, on a hospital bed dying of cancer.
Old Alex lay on his wrinkled sheet, curled in the fetal position. Cage of ribs. Spine sticking out. Bumps between the blades of his shoulders. His skin hung in folds from his toothless jaw; long hairs grew from his ears. And around the bed were panels of instruments monitoring his weakened heart. Back and forth the blips had beeped across the green matrix screen.
In 1910 he had crossed the Atlantic, traveling steerage from Russia to stay with relatives in Detroit. He found work laying bricks, while attending high school at night. Soon he had mastered English, math and engineering. Then he had finally tied the knot. He fathered four kids; built two thriving businesses. And, at the age of fifty, he had retired! Only now, did he truly begin to get rich.
Each day, he played the market from his chair on the stock exchange. Each week, he bought up properties, acquiring real estate holdings throughout the city. Each year, he and his wife, Sadie, traveled to Miami Beach; and while she crocheted samplers or played mahjong with her girlfriends, Alex was down at the market amassing a solid blue chip portfolio.
While buying and selling shares of stock, he purchased old homes and apartments throughout the city. Time had passed. Detroit was changing for the worse. As unemployment soared, crime increased and neighborhoods decayed, all who could afford it had fled the city for the suburbs. Suddenly, Alex found himself slumlord to the elderly, black and poor. And when his grandpa retired and Lou returned to the firm, it was the grandson who answered the tenant’s complaints. He recalled those rat traps on Kenilworth and John R. In the rear was the original factory where the family firm had arisen.
The factory was crisscrossed with hundreds of broken windows. Opening the padlock and shoving the door ajar, he stepped inside the doorway. Before him were puddles, where rain seeped through the roof, and there were piles of broken blocks and rusty metal frames. Above him loomed a giant black press: a mastodon of thick cast iron. On vacant lots outside, tall grass and green weeds flourished. Here, trash was dumped, within the waste-high weeds, along with old discarded furniture. And, no matter how many times they padlocked the door, no matter how many times it was tightly boarded up – somehow, someone always had broken in!
His dad was custodian of Alex’s many properties. He was partner in the firm with Eli, Alex’s younger son. His dad, Eli, and Eli’s son, Zeke, ran the family business on Detroit’s east side.
From Alex’s portrait his eyes now traveled across the room to a map on the wall. Pins with colored heads were stuck into the map, symbols of the business’ franchise network. In cemetery plots throughout the state lay corpses in his grandpa’s vaults. On blacktop lots, across the nation, autos bruised their tires against his grandpa’s parking blocks. So that long after the death of this once penniless immigrant (who had nearly starved to death as a child in Russia), his patents and processes continued to yield profits. In property rights, parking lots and subterranean necropolises lay the legacy of his millionaire grandpa. Perhaps that childhood memory of hunger had spoiled it all. For he never tired of telling Lou about the hardship of the shtettl, and of the Great Crash, here, at home. Nor did he tire of warning him that, even in America, it could very well happen, here, again.
Lou turned from the portrait and continued across the room – adjusting thermostats, switching on phones, unlocking the gas pump in the factory yard, below. Passing over the heat ducts in the linoleum floor, he heard the workers arriving at the plant. Their cigarette smoke rose from the washroom, along with Tyrone’s deep rich voice. His baritone was heard above the chorus of complaints – laced with ‘my mans’, ‘mother-fuckers’ and ‘shits’ this and that. He sang a gospel tune about fishing in the Jordan.
He was a blue-eyed black of thirty odd years, with a belly spilling over his trousers. During the break, he dined on jelly rolls, tacos or chili with peppers. More often than not, a bellyache had ensued. “Feeding the ole ulcer!” he exclaimed with a laugh. On weekends he sung lead with his gospel group, Echoes of Zion. And at work each day his voice was heard in a repertoire of Negro spirituals. Up it soared above the factory din – above the slam of steel and roar of the mixer – as Tyrone sprayed the boxes white, dreaming of the Promised Land.
His song was interrupted by Lee’s piercing tenor:
“Tyrone, stop singing that tired old tune. Jesus-K-rist, will you give us guys a break? Do it for your brother-in-law, Lee.”
“Your old lady likes it well enough” he replied with a wink, “when I sings her to sleep at night. Whatcha say to that – you goat-bearded muther?”
Throughout the day they took digs at one another – saying things that would’ve been fighting words between any but the best of friends. Lee was a goateed young Falstaff with twinkling brown eyes. A big man, he wore a bandanna around his head to keep the paint out of his shoulder-length hair. When Lou returned to Detroit (after having lived in New York City), he began his apprenticeship as Lee’s assistant. Lee taught him to scale the vaults like a mountain goat, to flick the chain fall’s hooks in the box’s handles; then to leap down without breaking his goldarned neck. Next, he lifted the vaults with the cranes, shooting them down the aisle to the south end of the plant. Here, they were lined, sealed, and painted copper, silver or gold, and lifted on the trucks, backing through the factory doors. Leaving the noise, fumes of paint and tar behind, Lou would jump into the truck’s cab and go out for a delivery. His first were with Lee’s dad, George.
George was an even-tempered man, with a short brush cut that made his ears stick out. Tall, lean and muscular, he worked with an efficiency and speed that made Lou marvel. Their senior driver and shop steward, he had his own Dodge truck with his name on the door. In the rear of the truck was a power hoist: like a great pneumatic arm.
Driving through the warehouse, at the rear of the plant, they arrived in the large back lot. The vaults, blocks and benches were stacked up here, where the green concrete would cure. Loading up with blocks and long steel pins, they headed out to the job.
The blocks were unloaded with the power hoist, placed in piles on the smooth black tar. George lined them up evenly – one per car space, anchored each in the ground with two steel pins. He drove them in – flush with the block’s surface – with skillfully aimed blows of his sledgehammer. And, on a really big job (requiring hundred of blocks), an air hammer was employed. That damned contraption shot vibrations up Lou’s spine! It bucked and reared within his grasp like a bronk trying to throw him from his back!
On a vault job, he road with Rick or Bernie. Bernie was a jovial Georgian, with a Tiger cap on his sunburned bald head. He moonlighted on weekends; dug graves for a local cemetery. With the extra cash he bought a new used car. He went through one after another – driving gas-guzzling Caddies or Lincolns into the ground; or totaled the thing completely! So when a new used car appeared on the company lot, they knew it must be Bernie’s.
Rick, the youngest driver, was a Vietnam vet. Every couple of Mondays he was out on a binge; he was known to have a drinking problem. He dealt a little weed on the side; wore wire-rimmed spectacles. And, ever since the summer he shaved his head, he was dubbed the ‘Bald Eagle’, by the workers.
They arrived at the cemetery with the vault on the back of the truck. A chain fall lifted it off, placed it down, at the foot of the grave. And, when the service required a tent and equipment, a bundle was set down, beside it. Out of the bundle came rolls of turf and matting. They were spread around the grave, over the real grass and soil. Then a tent was assembled from a set of poles, and canvas stretched above, to make its peaked roofs and walls.
When Bernie and Lou had finished, they paused beside the grave. They breathed the clean fresh air; heard the birds in the trees, above them. Then they rested their eyes on the smooth green hills. And, after a series of deliveries, they returned to the smelly old plant. With luck, they’d be in time to catch the lunch truck.
Buying soup and sandwiches beneath its quilted metal door, they crowded into the locker room. Here, they lunched around a scorched and scarred table, surrounded by the battered green doors. At one end of the table were Stash and Harry, called ‘Salt and Pepper’ by the workers. Stash was a short, bearded Pole; Harry, a tall black dude. They worked as a team on the cement mixer. Cement, gravel, sand and water were measured and mixed. Then the viscous gray was poured into the molds. They blocks lay in rows in the middle of the floor, where the concrete was left to harden. Hot tar was poured over the vaults and covers, gotten from the furnace in the factory yard, outside.
A black encrusted hut, it was surrounded by rusty walls of iron. The walls had long since buckled – warped by the intense heat, covered with baked-on layers of tar. Stash opened the spout wearily with a long steel rod: and out flowed the bubbling black! They poured buckets on the vaults, providing a water-tight seal. Harry marched between the furnace and the molds, emptying one steaming bucket after another. In protective gloves and apron, he poured the pungent brew; his face turned away, his handsome nostrils flaring.
Others were seated around the inseparable Salt and Pepper. Soon, Nick roared up on his Harley-Davidson ‘hog’. He was a Polish teen with an acne-scarred face, who had cleaned up the factory rubbish. His hair was slicked back, he had one gold ear ring and tattoos on his bulging arms. It was Nick who did the dirty work. He pounded the hardened cement form the bins, scrubbed the concrete mixer, polished the copper liners used in the most expensive line of vaults.
Though he only had worked here for a couple of months, Lou recalled his apprenticeship well. Each night he got home dead on his feet. Collapsing on his couch, he put off taking a shower. But, despite the job’s strains, it was made bearable by the workers, themselves. They were always making light of the factory life – with their jokes, their pranks, their fierce comraderie. But, unlike his factory buddies, Lou was quickly moved upstairs. No more cleaning soot from his nostrils, scrubbing the grime off his hands with dirty gasoline. He was the bosse’s son, after all. What had been a learning experience for him, was a way of life for the workers, downstairs. With mortgages, car payments and families to feed – they were stuck there for better or for worse.
The intercom buzzed, as he rushed to pick it up. It was the foreman, Johnny’s, husky voice.
“What’s happening, Lou? Anything for this morning?”
“Two from last night, John. I’ll send them right down.”
Now he hurried to finish his chores. Unlocking the storage room, he removed the adding machines and typewriters, opened the drawers in the gray metal filing cabinets. He glanced at the notebook with the orders for the day, then grabbed an invoice and began to type. Halfway through, the telephone rang. It was one more order, and a message for his dad.
After completing the remaining orders, he double-checked them for mistakes. Then he took them to the ledger to be entered. Sorting the carbons by color, he placed them in the slots in the shelf. With the remaining copies, he entered the storage room. Its barred inner window overlooked the shop floor, below.
As he opened the inner window, he was struck by a wall of noise. Clipping the orders to the end of the string, he dropped them through the bars. John’s brown woolen cap appeared around the corner. He looked up, waved, snapped the orders off the string. Shouting “Three more!” to Lee, at the end of the plant, his brown woolen cap bobbed up and down, disappearing once more around the corner.
The skylight caught his gaze as he slammed the window shut. Mote-filled beams poured down through the glass, illumining the small blue workers. Then his vision was shattered by the ringing of the phone.
Returning to the office, he received a message for his uncle. Then he entered his father’s office. Paneled in walnut, with silver-framed prints, it had been decorated by his talented mother. Rose wood desk. Antique barometer. Desk lamp made from a wooden candlestick. All were evidence of her personal touch. He sank into the cushions of his father’s leather chair, placed his heels on the corner of the desk. Leaving the message beneath the edge of the blotter, he studied the gallery of family photographs. His mom stared back from across the desk.
She sat on the sofa of their Acapulco condominium, wearing a peasant blouse and skirt. Deborah was Alex’s youngest, the most gifted of his kids. A talented artist, she had been offered a Cranbrook fine arts scholarship at the age of twelve. But it was during the war, and her brothers had joined the army. So she was forced to take their place in the firm. After her marriage, however, she took up interior decorating. Deborah had a flare for décor.
He remembered the murals of Alice in Wonderland she had painted on the walls of his nursery. And there were the homes she decorated for her girl friends in Palmer Park. She could easily have made a handsome living, gone into business for herself. But she preferred the roles of wife and mother. She spent most of her time at luncheons now, shopping and caring for their new modern home. She was helped with her chores by Elizabeth, their black housekeeper. Three times a week, Elizabeth made the long trek out to the suburbs. She did the cooking, laundry, cleaned and dusted the house.
Their current residence was the latest in a series, after moving from Detroit. Between their Palmer Park home and their present one, they’d lived in numerous luxury apartments. But, having grown used to a home (and a magnificent one, that), Deborah couldn’t quite get used to apartments. Her dissatisfaction was expressed in subtle ways: like a reluctance to finish decorating one place till they decided to move into another. Nevertheless, each was a showpiece of her unerring taste, with a distinctive style all her own.
But, now that her sons had both left home, she had considerable time on her hands. Much was spent with her girl friends, or with her niece and two nephews. But there always seemed more to be filled. She read the latest bestsellers and women’s magazines; began diets, exercise programs, watched endless hours of TV. She took frequent vacations, had a face lift, and cellulose removed from her thighs. But the depression was always waiting, ready to pounce.
Returning home, she switched on a TV; and as she passed from room to room – dusting, arranging, watering her many plants, another set was turned on in each. Soon, there were three sets going at once! They kept her company, she once told Lou.
As Deborah grew older, she began to resemble her father, Alex. She became fascinated with the stock market; took a real estate course. She arranged luncheons where her girl friends met to purchase the latest high-tech stocks. She had a golden touch, just like Alex: whatever she bought went up; whatever she fancied turned a profit.
On the desk beside the photo of his mother was one of his brother, Mat. He wore his Teamster’s local Jacket, with a Solidarity button pinned on the front. Mat was the ‘red’ of the Siegel clan. A former graduate student in philosophy, he had abandoned his Ph.D. to organize. From Ann Arbor, he moved to Philadelphia, where he helped build a reform caucus in the union at UPS. A few years later, he left for Chicago, where he helped build the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the most important union reform movement in recent American labor history). Finally, he returned to Detroit, like Lou, where he taught night school to immigrants, downtown.
Though Mat opposed the capitalist system that had made his grandfather rich, he had inherited much from that shrewd old man. His intellect and stubborn streak came straight down the genes from grandpa Alex. A precocious kid with a gift for mischief, Mat’s childhood pranks were a family legend.
At five, he climbed on their glass kitchen table. Up and down the madcap jumped: and fell clear through without a scratch! He experimented with different foods (eating nothing but Campbell’s bean soup or hot dogs for weeks at a time.) He was on ‘demand feeding’, his mother claimed. Mat was a gifted flutist and amateur actor, a fancier of science fiction and the most gruesome horror films. At eight, he sat on the backyard patio – incinerating ants with a magnifying glass!
Lou remembered the pitched battles they had waged as kids. With teeth clenched tight over his lower lip, Mat fought like a ferocious little beast! And he always had to have the last lick. His battle-scarred brow was the result of their many campaigns. Seeing Mat’s picture – beside his mother’s in Acapulco – reminded him of Mat’s only trip to their parent’s winter retreat.
Behind their multi-storied condominium was a squatter’s makeshift shack. Dirty brown kids chased a dog between the boulders, while their parents sat on cinder blocks, toasting corn on an open fire. Mat had been so shocked by what he’d seen, that he insisted on staying inside. The luxury of the Yankee, the poverty of the native: they stood there, side by side.
Rising from his father’s chair, Lou crossed the central office into the storage room. Making a pot of coffee, he poured himself a cup. Then he entered his own small office. On the desk before him rose a stack of thick blue law books.
He never planned on going to law school; nor had he expected to return to the family firm. But circumstances had a way of forcing one to do what was neither planned for nor expected. It wasn’t the first time he’d returned to Detroit.
His first flight from home had been to college in Ann Arbor. After obtaining his degree, he had applied to graduate school. But, because his grades were poor and his test scores low, only a Detroit school, Wayne State University, had accepted him. And, because his schedule included both day and evening classes, the only job he could get was with the family business. He moved from grad school to work – from abstract to concrete, as his brother Mat had once said.
But, after a year of grad school, he knew he would never get a job: Ph.ds were a dime a dozen. So he dropped out to write plays in New York. He spent five years at it (while working as a bartender, waiter or clerk). But, at thirty, he had yet to be produced. So he now applied to law school (to have one foot in the bourgeois world, as Mat had said). But, once again, his grades did him in; only a Detroit school would admit him. And, the only way he could afford it, was by getting a part-time job with the family firm. His three closest friends had known similar fates.
His best friend, Jack, had hoped to become a painter. But things had turned out otherwise. He drifted into marriage; fathered two kids. And before he knew it, was divorced. Suddenly, with alimony and child support, his unskilled jobs wouldn’t do. He returned to school for an engineering degree: the artist’s life was shot to hell. And, because oil was booming and he had big loans to repay, down to Texas he did travel. Ten hours a day, six days a week – he worked on an oil rig in the middle of the dessert. Then, there was Lou’s roommate, Morry.
Morry’s dream was to become a movement lawyer, to defend the poor and oppressed. They had marched against the Vietnam War, attended teach-ins and demonstrations together. But, having poor parents, he needed big loans to pay for school. So, that first job offer of thirty grand had been hard to pass up. Once again, the economy had intervened – forcing Morry to move to Alaska. Today, he was a partner in a wealthy corporate firm (defending Exxon and Mobil Oil). Finally, there was Lou’s girlfriend, Jenny.
Jenny was a struggling actress in New York City. Each year, she took classes in acting, dancing, singing. She waitressed, did commercials and weekly cattle calls. From ingénue to leading lady, from Off-Off Broadway to soaps; then facial lines and gray hairs had appeared. Her portfolio overflowed with photos and credits, but the cash and once great hopes were running out. Then, there was that one last audition
– and Jenny lost the faith. She married; moved to San Francisco. Then she put it all behind her, and had a kid.
All their lives were forced off track; family, funds, the economy had intervened. Only Mat remained faithful to his political vocation. But, if Mat was right, then what about Lou? Both were members of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement; both minds were molded by that single event. But, since the end of the war, their lives had diverged. Mat remained active, while Lou had dropped out. Even his dad had put his money where his mouth was.
On one side was his father, the liberal. Harold belonged to all the progressive organizations – the NAACP, the ADA, the ACLU. He read the New York Times, The Nation; wrote annual checks for charities and social reform. On the other side was his brother, the Marxist. Mat was at the plant gates, producing bulletins for the workers. He visited campuses, unemployment offices – talked and sold his newspapers. And, between them, there was Lou: pulled one way, then another. Each had made a choice and stuck by it. Mat broke with his class, while Harold had stood by it. Only Lou had yet to chose.
A key turned in the lock, as the office door swung open. His cousin Zeke appeared in the door with a briefcase under his arm.
“Good morning, cos. What brings you here at this ungodly hour?”
Removing his topcoat and hanging it in the closet, Zeke replied:
“Haven’t you heard? Williams settled; their strike is over. And boy, did they get concessions!”
Williams Vault was the IBM of the industry – dominating the market, but leaving just enough for their family firm. Their market shared remained constant over the years. Until now, they had stayed on good terms with the industry giant.
Zeke shut the closet and entered Lou’s office. He sat down before him with his briefcase in his lap. His resemblance to their grandpa was uncanny. He carried himself with the same pugnacious manner, was the spitting of Alex in the photo on his mother’s desk, at home.
Young Alex had worn a high starched collar, three-piece suit, pocket watch and spats, that buttoned up the sides of his shoes. His curly hair rose in a pompadour, above his brow. And, into the breast pocket of his jacket, his hand was thrust: a Yiddish Napolean and captain of industry. Alexander dared the world to knock the chip off his shoulder – much like his grandson, Zeke.
“When does our contract expire?”
“In three months. But if we wait that long, we’ll be filing under Chapter Eleven. We’ll have to re-open right away, and get some hefty concessions, at that.”
“I’d had no idea things had gone that far-“
“I’m not surprised – buried beneath all those law books, all day long. And it’s not just wages, Lou.
Williams has got a brand new chairman – earned his spurs breaking unions in the South. What – with him, and the costs of everything else going sky high – we’re in for some real lean times. Coffee ready?”
“There’s a pot on the burner.”
Zeke left Lou’s office for the storage room. Like Lou and his three friends, Zeke, too, had changed with the times.
As a student during the sixties, he had been a hippy, from head to toe. He wore an Afro and a beard, dressed in work shirts, beads and jeans. He had even belonged to SDS! But, after a decade with the firm, all that had changed. From the down-and-out-look, he switched to custom-made shirts and suits from his private tailor. His battered beetle, from Ann Arbor days, had been traded in for a Fiat, Volvo and Saab. Then he got involved with the company sales. The backlash over foreign cars had raised the eyebrows of their customers. So Zeke did what was best for the firm: he bought a big domestic automobile with a sticker – BUY AMERICAN – on the bumper.
He saved and purchased a home; belonged to the Detroit Athletic Club; bought commodities, securities and shiny gold Krugerands. Now he voted straight Republican; swore by supply-side economics. But the transition from hippy to businessman had not been easy.
Because of the conflict with his high-strung father, Zeke stayed clear of him on joining the firm. His uncle Harold had taken him under his wing. There had been problems, nonetheless. He had an abrasive personality; had trouble taking criticism. But Zeke learned fast, and soon fit in.
“What can we do?” Lou asked him. Zeke rattled off his answer from the room across the hall.
“First and foremost, big wage cuts. I tell you, Lou, there’s no way around it. Then we get on our creditor’s tails; underbid the competition on the jobs we’ve been losing. Hell, they can afford to charge less without the union on their backs. Damn it – even vaults have been down!”
Zeke returned to Lou’s office carrying a hot cup of coffee. He sat down, carefully, before the wall-sized map of Detroit.
“Vaults, too? Why, folks just aren’t dying fast enough.”
“It’s a joke to you, counselor. But, before you know it, you could have us as a bankruptcy client.”
“They tell me it‘s the busiest court in the land.”
Zeke paused to sip his coffee, then continued.
“Between you and me, Lou, your dad should stay clear of these talks. Especially after his heart attack, and laying Jerry off. After all, he’s almost seventy. Sure, his gentlemanly way with the union was fine when things were booming. But it’s a whole new ball game, now.”
A V-8 stalled on the exit ramp – brakes screeched, horns honked, curses and stress mounted hundreds of spines. Suddenly, traffic ground to a halt on the Lodge Expressway, and Mat was stuck right in the middle of it! For the third time that week, he was caught in the eight o’clock rush. On his way downtown for a meeting at Wayne State, he had just left Henry Ford Hospital, where his socialist organization produced a bulletin for the hospital workers. There he stood, before the huge hospital, distributing the yellow sheets and selling his newspaper.
As a car swung by in the driveway, its driver rolled down the window. He greeted them with “Good morning. What’s happening?” Or,seeing a familiar face, he asked about the family or their problems on the job. Then the car continued up the ramp to enter the Clinic Garage.
Before him stretched the Lodge Expressway, and on the far side, General Motors Corporation and the Fisher Building. Atop the Fisher a light pulsed like a feather in its tall bronze cap. Across the street stood GM World Headquarters. Six-foot orange letters crowned the world’s biggest corporation, the brain of a vast industrial empire spreading clear across the globe. Further south, was the General Tire billboard, a beacon glowing in the early morning sky. It reminded him of the Goodyear ad he passed every evening on his way downtown. Its billboard ticked off each automobile in production: each minute the seven-place figure changed, as a new car rolled off the assembly line.
“Into the stream of commerce a commodity is born.” Mat thought. “Another car – think of it – manufactured, purchased, driven into the ground. Step by step, the commodity is transformed. Till it’s scrapped, melted down, or left to rust in the junkyard. And, as one is junked, another rolls off the line.”
A car pulled out of the exit ramp; its driver rolled down the window. The stressed-out face of a nurse he knew appeared, coming off the night shift. Bloodshot, puffy eyes; hair in dissaray. She slipped him a coin, grabbed a yellow sheet and took off like a shot. Glimpsing GENERAL MOTORS – engraved orange on the sky – his train of thought resumed:
“One more car rolls off the line; one more commodity born into commerce. And the commodity of commodities is man, its maker. A car born into commerce, a man born into society: one’s production is mirrored in the other’s reproduction.”
A fucking man – think of it! Tooled in the family, church or school; driven through the factory, field or mine. Step by step, he, too, is transformed. Till that wreck of a man is loaded down with miles. Given a pension, social security; or shifted to unemployment, food stamps, or welfare. Finally, like the car he labored on, its maker, too, is scrapped. Worn and torn, rusted away, dropped into a box in the ground. Then one more rolls off the line.”
A string of cars drove up the ramp; each took a yellow leaflet through the window. A housekeeper slipped him a note (she would meet him after work). He was reminded of the black housekeepers employed by his parents. One of them, Alice, had been a second mother to him. He would never forget her patience, warmth, her quality of mercy. Perhaps his faith in the workers sprang from the love he had felt for her. For there were hundreds of over-worked Alices here, at the city’s largest hospital.
“Imagine what would happen if they all sat down!” he thought. “Dirty sheets, towels and bandages piling up. Unemptied bedpans, catheters – a sea of shit, piss and vomit. Bosses going haywire; high-pressure wards exploding. All of them helpless before these humble black maids.”
The traffic began to flow on the Lodge Expressway, as he shifted into gear and surged ahead. Getting off at Warren, he soon arrived at Wayne State University. He parked, entered the Student Center Building, and waited for his friend in the lobby. Watching the hundreds of students rush past on their way to class, reminded him of others to which he’d talked.
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he got into many heated discussions. Young Zionists, with beards and yamalkas, refused to believe he was even Jewish. Two Maronites defended the massacres at Sabra and Chatilla. One had tried to pick a fight.
He had talked to Africans about apartheid (some were in AZAP or the ANC); argued with a fundamentalists about the Iran-Iraq War. And, during the latest upheavals in Pakistan, he had had a conversation with a dark-skinned youth from the region. He described his own imprisonment; his brother’s execution; his flight across the border into India. Finally, there was the Christian missionary (who worked in a Cass Corridor soup kitchen further downtown), for whom he waited while watching the morning rush. But most of these students couldn’t care less.
Plagued by swarms of student organizations, they learned to render them invisible. They dismissed their flyers with a smug little laugh; balled them up and threw them at their feet. Many climbed the stairs to watch soap operas on color TVs. Others shot pool, or fed quarters into the basement video games. They were here for a degree: to become marketable commodities, themselves. With sheepskin in hand, they’d nab that corporate job, that home in the burbs, that two-car garage. Then the American Dream would be theirs. Politics was a mere distraction. Not that Mat’s generation had been different: the difference had been in the times.
In the sixties, the economy was booming; with jobs for the asking, they could afford to have ideals. Besides, his generation was overtaken by history. They were swept up into the struggle for Civil Rights, into the movement against the War in Vietnam. Such things brought out the best in them. But, even in those heady times, most had remained on the sidelines. Sure, they went on marches, signed petitions, wore buttons on their lapels. But only a handful had done the shit work, each belonging to a half-dozen organizations a piece. And most of them had dropped out when the U.S. pulled out of Saigon. Sure, a few stuck it out – joined the Women’s Movement or the United Farm Workers’ boycotts. But his generation was hardly a different breed. They had simply risen to the occasion provided by the dying Vietnamese, and by blacks who refused to remain second-class citizens.
These kids, passing before him, could do the same. With a change in circumstance, the pressure of events – they, too, could show their stuff. But it would take a catastrophe to waken them up, today; and even this might fail to hit home. After all, millions were now starving in Africa; thousands killed in Bopal; there were countless war victims in Lebanon, El Salvador and South Africa. But, till things got personal, they would be no more than headlines and images on the tube. It was the personal connection that was missing. In brief, it took body bags, napalm and – most of all – the draft, before his generation had taken to the streets. And, after Vietnam had ended, most of them had dropped out. They tuned out, turned off, returned to their middle-class ways of life.
MICHIGAN EMPLOYMENT SECURITY COMMISSION in blue plastic letters on a yellow brick wall. Beside it stood a food stamp office and a small Arab grocery. Both had bars on the windows. Above the grocery a flashing sign glowed – CHECKS CASHED, LOTTERY, LIQUOR. Specials appeared in the windows in broad red strokes on white paper, as the customers passed through the door. Beside the pac man and shelves of boxes and cans was a veritable fortress of plexi-glass. The Arab merchants were sealed off from the their poor black patrons: through the smeared plastic wall they gazed out. Before the register – spewing out yellow and orange lottery tickets – stood a motley line of customers. With a crumpled green bill clutched tight in their fists, each awaited the daily lottery miracle. Mat stood outside – before the unemployment office, as the Motor City paraded before him.
In and out flowed the city’s unemployed: filling out forms; arguing with the clerks; gnawed by anger, frustration and despair. Up and down Woodward passed the people of the street. Dealers in Stetsons and sharkskin suites. Young Boys, Inc., on their Honda motor scooters. Winos sucking bottles in brown paper bags. Bums searching barrels for returnable cans. The scene ebbed and flowed, as the cop cars cruised by.
A Muslim stood across from Mat, selling fragrant sticks of incense. Soon, the students of Northern High passed by in droves, on their way to McDonald’s or the Colonel’s. Two generations before, his mom had attended Northern High, when her folks had lived on nearby Chicago Boulevard. A generation later, he had had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth El, on the far side of the street. And, within two generations, Detroit had been transformed. Immigrant Jews were replaced by Southern Blacks and Arabs from the war torn Middle East. Delicatessens were replaced by fried chicken joints; Kosher corned beef by gyros and falafel. As one wave rose into the middle class and fled into the suburbs, another arrived in America to take its place. Meanwhile, Blacks remained stuck at the bottom.
He now spoke to Al, a Vietnam vet. Al was unemployed, attending a methadone clinic. He talked about his younger Black brothers. Without jobs or job training, they were turning to crime or enlisting. Despite his harrowing tales about Nam and the Big H, he simply couldn’t get through to them. Couldn’t they, at least, learn from his mistakes? He spoke with scorn about the military recruiters, further north, on Woodward Avenue. There were four: ARMY, NAVY, AIR FORCE and MARINES. They offered scholarships to college, job training, and promised careers to the next generation of gimps and KIAs.
Mat spoke to others about finding jobs, paying bills, or trying to just keep their families from falling apart. An elderly lady reminded him of Linda, who he’d seen a few months back. She was the white-haired housekeeper who had worked for his Aunt.
She had emerged from the food stamp office, carrying a shopping bag and purse. Recognizing each other, they had embraced in the middle of the walk. Like Alice, she been maid, cook and mammy to his three older cousins. But, now that they had grown up and had kids of their own, Linda had finally retired. She lived on Social Security, food stamps and government surplus powdered milk and cheese. And, while she spent her twilight years in the inner-city ghetto, his aunt (her former employer) was ensconced in a townhouse in Troy. His Aunt Bea was a widower; her children had lives of their own. She became obese, bored, and manic-depressive. Roaming the country from spa to spa, seeing gurus and shrinks, popping valium and gin: she was perpetually on the edge of another nervous breakdown.
Leaving the unemployment office, Mat drove down Woodward Avenue to meet Lou from lunch. Woodward was Detroit’s main drag, running from the foul Detroit River out to Baseline Road. In the years since he had grown up, Woodward, too, had changed for the worse.
He passed Lighthouse Baptist, Messenger of God, Little Rock Temple (only a few of the hundreds of neighborhood churches though out the inner city). Ranging from storefronts to massive cathedrals, they flourished as all else decayed. Beyond Boston and Chicago Boulevards (where the auto barons had once dwelt in style), was a city block gutted by fire. Walls boarded up, plastered with campaign posters. Windows broken, covered with screens and wire. Next came the convalescent homes, abandoned Packard dealers, auto washes, gas stations and bump & paint shops. And, appearing overnight, were the fast food chains, the Burger Kings, Popeye’s and Wendy’s.
He passed Sam D. Man’s, Louis the Hatter, Bad Ass Rags. Saw hookers in gold lame, pushers in patent leather. Till he finally arrived at the Highland Park Plant – an elephant’s graveyard of obsolete plant and equipment. An historic bronze marker was placed before the plant: in 1913 the first Model T had been built on this very spot.
Here, Henry Ford built his assembly line, marking an epoch in the history of capitalist production. Years later, the plant was phased out, when he moved his operation out to Dearborn. There, he built the Rouge – which, by the twenties, was the world’s largest factory. By truck and train, raw materials had arrived; to be smelted, rolled, pressed, drilled, honed, welded, painted and assembled – till a new car rolled off the line. The Highland Park Plant was contrasted with the Rouge, the old with the new.
The old plant stood silently across the street from Sears. Three blocks long, built of red and gray brick, it had thousands of dirty, broken windows. Empty lots stood before it (their concrete broken, buckled), with weeds and clumps of grass sprouting up through cracks. And everything was enclosed by a high steel fence with coils of razor wire on the top. But, vast as it appeared, crumbling there on Woodward, it was dwarfed by the mighty Rouge.
From a mile away its sulfurous fumes would hit you like a wall. Passing McGraw Glass, Truck City, Vulcan Forge – the rumbling sounds of industry grew louder. Finally, you turned down Miller Road, as the Rouge stretched out before you.
Powerhouse #1 – with eight smoke stacks – poured out thunderheads that blotted out the sun. Blast furnaces rose beside it, bristling with pipes and ladders: one by one they squatted on the ground like enormous black iron beetles. Next came the block-long blue and white plants, each with the oval Ford emblem. Twice a week, Mat and his comrade, Red, manned the gates at either end of the factory.
The workers streamed past them, coming on their shifts, heading for Glass, Engine, Assembly or Steel. With his back to the plants and Miller Road before him, he saw the parking lots and boxcars lined up on the tracks. On his left, were hills of coal; on his right, the Ford and American flags. And, while he stood at one gate, Red stood at the other.
Back and forth she rushed between the workers – greeting old friends, handing out flyers, hawking their leftwing newspaper. For years she had stood here; knew hundreds of workers by name. She knew their families, their quirks, their day-to-day life on the line. She had made that life her own.
In winter, the wind was fierce outside the plants. It burned her puffy cheeks, brought tears to her pale-blue eyes. Further inside, stood Gate 4 regulars. Massai, the Black blind man, with his portable radio humming. Peanutman stood beside him, in his torn leather coat, hawking nuts and sweets out of cardboard boxes. And there were the uniformed Ford guards checking each car’s pass as it drove in through the gate.
Over one-hundred thousand had worked here in the twenties, but that was in far better times. Today, the workforce was a fraction of that number; and many faced lay-offs in the next round of concessions. Only massive take-backs had saved the steel division. And hundreds from assembly (some with a decade's seniority), would be getting their pink slips soon. Ford preferred to invest in its new Mexican plants; or shut down its northern shops to move to the sunbelt states. There were plant closings, lay-offs and further rounds of concessions (though the company bragged of record sales and history-making profits). Like its fossilized elder brother, the Highland Park Plant, the mighty Rouge might one day shut down.
Mat left the plant behind – driving past hooker bars, party stores, cheap motels. There was the X-rated Krim (where he had once seen Bergman films). The old Highland Park Bank (which now featured peep shows and burlesque). Till he finally crossed McNichols and drove into the parking lot of Ted’s. After finding a spot, he walked into the restaurant. Lou waved to him from a booth in the rear.
“Well, speak of the Bolshevik devil!” Lou exclaimed with a laugh. Putting a pen in his law book, he closed it, as Mat squeezed into the booth. Mat reached across the table to examine the thick blue volume. He lifted it up with a mighty heave, wiped the imaginary sweat from his brow. He thumbed through its pages with a look of pain of his face. Then he slammed the casebook shut.
“I’ve got to hand it to you, Lou, I could never stand that shit.”
“… the will of your class made a law for all.” Lou replied, with a quote from Marx.
“So you haven’t forgotten, completely.”
“Well, the theory’s up here,” he said, tapping his skull, “but my practice has fallen ill.”
“Fallen ill, he says; more like dead and safely buried.” Mat’s eyebrows rose with disdain.
“You never stop, do you?”
“I haven’t given up on you, yet. By the way, I got you a ticket for next week’s Washington march.”
“How can I possibly go, Mat? I’m in law school.”
“So, fuck law school, Lou! Two measly days won’t mar your immaculate grade point average. If you’re that hard up, study on the bus.”
“You can’t study on the bus.” Lou appealed with upturned hands. “Give your poor old brother a break.”
“When El Salvador’s death squads retire – then I’ll give you a break.”
A waitress arrived for their orders. She was one of Ted’s old-timers, Sal. She was in her sixties, with silver hair and an angelic smile.
“What’ll it be, boys?” she began. She took a green pad and pencil from her apron.
“What’s the special, today, Sal?”
“Spinach pie or the soup-and-sandwich combo. By the way, how’s the law school grind, Lou?”
“Ca va – it goes. That’s the one phrase I remember after two years of college French. Give me the usual, Sal. Of course, you know my brother, Mat – the pinko-commie-subversive?”
“Sure, Mat and I are comrades from way back when. What’ll it be, Mat?”
“The special sandwich and coffee, Sal. How’s that grandson of yours, these days?”
“Oh, the little darling!” she cried. “Have I shown you the latest pics?” She removed a dog-eared photo from the pocket of her blouse.
“A million times!” Mat laughed. “But let’s see him again. I must admit, he’s a cute little brat.” Mat handed the picture to Mat, who glanced at it, and returned it to Sal, saying:
“He’s got his grandma’s fair blue eyes.”
“Why, you old charmer, Lou.” She replied with a wink. Then she rushed off to place their orders.
“What about it, Lou? Are you going to stand by and let the D.C. cops cream you baby brother?”
“All right, you cunning little bastard. But just this once-“
“It’s a deal!” Mat cried, as they shook on it.
Sal returned with Mat’s coffee and ketchup for Lou’s burger. Now the table model jukes played the Motown sound – three different tunes at once. And, as the cigarette smoke rose from the booths, the diner began to fill up.
“Did I tell you we’re re-opening the contract?”
“No. What’s up?”
“Williams finally settled; they got big wage cuts. Now, it seems, it’s our turn.”
“I see…” said Mat, then he paused. “So the recession’s finally come home to roost. Even grandpa Alex’s sweatshop isn’t entirely immune.”
“You’d think if anything were recession-proof, it was vaults. After all, people go right on dying. But you can’t blame dad. It’s wage cuts or bankruptcy, isn’t it?”
“Lou, the question is: who foots the bill? Today, the workers and the poor are paying the tab – paying with lay-offs, plant closings, social service cuts.”
“But, what do you expect? They’re scared shitless of losing their jobs. They agreed to cuts at Ford, Kroger, Chrysler-“
“Not at Canadian Chrysler, Lou. They were told the company was broke; that the bosses refused to talk. Yet, after they went on strike, somehow the money turned up.”
“But, what if they’re really going broke?”
“Lou, if the workers don’t fight back, then they’ll all get demands for concessions. Look at AT&T. They’re making billions and they still demanded concessions. And it’s not just here, at home. The rich nations are making the poor ones pay – with austerity, re-structuring – in exchange for IMF loans.”
“I know, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But, you can’t blame dad for that.”
“I don’t blame dad; it’s the system. He’s caught up in it like everybody else. But, don’t forget, he’s caught at the top: with an Acapulco condo; a home in Bloomfield Hills; a couple of fancy Cadillacs. Tell me, who do you think pays for that – and for your law school tuition, as well? It’s those guys, downstairs, in the plant – working six-day weeks, breathing asphalt fumes, losing a finger, like Johnny K., having a stroke like Fred Stubbs. Unless they take a chance and put up a fight, they’ll always be the losers. Besides, you learn from a fight-“
“I know, class struggle as education. Rosa Luxemburg, right?”
Mat paused, then began once again.
“Sure, you remember the catchwords. But it’s another thing to apply them. Even you recall how Vietnam made those phrases real.”
Sal now brought their orders, setting the platters down with one hand, as she poured coffee with the other.
“Anything else, boys?”
“No. That’ll be fine, Sal.”
By now the place was packed. The waitresses, in crisp white uniforms, fairly flew between the tables: taking orders; placing them; carrying armloads of cups and platters. Lou and Mat attacked their food. Seated across from each other, with the buzz of conversation and the juke boxes humming, one noted the family resemblance. Each had oval faces, high foreheads, and noses that thickened in a bulb at the end. Lou favored their dad – with dark hair, olive skin, penetrating eyes. Mat favored their mom – with her baby-fine hair and lighter skin coloring. Lou had a beard, carefully trimmed. Mat was clean-shaven, wore wire-rimmed specs.
“What if there’s a strike, Mat? What should I do?”
“There’s nothing much you can do, Lou. It’s up to the men, downstairs.”
As he backed the Cadillac out of the garage, Harold pressed the button to lower the door and paused to admire his home. A cube of glass on the crest of a hill in a forest of black trees and snow. In the fall, when they had moved in, it was surrounded by autumn leaves. Designed (in the words of the architect), “to bring the forest, itself, inside”, its walls of glass were a perfect frame through which to view the changing of the seasons. Though he’d been perfectly happy in their previous apartment, his wife had persuaded him to move. And, by god, she was right: it was the joy of their lives. He had hired a dozen different craftsmen to remake it in her image – carpenters, electricians, painters, plasterers, plumbers. And, after three months of intensive supervision, it had finally been completed.
Or so he’d thought. After moving in, however, defects were discovered. In fact, she still resented the craftsmen he had chosen, and the decision to move in, before the work had been completed.
“She’s just like Alex.” Harold thought to himself with a sigh. “A Rosenberg, through and through. Once they’ve got you by the balls, the never let up. They never forgive and forget.”
But the remodeling was finally completed. And, as he gazed through the skylight at the stars each night, he realized it was worth all the strife. Watching the constellations move across the evening sky, he now felt at home; was content to end his days here.
As he backed down the drive, he inserted a tape in the deck: Szell’s Beethoven “Seventh Symphony” began with the burst of its opening chord. Harold swore by Szell and the Cleveland. Never had an orchestra been honed to such an edge – it pitch unerring, its choirs so balanced, the attack of its brass, so sharp and clean. His favorites were the "Seventh”, the “Emperor” Concerto, the overtures to “Egmont” and the three “Lenores”. Their rhythm, velocity, sheer sense of elan, epitomized man at the peak of his powers.
Years before, as a Phys. Ed. Major, he had been forced to take a ballet class. During that summer he had danced in student performances (one of them to Beethoven’s “Seventh”). And, though only a passable dancer himself, he had retained a lifelong love of ballet. It was his favorite of the arts (particularly the choreography of Ballanchine, danced by the New York City Ballet). Its combination of movement and music gave him a surge of energy as he pressed the gas pedal down to the floor. The Cadillac gathered speed to the pulse of the “Seventh Symphony”, as he entered the city of Troy.
Unlike Homer’s Troy (an ancient city of walls), our modern-day version was a boulevard of corporate America. Here was the glamour of “free enterprise”, its premiere avenue of prestige and power. On his left, were Lawyer’s Title, Michigan National – both in tinted glass. On his right, Detroit Edison, the Budd Corporation, the copper block of First of America. An image of K-Mart, on the far side of the street, was reflected in its mirror-like walls.
A fortress of bronze watchtowers, it was a miniature city – built of modular units of steel, brick and glass. From its parent corporation, S. S. Kresge, it had grown to multi-nation-hood, an empire of five-and-tens. Beyond K-Mart Corporation, lay the Somerset Mall, the Mecca of Detroit’s wealthy consumers. Harold and his wife, Deborah, had visited it earlier in the week.
They had walked through Saks, past the rows of cosmetics in their highly-lit displays. Then they had left to walk through the mall. Outside Saks, was an inferior piece of sculpture, reminding Harold of his favorite Henry Moore in Detroit’s Institute of the Arts. Moore’s “Reclining Figure”, in elm wood (inspired by a memory of his mother’s back), had always struck a deep chord in Harold. He was devoted to his own mother’s memory. Her picture occupied the place of honor on top of his bedroom chest of drawers.
They had strolled through Gucci, Bally of Switzerland, and finally passed FAO Schwarz. Through the window he saw the buffalo he had purchased for this nephew, Richie. Richie reminded him of Mat as a kid: precocious; spoiled rotten; devil-may-care.
“When are my sons going to give us some grandkids to spoil? My god, it’s time they both got married!”
He continued past the headquarters of Volkswagon of America. Entering the southbound ramp of the Chrysler Expressway, he glanced back at Big Beaver Road.
“Not great architecture, perhaps. But, still, some damn fine buildings. Will they suddenly collapse like a “house of cards”? Will the “masses” sweep them away into the “dustbin of history”? Mat – my son the Marxist – is completely out of touch. When will that kid grow up?”
Driving down the freeway to the “apotheosis of the dance”, he considered that morning’s contract talks. It was the first time in years that he wasn’t in charge. Perhaps it was wise he sat this one out. He was seventy, after all. It was hard to believe. He certainly didn’t feel that old. But he missed being part of the action. Besides, he had serious misgivings about turning things over to his brother in law, Eli and his nephew, Zeke.
After giving up medical school to join the firm, Eli had always regretted the choice. And he was too high-strung for union negotiations. He mastered every phrase of their operation (like his father-in-law, Alex, and his own wife, Deborah, he was a perfectionist with regard to each detail), but he lacked skill in dealing with people. And there was also Zeke to consider.
He had made a remarkable adjustment on entering the firm. He had learned everything backwards and forwards, inside and out. But he was far from being a diplomat. He was stubborn, lacking in tact, he might screw up in a tough situation. Both Rosenbergs, father and son, were hardly the best choice for these delicate negotiations.
“Can we avoid a strike?” he wondered. “The first in twenty-five years.” He wished they didn’t have to make these damned concession demands. “They make little enough, as it is.” But after the Williams deal, they had their backs up against the wall. They simply had no choice.
“Besides, whatever Mat might say, I earned my place. All those years of Alex’s bullying, his slum dwellers’ complaints, the smell of asphalt on everything you touch! Deb can smell it a mile away! Why, if Mat had his way, the workers would split up the firm and run it into the ground. Hell no! Its mine – I paid my dues – not some factory workers’ who never finished high school.”
Passing some new construction by the side of the road, he saw workmen paving the lot. He made a mental note to himself to send them the company’s parking lot brochure.
“When will they finally grow up, get married, settle down? When will they give us some grandkids, already? At least Lou bit the bullet with law school. If Mat was a bit more realistic. Boy, do he and Deb go at, tooth and claw. Israel and the Palestinians, every Sunday morning. Can’t they just avoid the subject for once?”
His Cadillac passed a rig hauling coils of steel. Until recently, when he’d returned to Detroit, Mat had driven such big trucks, himself.
“Well, at least he’s not driving those monsters anymore. Every time I heard how one of them jack-knifed—the coils breaking lose, crushing the driver clean through the cab! God, it made me heartsick. And the Teamsters – of all the thug-ridden outfits to try reform. The Godfather and his goons ganging up on my little boy…”
“But, I’ve got to hand it to him – the kid’s got guts. But why does he shout at his mother like that? Deb, too, what a mouth! Not to mention her arthritis. I know it hurts, but she acts as if I were to blame! At least she’s finally beginning to forgive me for the move. That house is a gem. I wish Lou would move out of that Highland Park slum. It’s downright dangerous: in the heart of Murder City. Those kids, those kids…Still, they’re the best thing we ever did.”
He exited the freeway, took McNichols Road east and finally pulled up before the plant. Climbing the stairs to the office, he ran into Lou (on his way downstairs to do the weekly products inventory).
“How’s law school, son?” he asked, as he gave Lou a hug.
“Fine, dad. How’s mom’s arthritis?”
“About the same, I’m afraid. She wears those braces at night; claims they help her hands a bit. How about dinner this weekend?”
“Sure, dad. I’ll give you a ring.”
He continued up the stairs and opened the office door. Greeting Mary Jane and Ellen, their secretaries, he hung his coat in the corner closet. Then he entered Eli’s office.
Eli’s office was filled with cabinets and furniture and numerous items on the walls. Those walls were an inventory to his brother-in-law’s mind: the trout on wooden plaques, with snapshots from his fishing trips; the prominently displayed signs reading PLEASE DO NOT SMOKE; the red-framed review from the New York Times of his younger son’s one-man show. Each revealed a side of the man. His love of field and stream, his first wife’s death from cancer, his younger son, Lenny’s, art. And the photo of his daughter and his grandson on his desk. She had married a gentile, converted to an evangelical Christian sect. Each was a clue to his brother-in-law (and everything was in its proper place, as Alex would have surely demanded.)
Eli was seated in his black leather chair, his hands clasped tight in his lap. He was gazing out the window at the cranes across the street.
“Are they here?” Harold asked.
“Downstairs. What a pain in the ass! I can’t wait till it’s over, so I can take off for a few weeks fishing, up north.” Harold left Eli’s office to sort the morning mail. Facing each other, through the factory office doorway, they were a study in contrasts. Harold was a man content with life. He had silver, wavy hair – swept back from his deeply-creased brow, and his hooked Hebraic nose. His dark complexion and intense brown eyes resembled a Rembrandt print at his elder son’s apartment. Eli, unlike his brother-in-law Harold, was one big bundle of nerves.
With expansive brow and barrel chest, Eli was a middle-aged version of the portrait of Alex on the office wall, outside. He had a high receding hairline and a carefully-trimmed moustache. Though he had mellowed since his second marriage, he still had a short-fused temper.
But, despite their differences, they made a perfect combination in their business efforts. Eli attended to detail, to price and cost advantage; while Harold smoothed over the edges between the management and the union, between the company and its finicky customers. And, as they deliberated over the contract talks, Lou began the weekly inventory in the factory below them.
He descended the stairs with his clipboard and pen, wearing a shop coat and pair of castoff shoes (their soles begrime with paint, dust and gravel, embedded in an asphalt crust). Despite the shop coat, shoes and a pair of cotton gloves, the asphalt always got on something. Its black glue ate away anything it touched. Unlocking the display room, he was startled by the union representatives. They were conferring among themselves before meeting with the owners. He apologized for interrupting, then entered Johnny’s tiny office, closing the door quietly behind him. In the corner of the office was an ancient water heater: like ivy, its patched and soldered pipes climbed the grimy wall. Seated behind his battered wooden desk, Johnny K. now turned to greet him.
“What’s up, Louisville?”
“Oh, just this to fill out.” Lou handed him the clipboard and pen. “Mind if I borrow your tape measure?”
“Go right ahead. But it’s on the window sill, in there.” He indicated by a nod of the head the room where the union representatives were conferring.
“Well, I can do without it. I barged in on them once, already.”
As John filled out the inventory, Lou stood behind him. John scratched his head with the end of the pen, trying to recall the number of vaults they’d run so far that week. Beneath his woolen cap was a shiny bald patch, and sideburns on his chubby, stubbled cheeks. John was Mr. Fix it, their jack of all trades. He worked every job, at one time or another, and knew the quirks and eccentricities of every machine. And, not only had he worked each job (rising from production to driver to foreman), but he also knew their dangers. He had lost two digits of his index finger, had been tied up in a lawsuit for the past five years. They had yet to settle in court. Embittered by the endless bickering (and the painful operations), he swore he would never again set foot in a courtroom.
John was the central gear in the factory. It was he who kept the upstairs enmeshed with the factory and its workers, below. Having come up from the ranks, he knew their problems from the inside. And he was good at giving orders – in a gentle way, avoiding friction between the owners and the men.
A child at heart, he continued having kids of his own; and his growing brood helped keep him young. His family life allowed him to get through the day with a sweet disposition they all envied. Lou sure admired his patience. The two of them had become especially close since Lou had returned to Detroit and the firm. Like Ivory, he had met John on his first trip here, when he visited the plant as a kid.
As John completed the weekly statistics, he returned the clipboard to Lou.
“Heard anything about the talks yet, Lou?”
“You know as much as I do, John.”
“I’m telling you, Lou, you can feel it down here. The men are just plain edgy. They complain about the smallest thing, get into arguments over nothing at all. I guess there’s not much we can do?”
“I’m afraid not, John. See you later.”
Slapping Johnny on the back, he opened the office door: the factory noise burst in. He squeezed through the line of vaults, approaching Harry on the mixer. He tried to shout above the racket.
“Is there enough stuff for this week, Harry?”
With cement dust powdering his afro and beard, Harry shouted back:
“Sure, boss.”, avoiding Lou’s eyes. Taken aback by Harry’s curt response, he continued down the rows of poured concrete vaults and parking blocks, to the other end of the plant, where Tyrone was turning the parking block molds.
He flipped the molds – with a twist of the wrist, slamming the blocks free of their long metal forms. The crash of steel caused Lou to wince: he remembered the time he had bruised his hand while working as Tyrone’s partner. Tyrone hummed, immersed in his task. Then he finally noticed Lou, saying:
“What’s happening, Lou?”
“Not much, Tyrone. How’s show biz, these days?” “Got a swinging weekend ahead – three gigs in a row!” “You know, I once played sax in the Mumford High Band. I’m gonna live and die for Mumford High.”
“No shit, man? You oughta bring your ax down and gig with us, sometime.”
“It’s been so long since I played that horn, that the keys are covered with mold. But I’d like to hear you play.”
“We’ll see about that, boss. Take care, now.” Tyrone now left to help Harry on the mixer.
That look in his eyes; the weariness in his voice. If even Tyrone was moody, then things looked bad. John was right about the tension in the air; the threat of a strike was real.
He continued down the rows of blocks and vaults, passing Nick inside a concrete box, scubbing its bright copper liner. He paused to wave to Ivory, stacking blocks with the forklift truck, and piling them up near the back door. Now he headed toward Lee, at the south end of the plant.
Lee was spraying the vaults, in the corner, and had the old fan going full blast. It moaned and groaned, sucking paint dust from the air, as he sprayed a box, whipped the hose along, and continued on to paint the next. On his face was a spray mask, and he wore a bandanna over his flowing black hair. With shaggy beard, beer belly and rosy red cheeks, he looked like a king-sized gnome. But Lee was in no mood for joking.
Currently involved in divorce proceedings, his daughter, Bonnie’s, custody was always on his mind. And there was the tragic accident from a few years back. He had been one of their drivers, like George, his dad. But then he had hit and killed a child while driving the company truck; the insurance company had claimed he’d been drinking. Ever since that accident (and the company’s huge cost of settlement), Lee had been stuck painting vaults in the corner of the plant.
“How’s it going, Lee? Need more paint or sealant this week?”
“I’ve got more than I need, already. But tell me this, Lou, why don’t you get a heater put in at my end? I’m freezing my ass off down here.”
“I’ll tell my dad. But there’s not much I can do-“
“Why not? You’re the boss’s son, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I can spend the boss’s cash. Look, why don’t you tell your union reps. Now’s the perfect time.”
“Those old ladies don’t do shit. You know that, Lou. And the fan. When are you gonna get one that ain’t always breaking down? Hell, if those OSHA boys showed up, you’d get one fast enough.”
“That’s for sure!” Lou admitted, with a laugh. “But since your man, Regan, got in, they’ve completely disappeared!” He had hoped to get a laugh out of Lee, but he was in no mood for joking.
“Try changing your filters once in a while-“
“You try wearing this lousy mask, breathing that fucking paint dust all the time. Then you can tell me about those measly little filters. You know damn well what we need is a decent fan and spray booth. But Zeke, that cheap-ass cousin of yours, don’t give a damn as long as it’s my lungs, not his, that’s getting wrecked.”
“But, what can I do, for crying out loud?”
“You’re the boss’s son, aren’t you?”
“I’ve told you a million times, that don’t mean shit!”
“And now that we’re talking, what do you think about these take-backs?”
Lou was taken off guard by Lee’s question.
“What can I say?...I guess they’re forced to-“
“Don’t give me that company bull, Lou. What I want to know is, do you think it’s fair?” Lee looked him
square in the eye.
“Well, you don’t want us to go bankrupt, to lose your job-“
“That’s not what I asked, Lou. Just tell me straight: do you think it’s fair. Let’s hear it from the ‘friend of the working man’, himself…Well?...”
Lou hesitated, unable to explain.
“I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a job to do.” He turned and walked away from Lee.
Passing through the plant, he crossed the alley, and entered the building where the odd-sized vaults were stored. Though he had left Lee behind, he felt guilty for having dodged his question. To be honest, he had no answer. All he knew was that the company was prepared.
Zeke had worked the men six-day weeks for the past three months. In the event of a strike, they would have a surplus to fall back on. All those Saturdays, the men were working against themselves (though, at the time, they thought themselves lucky to have a few extra bucks in their paychecks). It reminded him of the time he had done a time and motion study.
He was told it was a way to increase productivity. Later, he discovered that ‘increased productivity’ really meant getting more work out of fewer workers. He remembered standing around with a
wristwatch in his hand, recording figures on a yellow pad. And when the men asked why he was timing them, he repeated Zeke’s explanation. But, in time, he learned that what was ‘productive’ for the owners might not be equally productive for the workers doing the job. He resented being used – and felt the same way now, after dodging Lee’s remark.
Snaking his way through the stacks of concrete products, he recorded the figures on his pad. Smiling to himself, he imagined what his brother Mat would say about all these commodities. The products, plant and equipment were ‘congealed labor’ for him: the work of men in material form. His folk’s home, their Cadillacs, their place in Acapulco – all depended on the work of these workers in their factory. Lou, too, was part of the system that demanded concessions from the men. It was there in Lee’s fierce eyes. But, there was a certain logic, nonetheless, in the current round of concessions.
The economy was in recession. With less demand for their products, and more competition for the business that remained, they were forced to cut back. Lay-offs, robots, computers were introduced; then one company after another demanded concessions from their workforce. And, when this was insufficient, factories were shut down, or moved south or overseas. There, the unions were weak or non-existent, labor costs were lower, and tax breaks were often available. What choice did business have?
If one questioned the entire system, like his brother Mat, such logic fell to pieces. But, surely, Lee had no such point of view. Yet, despite this, he knew it was unfair. Sacrifice was demanded of some – the workers, not from the bosses. All the economists rolled into one were powerless to deny it. Lou couldn’t help but agree.
The chirping of sparrows now cut through his thoughts. Gazing up, he spied a nest they had built between the I-beams of the crane, overhead.
“I wonder what grandpa Alex would’ve said about you feathered freeloaders up there? Why, if he were still alive, he would’ve charged you rent! How dare you trespass on his sacred private property! Why don’t you go out and get yourselves jobs, you chirping little bums!”
He remembered his grandfather, remembered his Jewish Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. At home, he’d been a tyrant, wielding absolute power: the power to feed; the power to clothe; the power to put a roof over their heads. And, if they didn’t like it, there was the door! If they were needed in the business, they’d have to give up their selfish dreams. After all, he was their father; he had brought them into the world. And he was the master of that world.
He was a hard-driving businessman, a paternalistic boss. He ruled his business with an iron hand. It was his business, after all. He had stayed up nights designing its blue prints and patents. He had worked six-day weeks, twelve-hour days – to get the cash to buy its lumber, bricks and steel. He had laid those bricks, sawed those boards, welded every beam: raised that entire factory building with his own two hands. Who dared suggest it wasn’t his to do with it as he damned well pleased? He had given these men jobs, put food on their tables. So why should they complain, want more? So he paid them minimum wage, worked them six-day weeks, laid them off when things were slow. Hell, he worked harder than any of them! He worked harder, worked longer – and would’ve worked bloody murder to keep those damned unions out. What right had they to stick their noses in his affairs? Sure, he kept the profits; that’s how the system works. Grandpa Alex had it all figured out. But, however tough a father and boss he’d been, he always had a soft spot for his grandchildren. Lou remembered sleeping over at his grandparent’s home.
The house’s design, its electrical work and plumbing, its very walls had been raised by his Grandpa Alex. In his garden he planted peach and apple trees. In the furrowed black soil he planted carrots, lettuce and potatoes. He pruned the trees, turned and watered the soil. And, at the end of the summer, he harvested his crop. After it was picked, his wife, Sadie, took over.
She cut away the leaves and stalks and cleaned them in the sink. She boiled the fruits into thick preserves; canned them in jars with screw-on brass tops. Then she stored the jars on shelves on the wall in the cool recesses of their basement. In her way, she had been as tough a nut as her husband, Alex.
Alone, at the age of twelve, she had taken the boat from Russia across the ocean to America. Working at a sewing machine in a sweatshop for twelve hours a day, she had saved her nickels and dimes. In time, she had saved enough to bring her three brothers and two sisters from overseas. Lou remembered her Jewish cooking – the matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and his favorite apple strudel, crammed with cinnamon, nuts and raisins. His grandpa always had a glass of tea, with a thick slice of lemon; or a dish of stewed fruit from his own backyard. After dinner, they had watched TV in their den: ”The Lawrence Welk Hour” and “The Honeymooners” were Sadie’s favorite shows. During the commercials, she’d steal away, returning with floats of Sander’s ice cream and Vernor’s ginger ale. Then she brought them the tall can of bow-tie cookies from the Fabulous Star Bakery.
Their living room was filled with the brick-a-brac from their yearly trips to Miami Beach. There was an upright piano – always out of tune – on which Alex played “Chopsticks” and the “Russian Waltz”. On the coffee table was a candy dish filled with stale coconut paddies. And the walls were covered with family photos, and Sadie’s cross-stitched samplers. One – God Bless America, in red, white and blue – hung on the wall, above the fireplace. Surely, his grandparents had lived the American Dream. But, as the two grew older, that dream became a nightmare.
One night two masked burglars had broken into their home. It was late, and the couple had already gone to bed, when the burglars burst through their bedroom door! They threatened to choke them—with pillows held over their faces, unless they gave them all their cash and valuables. Alex pleaded; gave them their jewelry; then emptied his safe in the den. The burglars finally left, and the cops were called. Though little of value was taken, their peace of mind had been destroyed: they’d never feel safe, here, again. So they left their beloved home, moving to a high rise in the suburbs. It had a tall spiked fence, and a guard at the entrance, around the clock.
While driving down the freeway one day, the following year, a brick had been hurled through Alex’s windshield. He swerved off the road, barely avoiding the concrete wall. Since that day, he rarely had driven downtown; he did his stock trading over the phone. Then things went from bad to worse.
Sadie’s senility forced him to put her in a home for the elderly; he was all alone in their apartment. Everywhere he looked, there were reminders of her. Then Sadie had passed away, and his own health began to worsen.
During his final months, Lou would often join his grandpa for dinner. He picked him up and drove to the neighborhood deli (it was the nearest thing to Sadie’s home-cooked meals). He remembered his grandpa on the far side of the table: the sagging jaw on his sunken chest, as he lifted spoons of chicken broth to his lips. Then a strained look appeared on his face; the pain had grabbed his gut. Finally, he was admitted to Sinai Hospital.
There, the doctors discovered he had had cancer for years: he had hidden the pain from them all. Because his own mother had died in an operating room, he had had a child-like dread of doctors. And this dread – sustained by an ironclad will – had forced him to live with the pain. Anything but that scalpel. Then his iron will had broken, and Alex passed away.
The service at Rothman Chapel…burial at Beth Moses Cemetery… That thick granite headstone above the smooth green plot…As Lou worked his way back through the warehouse and plant, he realized all of this was the child of his grandpa’s teeming brain. It was fitting that he was buried in a concrete vault of his own making. For, like the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt, he would rest for eternity
in a pyramid of his own design.
The columns of Greyhounds moved swiftly through the dawn, past blasted rock face, brown hills and snow. Just ninety miles to Washington, D.C. He had last been there for the marches of the sixties. His was the generation of Birmingham and Selma, for whom the TV images of Southern Blacks – clubbed by cops, attacked by dogs, lynched by white-hooded Klansmen – these had shaped their vision of America the Beautiful. His was the generation of Vietnam, for whom napalmed peasants, pungi spikes and the flower-like bursts of phosphorous bombs – these had shaped their vision of America the Brave. His was a generation with a vision, a generation bent on change. They had awakened in the sixties; had taken to the streets. But, since that time, they were lulled back to sleep. Would they wake up again? Lou asked himself, as he stared through the dark-tinted window.
He turned to Mat, sleeping soundly, there beside him; wrapped his jacket around his shoulders. He had been on so many bus trips, just like this one. So many sleepless nights, so many passionate debates, so many rest stops – for coffee in Styrofoam cups, or Saran-wrapped egg salad sandwiches. And so many Howard Johnson’s –up and down the turnpike, countless clones in orange and blue. He studied his brother’s face; noted the scars on his brow (from their fights as kids), the groove in his nose from the wire-rimmed specs. Gently brushing off his forehead, he smiled to himself. This was the first time they’d been to a Washington demonstration, together.
He switched on the overhead light, unable to sleep, and opened up his labor law casebook. He read the first case; got through a few dense pages. But he was constantly interrupted by a discussion across the aisle. Hearing them mention Ann Arbor, he was drawn away from his reading. He tried to concentrate, but was sidetracked by their words. So he closed his book, lay back in his seat and attempted to get some sleep. The purr of the engines set his mind adrift: as he remembered his first D.C. march in the fall of ’68…
The Pentagon March had been the biggest one yet; over one-hundred thousand had rallied at the Lincoln Memorial. A third of them continued on, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, to the parking lot at the base of the Pentagon. Here, they heard Dr. Benjamin Spock speak; observed a moment of silence for the late ‘Che’ Guevara. Then they proceeded on to the Pentagon, led by a banner reading SUPPORT OUR TROOPS – BRING THEM HOME NOW! Troops and federal marshals were there to meet them, assembled on the Pentagon steps.
Column after column had blocked their path – armed with rifles, pistols and riot gear. Most demonstrators fell back, but a few dared defy them. They broke through their ranks, made a long mad dash and encamped on the Pentagon lawn. Spurred by his peers, Lou had joined them.
As the troops regrouped to cut them off, a few attempted to outflank them. They made an end run leading to a fifteen-foot wall: its granite blocks between them and the Pentagon lawn, overhead. A rope was tossed down from above. Pulling himself up, he cleared the wall. And, as he climbed to his feet – his heart beating hard, he finally glimpsed that five-sided fortress.
Before him rose the command post of American imperialism: its marble steps guarded by troops with gleaming bayonets. The demonstrators approached the troops, trying to explain to them why they were here. But few dared respond, under their officer’s watchful eyes. The afternoon passed; evening began; a chill wind began to blow.
The SDS contingent raised an NLF flag, declaring the Pentagon ‘liberated territory’. ‘Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!’ they chanted, as they marched around the flag. Next, the Yippies performed an elaborate put-on ritual. They attempted to exorcise the Spirit of War, to levitate the Pentagon! As the evening wore on, food was hoisted up from below. There was mime, guerrilla theater and slogans painted on the Pentagon walls. When darkness fell, most had left for home. But a few hundred stayed for their vigil.
They gathered around makeshift campfires, built from nearby wooden fences. They conversed, sang songs, witnessed draft cards being burnt. They sat around waiting, as the minutes ticked away. But midnight passed, and the marshals remained on the steps: they had escaped a night in jail. At six, the following morning, they left the Pentagon lawn, marching down the walkways to the parking lot, below. Thus, their vigil against the war had ended.
Events moved quickly, the following year. LBJ was forced to resign; negations with the North began. Then Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated: as rebellions broke out in over one-hundred American cities. Nixon replaced Johnson, pledged to end the war ‘with honor’. Even Larger demonstrations were the result. And, as the bombing of the North was resumed, and more troops were shipped overseas, the pressure on Lou had increased. What right had he to safety while others risked their lives? One night he left Ann Arbor on the bus to Detroit. He was planning to return his draft card. His family had joined him around their glass kitchen table. Here, they argued till late into the night.
Despite larger marches, despite candidates pledged to end it – the War in Vietnam raged on. There were half a million troops, millions of tons of bombs dropped – yet, there was no end in sight to the conflict. Unable to explain with facts and arguments, he spoke of the Vietnamese Bonzes: the human torches that had forced him to see. He remembered that image on the TV screen.
In the middle of a busy Saigon street, an old monk in a saffron robe sat in the lotus position. Though circled by a chaos of traffic and crowds, he seemed oblivious to the phenomenal world, centered within himself. Then a novice of his order suddenly entered the screen – with a square tin of gasoline. With tears in his eyes, he poured it over his elder. After a moment of hesitation, he flung a match at his elder’s feet. Then the old man had burst into flame!...Curling up…Caving in…A cinder in a lake of fire…
He had argued with his family till late into the night. Slowly, they forced him to see. Rather than engage in a futile gesture (thousands had turned in their draft cards, left the country, gone to jail), they convinced him to get involved. That fall, he began with the New Mobilization Committee Against the War.
Their office was in the Student Activities Building on the campus of the University of Michigan. Bumper stickers, buttons and activists filled the office – people rushing in and out, or constantly on the phones. Here, meetings were held, leaflets written, posters printed on a silk screen on the floor. Their office (together with those in Manhattan, Berkeley and Madison), was the center of the Anti-war Movement. He remembered the Fall Moratorium, at which Rennie Davis had spoken.
Hill Auditorium was filled to capacity, over-flowing onto the concert hall’s steps, where loudspeakers were set up, outside. The crowd burst into applause as Davis marched up onto the stage. Wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and a jacket of olive drab, he gave a first-hand account of the bombing of the North. Having just returned from a tour of North Vietnam, he had huddled like a mole with ‘the enemy’ in their tunnels beneath the earth. The Vietnamese, he said, had lived in two separate cities – one above, one below the ground. And the two were divided by a daily rain of death. Bombs poured down from huge B-52s. Their lives assumed the rhythm of air raids; their land, the aspect of a pitted, cratered moon. Then he spoke of his fellow Americans. They, too, had a role to play.
The Moratorium was followed by the November March on Washington. He recalled their preparations for that day.
There were marathon nights of phone calls, from mailing lists, phone books and stacks of 3x5s. Leaflets were written, posters printed – plastered up everywhere you looked! Buses were chartered, car pools arranged. Then the prelude to the march was a rally at the U of M Stadium.
Thousands poured in with banners waving and signs reading BRING ‘EM HOME NOW! The platform was engulfed by cameras and reporters, as speaker after speaker had denounced the war. Then their columns of buses had driven off into the night…
Lou’s thoughts were interrupted by the voice over the public address system: they had reached the outskirts of the capital. Through affluent suburbs they drove, past boulevards of oak and homes of aged brick. Till they finally had arrived at Malcolm X Park, the site of the rally later that morning. Here, they all piled out into the cold and blinding sunlight. Lou lifted Mat up and swung him around, crying: “We’re here, you little bastard!”
Engaging in a bit of horseplay, they had tumbled onto the ground. As they sat there – grinning and breathing hard, he added:
“I can’t imagine how you can sleep on that god-damned bus – snoozing like a baby, clear through the night. Hell, I can’t get a wink.”
Mat replied with a yawn:
“Beats me, big brother. Maybe your conscience keeps you awake.
“He’s at it, again. What do you want for my life? You got me to come here, didn’t you?”
“Sure. But I had to drag you by the hair – away from those mother-fucking law books.”
Lou paused to look around at the park.
“God, this looks familiar. I’ve been here so many times. Washington, D.C., the same old marble museum.”
“Déjà vu. Yeah, I know what you mean.” Mat said.
Lou pretended to throw a punch at Mat’s stomach.
“Hey, baby brother, I can’t believe we’re here, together.”
“Sure, but its freezing, Lou. Let’s got inside and get some chow.”
Mat grabbed Lou by the shoulders and steered him toward a diner on the far side of the street. After an enormous breakfast, they had returned to the park.
He was back in Washington, D.C.; but, this time, it was with his brother, at his side. It was hard to believe they were finally here, together. After all, he had introduced Mat to the Left; bought him his first copies of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. But, after leaving Ann Arbor, Lou had dropped out; while Mat continued to be active. Now their roles had been reversed: Mat set the example. The elder brother took his cue from the younger.
They toured the park, passing the statue of Joan of Arc. Beyond it were mounted police.
With mirrors for eyes, they towered above them, on powerful chestnut steeds. Bellies spilled over their holsters; boots pressed spurs into their horse’s flanks. In helmets, leather and blue-striped pants, these guardians of ‘law and order’ packed revolvers on their thighs.
They walked past the rally’s contingents, each with their banners and hand-painted signs. Beyond was an area for literature tables and refreshments; buttons, books, pamphlets, petitions – all were there on display. There were long white lines of Jiffy Johns; beside them, an even longer line of demonstrators waiting their turn. At the head of the park were six loudspeakers, two sound equipment vans and a green picket fence. Finally, there was the rally platform. Above it hung a red banner – U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR!
To better estimate the size of the crowd, they climbed on top of the park’s stone wall. From here, they viewed the rally. It began with a long list of speakers. Their speeches droned on, till the musicians had arrived. Four Salvadorans – in colorful costumes with guitars – mounted the platform to sing. Now a hush passed over the audience, as the music cast its spell. As chorus after chorus of their passionate ballade was heard – its rhythm spurred on by flamenco guitars, Lou recalled another rally, a decade ago, in November of 1969…
Their buses had arrived early that morning, as well. There were the last-minute preparations (for places to sleep, marshals to train, a legal dispute over the parade route). Then some of them had joined the March Against Death, which had begun the previous evening.
Before the White House marched an endless line; each held a candle in a wax paper cup. Around their necks were cardboard signs with the names of the dead. The solemn procession stretched on through the night: bearing witness to the growing list of the war dead.
Clouds filled the sky, a chill wind blew – as Lou first looked out over that vast, empty mall…How could they ever fill so great a space? So few had yet arrived; it was nearly ten, already. Would their numbers fall short? Would they fail once again? Would the war drag on forever?..
He was busy all morning (moving barriers, training marshals). Till, a few hours later, when he viewed the mall again.
An overcast sky…the weather might keep them away. Or the march might be rained out, entirely. More had arrived, but they seemed so few against that vast green lawn. Damn it! – how many would it take? How many times would they have to return?
Another hour passed, then the sun had broken through the clouds. As he scanned the mall again, he saw that the crowd had nearly doubled!
The hours had passed, as the sun did battle with the clouds. Then the wind died down, the clouds had disappeared, and the sun shone forth, triumphant. Now the marchers had poured in by the thousands! Pennsylvania Avenue was filled to overflowing, as wave after wave had arrived. The streets were packed, the lawns spilling over. Nearly a million Americans had assembled there before him, as the tears rolled down his cheeks. Warmed by the sun and the jubilant crowd, he heard ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Let the Sun Shine. Then they marched through the streets of the capital.
That night, he lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of an inner-city church. But, before falling asleep, he made himself a promise: there would never be another Vietnam, if he could help it…
Yet, here he was – over a decade later, as it began once again in El Salvador.
As the musicians continued, he counted the crowd. He exchanged a look with Mat: the turnout was disappointingly small. When the rally had ended, they had marched through the streets.
Inter-American Defense. Salvadoran Embassy. Veteran’s Administration. Then they finally had arrived at Lafayette Park. Across the street from them was the White House. Behind squad cars, cops and a tall spiked fence, it seemed impaled on the Washington Monument behind it.
On their bus ride home, later that night, they had talked about Ann Arbor and the sixties. Lou had brought his canvas knapsack, covered with his collection of political buttons. Each was a piece of his radical past, a cause with which he had been connected. A button with a stop sign read STOP ABM. Another one, FEED BIAFRA. Some were emblazoned with the UFW eagle; others read OUT NOW!, Work for Peace – Oct. 15th. Finally, there was a new one from that day’s demonstration – EL SALVADOR IS VIETNAM IN SPANISH. It sparked discussion between them about the low turnout, that day. What distinguished past success from today’s dismal failure?
At the end of the sixties the economy was booming, the campuses alive with protest, the inner-cities aflame. The Vietnam War was front-page news; the number of dead, on the TV, every night. But much had changed since then.
The economy was in recession. Now the headlines were captured by bankruptcies and lay-offs. Though there were more than enough hot spots around the globe, the victims were faceless strangers. Being peoples of other nations, their deaths were ignored. That they were often killed with U.S. aid was disregarded: as long as they were killed by proxy. As long as they were murdered by mercenaries, like the Contras of Nicaragua, or by national guards and ‘death squads’ of our ‘foreign friends’, then the dirty little wars would continue. We have troubles enough at home – most would say, without worrying about far distant lands.
They talked till midnight, when Mat called it quits, and dozed off. But Lou went on remembering. The Sixties…Vietnam…Those unforgettable words: ‘tiger cage’; ‘spider hole’; ‘pungi spike’…Yesterday, it was dominoes and the ‘communist conspiracy’. Today, it was ‘rescue missions’ and the ‘world-wide network of terror’. The words had changed, but the Third World wars had raged on…
Early the next morning they had passed the Marathon Refinery, like a chemistry set against the sky. Great flasks, retorts and white vats, in a row. Beyond, stretched a forest of electrical trees, twisted pipes like steel intestines. Atop girdered towers burned small blue flames. Huge vats bubbled away like witch’s cauldrons. By heaps of slag, past the Rouge and Fleetwood Cadillac, their bus had driven on. Till the Motor City skyline had finally appeared. Through bloodshot eyes Lou viewed Detroit (fingering his old buttons on his canvas sack), as Mat slept soundly by his side.
On Monday, he returned to the office; later that morning, he drove down to law school. Taking the southbound Chrysler to the Madison exist, he turned right on Brush, passing boarded-up buildings and
weed-choked vacant lots. He entered the law school’s parking lot, pulled into a space and found himself facing the local whorehouse. A grayish clapboard building, it had peaked wooden roof and a concrete stoop, out front. Later that day and throughout the long night, the neighborhood hookers strolled up and down the block. Cars cruised by, examined the merchandise through their windows. Soon one stopped; the window rolled down; negotiations commenced, between buyer and seller. After a bargain was struck, she jumped in the front seat. Then the car disappeared around the corner.
The law school shared the block with the downtown Y, whose upper floors were a halfway house for criminal offenders. Crossing the alley between them (beneath the inmate’s rooms), you glimpsed plastic syringes, empty pints and condoms lying shriveled in the gutter. Continuing down the sidewalk to the end of the block, you saw the Wolverine Senior Citizen’s Home.
This warehouse for the elderly had once been quite a place. Its walls were embellished with fleur-de-lis and crests in smooth white marble. And, as you walked by the lobby and peered inside, you glimpsed old folks on mismatched furniture. They read the newspaper, knitted a sweater, or stared blankly into space.
Further down the block was the Elwood Bar, an art deco drinking hole frequented by students and the local drunks. Across from it, on the far side of Woodward, stood those grand picture palaces, the Palms and Fox Theaters. As a kid, he had attended their Saturday matinees (their current bill of fare was X-rated). Finally, around the corner on Grand Circus Park, was Jerry’s, the local greasy spoon. The law students lived on Jerry’s strong black coffee, ate its eggs and Coney Islands, loaded with mustard, chili and onions. Afterwards, they returned to the Detroit College of Law: a gray stone structure with a false façade of pillars and aged bronze plaques.
From these plaques wise owls gazed down, together with history’s lawgivers, Moses and Hammurabi. Above were Justinian, Blackstone, Cicero – blackened by decades of dirt. Below the entrance, with a figure of Justice presiding, overhead. Passing beneath her, one entered the lobby – to be sucked into the whirlpool of students rushing to class. Like paper dolls, they were cut to a pattern: wore three-piece suits; carried attaché cases; wrote on long yellow pads, with their gold Cross pens.
Between classes, they met in the halls, beneath gathering clouds of cigarette smoke; or in the basement, known as ‘the Pit’. Here, caffeine fiends drank machine-made instant, or Coke and Pepsi in disposable cans. Nicotine fiends smoked pack after pack, leaving carpets of butts on the dirty gray linoleum. To the sounds of video games, vending machines and the slamming of locker doors, they gabbed till the stroke of five. Then the day crew left and the night crew arrived. With haggard looks and rings beneath their eyes, they wandered through the halls like zombies in the pale, florescent light. Above ‘the Pit’ was the library, crammed full of his harried competitors.
Here, they sat, underling black letter law with yellow plastic highlighters. In a room in the rear, were copiers, constantly humming. Nickels were fed in; the lights flashed on and off; then shiny sheets were spit out the side into the metal trays, below. Snaking their around were long, nervous lines; while others cut through to the restrooms. In the stalls, inside, was a fresco of graffiti: vicious, obscene, scatological scrawls; the collective unconscious of the law school rat race.
On the walls, outside the library, were a series of class pictures. He often stared at these rows and columns of heads, with their mutton chops, handlebar mustaches and stiff starched collars. Class after class, they cranked them out; passing them on to Lansing and the murderous bar exam.
Lou climbed the stairs through crowds and smoke, elbowing his way into class. Seating himself in the very last row, he awaited the arrival of their labor law professor. Suddenly, the buzz of voices ceased, as a cadaverous gentleman entered. Closing the door, he met their eyes; then proceeded toward the platform at the head of the class, on which a desk, chair and podium stood. A handkerchief was removed from his suit coat pocket – used to wipe off the surface of his desk and chair. Then an old blue casebook (coming apart at the binding) was deftly tossed on the desk. Unwinding the cord of his portable microphone, he plugged it into the podium. He shuffled the attendance cards (with the cool dexterity of a Los Vega dealer). The deck was cut: his victim chosen. Then the mike was raised to his sneering lips, as an eerie voice emerged:
“Now who shall be the lucky one, today?” he asked, peering over his silver-rimmed spectacles.
They quailed, avoiding his withering glance. Rumor had it, he possessed the evil eye: a single look and amnesia took hold, purging all you’d crammed into your head the previous night. He shifted his eyes to the rear of the class, where they zeroed in on his target. Intentionally mispronouncing her name, he announced his verdict:
“Ms. Huberman, is it? – hiding behind your stack of casebooks. First case, please, Ms. Huberman.”
As she wrestled her way through the difficult case, Lou studied his law professor.
Claw-like hands at the ends of his arms. A brush-cut, revealing the plates of his skull. And those big black febrile eyes. Like an old gray mantis, he selected his prey; turned her round and round; then dissolved her in acid.
After five minutes of floundering, he cut her off, with:
“Is that so, Ms. Huberman? Really, now. What balderdash. What a pitiful performance.”
Confused, she turned beet red – blurting out a question. One step ahead of her, their professor replied:
“How truly profound, Ms. Huberman!” He rubbed his hands together with glee, his voice dripping acid. “And a perfect topic for a legal memorandum. Be so kind as to enlighten us with the answer, my dear”
She fluttered about in desperation, till he once more intervened.
“You’ve wasted ten minutes of our precious time, Ms. Huberman, without coming within a mile of the answer. Why, you haven’t even identified the issue! I’ll give you one more shot. The issue in a single word.”
Now began the game of trying to read his warped mind. Failing to guess the magic word, she finally broke down in tears. He went up and down the rows, called on one student after another (his cold fury increasing by the minute). Finally, Ms. Huberman was assigned a memo, as he launched into his favorite speech:
“Good gracious god almighty, this year’s crop is the worst in recorded memory!...”
And, as Lou listened to his teacher’s accumulated spleen, a real life case in labor law began at the family firm. This, the final meeting between the company and the union, had been proceeded by a weekend of disaster.
On Friday, one of the drivers had delivered a vault with a hairline crack. The funeral director who spied it was a stickler for detail (he had once before threatened to switch to their competitor). He phone Eli at home; balled him out; then closed his account with the firm.
The following morning Bernie – the driver involved – was called into Eli’s office. He chewed him out (John could hear him through the ceiling). And, as if this loss of business weren’t bad enough, that same day Nick had had an accident.
He had filled in for Stash (who had called in sick), and was burned while lighting the furnace. He cried bloody murder as the tar had overflowed into this shoe. John had rushed him to the nearby clinic, where his burns were cleaned and bandaged. Then he was given a crutch and driven home.
After a weekend like that, Eli was in no mood for bargaining. Zeke pleaded with the union for a delay, but they had refused (believing this was another in a series of stalling tactics that the company had employed). So, as Jake, the company’s attorney, now entered the office, the stage was set for trouble.
Jake was a short, stocky fellow. He wore a tweed jacket, sweater and brown knit tie; had had curly hair, small gray eyes and spoke a bit too quickly, with jab-like gestures of his hands. Leaning against the desk, he turned to Eli, saying:
“I’m warning you, Eli, let me do the talking. I know you hate that Polack’s guts, but you’ll only screw yourself, if you lose your temper.”
Zeke, sitting across from his father, added:
“All we need is a strike on our hands. Try to cool it for once, will you, dad?”
“That little schmuck.” Answered Eli, fidgeting in his chair. “If he hadn’t called in sick, Nick would never have been hurt. And the nerve of that guy – demanding to see our books. I can just see his greasy fingerprints running up and down the page.”
“But, if I told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Eli, once we mentioned bankruptcy, they have a right to see our books.”
“Don’t give me that legal crap. The law’s your affair; Detroit Concrete is mine. And it was my father’s before me, so you can be damn sure no dumb factory rat is going to tell me how to run it!”
“Eli, will you listen to me for once? If you could only shave a little off the wage demand: give them something to take back, downstairs. If they go away empty-handed, you’re just looking for trouble, for a strike.”
“Whose side are you on?” replied Eli. “First, you want to give ‘em our books. Now, you want to give ‘em our money-“
“Now, wait just one minute!” Jake cut in, “I’m just trying to avoid a strike, trying to save you a shit load of grief…” He shook his head hopelessly, meeting Zeke’s eyes.
“We’ve been through this a million times, Eli. And I’ve had it up to here. If you want another lawyer, that’s fine with me…” Jake got up and started for the door, as Zeke rose to stop him.
“Jake, please – he doesn’t mean it.” Zeke put his hand on Jake’s shoulder. “We know what a terrific job you’ve done. Don’t we, dad?” he said as he turned to his father. “I’m going to tell you one more time, dad. For chrisake, take it easy.”
“Take it easy, he tells me.” Eli answered with a groan.
Zeke circled the desk to stand behind his father, massaging his neck and shoulders.
They heard the office door open: the voices of the union team. The three looked grimly at each other. Stash, George and Sam, the union rep, now entered Eli’s office. Both sides shook hands, as Jake gave each a report he had prepared. George, ill at ease in his tight tie and collar, sat down on the black leather couch. Stash took an armchair – carefully avoiding Eli’s eyes (who watched warily from the far side of the desk). As Jake began, perched on the corner of the desk, Sam glanced through the report.
“Gentlemen, in response to your request for the company books, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing this report. Pages five through twelve, you’ll note, contain our accountant’s estimate of the Williams’ negotiations. Their labor cost advantages are underlined in red. As you can see, they’re quite considerable. Unless you agree to the wage cuts we’ve proposed, the business could be forced into bankruptcy. It’s either wage cuts now, or you can kiss your jobs goodbye.”
Jake paused; closed the report; placed it on the desk before him. Sam cleared his throat, saying:
“We’ll certainly look this over. But, I can’t help but add, it’s hardly good faith bargaining to spring this on us now. You know as well as I do, Jake, you should’ve given this to us before the meeting-“
“But we only got those figures yesterday! Hell, I’ve been here since six this morning putting this lousy report together. Come on, Sam, let’s be fair.”
“Jake, we asked to see the books, not this-“
“But, this reveals far more than the books! This is the bigger picture, Sam, Williams’ figures in addition to our own. It’s the only fair way to judge.”
“Don’t play games with me, Jake. We asked for the books. What have you got to hide?”
“We’ve got nothing to hide. All we ask is you look this over.”
“Oh, I assure you, we will. But we still want to see the books: the law entitles us to see them. Besides, before you tear up the contract, you’ve got to declare under Chapter Eleven. Is that your intention?” he asked, meeting Stash’s approving look.
“Only if you force our hand-“
“Now wait one minute! You better really be hurting – not just using bankruptcy as a threat-“
“It’s no threat, Sam. It’s there in black and white: the rising costs of materials, workers’ comp., gasoline and wages. The price of everything’s gone sky high! We don’t like it anymore than you do.”
“Yeah, but we’re the ones taking the cuts!” said Stash, meeting Eli’s eyes.
“You’re not the only one’s hurting-“ burst in Eli.
“Let me do the talking, Eli.” said Jake, as he now turned to Stash. “Stash, don’t forget we laid off Jerry this year. Jerry was one of us, management. The company is making sacrifices, just like the union. That way we save our business and your jobs.”
“But for how long will you save ‘em?” asked Sam.
“Well, none of us has a crystal ball. But we’re willing to put a job security clause in the new agreement.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” Sam exclaimed. “”Here we are tearing up one lousy contract, and you ask us to put our faith in another. Who’s to say you’re not going to tear that one up, as well?”
“Hell,” mumbled Stash, “this ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”
“What was that you said?” asked Eli. “You’re not suggesting we made this up? Why you-“
“Hold it!” roared Sam, as he turned to Eli. “Nobody’s suggesting anything, but this ain’t your books. The law says we can see them. Now, do we get them or not?” Sam turned to Jake for an answer.
“Under certain circumstances that can easily be arranged-“
“What’s this ‘under certain circumstances’ bull?”
“Yeah, if you’re really going broke, prove it!” demanded Stash.
“I don’t have to prove anything to the likes of you, Maskowski.” replied Eli. “Don’t you dare tell me how to run my business.”
“Hell, if you’re really going broke, then you can’t run it any worse than you already have.”
“You don’t know the first thing about it.” said Eli. “I’ve been running this firm since before you were born. Why, the crap I’ve put up with-“
“You, put up with crap!” answered Stash with a laugh. “It’s me who’s down there, breathing paint and dust and tar – while you’re still snoring in the burbs.”
“Don’t raise your voice to me, Maskowski. I’ll kick your ass right out of here-“
“Hold it!” shouted Jake. “Can’t we handle this without getting into a shouting match? It’s really quite simple. First, are you filing under Chapter Eleven? Second, can we see the company books? Two simple questions that deserve simple answers…Well?...” Sam turned to Jake.
“You’re absolutely right, Sam. This can be settled in a calm and rational way.”
“For heaven sakes, Jake – that’s no answer! We’re getting damn tired of all this stalling.” Sam added, when Eli took off after Stash.
“Tell me this, Maskowski: do you want to continue working, or do you want to stand in the unemployment line?”
George, a man of few words, decided to speak his mind:
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Rosenberg, but I’ve been here as long as you have. If I’m not mistaken, I was here before you joined the business. So let me get this straight. After all these years, you’re going to throw me out on the street?”
“It’s true you’ve been here a long time, George. And you’ve done a damn fine job, at that. But we’ve treated you well.” Eli added. “And your son Lee, too. Do you have any idea how much Lee’s accident cost the firm? And we kept him on – long after anyone else would’ve booted him out the door. We kept him on out of respect for you, George. And look how you show your gratitude.”
“Gratitude?’ answered Stash, with a grin that got to Eli. “You cut our wages, our benefits, you threaten our jobs – and for that you want our gratitude?”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Maskowski. George is worth ten of you. Besides, you know damn well the men don’t want a strike. What if we call your bluff?”
“Shut up, Eli!” whispered Jake, turning to Stash. “He didn’t mean it, Stash. We’re getting worked up over nothing-“
“Our jobs, our wages – nothing? Stash gestured with the rolled-up report. “He meant it, alright. I wouldn’t try it, if I were you.”
“Oh yeah, Maskowski? I can just see you trying to lead a strike-“
“That’s enough, dad.” Zeke began, but Stash drowned him out, shouting:
“So you want to play chicken, do you?” Flinging the report on the desk, he added:
“Then we’re calling ‘em out on strike!”
Stash marched out of the office, slamming the steel door behind him.
Cass Technical High School. A gray stone structure in the heart of downtown Detroit. The entrance is framed by a gothic arch; its name and date of construction carved in old English script. This gloomy hulk of a building – darkened by decades of dirt, is located directly north of the noisy Fisher Freeway (where its companion, Commerce High, had stood a generation before). And, to the east, is the grim Cass corridor, with its hooker bars, flophouses and crumbling old apartments.
With a national reputation, Cass drew the cream of the city’s youth. Both Mat and Lou had attended high school, here. Lou played in the symphonic band (after spending his freshman year at Mumford High). Mat performed in their dramatic productions of Shakespeare and Shaw. Even their younger cousin, Lenny (Eli’s second son), had graduated from its Fine Arts Department. It was because Cass attracted the young and gifted that Mat came down here, each week, to talk politics and hawk his newspaper.
He had been selling the paper at the entrance when the principal emerged, saying:
“You’re breaking the law. There’s a city ordinance that prohibits such activity within two-hundred feet of the entrance.”
Having first engaged in left wing politics as a senior at Cass, Mat felt a personal interest in its student’s free speech rights. He argued with the principal (claiming he was helping teach them for free). But, at the end, the principal drew a circle with a piece of chalk: to comply with the law he must stay outside the circle.
A crowd of students had gathered to listen. And, to show them what he thought of the law, Mat performed a little jig: dancing merrily back and forth across the chalk line. But, before leaving, the principle had warned him:
“If you persist, I’ll call the police.”
Mat returned the following day. Standing before the entrance, he hawked his left-wing newspaper. Because of weekly sales, he’d made a number of contacts; their presence caused others to gather around. Even more were drawn by his clash with the principal. So, before long, he was surrounded by a sizeable crowd. Two of the youngsters, Ernie and Rose, had met with him to talk.
Ernie was a prankster, the cynic of his high school class. An awkward adolescent with thick bifocals, he had straw-colored, long curly hair. Rose was a delicately-featured black girl with large brown eyes. Both were won over to Mat’s way of thinking. In fact, the ordinance, itself, proved an excellent introduction to the subject of freedom of speech.
He explained to them how the ordinance acted as a censor of ideas; and there were other laws just like it. One prohibited the posting of leaflets on utility poles (adversely affecting those without the funds for
advertising, who couldn’t afford to own a television station, radio network or a mass circulation newspaper). And its selective enforcement made the real interest of the law clear (Democrats and Republicans could plaster the city with their campaign posters; only leftists were hauled into court). Passing from current laws to history, he spoke to them about the free speech fights of the Wobblies, the Workers of the World. They, too, had mounted their soapboxes and were thrown into jail. Indeed, there was a hidden history of the working class that they would never learn about in their classrooms.
The following week Mat returned to Cass – this time with a card table and a plastic carton of books. He arranged his wares on the table, placed it so it straddled the chalk circle. Soon, the principal arrived on the scene, flanked by two huge black security guards. Before they knew it, they were at it, once again. But, despite this, Mat kept his composure. Responding to the principal’s red baiting with humor and wit, he kept the student crowd on his side.
After leaving Cass Tech, he met with comrades from his political organization. The pros and cons of a legal test were discussed. Till they finally agreed that the time was ripe.
So, the following day, Mat was back at the entrance: but, this time, in red flannel long johns and red satin horns on his head! Ernie and Rose held a banner aloft, behind him, as he mounted his milk crate to address the students. Soon, the principal and his guards had arrived, along with hundreds of curious students.
In the shadow of the entrance, beneath an overcast sky, a colorful assembly had gathered. Some were dressed ‘punk’ – with safety-pin earrings, hacked off hair, and blouses cut roughly at the shoulder. Others – the Michael Jackson groupies – wore their idol’s picture on t-shirts. And there were the normally clad, as well, with their books, school bags and assorted musical instrument cases.
In satanic splendor, Mat bowed and began with a flourish:
“Greeting and salutations, my learned young friends! Your principal has accused me of being a Bolshevik devil. So, here I am – the devil, himself – to address you, here, today. You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m here, at all. Well, I’ll tell you why: it’s to flush out your heads!”
Giggles and gasps escaped from the crowd, as they looked at each other, astonished. Who in heaven’s name was this madman in their midst? What on earth was he doing here?
“I’ll let you in on a secret: your heads are full of shit. Parents, teachers, TV and preachers – they’re the ones who’ve crammed it all in. Only I – with your help – can flush it all out. If it’s not too late, that it.”
“Why, before you know it, you’ll graduate, and be divided in the same way that your parents were, before you. The rich and gifted will be packed off to college, while the rest begin their real education. You’ll be lining up by the thousands to sling burgers at MacDonald’s. Or the young men, among you, might sign up for a hitch in the army. And, while you’ll probably join the army ‘to see the world’, the only world you’re likely to see is a jungle in Central America. That’s what our ‘Great Society’ offers its working-class youth. Youth, its most precious resource…”
He paused to scan the crowd. Their laughter had subsided.
“For those of you who know we can do better than this, there’s a socialist world to be built: based on human need, not corporate greed. Talk to me, that’s all I ask. I’m looking for those who want to build that world. I can’t build it for you. I can only patiently explain, help you to see, to act, and to organize…”
He jumped down from his plastic crate. There was a smattering of applause. But most were waiting for the principal’s rejoinder. They bundled up against the cold; lit smokes between cupped hands. Then, flanked by his security guards, the principal descended the stairs with a copy of the city ordinance.
The principal, Mr. Farber, was a tall stooping figure, with short gray hair and glasses. Standing on the crate, with a gloved hand resting on one of this security guard’s sturdy shoulders, he waited for the noise to die down. A few hecklers persisted, so the guards flashed them a threatening look. They stood there at attention, slapping clubs against their palms, as Mr. Farber now began.
“This law prohibits him from standing there – disrupting your education. I didn’t write it; but it’s my job to enforce it. And, those of you who know me, know I will. After all, what business does he have here? He’s nothing but an outside agitator – a communist one, at that, and this law was written to keep his kind away. It’s here for your protection – “
“From who? – from ourselves?” Ernie leapt up to exclaim. “Protecting us from ourselves. Boy, we’ve heard that one before!”
“Who said that?” cried Mr. Farber, at a loss for words. He searched the crowd for the culprit, but Ernie had instantly ducked down. Now the students burst out laughing.
“At least have the courtesy to hear me out…”
The laughter subsided, as he began once again.
“You’re too young to realize how clever they can be. How they can take advantage, mislead and corrupt you. This law was made by our elected officials to protect you from his kind. If you don’t like it, grow up and change it. That’s how a free country works. And, if he doesn’t like it, let him go back to Russia, where he belongs. It’s obvious he’s nothing but a troublemaker…”
Mr. Farber stepped down, as Mat leapt up for rebuttal.
“I admit it, I’m a troublemaker. Truth, in a society based on its denial, is a troublesome thing, indeed. And I’m an American, not a Russian; the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech to all of us. That’s the real law of the land, not some stupid city ordinance. Besides, I’ve never suggested that Russia is my ideal. The Russians will have to make another revolution if they’re to build a socialist society. But our work, as Americans, is here at home…”
He stepped down from the milk crate to a mild round of applause. Some talked to him; others approached Mr. Farber. The principal stood on the high school steps, conferring with his security guards. But, before entering the high school, he turned to address the crowd:
“I’m not here to debate. I don’t have time for such nonsense. And, the next time – I’m warning you – the police will be called.”
Mr. Farber made his exit, slamming the school door behind him, leaving the security guards standing at the entrance. Most of the crowd rushed off to catch their bus home, but a few remained behind to hear more. Ernie and Rose spoke to some of them; Mat fielded questions from the others. Determined to test the law, he returned the following day.
One of the security guards spotted him, informing the principal. He left his office, marched down the hall, and opened the high school door, saying:
“I’ve warned you. I’m calling the police.”
As word spread quickly that the cops were on their way, dozens of students rushed to the scene.
Ten minutes later, a squad car arrived. Two cops jumped out and headed for Mat’s table. Now the guardians of ‘law and order’ stood before him. The senior officer, Sargent Svoboda, was heavy-set, middle-aged, with an American flag on his shoulder. He gave Mat a final warning, then snapped handcuffs on his wrists. They read him his rights as they led him away, followed by the crowd of youngsters.
He was ushered into the back of the squad car, as the door slammed shut. Ernie gave the trunk as resounding bang, as it pulled away with a burning screech of rubber. Now Rose addressed her peers.
Her words – and the arrest they had witnessed – made a deep impression on some. (They later formed a free speech committee. A leaflet was drafted, to be handed out at school. And plans were made for a petition drive – to protest the principal’s decision to bring in the cops.)
Following his arrest, Mat was driven downtown and booked. After calling Lou to arrange for bail, he was taken to the lock-up to await his brother’s arrival.
Speeding all the way, Lou soon arrived downtown. He circled the block – searching for a place to park, then pulled into a lot, paid the attendant and rushed across Brush toward the jail. Entering the lobby of the Old County Jail, he was seated at the end of a long, crowded corridor. He waited nearly an hour, then finally reached the desk.
He made arrangements for bail; exchanged his driver’s license for a visitor’s pass. From the desk, he was directed to a gate across the hall. He slipped his pass through the gate; waited for the guards to examine it. Passing through, he was directed down the hall to an elevator. He pressed the button, waited; then rode the car upstairs to the visiting room.
Pale green walls. Butt burnt tile. Sputtering neon tubes on the ceiling. They barely illumined the NO SMOKING sign, cast a weird, flickering light on the endless line of visitors. They stood there shouting into boxes in the wall: speakers carrying their voices to the prisoners, inside.
In the foreground, to his right, was a gray steel door (webs of cracks ran through its bullet-proof glass). He rang the buzzer; a voice demanded his pass; he slipped it through the slot. Then the door was unbolted, sliding open with a screech. He stepped inside, as the door slammed shut. Now the guard eyed him warily, examining his pass. Then he rang the desk, downstairs, to confirm its validity. The bail arrangements had yet to be completed; in the meantime, he could see the prisoner.
The guard turned around, shouting ‘Mat Seigel’ through the inner-jail gate. Footsteps approached from the end of the hall. Then Mat appeared, behind the gray steel bars. A panel opened; a lever was pulled. As Mat cleared the gate, it crashed shut behind him. They were led down the corridor to a tiny gray cell. Here, they were locked inside. The click of heals receded down the hall, as Lou’s eyes scanned the cell. A single light bulb. A metal slab for a table. Metal benches attached to the walls.
They gave each other a long fierce hug, then were seated, face-to-face, across the table. Lou glimpsed the inmate’s plastic bracelet on Mat’s bony wrist, saying:
“My brother, the jailbird! You sure you’re okay? You’re not hurt, are you, Mat?”
“No, I’m fine, Lou!” he replied, grasping Lou by the hands. “Really, I’m fine.” he repeated, seeing the look in Lou’s eyes. “They wouldn’t dare lay a hand on your baby brother. None of those cattle prods or rubber hoses for the sons of the bourgeoisie. But the things you see in here…And – everywhere you look – there’s bars.”
“You’re sure you’re alright?” “Believe me, Lou, I’m fine. How are mom and dad?”
“They’re waiting at home. I told them I’d bring you over as soon as I ‘sprung’ you from jail.”
“I’m afraid to even ask, how’s mom?”
“You know mom. I tried to reassure her-“
“Damn it! – I’m sorry to be such trouble.”
“Forget it, kid. It’s a perfect excuse for me to evade the law books. A bit of crim. pro fieldwork, as it were.”
Mat filled him in on the day’s events. After an hour, he was finally released. Leaving the old jail behind them, they raced down the freeway out to Telegraph Road and Lone Pine Road. Then up their parents’ driveway. Standing above them, in the large picture window, was their mother in a yellow robe. She waved with a feeble gesture, a tired, fixed expression on her face. Harold stood beside her, with his arm around her waist. Their parents were a study in contrasts.
Harold was the intellect; Deborah, the senses. He, slow and rational, weighing reasons and evidence; she, a creature of instinct, of lightening intuitions. Indeed, Lou sometimes believed his mother’s senses were a bit too keen.
She had an extraordinary sense of color. Months after seeing a sample, she could pick out the identical shade from a pattern book of hundreds! And her sense of smell was its equal. The faintest ghost of a smoked cigar at the far end of the super market, brought a wrinkle to her pert little nose. And she had a passion for fine antiques.
Amidst the clutter and chaos of a shop full of junk, she would fish out a rare antique. No matter how many layers of dust, no matter how many coats of paint – she could always sniff it out. But her favorite place was her garden. Here, her senses reigned supreme.
From a black wooden beam above the garden’s shaded path hung a bell by Paolo Soleri. Its pebbles and patio, chaise lounge and black iron chairs – all were precisely arranged. Islands of flowers were planted along the tile wall, bright splashes of color among the darker bushes and shrubs. Seated in a chair, sipping her favorite black currant tea, she savored each detail. Her keen ear picked out birdsong in the branches, overhead. The fragrance of flowers, the gentle drift of wind, the light through a canopy of leaves. The garden was her refuge: here she was safe from the city. And Deborah was an avid collector, as well.
On lighted shelves, inside, was her collection of wedgewood and black basalt. Her art glass, Japanese ceramics – all placed on tiny crystal stands. On the walls, nearby, hung antique barometers and primitive American paintings. Harold encouraged his wife’s collecting; but preferred a concert or museum, himself. Indeed, Harold was the maven, connoisseur and cognoscente of the Siegel clan.
Symphony, opera, theater, ballet – Harold had tickets to them all! Each weekend he visited the Birmingham galleries; read Art in Armerica, Opera News, High-Fi and Stereo Review. The sportsman of the family, he played squash twice a week. And he felt a moral obligation to keep well informed: subscribed to The Nation, both daily newspapers, and The New York Times.
These were their parents, waiting at the head of the stairs. As Mat approached his mother, she hugged him tight; then looked him in the eye. Her own were red; her cheeks, puffed and swollen. She suggested making them something to eat, adding:
“After your call, we hardly touched a thing…”
Lou volunteered to make sandwiches, as Mat joined their folks in the living room. He was seated on the couch, across from his parents, before a panoramic wall of glass through which the forest could be seen.
Tired and overwrought from their anxious afternoon, Deborah rose and paced the room. A wave of hair fell over her cheek; she swept it backwards with a graceful flick of the hand. Now she paused, turning to Mat, saying:
“You have no idea what it’s like being a parent, when your kid is in danger and there’s nothing you can do. Just think of the strain on your father’s heart. Knock on wood – he’s in marvelous health. But don’t’ forget his attack last winter. And now – of all times – with that union on his back. As if he hasn’t enough on his mind, you’ve got to go and get yourself thrown into jail!...” She turned and walked away, gazing vehemently through the window.
Harold rose and went to his wife. Putting his arm around her, he led her back to the couch. Now he met Mat’s eyes, saying:
“This is hard on her, Mat.” He kissed her brow, saying: “Relax, dear. He’s here now, he’s safe and sound. You know she doesn’t mean it, Mat-“
“Don’t you dare try to tell him what I do or do not mean! You just don’t have the guts, dear, to come out with it. You’re always playing diplomat – unity, peace regardless of the cost. Well, sometimes its better to say what you really think.” Now she turned on Mat, saying:
“As far as I’m concerned, Matthew, you’ve got an ‘infantile disorder’. You never outgrew the sixties, Ann Arbor and Vietnam. When are you going to finally grow up, young man? When are you going to act like a mencsh – get a real job, a wife and a family-”
“Deb, don’t say things you’ll only regret.”
“I say what I feel, dear. It’s better than keeping it bottled up inside, letting it gnaw away at me – like you do.”
“Alright, then – have your say. But let’s put an end to it, already.”
In an unfortunate attempt at humor, he added:
“After all, you don’t want to give me another heart attack…”
Deborah stopped dead in her tracks, with a mortified look.
“What a hell of thing to say! Do you have any idea how I felt? With you in emergency, and me not knowing more than a dozen words of Spanish…”
Rising from the coach, he tried to take her hand. But she pulled it away abruptly.
“I’m sorry, hon. I just thought a bit of humor-“
“I apologize. Please, hon. What do you want for my life?...”
Pausing, she brushed the hair off her cheek. She sighed, shook her head, bit her lower lip. Then she slowly returned to the couch. He took her hand and turned to Mat.
“You’ve got to see it from our side, son. Suddenly, we get this call that our kid’s in jail. And all we can do it sit around and wait. Why, god only knows what could happen to you in there. And now – of all times – with this strike on my hands…”
‘Matthew, “Deborah added, “why can’t you just obey the law? You can’t really believe those high school students give a damn about Karl Marx? Haven’t you heard yet? – they’re the ‘Me Generation’. They couldn’t care less about your socialistic notions. The good life’s what they want – ‘Consume, consume’—that’s their god and the prophets!...” She paused, as a thought lit up her pretty face.
“You know what this is really all about? It’s to get back at us: to spite your ‘decadent bourgeois parents’. You have to play the martyr, rot in jail, suffer nobly for the poor and oppressed.”
Having given his parents their rightful say, Mat now felt entitled to respond. Appealing to this mother, he said:
“You know I didn’t do this to hurt you, mom. If there had been any way to avoid it-“
“That’s easy – just obey the law!”
“I can’t do that, mom. Besides, you’re blowing this out of all proportion. I know it’s been rough on you – and I’m genuinely sorry, but now it’s over and done with.” Now he appealed to his father.
“Dad, we’re simply testing the law. It’s a matter of freedom of speech. Don’t you contribute each year to the ACLU? Well, their staff is handling our case.”
“There is something to that, Deb.” He suggested to his wife. “If they’re willing to pay the consequences – like with the draft or civil rights –“
“But what about the consequences for us, dear? What about the worry he’s put us through? That’s a lot of bullshit, Harold – if you’ll pardon my French. If those high school kids want to talk to him, let them simply cross the street.” She now turned to Mat.
“You’ve always got to force the issue. Believe you, me – I know my own kid.”
Now Harold decided to speak his mind.
“If you’ve got to test the law, so be it. But when you talk about revolution, that’s where you and I part company. All you have to do is take a ride through Troy, take a stroll through the Renaissance Center, downtown. If you’d only open your eyes, you’d see that this system will last forever. With their missiles, their computers and the best brains that money can buy – you think there’ll ever be another depression? Fat chance, Mat.”
“Don’t forget, son, I lived through it. I remember it like it was yesterday: standing in line in front of the bank, when I learned that it had failed. My folk’s entire savings wiped out like that! And my mother – god bless her – she marched down to the nearest pawnshop and sold her wedding ring for my college tuition. What a woman! They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
“Mat, you’ve never known what it’s like to want – to worry about the next meal or whether you’ll have a roof over your head. Why, the last thing people want is a revolution – anarchy, violence, war. You haven’t got a chance in a million, son…”
Lou, who’d been making sandwiches, brought a tray of them into the living room. Placing it on the table, he sat down beside Mat, saying:
“Mom, dad – we’ll never agree about that. The important thing is the kid’s here, safe. I’m telling you, it’s really nothing. He’ll be up before a judge; they‘ll do a legal song and dance; it’ll be over before you know it. Believe me, the worst is over.”
Deborah rose wearily from the couch, saying:
“That’s easy enough for you to say, dear. You haven’t been sitting here all afternoon, chewing your fingernails to the bone…”
She walked toward her bedroom; slammed the door behind her. She lay in bed, exhausted, switching on the TV. Now tears ran down her cheeks.
Harold rose to say goodnight.
“Don’t worry about your mother. A good night’s rest is what she needs. And, whatever our differences, we can live with them.”
“Of course, we can, dad.” Mat agreed. “I’m awful sorry.”
“Oh, that’s alright. I guess it can’t be helped. Drive careful, will you, Lou? It looks like we’re in for some snow.”
As Lou turned the corner, driving toward the plant, he glimpsed them, there, in the distance. Two groups of pickets marched before the gates at either end of the factory. He could barely make them out in the gray morning light: George, by his red-checked hunting coat; Tyrone, by his parka with the hood like a bishop’s miter; and Rick, by the leather flyer’s jacket that he’d worn in Vietnam. Their picket lines marched in circles seen from several blocks away; each was lit by the flickering blaze of a black iron barrel. And, between their circling picket signs, stretched the beige brick plant: the rising sun warped in its hundreds of factory windows.
His tires crunched against the hard-packed snow, as he pulled into a spot across the street. Here, he paused, before facing the workers. Above all, he dreaded that look in their eyes. At the south gate there were Lee’s, peering above his scarf; and George’s, blue, dead tired. At the north gate, he was met by Stash and Harry’s looks. The bearded Pole glanced nervously; his tall black partner stood squinting against the snow.
For nearly a month they had been on strike, during the worst cold spell of the winter. Freezing temperatures, sidewalks glazed with ice – these had greeted them as they arrived each day. Their first task was stoking the iron barrels; then a fire was lit in each. The barrels were dragged from the factory yard; their sides punctured with holes (to let the air feed the flames). Then they were dragged out to the factory gates. It was here that they warmed their frozen hands and feet.
Each man grabbed a picket sign, assembling before the front door. There was a short pep talk, or the latest word from the union; then they’d head out to the gates. At a signal from George, at the north plant gate, their long day’s march began.
Later that morning, their wives pulled up at the curb. As they emerged from their cars – bearing steaming cartons of soup – the men let out a cheer! After a break, beside the barrels, George led them in a chant. The chant was repeated over and over, till they were shouting at the tops of their voices. The chanting warmed them up, took their minds off the bone-chilling cold. It also grated on the nerves of those, upstairs: as their penetrating chorus could easily be heard, upstairs, by Eli, Zeke and Lou.
When the spirit moved Tyrone, he would serenade his friends. There were selections from the gospel repertoire, requests for the latest pop hits. His rich dark voice raised the men’s morale. Even Rick – with his jokes and apocryphal tales of war – often helped break the tension. But, when the company trucks appeared at the gates, the mood of the men suddenly changed.
In a white shop coat, Zeke exited the plant. Opening the padlock, he removed it from the latch. Then he stepped aside, as the truck cranked into gear. The line parted slowly, as it drove through their midst. Then—in a flash – Lee leapt up on the running board beside the door! He pounded on the window, shook his fist at the driver, inside. Now the others followed suit, shouting ‘Strikebreaker!’, ‘Scab!’ Then the truck roared away, followed by kicks and swats of their picket signs.
When their supplier’s trucks arrived, carrying weekly deliveries, they jumped onto the running boards to either side of the cab. They tried to persuade the drivers to honor their strike, but they rarely turned them back. They might lose their jobs if they failed to unload. So George would wave them through. Each truck that passed through would harden their resolve. So, when the same one returned, the following week, he got curses and sullen looks. After unloading, he pulled up at the gate. His tires burned rubber – circled vainly in the slush, as he avoided the strikers’ eyes. When traffic finally cleared, he roared away – trailed by a half-dozen ice-hardened snowballs!
The weeks dragged on, as illness thinned out their ranks. Their chanting became half-hearted; it soon died out. Their signs – once raised with pride, held high and in formation – now drooped over their shoulders hunched against the cold. Torn and frayed, their ink was smeared. Their boards ripped loose from the wooden handles.
By the end of the third week, the line ground to a halt. The only sign of life was the stamp of their frozen feet. As the men stood mute before the factory gates, their pickets became less regular. Some arrived late from long nights of cards and bouts of drinking; others called in sick. Their spirits flagged; jokes grew stale; reduced to fists and teeth clenched against the cold. Time stood still for the men on strike, until Wally and Karol urged their return. But, what added insult to injury, was the company’s decision at the end of the week.
An ad appeared, that weekend, in the Sunday newspapers: if they couldn’t get them to return, they’d replace them. So, on the following Monday morning, job seekers arrived by the dozens! The stakes had risen; now their jobs, themselves, were at risk. The company gave the picket line a new lease on life.
A new front was opened before the main office door. A pair of pickets – one black, one white – approached the job seekers as they arrived. They told them how long they’d worked there; how their families needed their pay; asked them to look for work elsewhere. A handful were turned away (mostly former union men), but the rest went right on through. For the new men, too, had their hard luck tales to tell.
Many and gone for many months without a job. They’d been hired and laid off: as one plant after another shut down. Their unemployment ran out, so they were forced to go on welfare. And even that was cut to the bone! Some paid visits to the soup kitchens, downtown. These once proud men were ashamed to admit it. And there were the younger blacks, in particular.
They had yet to have a chance at a long-term job. And, having never belonged to a union, or been party to a strike – they saw nothing wrong the crossing their picket line. They tried to explain to these youngsters that they were being used to break their strike. If workers failed to stick together, then the replacements might, themselves, later be replaced. But the youngsters couldn’t see beyond their desperate need for a job. Each had filled out countless job applications; remembered door after door being slammed in their faces with the words ‘Sorry, we’re not hiring.’ So they were damned if perfect strangers were going to stand in their way.
After a week, the strikers ran out of arguments. What more could they possibly say? The working had been pitted against the non-working men: young against old; black against white.
After a week of persuasion, another line was manned. They continued to appeal to the applicants, but it was their physical presence that now turned them away. And even this failed with the younger blacks. With an unemployment rate of nearly fifty percent, they would charge right through the line! Soon, push came to shove; tempers flared; fighting words flew between striker and replacement.
Looking out the window, Lou watched the strike unfold; as he remembered the first day, nearly a month before…
He had left his car, that morning, to cross the slippery street to the plant. Stepping gingerly through the slush, he was met by Tyrone, Nick and Lee. Lee, bundled up in ear muffs and scarf, had blocked the office door. He offered Lou a thermos and a plastic cup, saying:
“If it ain’t the ‘friend of the working man’, himself! How ‘bout a cup of java, Lou; then you can join us on the picket line. That is, if you’re really on our side, like you’ve said.”
Tyrone nudged Lee gently aside, letting Lou squeeze by to the door. Flicking the ash off his smelly cigar, he said:
“Be cool, now, bros. Lou’s only doing his job.” He turned to Lou, saying: “How’s business these days, boss man?”
“Pretty slow, Tyrone. You know, I’m sorry about all this-“
“He’s ‘sorry’, he says.” interjected Lee. “What fucking good is that? You used to talk my goddamn ear off ‘bout your Vietnam marching way back when. But, what I’d like to know is, what have you done for us lately? Shit, you ain’t nothing but talk…” Spitting fiercely into the snow, Lee turned and walked away.
Don’t mind him, boss man. We know this ain’t your fight. You gotta cover your ass, just like the rest of us. Take care now, boss man, you hear?”
Now Nick and Tyrone joined the others at the gates, leaving Lou behind, in the doorway, jamming his key in the lock.
He opened the office; finished off his chores; dropped listlessly into his chair. Though a blue stack of casebooks beckoned from the desk, his eyes were fixed on the wall-sized map of Detroit.
When he first came to work here, joining Lee at his end of the plant, they often talked about politics. Now talk led to action; words were measured by deeds. And what good were his words, when he stood squarely on the company’s side? But Lee didn’t know about the promise Lou had made. For, not only had they hired him, but they had tailor-made the job so he could work while going to law school. In exchange, he’d promised to stay for the full three years. And there had also been Jerry; the man he’d replaced.
Jerry was a family man, with a wife and two small children. Having been with them ten years, he had earned his place with the firm. Then Lou returned home and had asked them for a job. But, knowing Lou’s scruples, Harold had kept the facts from him. It was hardly a coincidence, nevertheless, that Lou’s first day had been Jerry’s last.
He recalled how they had avoided one another. He sensed the hidden feeling; the eyes turned away; the tension in Jerry’s voice. But blood was thicker that a decade’s loyal service, so the family man was replaced by the boss’s son. Not only was it hard on Lou (not to mention Jerry), but it had also been difficult for Harold.
As Harold had hired Jerry, he felt obliged to break the news. Jerry was a Vietnam vet; Harold had gone out of his way to hire him. It was a way of repaying the men who’d been forced to fight that war. After the Vietnamese, themselves, they had been the war’s worst victims. His eldest son, Lou, had received a college deferment. When that ran out, he got a lottery number that put him out of danger. Harold would never forget that night, over a decade before, when he and his wife had watched the draft lottery on TV…
Round and round the cage had spun. Each time it stopped, a hand had reached inside: withdrawing a little white ball. On the ball was written a number indicating a day of the year. Thus, a day of birth and a possible day of death were joined by random selection.
Harold and Deborah had sat up in bed, clutching each other’s hands, as their eldest son’s life bounced back and forth. Each separate spin brought him closer to safety; but those spins crept by so slowly. And, as they watched TV in Detroit, Lou was listening to the radio in Ann Arbor. All across the country millions
of ears were tuned in to that very same station. Fortunately, for the Siegels, his number came up near the end. Their eldest born was spared: the angel of death had passed over.
But, before the lottery was instituted, those without deferments were subject to the draft. Unlike Lou, Jerry had been one of them. So Harold believed the least he could do was to hire one of those vets. In a way, they had taken his son’s place. Besides, Jerry had proved himself through sheer hard work.
He often worked overtime; came in on weekends; was later promoted to manager. He took charge of the company’s shipping; was their part-time salesman, as well. But the recession of the seventies caused a dramatic drop in sales. And, when Lou returned home, they were forced to make cuts. Someone had to go.
Harold had many a sleepless night. How could he explain it to Jerry? How should he break the news? After Jerry was told and had left, Harold went to considerable lengths to help him find another job. But, despite his efforts, it had taken nearly half a year. And Jerry had had to start again, from the bottom, with a big cut in pay.
A few months later, Lour cleaned out Jerry’s desk. Its contents had revealed his labors: the stacks of freight brochures; customer files; ads for their blocks and benches. All of it was thrown into the wastebasket. Having taken Jerry’s place, Lou had promised his dad and his uncle that he would stay for three years.
Lee didn’t know about the promise Lou had made. Besides, even if Lou had taken the union’s side, what could he possibly do?
If he quit, it would be nothing but a futile gesture. Not only would it hurt his dad, but it would be of no help, whatsoever, to the workers. Yet, it he did nothing, he appeared to have taken the company’s side. He looked like a hypocrite, after all he had said to Lee.
On the strike’s first day he had sat at his desk, staring at the map of Detroit on the wall. Two hours later his father had arrived.
He entered Harold’s office and closed the door behind him. As he sat down in one of the armchairs, across from his father’s desk, his dad had looked up with a smile. Wearing a heavy sweater with brown suede trim, he’d been sorting the morning mail.
“I’d like a word with you, dad.”
Harold buzzed his secretary, saying:
“Ellen, please hold all my calls.” Placing the letter opener on top of the mail, he had asked:
“Now, what’s the problem, Lou?”
“Dad, this whole thing makes me sick. Here I am, on salary, with my own private office – while they’re outside freezing, trying to keep what little they’ve got! I can’t help it, I feel like a parasite.”
“I know it’s hard on you. It’s hard on us all. But don’t forget, you made me a promise.”
“But, I had no idea that this could happen!”
“That’s part of the package, Lou. You take the good with the bad. After all, you made me a promise: you gave me your word. Because of that I assured Eli you’d pull your own weight.”
“Well, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you have. You’ve done a fine job, son. You’ve been a credit to your old man. Don’t throw it all away, now.”
“But, why can’t you give them just a little bit more?”
“We simply can’t afford it, Lou. The firm would go under and we’d all be out of a job!”
“But, why should they take all the cuts? Why should they make all the sacrifices?”
“That’s not fair, Lou. There’s plenty you don’t know about. Business is lousy; raises were canceled.
Why, I haven’t gotten a full paycheck for the past six months. And let’s not forget about Jerry-“
“What’s Jerry got to do with it? You told me laying him off had nothing to do with me…”
“Maybe I did. Yeah, I admit it. But you had enough to deal with – what with law school and the job, enough without bearing that, too.”
“Don’t you dare blame me for that. You could’ve at least had the decency to tell me.”
“Hold on, Lou. You must’ve known what was up. If you didn’t, then maybe you didn’t want to-“
“No way, dad. I’m not taking the blame for that. You should’ve been straight with me. You owed me the truth.”
“Oh, so it’s the truth you want, is it? Then I’ll tell you the truth. I offered to give you the money for law school, no strings attached. But no, you refused it; you had to earn it by yourself. Sure, it may have been commendable: but Jerry was the one who paid for it. No, let me finish! If you quit now, then Jerry will have suffered, and you’ll have made a liar out of me with Eli. Besides, what good will it possibly do the men”
A chant began on the picket line, outside, giving pause to Harold and Lou. Lou rose from his chair and headed for the door, saying:
“I’ve got the picture, dad. This job was another of your charitable deeds. I was never needed in the first placer.”
Harold rose and met Lou at the door, saying:
“That’s not true, son. You’ve done an excellent job. Really, you’ve been an asset to the business. I know it wasn’t easy for you to come home and go to law school. I’m proud of the way you’ve applied yourself, in the firm as well as in law school.”
He put his hands on Lou’s shoulders, adding:
“But you made a promise, Lou; you’ve got to live with it. Besides, it can’t possibly last. It’s a no-win situation. I’m telling you, son, they’ll be back before you know it.”
But, despite his father’s assurance, the strike had dragged on. And the daily strain took its toll on Harold’s health. He lost his appetite; had trouble falling asleep. Finally, his doctor had insisted that he get away; otherwise, he risked another heart attack. If he remained in town, he’d keep in daily touch with the firm. It was the habit of a lifetime, especially now, when the business was in trouble. So his wife, Deborah, stepped in: demanding that they take their vacation early.
Lou drove them to the airport, where they left on a flight to Acapulco. They were met by Manuel, their condominium’s manager, who chauffeured them up the winding road to the entrance of their modern apartment. Here, the Siegels spent the winter.
Now that Harold had left, Eli was in charge; he would handle the strike in his own way. Production required workers; and, because the men stayed out far longer than expected, their inventories soon had run out. Most of their customers were supplied by their larger competitor, William’s Vault.
William’s prices were lower, so their customers began to complain. And, as the strike dragged on, some grew impatient: two of their biggest accounts threatened to switch to William’s permanently. Along with the pressure from their customers, came complaints from their staff.
Through the plant was operating at a fraction of capacity, there was far more work than Ivory and John could do. Working overtime and weekends, they were soon about to collapse. Their urgent appeals (along with the pressure from their customers), finally forced Eli to act. Having gone this far – and unwilling to back down – he had upped the ante: placing ads in the newspapers for replacement workers.
The daily strain had left its mark on him. Circles under his eyes. Pale, ashen skin. Muscles bunched between his brows, deepening the folds on his forehead. His office had become a cell; his black leather chair, the hot seat. Each time he heard the pickets shout, he nearly leapt out of that chair! And his nerves infected them all. The secretaries were edgy. Their salesmen, on the run. The very air was tension-charged.
Each morning, as he arrived, Eli was forced to brave the pickets. Then he climbed the stairs, opened the door, slammed it shut and exploded! The secretaries froze. Dare they risk a friendly ‘good morning’? He removed his coat, mumbling to himself, then hung it in the corner closet. And, as he shut the door and turned, he faced the portrait of his late father.
There was no escaping those eyes. That bullying voice; that smirk on his lips. He cursed the day he’d ever set foot in his father’s lousy factory. From the ground up he’d built it; laid the bricks in his own
backyard. He was the first to arrive, each morning; the last to leave at night…If he had heard it once, he’d heard it a thousand times! What he hadn’t heard was the sequel. For, after putting the firm on its feet, he’d drained it of most of the capital. Then he’d retired to play the stock market. He’d left all the headaches of running it to Harold and himself. And, only now – after Alex was safely dead and buried – had the real grief begun, with the strike.
Harold’s health had prevented him from sharing the burden. Zeke, despite his hard work and brains, was young and inexperienced. So Eli was left to fend for himself. And, as the pressure had mounted, he had taken it out on them all. Lou worked weekends, opened the office each morning; so he rarely ran into his uncle. But what he hadn’t seen himself, he’d learnt from John, Mary Jane and Ellen.
Their desks stood right outside Eli’s office, so they were constantly exposed to his gaze. His voice was strained, more high-pitched than before. His anxious eyes wandered – seizing on careless mistakes, always looking for something to keep himself busy. And the muscles worked away beneath the skin of his jaw. All these signs were instantly understood by the secretaries who knew him so well. Even Ellen, who’d been there since Alex’s time, said she’d never seen him this bad, before. And Ellen had seen much in her lifetime.
A remarkable woman, in her own modest way. Ellen was an experienced secretary and in charge of the company books. But her knowledge went far beyond figures to the people who lay behind them. Though shy and soft-spoken, she had a deep inner strength. It had seen her through an alcoholic husband, their protracted divorce and the rearing of three small children. And, most recently, her eldest daughter’s cancer.
Each week they drove to Ann Arbor for chemotherapy. From her distant look and the knitting of her brows, they knew she was thinking of her Toni. They tried to be gentle, tried to comfort her (she always had had a kind word for them). Then she would leave and return the following day: bearing it all beneath a calm exterior. And there was Ellen’s way with people, her personal touch in so many things she did.
There were the plants she had introduced on the windowsills, on the desks and in the corners of the office. And her bright feather duster, used to brush off the furniture and files. She often baked them cookies, bringing tins to share with her coworkers. Her very presence produced a calm; her kindness set an example. She could weather Eli’s moods, but Mary Jane, her younger friend, had a far more difficult time. If it hadn’t been for Ellen’s support, she would have certainly quit that week.
Each week they chatted about the TV soaps, till the characters seemed as real as your neighbors, next door. Through their glamorous ups and downs they lived their own secret dreams: felt the romance missing from their workaday lives. They often exchanged recipes; spoke of their weekend plans. Then they’d discretely whisper about Mary Jane’s latest beau. Most of all, they shared the sympathy and support of women in a man’s world. Never had they needed this more than now, when their boss was seen at his worst.
They had filled Lou in on the previous day’s ordeal. Then John related the latest abuse he’d suffered at Eli’s hands.
Though most of their business was suspended during the strike, there was more than enough to drive John and Ivory nuts. Covering two or three jobs a piece, they couldn’t help but make mistakes. And, whatever went wrong, Eli always blamed it on John.
“But it’s me,” exclaimed John,”not him or Zeke, who has to drive through those goddamn pickets! He was at it again, yesterday – always on my back. And now, of all times, when I’ve a right to his respect. Why, the union pulls from one side and Rosenberg pulls from the other – and I’m the damn fool stuck in the middle! As far as I’m concerned, Lou, they can all go to hell!”
John entered Lou’s office one morning, collapsing into a chair. He’d lost five pounds; his ulcer was acting up. But, worst of all, was what had happened the previous day.
John had driven the truck to the factory gate. And, as he guided it over the hump in the driveway, Lee Leapt up on the running board and slammed the door with his fist! Lee shouted through the widow, and John had shouted back. And, when Lee had refused to budge, John flung the door wide open. As Lee had jumped clear, John went straight for his throat. But, before they could get at each other, they were separated by the workers. George had grabbed Lee in a bear hug. Tyrone had attended to John. Prevented from using their fists, they now lashed out with their tongues. Lee began with a catalog of past grievances.
He once had loved Johnny like a second father. His own dad, George, was John’s best friend. They went hunting, fishing, on camping trips, together. They had spent holidays at each other’s homes, or in their backyards, grilling franks or steaks. But, when John had been promoted to foreman, everything seemed to have changed.
“You think you’re too good for us factory rats, don’t you?” Lee cried. “Now that you’ve got an office of your own, you won’t even eat with the likes of us. You’re always upstairs, flirting with Mary Jane, being buddy-buddy with Lou, the boss’s son. You think you’re better than us, but you’re not. Not by a long shot, John. You’re still the same little Pollack with dirt under your fingernails, except that now you’re a scab in the bargain.”
As the threat of a fight had passed, the two were released. Now they stood face-to-face on the icy sidewalk, as the thick snow fell all around them. John let Lee have his say; now it was his turn.
“You finished, Lee? You gonna give me a chance to talk? I’ll be damned if I know what you want from me. I don’t got no union on my side, remember? Besides, if you had your way, you’d pull the whole company down. Then we’d all be on the streets. Is that what you really want?”
The anger left Lee’s voice as he tried to appeal to his former friend.
“Try to listen, will you, John? You told me just last week how we all got to sacrifice, how we all got to do our share. You’re sounding more and more like the bosses, John. But look how they deal out those
shares: we do the shit work, we take the cuts; while they live in style in the burbs. Is that fair, John? Is that equal sacrifice? Wait a minute, don’t leave now!”
John climbed back in the truck. Slamming the door, he shifted into gear and began to pull through the gate. But, as he cleared the hump in the driveway, he heard George remark to Lee:
“Lay off him, son; it’s wasted breath. He’s neither them nor us, neither fish nor fowl. When John became foreman, he got stuck in the middle.”
As John told Lee about the previous day, he tried to sound him out. He needed reassurance that what he was doing was right. Were they really going broke? Or was that just hard bargaining (from which the company would back down if the union made concessions?). Unfortunately, Lou knew no more than John. Both were torn between the rights and wrongs of the strike. And, as they came to grips with the issues upstairs, Lee did the same on the picket line, below them.
Having never taken part in a strike before, Lee watched it unfold with an untutored eye. It was all so new, so baffling. He learned a lot, learned fast – and being Lee, he usually learned it the hard way. And, as the strike dragged on, so had his divorce (which had now been in progress for the past six months). To avoid dwelling too much on his private life, Lee threw himself into the strike.
He lived each day with a vengeance – arrived earlier, shouted louder, set a fighting example for them all. He put his heart into winning. For, when he finished his day on the picket line, he had nothing to go home to but an empty house. Two stories high; white wood, green doors and shutters. It was there he was married; there, where his daughter, Bonnie, was born. It was silent, now, except for the barking of their black setter, Trish. Left entirely to himself, He was quickly driven to drink.
He stayed out late at the local bars and topless joints. By two a.m., he had driven home, plastered. After opening the garage and driving the truck inside, he was met by a boisterous Trish. Eager to play – despite the hour and frigid weather, she leapt joyfully up and down, nearly knocking her master over! He scratched her behind the ears, then hurried through the snow to the green back door. Trish pawed the screen as he unlocked the door, scrambling down the stairs to the rec room. Here, she curled up in the corner, beside the old white furnace.
He passed the dusty furniture, bumped the un-emptied ashtrays and beer cans, strewn about. Then he climbed the stairs to the bedroom, where he collapsed on the bed (so beat and boozed out that he didn’t even bother to undress). But, before dozing off, he took the picture of Bonnie from the night stand, placing it on the pillow, beside him.
Then the damn alarm went off! He swatted the poor thing dead. Dragging himself and his hangover from the warm, soft bed, he threw some water on his face, downed a cold cup of instant, and left for a day on the picket line. Trudging back and forth, before the factory gate, he learned that view by heart.
On the far side of the street was the company’s vacant lot. Its barbed-wire fence enclosed a jungle of weeds: out of these rose the frames of ancient trucks, broken vaults and crumbling blocks. A blanket of snow covered the lot; icicles dripped from the truck’s rusting hoods. Next to the lot was Bantam Bump & Paint.
Outside its small garage stood dozens of wrecks. In various stages of disrepair, they stood gathering the snow like vanilla frosting. Beside Bantam was a red brick building.
FOR SAIL signs hung in the dark, dusty windows (its latest owner, Hamtramck Tire, had folded the previous spring). Finally, to its left, was Burkhardt Bros. Scrap Yard.
A corridor led to their steel loading dock. Here, trucks with lengthy trailers backed in. Lee often passed the time watching the drivers unload.
They cut their wheels repeatedly, trying to back in without grazing the red brick wall. A new man could tie up traffic for blocks at a time. The cars and trucks behind him would blast and beep their horns. Lee imagined guiding the driver – his body leaning over to correct the jack-knifed rig. Finally, the trailer met the dock, and traffic flowed, once again.
Beyond the dock was a scrap yard, hidden from the street by a tall gray fence. A mountain range of metal was seen through the gate: twisted coils of steel; chassis and rusty bumpers; bent and broken I-beams in steep red tottering cliffs. And out of the midst of the metal reared the company’s giant cranes.
Their long arms hovered. At the end was a great black claw. It fell from the sky, snatched a chunk from the heap. Then it slowly moved across the yard, dropping it with a crash in the back of a waiting truck. At the end of the yard was a railroad track, from which whistles signaled the approaching train.
He studied the strings of multicolored cars; made bets with the other men as to who could guess their number. Then his eyes shifted back, from the trains to the yard. And this constant vision of smashed and beaten cars made him think of the wreck of his marriage. After a month of marching, he grew sick of it all. Trying to take his mind off his aching, frozen feet, he recalled the course of the strike. He had learned a lot: learned who was on whose side, and why.
After his meeting with Lou, on the strike’s first day, he had spoken to his fellow workers. Tyrone listened to him patiently; then interrupted, saying:
“But what do you expect from him, Lee? If Lou gets fired, he’s up shit creek, for sure! Remember, bros, he ain’t got no union on his side.”
“Why’s he always talking my ear off, then?”
That’s just rappin, bros. Looky here, Lee. What good’s he gonna do us by getting hiself canned? It ain’t gonna help us, is it? And one more stiff parading out here ain’t gonna help us neither, is it?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Somehow, I thought Lou was different.”
Now Rick piped in, saying:
“He is different, Lee. Lou don’t act so high and mighty – like that s.o.b., Zeke, for instance.”
“Come off it, Rick. What good’s that to us, now? Hell, you just say that ‘cause the man buys your home-grown weed.”
“That’s not it at all!” answered Rick. “Lou treats us equal, that’s the difference. But, now that you mention it, I got me a sweet little jay, here.” he added, tapping the pocket of his coat. “That is, if anyone cares to partake-“
“Keep dat shit away from here!” roared Tyrone, giving Rick a stern, hard look. “We gotta be straight, bros, so we can see this through to the end…”
Startled by Tyrone, Rich tried to explain:
“Hey, my man. I didn’t mean no harm…”
Tyrone paused dramatically: a his scowl was transformed into a Chesire cat’s grin.
“Oh, I knows that, you bald eagle-fucker!” Tyrone slapped him hard on his leather-padded back, adding “Just wait till y’all gets home for that sweet little weed a your’s.” Tyrone gave him a wink. “Just do it for your brother-in-law, Tyrone, will you?”
“Anything you say, brother-in-law!” Rick gave Tyrone an elaborate Soul handshake. “I’m cool now, baby, I’m cool.”
“Yeah, we both thought Lou was different.” Said Lee to Rick, as he glanced up at Lou’s office window.
Lou was the boss’s son, no more, no less. But John had been one of them, a working stiff like the rest. So his fight with the foreman, two weeks later, marked a new stage in Lee’s education. For, despite John’s roots, he had sided with the bosses. Lee thought long and hard about the changes in his former friend.
Not that he had blamed John – when he was promoted, a few years back. He had just grabbed a golden opportunity to better himself, and to provide for his growing family. It wasn’t the promotion that bothered Lee, it was how the job had changed the man. He spent less time with the workers, downstairs; instead, he was upstairs gabbing with Lou, or flirting with Mary Jane. And since the strike began, his insides had changed, as well. Why, he mouthed the company line on sacrifice as if he’d written it himself! Even so, he tried to see it from John’s point of view.
John had worked for the company for twenty years before he was finally promoted to foreman. He was on salary, now; made far more than the others. But, it was in exchange for far more headaches and worries. Besides, the way John saw it, he had earned every single penny’s worth. Why, his ulcer was acting up, his hair falling out – all on account of the strike! He had gotten where he was through sheer hard work. If he’d beat the system, he deserved his just rewards. Let ‘em stop all their bitchin; try to do it, themselves. Of course, only one could be foreman (his predecessor, Bob Bacon, had held the job for thirty-odd years). And now that he had made it, he’d never move upstairs. Even so, it’d been a long hard road, and he’d be damned if he wouldn’t defend himself.
Lee tried to see it from John’s point of view, and from the boss’s son, Lou’s, as well. Thus, Lou lined up on the company’s side because his father owned it; John, because he naturally put his family ahead of his friends. They were men, after all: he could put himself in their shoes; think their thoughts. But when it came to the law – with its lawyers, courts and cops, that was another kettle of fish, entirely. How come the law lined up on the company’s side? Wasn’t the law, at least, supposed to be fair? But his experience with the law had started long before the strike.
As a hell-bent teen on Detroit’s eastside, he’d had the usual run-ins with the law. Then, after coming to work at the plant, there was that accident. He had hit and killed a kid while driving the company truck. The suit was brought against the owners, however; it was finally settled out of court. So, it wasn’t until his divorce, that Lee had dealt with the law by himself. The first step was finding a lawyer.
He arranged with John to take the afternoon off. Wearing a white shirt and an old sports coat (that was too small to button over the beer belly he had acquired), he drove out to Southfield Towers. A security guard had spotted his long hair and beard; stopped him as he entered the lobby. Learning of his appointment, he had directed him to the elevator. Lee had ridden up to the twentieth floor; the entire floor was occupied by a single law firm.
Seated behind the reception desk was a stunning brunette. Beyond her desk was a large glass wall; counsel were listed in columns and rows of black-stenciled letters. In a steely voice she directed him to take a seat in the waiting room. While sitting there, thumbing through Business Week and Fortune, he watched Ms. Flannery at work. Back and forth she flew – between typing, the telephone and dictation. Then, pausing for a drag from her burning cigarette, she resumed her manic flight. Soon, he was escorted into this attorney’s elegant office. The window view of Southfield had taken his breath away: the whole of Oakland County lay stretched out like a map!
One wall of the office was covered with Michigan Reports, in scarlet, black and white. On the other were diplomas, legal certificates – all in gleaming metal frames. And there, behind the desk – covered with files and notes and books – was his attorney, Judson Halliday.
Eyes, in gold-rimmed glasses, that bore right through you. Balding head; deep-lined brow; pencil-thin mustache. A pin-striped suit and matching tie and handkerchief; stick pin, rings, watch – all in 18 karat gold! He chain-smoked Camels, lighting one with the tip of the other; then squashed each butt in a giant crystal ashtray.
After Lee had told his story to the attorney, he was given the third degree:
“Don’t you dare lay a finger on her, you hear? Not a word that could be taken as a threat. And no crap about fees and court cost, either. When I get your check – then, and only then – will the legal ball begin to roll. And don’t get your hopes up, either; there’s no guarantees. Frankly, from what you’ve said so far, she’ll take you for all you’re worth.”
Lee resented his tone, his manner; felt he was being treated like a fool. Then the intercom had buzzed; he was whisked out the door; as another client was whisked in, behind him. Making another
appointment, he was directed to obtain various legal documents. So, the following week, he drove downtown to the City County Building.
By the time he had arrived it was packed. After getting in line, he realized that he had forgotten to take a number. And, when he complained at the desk, the blue-haired biddy had given him hell:
“If I make an exception for you, it would be unfair to the others. And, if your parents had taught you manners, in the first place, then you’d have known better than to have asked…”
She went on and on, as he clenched his fists at his sides. One more minute, and he would have strangled the bitch!
From that line, he was sent to another floor. And, from that floor, to the basement, to pay a fee at the County Clerk’s. Here, he waited in the longest line of them all, gazing at the bureaucratic hive.
Paper had flowed from desk to desk: an ever-expanding stream of legal forms; each dated, entered, stamped and sealed; till they were buried in a file in a drawer among acres of green metal cabinets. Each desk had its documents, its pile of legal records. One double-checked them; a second rubbed-stamped them; a third impressed them in the jaws of an official seal. Each pile was carried to the copiers in the rear, where they were multiplied manifold times. And the river of paper ran on and on…
At last he had arrived at the cashier’s window. But, after paying his fee, he was sent to another room, containing shelves of dusty leather books. Here, he finally obtained the last of his papers. But, he was sent to another room to pay for them, and still another to file the damned things!
When he finally swept through those revolving doors, he threw up his hands and roared! Next, came the trial, his first appearance in court.
He returned to the City County Building, passed through those same revolving doors. But, this time, he had gotten there early. After finding the courtroom, he had sat on the bench in the hall. Here, he waited for his lawyer, as the corridor began to fill up. There were families, couples, pairs of cop and criminal charge (attached at the wrist by handcuffs). They smoked, sipped coffee, or nervously paced the floor. And, while each waited anxiously, the judge’s clerks and lawyers were huddling down the hall. Bargaining for delays, they exchanged the latest gossip. Then the large brown doors parted, as they were all herded inside.
Enthroned high above them was His Majesty, the Law. To his left, the Stars and Stripes; to his right, the State of Michigan flag. In the middle was the seal of Michigan (where moose joined deer in stately minuet). The bailiff and court reporter were seated below; the lawyers, sat out front. Now the proceeding commenced with a whip-like crack of the gavel. Case after dreary case went by. Only one made the slightest sense to Lee: an argument over a residential lease,
The tenant, a young Latino, pled his own case. He struggled with the law, plagued by constant interruptions by his opponent. At the end, he collapsed beside his tiny, dark-skinned wife. The two joined hands; she crossed herself and prayed. Next came the landlord’s counsel.
Citing case law and statute, examining every single clause – the silver-haired advocate demolished his opponent. When he had finished, the case was dismissed. Addressing the tenant, the judge had concluded:
“This is a tough lease to construe. But you signed it, and you’ll just have to live with it. The law is the law, after all.”
“Next case!” exclaimed the court clerk, to the gavel’s crack. At last, they’d arrived at his divorce.
Lee and Mr. Halliday proceeded toward the bench, flanked by his pretty wife, Fran, and her attorney. Each spoke; then the gavel descended. It was over before he knew it! Was this what he’d waited for, all morning long? For this, he’d lost a full day’s pay?
As they left, he tried to speak to Fran. But she had marched right past him on the arm of that smart-ass lawyer. Stung, he watched her sashay down the hall: watched the pendulum of her hips beneath that dress that he knew so well.
There were delays, re-schedulings, backlogs in the court. Meanwhile, he paid through the nose. As he marched before the factory gate, he brooded over the law. So, when it finally reared its head in the strike, itself, he had already had a bellyful of the so-called System of Justice.
It was a grim cold day when the replacements arrived for their first day at work. They were advised to get there early – to try to avoid a fight. Inside, they were met by Zeke; introduced to John and Ivory. So, by the time the picket line was manned, all but a handful were safely inside. But a few late-comers now arrived.
They were met by cries of ‘Scab!’ and a solid wall of men. After all, thought the pickets, they’re here to steal our jobs. As the replacements approached, the pickets locked arms in a chain. So the replacements backed off warily. Then, seeing that the north gate was under-manned, a few had rushed that gate. One slipped through, into the factory yard. But the rest of the strikers soon arrived, so that all the gates were covered.
A few of the replacements were turned away, but one now tried to crash through. He hit the line with all his might, as a momentary break had occurred. He attempted to twist and elbow his way through, but they shoved him back into a snowdrift.
Another replacement replied with angry words, so a shouting match had begun. In the midst of this exchange, the replacement had rushed the line – hitting it low, where Bernie and Rich had locked arms. Unable to keep their balance, they slipped and fell, pulling all the arm-linked men to the ground! Bernie’s cap went flying; Rick’s spectacles were knocked into the snow. But, as the others toppled over, Lee and Tyrone had jumped clear. Wally and Karol, who rushed down from the South gate, grabbed the replacement and flung him into the snow.
He leapt back up, brushed the snow off his clothes, and bent into a fighter’s crouch. As his fists spun round, he glared at the Poles. Then Rick found his glasses: one lens was shattered and the frames were bent in half.
“Damn it – the scab broke my specs! Why, you mother-fucking, cock-sucking-“
“Serves you right, honky, for keeping me from my job!” The replacement, a young black, stood there grinning at Rick.
“Your job!” cried Lee. He was about to pounce, when Tyrone pulled him back.
“You try that again, scab, and I’ll shove that grin up your ass.” Lee added.
“Oh yeah, fat boy?”
‘You heard me, scab. That’s my job – and his and his. It was ours long before you were a twinkle in your mama’s eye. So, you try that fullback stuff again, and there’ll be hell to pay.”
“And I suppose youse the one gonna make me pay.”
“That’s about the size of it, scab.”
A knife was whipped out; the blade snapped into place. The replacement pointed it at Lee’s throat.
“You try, pig boy, and I’m gonna stick this in yo belly.”
He sliced the air, tossed it back and forth, from hand to hand.
“Come on, pig boy, Come and get it, pig boy-“
Then, the replacement slipped on the ice, as Tyrone lunged forward to knock the knife from his hand! He fell over backwards, as the knife had skidded away. Now Harry broke from his place on the line, chasing the bouncing blade. Returning, with a grin, he brandished the knife like a prize.
“Looky here, bros. A sharp souvenir from the land of scab!”
They all burst out laughing, applauding their hero’s return.
“Right on, brother Harry!” cried Stash, as he slapped his open palm. He was about to slap Tyrone’s, as well, when he spotted a trickle of blood.
“You okay, baby?”
“Let me see…” said Lee, as he reached for Tyrone’s hand.
“Oh, it’s nothing, bros. Just a little bitty scratch.” said Tyrone.
Furious, Lee turned to the replacement, crying:
“Now it’s your turn, scab!” He beckoned with both hands, saying: “Come on, scab. Come and get it, scab.”
“The whole bunch of you ‘gainst me?” he asked. “Hell, I ain’t that dumb, fat boy.”
“Just one on one!” cried Lee.
“And the rest gonna stand by and watch, I s’pose?” Maybe some other time, pig boy, when youse all by your lonesome. Don’t fret now, pig boy, I’ll be back.”
Taking one last look at Lee, he turned and walked away.
Zeke, witnessing the scene from his office, had called the police. Then he came downstairs and stuck his head out the door, saying:
“This time you’ve gone too far. The cops are on their way.”
“You think we’ll just stand by while those scabs take our jobs?”
“You’re breaking the law, Lee. They’ve a right to work-“
“Right to work, my ass! Right to steal our jobs, you mean.”
“Call it what you like. But, it you do it again, we’ll get a court injunction.”
“Fuck your law! Fuck your injunction! All we’re doing is protecting our jobs. That’s right, ain’t it, boys?”
“Right on, bros!”
“You’re damned straight, Lee!”
“You said it, baby!”
As the men cheered him on, Bernie tossed his cap in the air! Zeke slammed the door, climbing the stairs to the office. When the police arrived, ten minutes later, they found the strikes chanting, marching and proudly waving their picket signs. Zeke descended the stairs and met the cops at the curb. They walked to the north plant gate, where one of the cops addressed George:
“You the union man in charge?”
“That’s right.” replied George.
“Well, from now on we’ll be cruising by here, regular. And if we see anyone interfering – either with the new men or the trucks making deliveries, then they’ll be up before the judge on criminal charges. You understand?” he asked, looking at each of the men on the picket line. “The law says they have a right to work-“
“What about our right to work?” cried Lee.
“Who the hell are you?” asked the policeman.
“That’s my business, cop.”Lee glanced at the others, then back at the policeman.
“I see, wise guy. I’ll keep an eye out for you. And, as for the rest of you, I’ve got nothing against your strike. I don’t take sides, either way. All I know is the law; it’s my job to enforce it. So don’t say I didn’t warn you…”
The squad car became a familiar sight to the workers. Each morning, like clockwork, it arrived with the scabs. It was back when they left at the end of the day. It stopped to watch the trucks with deliveries and watched them when they departed. And that cop had the nerve to claim “I don’t take sides” As if the law didn’t take the company’s side from the very beginning.
Under the law, they signed a labor agreement. But, if the union violated the smallest provision, a fine would be imposed or an injunction issued. If the company, on the other hand, declared bankruptcy and tore up that agreement, then they were simply protecting their property rights. According to the law, they could start all over again. As far as Lee was concerned, there were two laws, not one: one for the workers; one for the bosses.
Under the law, they could picket the job site. But if they happened to interfere with business as usual, then they were threatening the replacements’ ‘right to work’ or the boss’ ‘property rights’. Yet, who was threatening whom? Whose rights were really at stake? Hadn’t the company threatened them with take-backs, forcing then out on strike? Wasn’t it their jobs, their families, that were being placed at risk? But, according to the law, it was the other way around. The law claimed the company was the real party threatened.
It seemed ass-backwards to Lee. The system was rigged against them. If they tried to win, they ran afoul of the law. Why, they were hog-tied with all those laws! And those laws, themselves – supposedly Of the People, By the People, and For the People – seemed to him to protect only some of the people: the bosses, upstairs; and their scabs.
Meanwhile, their strike fund was quickly exhausted; their personal savings drained; and the company was back in production. So the pressure began to build for a return to work.
On Friday, at the end of their first week on the job, the replacements passed through the picket line. Most had already left, when the one who’d lost his knife had now approached. Emboldened by the presence of the squad car, he now addressed Lee:
“Not so tough with the cops on your back.”
“Tough enough to take your head off, scab.” replied Lee.
Their eyes met and locked: attempting to stare each other down. Then Tyrone took Lee’s arm, and drew him back, saying:
“Let it be, bros. He’s just trying to get you riled, trying to put your ass in jail.”
Lee backed off, spitting angrily into the snow.
“Maybe some other time, scab.”
“Any time you like, pig boy. I’s at yo service.”
But, as Lee watched him leave, with that grin and mocking laugh, he could barely contain his anger. He now joined the others, who had gathered to stow their picket signs in the back of George’s car, saying:
“Hell, we’ll never win this way! We’re acting like a bunch of wimps.”
“Lay off it, Lee.” a weary George replied. “What the hell can we do – fight the whole damn police force?”
“At least we’d be fighting, not just lying down dead.”
“But we’ve done all we can – with those cops and their injunction-“
“So fuck their injunction!”
“Come on, now, boy. They’d put the whole damn union in jail.”
“Then fuck the union! Whose strike is this – ours or the unions?”
George shook his head and sighed, meeting the eyes of the others. Then he turned to Lee, saying:
“You’re tired, boy, mighty tired. You ain’t making no sense at all.”
“But I am making sense! Look at us, will you? We’re already licked. The law provides the straight jacket, and the union straps us in. So whose side are they really on?”
“Our side, damn it! What the hell do you want? Shall we burn down the place, or something?”
“Well, what then? We’re listening. Tell us how to win…”
“Hell, I don’t know. But this way we’re licked, for sure.”
“Maybe so.” George replied, placing his hand on Lee’s shoulder.”Sometimes you’re licked, that’s a fact. Sometimes you fight and still get beaten. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Not at all, Lee. Not as long as you fought your best.”
“But have we fought our best?”
“You’re damned straight, we have! For crisake, what more can we do?”
“I don’t know, but-“
“Then put up or shut up! I’m freezing by buns off – all of us are – and we’ve heard enough crap out of you for a lifetime!” George slammed the car door, closing the conversation.
At the end of the week, the company made its final offer. While only a few cents more than the original one, they hoped it would bring the men back to work. Learning about it, the following day, Wally was the first to speak. With bright red hair, and a plug of tobacco in his cheek, he addressed them with his thick Polish accent:
“This crazy, my friends. If we don’t go back now, we lose jobs forever.”
Lee turned on him, saying:
“I should’ve known you Polacks would be the first to cave in!”
“You wait, now, Lee. You know this not true. Karol and me, we here every day on the line. You all know this.” he insisted, looking at each of the workers. “All I say, we talk.”
“Shit, I knew those dumb Polacks would screw us in the end.” Lee spit in the snow with disgust.
Wally walked up to Lee, till they were face-to-face. Jabbing Lee’s chest with his thick index finger, he said:
“You call me dumb Polack one more time, and I smash your face with this dumb Polack fist.”
Lee slapped his hand away, and was about to throw a punch, when the other men grabbed both of them, pulling them apart. George lit into Lee, crying:
“Take that back, Lee! Apologize this instant. Or I’ll take you over my knee, right here and now, and beat the living crap out of you! How dare you say that to brother Wally, here? My kid, too, of all the people. You oughta be ashamed…”
Tyrone released Lee, saying:
“You oughta know better than to use that hateful talk. ‘Nigger’, ‘white trash’, ‘Polack’ – they’s all the same: talk that divides us; talk that defeats us. And, while we’re out here whipping ourselves, the boss man’s inside, laughing at our ignorance. What’s he need cops and injunctions for, if we’re gonna break our strike, ourselves?”
Tyrone turned to Wally, saying:
“Give him a break, brother Wally. You know this divorce is eating him, making him talk a lot of bull.” Taking both their hands and drawing them together, Tyrone added:
“Go on, now, Lee. Shake your brother’s hand. Shake it, you jive-ass muther!”
The two shook reluctantly, as the others gathered round to slap them on the back. But, the offer had remained open, so a meeting was called for the following night. The workers had met at their union hall to vote it up or down.
As Tyrone had suggested, Lee‘s divorce was coming to a head. That Friday he had appeared in court to hear the judge’s verdict. Since his life was on the rocks, he needed some kind of victory badly. Winning the strike seemed the only way out, so he strongly opposed accepting the offer. It was simply a ploy, an excuse to go back to work. The few cents an hour might save the union’s face, but the company would still be getting wage cuts. For god’s sake, let the bosses pay for a change!
He argued for rejecting the offer. And, while the others sympathized, they were tired and cold – and most of all – afraid. If they didn’t now go back, they could lose their jobs, for good.
The replacements passed through the line, again, the following afternoon. As the man with the knife approached the gate, he was overheard speaking to a friend:
“So tonight’s the big vote! You mark my words, bros, they’ll be back here, for sure.”
“Hush up!” said his friend, seeing the pickets would overhear them. “No use rubbing it in.”
But, despite this good advice, the replacement now addressed Lee, saying:
“Hear y’all goin to the poles tonight, fat boy.” “You heard right.” Lee answered.
“Well, I’m bettin my man youse crawlin back like a bitch with her tail ‘tween her legs!” He burst out laughing, then winked at his friend.
From the window of his office, overhed, Zeke watched the encounter. Spotting trouble brewing, he rushed downstairs, crying:
“Enough of that Buckmaster! It’s time to go home.”
Hearing his employer, the replacement had stopped. Now it was Lee’s turn to laugh.
“Buckmaster, wow! So that’s the dude’s name.” He grinned at the other men, adding: “You heard the massa, Buckwheat. Time y’all gets home ‘fo yo grits gets cold.”
The pickets exploded with merriment. Rick doubled up, nearly laughing his fool head off. They whistled and shouted and slapped each other’s hands. Now Buckmaster moved toward Lee, saying:
“Who you calling Buckwheat, boy?”
“Get going, now!” Zeke repeated. “It’s time to go.”
“Massa’s callin, Buckwheat. Don’t you be late.” Lee added.
Zeke moved toward Buckmaster, saying: “You heard me, Buckmaster. If you want your job, that is.”
Buckmaster, caught in the middle, now turned to Zeke, saying:
“Listen here, Mr. Rosenberg, I ain’t taking no racist jive.”
“Y’all better heed da massa, Buck.” Lee added.
Zeke moved toward Buckmaster – intending to escort him through the line – when he was suddenly swept aside, as Lee and Buckmaster sprang at each other. The others made a circle around them, shouting and urging them on.
A few minutes later a squad car arrived. As it screeched to a halt, the cops leapt out. They broke through the circle and began to pull them apart – for an instant – Lee was face-to-face with Zeke. With the boss in his sights, he impulsively threw a punch! Zeke took it on the chin, falling backwards into the snow. The cops grabbed Lee, and were about to drag him off, when Zeke intervened, saying:
“That won’t be necessary, officers…” Rising from the ground, he wiped the slush off his trousers. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his lip.
“You sure?” asked one of the officers. He recognized Lee as the guy who had mouthed off before. “Why, everyone saw him assault you.”
“Thanks for your help, officers, but this was bound to happen.” He pressed the handkerchief against his lip, adding: “Please let them go. It won’t happen again, I assure you.” Zeke now exchanged a look with Lee, saying: “We can handle this matter in our own way…”
The cops released the men, then returned to the squad car. Angrily, they drove away. As Zeke put the handkerchief back in his pocket, Buckmaster left for the bus, across the street. Now the strikers gathered around a relieved and beaming Lee. They shook his hand, slapped him heartily on the back.
Zeke watched the squad car speed down the snowy street. When it finally turned the corner, he walked up to the workers. Seeing the boss approach, they broke off their banter.
“You look mighty pleased with yourself, Lee.” Lee’s smile vanished instantly. “It’s true, I won’t press charges. No, you won’t be going to jail. But, as far as I’m concerned, you’re finished here. You’re fired.”
Lou, Matthew and his attorney, Dave Criboni, walked quickly toward the Old County Courthouse. As they hurried along, Lou glanced at the aged building: like a mammoth marble wedding cake, it rose into the air. Made of layer after layer of heavy beige blocks, the Roman baroque monstrosity stood at one end of Cadillac Square. Its staircase was framed by a Corinthian portico, with pediment, tiles and endless colonnades. The entire stone pastry had an elaborate frosting of sculpted green figures of bronze.
They entered the lobby and climbed the stairs. Through the crowded hall they wove – over worn mosaic floors, past veined marble walls – till they finally arrived at the courtroom. Mat and Lou found seats in the rear, as Dave continued on to the court clerk’s desk. While case after dreary case was tried, Lou’s
eyes roamed the fusty interior. Extravagant woodwork; green marble columns; walls defaced by acoustic tile (to deaden the echo of the tomb-like chamber). But the piece de resistance was the hideous ceiling: bronze chandeliers, white plaster molding, fleurs-de-lis and arabesques – repeating themselves ad nauseum.
Seeing a frown on Mat’s face, Lou nudged him with his shoulder. Meanwhile, the endless drone of petty crimes and misdemeanors dragged on. Finally, Dave returned and was seated next to Mat. Their case would be called around noon. Soon, a number of Mat’s friends had arrived.
Ernie sat with Rose, a few seats down, to their right. In a crisp white dress, with a shean of pomade in her hair, Rose held the stapled sheets of their student petition. Ernie sat beside her, in a flimsy, hand-me-down suit. Excited at the prospect of appearing as a witness, he was grinning ear-to-ear. The two had been busy in the weeks since Mat’s arrest.
They had organized a free speech study group; had gathered hundreds of signatures. They had even mounted a small demonstration, outside Cass Tech, that very morning. Mat’s attorney planned to call them as witnesses for the defense.
Beside Rose and Ernie sat Felix and Red. Red had once been brought up on similar charges (when she had taken up a collection at the Ford Rouge gate.) To her left was Felix – the editor of their left wing newspaper, with his twinkling eyes, balding head and drooping walrus-like mustache.
On the far side of the aisle were the prosecution’s witnesses: the arresting officer, Sargent Svoboda; and the complainant, Mr. Farber, the principal. Beside them sat the prosecutor, Ms. Elizabeth Webster. After an hour, their case was finally called.
Mat and Dave approached the bench, flanked by Ms. Webster, the prosecutor. Judge Raymond Burkhardt was the presiding magistrate. He was a Buddha-like figure with a bullet-shaped head, aviator glasses and the build of a Sumo wrestler. As both sides declared they were ready to proceed, the prosecutor now began.
In a brown tweed suit, with a deep voice and curly red hair, Ms. Webster addressed the bench. The indictment was composed of three separate counts, she had said. Each involved a paragraph of the Detroit City Code, reading:
“No person shall make any noise or diversion by which the peace or good order of a school is disturbed…”; and “No person shall use profane, indecent, or immoral language on the premises…”; and “Anyone found creating such a disturbance, shall leave immediately when ordered to do so by the principal of the school.”
The prosecutor described the circumstances leading up to the arrest, claiming that despite the offense’s misdemeanor status, the decision of the court would set a precedent. Something important was at stake, here: the welfare of our children. Concluding her opening statement, she returned to her seat. Now the counsel for the defense had risen.
With a swarthy complexion, deep-set eyes and a shock of black, wavy hair – Dave was a dedicated ‘movement lawyer’, known as a champion of the Left. His opening statement focused on the law, itself.
It was unconstitutional on its face, violating both his client’s and the students’ first amendment right to free speech. Its phrasing was vague, over broad; it discriminated with respect to content; and it left far too much discretion in the principal’s hands. He slapped a thick written brief on the bench before the judge, then returned to his seat beside Mat. Ms. Webster called Sargent Svoboda.
The sergeant came forward; was sworn in by the bailiff. He identified himself; described the arrest; identified Mat as the perpetrator. After cross-examination, he returned to his seat. Now Mr. Farber, the principal, was called.
He marched down the aisle with a scowl on his face, muttering to himself, annoyed. He had wasted half the morning over this ridiculous affair; was impatient to get the damned thing over and done with! He spoke in an irritable tone, glancing nervously at his watch. After leading him through the facts, Ms. Webster returned to her seat. Now Dave approached the box, saying:
“Good morning, Mr. Farber. Let me begin by asking you this: did you ever see the defendant – Mr. Siegal, seated before you – physically interfering with your students?”
“He didn’t force anyone to talk to him – if that’s what you’re after.”
“Would you confine yourself to answering my question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, sir.”
“Yes, yes – he didn’t lay a hand on them.”
“Then, would it be correct to say that all he did was speak to those willing to listen.”
“But he had no business being there in the first place.”
“Mr. Farber,” Judge Burkhardt admonished the witness, “please confine yourself to questions posed by counsel, sir.” The judge turned to Dave, saying “Counsel, could you please repeat your question for the witness.”
“Then, to the best of your knowledge, Mr. Farber, the defendant never forced his views on anyone.”
“Yes, yes – I suppose so.”
“I see. Now, as to the ‘immoral’ language employed by the defendant…” Dave paused to flash a smile at Mat. “You have testified that ‘immoral language’ was used before your students. Tell me, sir, did it do them any harm?”
“I believe it did, indeed. Obscenity is offensive. None of us wish to be offended.”
“But, aren’t such words used daily by your students?” “Not in my hearing, they’re not.”
“Perhaps not, sir. But, this ordinance was drafted decades ago, by another generation, entirely. Even you must admit that much has changed since then: in the dress, the music, the mores of the young. Indeed, the very notion of ‘immoral language’ – among inner-city high school students – is an anachronism, is it not?”
“I didn’t write the law, sir. I’m merely doing my job. I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t. By the way, the answer to question is ’no’. As far as I’m concerned, they’re here to learn proper English.”
“All of us want them to learn ‘proper’ English, sir. But English is a living language, one constantly augmented by common speech. The Cass English Department – I have the curriculum, here, before me, your honor – recommends Salinger, Hemingway, Steinbeck, to name a few of the authors using the very words you have claimed are ‘immoral’. If they’ve already read them in class, how can they possibly be harmed by hearing them again in the street?”
“Not having been used in a literary context, some of the more sensitive youngsters might well have been offended. Not all of them employ the language of the gutter!”
Dave paused with an incredulous smile. Leaving the issue of ‘immoral language’ behind, he proceeded to the issue of the principal’s legal authority.
“Apart from the ’immoral language’, Mr. Farber, what exactly did you object to in the defendant’s behavior?”
“He was standing where he shouldn’t have been; clearly and consciously within the area prohibited by the law.”
“Then, there was nothing else you objected to – the defendant’s views, for instance?”
“On the contrary, his views are abhorrent! But, it was the place – solely the place – that determined my decision.”
“Let’s not beat around the bush!,” the principal replied, turning to the judge, “The defendant advocates the violent overthrow of our democratically-elected government, your honor. He ridicules our leaders, slanders our institutions. Surely, any American would find such views repugnant. And especially when addressed to our youngsters. Why, they’re simply are not prepared to defend themselves. They may be drawn in, unwittingly, may be corrupted by the likes of him!”
“Then, if he’d expressed views you approved of, you’d have allowed him to remain?”
“Hah! – you won’t catch me with your slimy lawyer’s tricks! I would have done what I did regardless of his viewpoint.”
Ms. Webster re-examined Mr. Farber. And, when she had concluded, he fairly bust from the witness box, leaving the courtroom in a huff. With the completion of the prosecution’s case, Dave now called Ernie as his first defense witness.
Ernie marched up the aisle to the witness stand, a grin on his pale, freckled face. He put his left hand on the bible; raised his right hand to take the oath. Then Dave placed his hand on his shoulder, saying:
“How are you doing, today, Ernie?”
“Oh, a little nervous, I guess.” Meeting Rose’s eyes, he blushed, barely suppressing a giggle.
“Don’t worry about that. Just sit back and relax. All we ask is that you tell the truth. Now, what did you observe the defendant doing at your high school?’ “He just talked to us, sold his newspaper. That’s all.” He added with a shrug of the shoulders.
“I see. Then did you ever observe him physically interfering with a student?”
“No, of course not! Mat wouldn’t harm a fly.”
“In that case, would you say that the defendant was doing any harm?”
“Objection, your honor!” Ms. Webster’s powerful voice rang out. “The question calls for an opinion on a matter outside the witness’ competence.”
Objection sustained.” Judge Burkhardt replied. “Please rephrase your question, Mr. Criboni.”
“Then, how did you feel when Mat spoke to you, Ernie?”
“Hmmm…” he said, pausing to consider. “Just curious, I guess. After a while, what he said made sense. So, naturally, I wanted to hear more.” He winked at Mat, who shook his head and smiled.
“So all he did was to arouse your curiosity?”
“He sure did!”
“He never urged you to break the law? Never corrupted your innocent mind?”
“Me, innocent?” he said, with a titter. “No, of course not. All he did was make me think, make me want to change things.”
“Thank you, Ernie. That’ll be all for now.”
Dave returned to his seat, as Ms. Webster rose. She walked toward Ernie; looked him straight in the eye. Then she leaned over the rail of the witness box, saying:
“Tell me, Ernie –just between you and I – why was the defendant really at your high school?”
A bit unnerved by her beautiful eyes and strong perfume, he answered:
“Like I said before – he just came to talk to us!”
“Young man, do you really expect us to believe that all he wanted was a little chat?”
“Well, not exactly-“
“Then what was he really after?”
“Well, he did want to talk to us! But he also wants folks to act upon what they believe and to organize. Talk oughta lead to action.”
“Then, what he really wanted was to do was recruit you to his communist organization?”
“Objection, your honor!” cried Dave. “The defendant’ views are not on trial, here, today.”
“But, your honor,” replied Ms. Webster, “the purpose of the ordinance – as recorded in the legislative history of the Detroit City Code – is to protect our children from harm. If I’m prevented from examining the defendant’s views, then how can we possibly determine whether he’s harming them or not?”
Judge Burkhardt paused, drumming his fingers on the bench. Removing his glasses, he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Then he replaced them, saying:
“I shall allow this line of questioning, Mr. Criboni. But only insofar as the prosecutor can connect it up with clearly illegal acts.”
“Then the defendant’s views are on trial!” cried Dave.
“I can hardly agree, counselor.” Judge Burkhardt replied. “I’m here to conduct a trial, not to evaluate the law, much less the defendant’s political ideology. If you think my ruling improper, take the matter up on appeal. Ms. Webster, you may continue.”
“Thank you, your honor. Now, was the defendant there to recruit you to his communist organization?”
“Well, maybe. I mean, what good is talk without action? And how can you act effectively without organization?”
“Please confine your answers to the questions posed, young man!” boomed the judge.
Ernie loosened his tie; moved nervously in his seat. The grin had disappeared from his pale, freckled face.
“Do you realize, Ernie, that what the defendant did is illegal?” “No. But how can it be wrong just to talk?” “And do you realize that the knowing participation in a communist organization is also against the law?”
“Objection!” shouted Dave, rising to his feet. “The witness is not a lawyer. The question is beyond his competence. This is a minor misdemeanor, not a Smith Act trial!”
“Your honor,” replied Ms. Webster, “not only is his conduct illegal under the ordinance, but it violates federal law, as well. We must protect our youngsters from his pernicious words and influence!”
“Counselors!” growled the judge. “I don’t need a lecture from either of you! Could you please rephrase your question, Ms. Webster, so the witness can comprehend it.”
“Certainly, you honor. The point is well taken. Ernie, did you know that the defendant’s organization advocates the violent overthrow of our democratic government?”
“Well, yeah, but-“
“Just answer the question, young man!” And did you know that they’d destroy our freedom, our American way of life?”
“But, it’s not democratic at all-” he began, but was once more admonished by the judge. “Young man, please answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
“That’ll be all!” Ms. Webster shouted, marching triumphantly back to her seat.
After Dave had completed his examination of Ernie, he called Rose, Red and Felix as character witnesses. It was noon by the time he had finished, so Judge Burkhardt suggested they break for lunch. Mat, his friends and Dave now walked downtown to the Renaissance Center.
The Ren Cen was a cluster of five glass towers, encircled by thin bands of stainless steel. These futuristic silos fairly dwarf their tiny neighbors, mirrored in the twisted images of its convex gray glass walls. On the ground, before the towers, squat concrete bunkers, covered with the sparest of greenery, small bushes and shrubs.
Atop the central tower is a flashing ball of light. This flashbulb, visible from many miles away, is a warning to approaching airplanes.
Passing through the entrance, they paused to admire. Before them rose a modern hanging garden, made of concrete slabs, pillars, spiral stairs, with a ceiling of dark-tinted glass. From its balcony, they viewed islands floating in a pond, on which small trees and flowerbeds flourished. Above their heads stretched concrete walks, from which vines, like hair, had hung. And, in the center, was a marble obelisk – nearly three stories high! Water streamed down its white stone sides into the basement’s splashing pool.
They rode the escalator to the mezzanine, where they found a place for lunch. Here, Mat described the history of this architectural wonder, this affluent isle in an otherwise dying metropolis.
Though it had only been completed a few years ago, the Ren Cen had already gone bankrupt.
Luxurious shops would come and go, failing to draw customers into the heart of ‘Murder City’. It would take far more than a building to revive Detroit’s failing economy. After all, Auto was moving to the sun belt states, building factories in Third World Countries. Steel shut down its antiquated plants; and, instead of making steel, bought Marathon Oil. One sought lower labor costs; the other cut its losses, seeking brand new markets. Meanwhile, working men and women were laid off by the tens of thousands. As plants shut down, they were forced to take low-paying service sector jobs. And, when these ran out, there was unemployment, food stamps and welfare. For the elderly, it was too late to start over. For the young, the prospects were bleak, training and jobs, unavailable. So, for working-class Americans, the American Dream had been shattered: an entire way of life, disappeared. In its place were bread and circuses, like shopping at the Ren Cen, downtown. Here, they wandered, pressed their faces to the glass: dreamt of things they couldn’t afford; a way of life, they’d never have.
After lunch, they returned to the courthouse, where Mat was called to the stand. Lou squeezed his knee as Mat rose. He entered the box; raised his hand; was sworn in by the bailiff. Then Dave began, saying:
“Good afternoon, Mr. Siegel. Would you tell us about yourself, and your reasons for challenging the ordinance?”
“I’m a grad school drop-out, your honor; my major, philosophy. I dropped out at the end of the Vietnam War, when there were more important things to do than ponder metaphysics. But my study of philosophy was hardly in vain. Indeed, it’s helped me understand the issue, here, today. For today’s hearing resembles another that took place two thousand years ago. In it, Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was put on trial for his life: charged with much the same offense that I am.”
“Of what relevance is the trial of Socrates to ours, Mr. Siegel?”
“Socrates was considered a troublemaker, like me. He believed knowledge should lead to action; and action aimed at justice, is what the good life is all about. He roamed the streets of Athens, talking to the young, in particular. And the more he talked, the more he learned how little they really knew. So he attacked their illusions, their false ideas and beliefs. But his relentless critique made him powerful enemies. He was later put on trial by them, for corrupting the youth of Athens.”
“And how was his trial like ours, Mr. Siegel?”
“Both Socrates and I are chiefly concerned with the young. In his defense, he described how the State takes hold of their minds; through religion, school, the family – it plants its values deep within them. But the State won its case by default, as it were; because there was no one to argue the case against is. He was simply asking for ‘equal time’, as it were: to present the case against the State to its youth. I ask no less of you, here, today.”
“And how does your activity compare with that of Socrates, Mr. Siegel?”
“Both he and I share a single goal: to help the young see through the official lie, discover the truth, organize and act on it. There’s no free speech for us unless there’s free speech for the young. That’s why Socrates roamed the streets of Athens, and I, the streets of Detroit.”
“Thank you, Mr. Siegel. That’ll be all for now.”
Ms. Webster now rose to cross-examine the defendant, saying:
“Your analogy with Socrates’ trial breaks down at every single point. Allow me to demonstrate, Mr. Siegel. If my memory serves me rightly, Socrates was a friend of the State. Is that not so?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And are you a friend of the State, a patriotic citizen, Mr. Siegel?”
“Most certainly not. But I am a friend of its people, the working class.”
“Then, like Socrates, you accept the laws of its people, the authority of this court?”
“No, because those laws weren’t made by its people.”
“Well, in any case, we’ve two distinctions between yourself and Socrates. He was a friend of the State, and he accepted its laws. Indeed, not only did he accept them – and the verdict of his peers, but he administered the death sentence, himself. Will you accept the verdict of this court, Mr. Siegel?”
“In practice, yes; in principle, no.”
“Then, there’s a third distinction between yourself and Socrates. Nor was he a revolutionary, much less, a communist.”
“No. Marx’s theory had yet to be born.”
“Then, there’s a fourth distinction between the two of you! Isn’t it a bit preposterous to compare yourself with Socrates? Sheer arrogance to assume to mantle of the immortal philosopher?”
“The similarity lies in the charge, in our goal, method and concern with the young. There are limits to any analogy.”
“You make a perfectly ridiculous Socrates, if I do say so, myself!”
“Objection!” shouted Dave.
“Objection sustained.” Judge Burkhardt replied. “Ms. Webster, please confine yourself to questioning the witness. This court has no interest in your personal opinions.”
“I apologize, your honor. It won’t happen again. Socrates paid for his convictions with his life, did he not, Mr. Siegel?”
“Yes, he did.”
“While you – you ‘Marxist Socrates’ – will pay a tiny fine, at most?”
“Correct. But both trials concern the right of our youth to hear the truth.”
“The truth, is it? And you, its sole guardian, I suppose? You’re a communist, are you not, Mr. Siegel?”
“Objection!” shouted Dave, rising to his feet.
“Objection denied. Please answer the question, Mr. Siegel.” said the judge.
“I most certainly am. But I ask the court’s permission to explain exactly what that means-“
“I’m asking the questions!” interjected Ms. Webster. “You’re a communist, and communism is what you preach to our young, is it not?”
“There are no ‘buts’ about it! You’d preach communism on the steps of our public schools?”
“Yes I would.”
“And are your communist views compatible with loyalty to your country, Mr. Siegel?”
“I have a higher loyalty.”
“Oh, a higher loyalty, is it? To whom? To Moscow?”
“No, to the workers of the world!”
“Objection!” cried Dave, already on his feet. “The prosecutor is baiting the witness.”
“Objection sustained! One more time, Ms. Webster, and I will cite you for contempt.”
“That’ll be all!” she exclaimed with a smile, marching triumphantly back to her seat.
After counsel had presented their closing arguments, the judge delivered his verdict. The defendant was found guilty, as charged, and must pay a fine in accordance with the ordinance. Before
adjourning, however, the court was informed by Dave that a notice of appeal would be filed.
That night the workers met at their union hall to vote on the company’s offer. Three took seats at a table on a platform at the front of the room. In the center was George, chairing the meeting; beside him were Sam and Stash (recording the minutes). On the wall above their heads hung a dusty old banner: UNITED STEEL WORKRS OF AMERICA, in red, white and blue. The rest of the men were assembled before them in rows of folding metal chairs. Here, they smoked, drank coffee and spoke amongst themselves, until the chairman called them to order with a few words of his own.
All across the country employers were united in demanding concessions from their workers. Wages were cut; benefits slashed; worsening conditions and speed-up were imposed. And tens of thousands had been laid off from their jobs: most would never go back. Some took the bosses’ word that concessions were inevitable. But not the men of Detroit Concrete – they had the guts to fight back! Despite the cold, the cops, despite scabs and injunctions –they’d gone on strike – and he was proud of them!
There was a round of applause, as George had concluded. Then Sam took the floor to deliver his report. As he spoke, the strike had passed before their eyes: the long cold days; the incidents on the picket line; the endless march before the factory gates. Each stage was reviewed, from the demand to re-open the contract to the offer to bring them back to work. Then there was an analysis of the company’s offer. It was a lousy deal, to be sure, but it was the best they could get. With a full crew of replacements, the company was back in production. If they held out any longer, they could lose their jobs for good. Sam urged them to accept the offer, recommending that they vote to go back.
As he listened to Sam’s report, Lee squirmed in his seat. The minute it was finished, his hand shot up in the air. He was recognized by the chairman, and immediately rose to speak, saying:
“It’s a sellout—can’t you see? Why, this new offer’s no better that the old one! It cuts our wages, our benefits – not to mention the rising cost of living. Hell, if you’re honest with yourselves, you’ll admit it’s not the few cents difference; it’s your fear of losing your jobs! Well, I lost mine, so I know how you feel. But, if we go back now, then the whole thing’s been for nothing! Stay out, just a little longer, and we’ll win a contract we can be proud of!”
The words poured out of him. He used every argument he could muster. But the vote was a foregone conclusion. They’d be crazy to risk their jobs for a few cents, more or less.
Sam called for a vote. The offer was read aloud. Then they raised their hands in acceptance. Lee was the sole dissenter. Now Tyrone rose to speak, suggesting they include a demand to get Lee’s job back.
“Right on!” and applause was heard from the floor, as the workers urged their union to act. Sam spoke in favor of compulsory arbitration. The motion was carried unanimously, as they gathered around Lee. But he sat there, grim-faced, unconvinced. As Sam began to speak, Lee interrupted, saying:
“No arbitrator on earth is gonna get me my job back! If you guys give in now, you’re screwed for sure! Any time the bosses like, they’ll come back for more take-backs!”
The chairman banged the gavel, as Tyrone tried to calm Lee down. But Lee shrugged him off, shouting:
“You’re all being screwed—can’t you see?”
Having punched the boss in front of the men, Lee knew he’d never go back to work. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the verdict in his divorce was due that very week. So, as the others returned to work, Lee remained at home, alone. He boozed his way through the next few days, arriving at the courthouse with a king-sized hangover. He’d lost his job; seen the strike defeated. Now the only way to salvage his life was here in court. Despite his lawyer’s warnings, he pinned all his hopes on the judge.
He rose from his seat as the judge entered the courtroom. Now he focused his attention on that tired old voice: his wife was awarded custody, together with alimony, child support and half their common property.
“A clean sweep for the bitch!” he thought, as all his hopes collapsed.
“I award the wife half of…half of…” the judge repeated, as he read through their meager list of assets.
“Half of this…half of that…” was hammered into Lee’s aching head.
Stunned by the verdict, he lowered himself in his seat – as his wife leapt up, jumping for joy! She was surrounded by her friends, as his lawyer tried to console him. But Lee stopped listening; refused to hear a word. Withdrawing into himself, he just sat there, oblivious to them all. Soon, his wife had left the courtroom on the arm of her attorney, followed by a train of friends. And, as their divorce was the final case that day, the courtroom was quickly cleared.
“Half of this…half of that…” kept going through Lee’s head. Till he finally saw the lights go out in the large, empty chamber. Rising from his seat, he now left the courtroom. Now he headed straight for the nearest bar.
Traveling north on Van Dyke, then west on Eight Mile Road, he hit every dive and topless joint in sight. He sat at the bar and brooded, downing one shot and beer after another. Then he left that place, smoked a joint in his truck, and continued on to the next. From bar to bar he went, as the night wore on. It was two a.m. when he pulled into the last. By this time he was plastered.
He tottered into the topless joint; its air was thick with smoke, stale beer and cheap perfume. He wove across the floor – stepping on toes, bumping into tables. There was mumbling, curses, the click of empty bottles. And, everywhere he looked, there were tired, drunken men, boozing and flirting with the waitresses and dancers. As a waitress unloaded her tray, they would peer down the front of her blouse, watch her skirt ride up in the rear. And, on the tables above them, were the dancers, themselves. Glazed eyes drank them in: fixed on breasts, buttocks, liquid limbs in motion. Lee grabbed a seat near the stage, up front: then settled back to watch.
On the wall above his head was a huge black loudspeaker. Its throbbing bass got into his blood, endlessly, hypnotically repeated. Now he ordered a pitcher; polished it off. Pissing it out, he ordered another. And, as he gazed about, he saw everything multiplied in the mirrors. On the walls, on the ceiling – they doubled the bar’s dimensions – each one surrounded by a string of colored lights. Dizzy, he switched to the stage, with its pulsating neon glow, as the dancers passed before him.
From stiletto heels his eyes crept up their long lithe legs. Skin-tight gowns, feathers, furs, glittering costume jewelry. One winked at him from clear across the stage. Closer and closer, she danced toward him: lifting his mug to her breast with a flicker of her tongue. He tipped her with a folded dollar bill, slipped it slowly into her g-string.
As the night wore on, he lost track of time. He nodded off, began to dream; then was aroused by a painful memory. He ordered a double, gulped it down: trying to drink himself blind. The memories faded, mixed with fragments of his dreams, as a faceless line of women passed before him. Finally, one caught his eye as she stepped up on the stage.
In black leather, leotard and a studded silver belt, she danced to the rhythm of the harsh punk rock. Bumping, grinding, jerking with the beat – she wrestled with the music, seemed to dance for him alone.
Another song began, as she hung from a pole on the stage. Writhing, she struck a series of poses; with each, her wardrobe had diminished. There was something about her, something that drew him on. Then another song began, as she now lay on her back.
Her eyes met his through the scissors of her legs. There was something about them, something familiar. Then she noticed his gaze and rose to her knees. Now she crawled like a tigress toward him.
She leapt to her feet, placed her bare foot on his arm. She rocked and swayed, back and forth to the beat. Now his eyes rose to hers, as the room had spun and reeled. In a flash – he saw his wife, Jan’s face – super-imposed on the dancers! Mirrors, music, dizying lights – he felt himself falling, so he panicked: lunging out at her! The dancer screamed; she scratched and struggled. Then arms wrestled him backward, pulling him down to the floor. They kicked him, punched him, pinned him to the ground. Then they dragged him over the sawdust-covered floor, booting him out the back door.
He lay at their feet, a swarm of eyes above him. They jeered and cursed and laughed aloud. Then, suddenly, he felt his stomach heave, as he puked all over the ground. A burst of raucous laughter; the door slammed shut and silence. Lying on his back, he gazed up at the swirling stars. He felt pinned down, paralyzed; caught in some childhood dream.
After a time, his head had cleared. So he picked himself up and crawled into his truck. Somehow, he managed to drive home. But all the way those judge’s words went on like an endless refrain.
He unlocked the gate, drove into the yard; then found himself sitting on the floor of the family garage. On the walls, in the corners, in the rafters above him – the broken toys, tools and tricycle – the remnants of his life. Grabbing a chainsaw, he headed for the house, where a boisterous Trish now met him.
“Outa my way!” he now kicked the frightened dog. Fumbling with his keys, he unlocked the door; then shoved it open, and slammed it shut behind him. Locked outside, Trish barked and scratched at the screen.
Descending the stairs, he tripped on an ice skate – tumbling down onto the floor!
“Muther-fuckin stairs!” he cried, as he picked himself up and headed for the bar. He took a swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Taking another, he gazed at his favorite room. Then Trish howled, outside.
“Shut your mouth!” he cried, then turning on his stool, caught sight of his face in the mirror. It was dirt-smeared, bloodied, bruised; vomit matter his beard.
“JeSUS!” he groaned; then jamming the plug in the wall, he ripped into the wooden paneled bar.
Sawdust and wood chips flew from the rasping blade. One by one, he attacked the bar, table and chairs, crying:
“Take your half of this! Take your half of that!” then he headed for the color TV.
The vacuum imploded with a deafening crack, shooting shards of glass and steel through the air! Jolted back over the mangled pile of scrap, he hit his head and instantly blacked out…
The following morning he was discovered by his dad, George. Unable to reach him by phone, George had driven over and found him on the rec room floor. He rushed him to the hospital, where his cuts were stitched and bandaged. Then, the following Monday, he had paid a visit to the unemployment office. The task of finding another job had begun. And, as Lee faced the prospect of long-term unemployment, Lou was lying on a beach in Acapulco.
The strike had been trying for him, as well. So, after completing his law exams, he was invited to stay with his parents. He had flown south by jumbo jet, leaving Detroit and the harsh winter behind him.
On a hill above the bay stood his parent’s Acapulco condominium. It was furnished by his mother in the modern vein: stainless steel, glass, crème-colored drapes; Miros and Calders on its walls. A balcony ran its length, bordered by potted flowers, plants and black wrought iron. They often dined on the balcony, watching the sun set on the bay. A molten ball had ignited the sky, submerging itself in the sea.
All day long, Lou had layed on the beach. As he soaked up the sun, his eyes were fixed on the scantiest of bikinis. It was a delightful week, but he grew tired of just lying about. So he began a book, provided by Mat, about the Mexican political economy.
Some of the world’s richest oil reserves were discovered, here, in the seventies. Suddenly, the Mexican economy had taken off! Petroleum came to account for more than eighty percent of her exports. Billions poured in in bank loans; construction began on new ports, mills and plants.
But her borrowing soon outstripped her gains in production, as more and more of her earnings were used to service the national debt. Meanwhile, new loans were financed to pay off the old, as interest rates climbed and compounded.
Then the world market had shifted, oil prices plunged, and Mexico was left with a debt of eighty billion dollars! The deficit soared; oil earnings plunged. Now the risk of a default had loomed large. So the banks had clamped down. They re-scheduled their loans; imposing fiscal austerity. Prices rose; taxes rose. Spending was cut to the bone. Now the poor got poorer. The ill-housed were homeless. The hungry had starved.
Looking up, Lou glimpsed the sleek young bodies on a beach by the bright blue bay. Worldwide recession…Third-world debt…Here, they seemed mere phrases. Yet, even the bay had its hidden depths. He had been warned against swimming here: chemical wastes and sewage lay below it.
The Siegels often dined at a restaurant in the evening. Then they went to a discotheque, or saw a film, downtown. When they returned, they sat on the balcony, watched the stars in the southern sky. The squatters’ shacks – which Mat had once glimpsed from here – had long since been demolished. The tourists were essential to the local economy; they could ill afford such eyesores.
After a week in Acapulco, Lou flew north to Mexico City. His dad had called ahead to reserve a hotel room; got him tickets for a bullfight and the Ballet Folklorico. When he arrived at the airport, he grabbed himself a cab.
The boulevards of the capital were lined with palms, the streets choked with maddening traffic. From one lane to the next, dashed fearless taxis; their horns and screeching tires filled his ears with their din. He was bounced about in the back of the cab. Then they swerved – just missing a bus! It backfired like a howitzer, belching a black plume of smoke. Then the driver’s heads were thrust out the windows. They gesticulated wildly, fired off crackling strings of oaths!
After a roller coaster ride through the bustling streets, he arrived at the Zona Rosa. But, as he opened the door, before the modern hotel, little beggars swarmed all around him. Big black eyes. Brown beseeching hands. A chorus of shrill sopranos. And, everywhere he went, they had gathered.
Their mothers moved down the hot dusty streets. One arm held a baby; the other dragged a bundle. Trailing behind were her snot-nosed brood, dirt-smeared and clothed in cotton rags. The older ones watched their younger brothers and sisters, as their mother paused to rest in the shade.
Skinny girls with licorice hair hawked their wilted roses. Souvenirs were peddled from a cloth on the ground. Penny candy. Bottles of pop. Brown-clay figurines. Behind them knelt old women wrapped in black-striped rebozos.
He visited the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the holiest shrine in the Americas. On his way, he witnessed an endless religious procession.
Thousands came from across the land, moving down the streets toward the great church square. Children held banners, carried crosses in their arms; while elderly peasants, with wives by their sides, came crawling in penance on old ravaged knees.
Hundreds stood in line in the modern cathedral: waiting to hear mass; waiting to confess. The small black doors opened and closed, as they whispered their sins into the ears behind the screens. And, at the center of the church – viewed from a moving belt on the floor – was the Mexican holy of holies.
Behind bullet-proof glass lay the Shrine of the Virgin; every eye rose toward her thin cotton shroud. And there, impressed miraculously on centuries-old cloth, was the image of their Mexican Madonna.
Outside the basilica, they crowded in the shade. Nearby, hundreds stood in line by the smaller Church of the Well. Here, they flocked to the sacred fount, to be baptized and blessed with its healing waters.
Surrounding the square were religious souvenir shops. Their shelves were filled with paper mache Christs, hand-carved Madonnas, angels with tinseled wings. On tables, in the rear, were rosary mountains, and reliquaries containing bits of saintly cloth or bone.
During his week in Mexico City, he saw the Ballet Folklorico, visited the National Palace and the Museo Anthropologico. Then, on a Saturday afternoon, he saw his first and last bullfight.
It was the world’s largest bullring: a vast coliseum of bare concrete. From speakers on the walls came the blare of brass, as he squeezed through the aisle to his seat. Renting a cushion for the concrete bench, he settled back to watch the spectacle.
A multicolored mass packed the stands. They whistled and cheered to a proud passé doble. Below them, lay the bullring, itself. Its high white walls were plastered with ads: CAMPARI; CORONA; SUPERIOR BEER. Inside, was the circle of sand. Lined with white concentric rings, it lay open to the sky. At its center the sun shone forth.
Hoots and hollers issued from the crowd. Till a trumpet fanfare silenced them, marking the beginning of the procession.
Into the ring road noble caballeros, their chestnut steeds sporting red and yellow plumes. Next came a column of toreadors, with bright pink socks, flaring capes and jackets embroidered with beads. In pranced the picadors, their powerful mounts in thick-padded armor. The sweepers marched behind them, with their giant rakes, and gaily-clad trio of burros. Finally, came the matador, with head held high. He bowed, saluted; then left with a wave of the hand.
In dashed the black bull! – his shoulders sporting ribbons from past campaigns. He tossed his head, snorted; strode boldly about. The contest would finally commence.
Entering the ring were three toreros. Each taunted the bull with ‘Toro, toro!’, performing a simple pass. They tired him out with their cape work; then left to a round of applause. Half-hearted ‘Oles’ met the in-coming picadors.
Now he charged! – dug his horns into the horse’s thick padding. He butted and twisted; then the picador plunged in the lance. Thrusting at his neck, the picador threw all his weight on the shaft: as blood ran in sheets down his broad black back. Then the picador departed; the toreadors returned; it was time for the bandilleros.
In pink satin slippers they danced before the bull. They leapt, turned, capered; then ran straight for his horns! At the very last moment, they rolled to one side – sticking sharp green darts into his neck.
By now, he had grown weary, in his plumes and purple gore. He fell to his knees, paused; gazed up at the screaming stands. Then he rose and hurled himself forward.
Round the ring he dashed, sought the source of his distress. Like a battering ram he hit the wall, took vengeance on inanimate matter. On and on, it went, till the crowd grew restless. Then the matador finally appeared.
With sword wrapped up in his red muletta, he entered to the cheers of the crowd. His victim stood before him, his tongue hanging out. Gathering his strength, he lowered his horns and charged.
With each of the matador’s passes, they exploded with applause. There were ear-piercing whistles, roars of ‘Ole!’ Then the bull had collapsed, exhausted. Turning his back with bravado, the matador strutted about. A thunderous ovation rose from the stands, with hats tossed high into the air!
Slowly he rose from ravaged knees, his shoulders encrusted with blood. The sun beat down, as he gazed up into the stands: encircled by a blur of colors and cries. Now they roared for the kill. The matador turned to face him. The ‘moment of truth’ had arrived.
After three more passes, and mounting bursts of applause, the blade was plunged between his shoulder blades. But the bull refused to die! They gasped, as he crept a few steps forward. The matador stood before him, hurling curses at his head. But the bull refused to die.
Murmurs and hisses arose; then he vomited blood at their feet. Their mood now changed: their anger focused on the man. There, he stood, in the middle of the ring, with helplessly upturned hands.
Then the bull’s knees buckled. In dashed the peones – and with a whip-like crack and puff of smoke – the bull was quickly dispatched. Shot through the brain, he lay in a pool of his blood.
The crowd went wild with whistles and screams, as the blaring brass began. Round the ring the matador marched, kerchiefs and sombreros raining down at his feet. In the background, three burros dragged the corpse away: leaving a brushstroke of red in the sand.
Lou felt sick to his stomach, revolted. There was no doubt on whose side he stood. Squeezing though the aisles, he had fled…
On his final day, he visited Teotihuacan, where he climbed the pyramids on the Avenue of the Dead. And, at the end of the day, on his bus ride home, they passed the shantytowns on the outskirts of the capital.
In the midst of rubble and heaps of trash stood a city of sprawling shacks. Huts of cardboard, paint-peeled wood; roofs, a patchwork of tin and broken bricks. A maze of cactus and laundry lines, through which scrawny dogs and pigs chased the naked brown children. Their elders sat on a stoop, nearby: watched the rich touristas roaring by.
Through endless cactus fields they passed, acre after acre of green-thorned paddles. Till they finally returned to the modern city, where he emerged from the cool, dark bus. He was hit by a wall of heat, along with a motley group of beggars.
A legless man on a cart with wheels, his battered hat filled with clinking copper coins. Beside him sat an Indian, in his shriveled suit of skin, with a blind girl kneeling before him. In their midst was a cripple—his legs bent jack knife backwards. And, in a row behind the men, sat a sisterhood of crones. As still as statues, in bolts of black, their white crowns ate holes in their threadbare hoods. And out of their row of raveled sleeves stretched twisted bowls of fingers.
The sun emerged from behind the clouds, pouring through the skylight onto the north wall fresco. In this, Rivera’s masterpiece, the Line threads man into the process of production. Before it sat Lou, between Harold and Mat, in the courtyard of the Detroit Art Institute. Lou had viewed these murals often, since he had first come here, as a child. But, only now, did he really see them.
A month had passed since the end of the strike. Almost everything had returned to normal. Old routines were resumed; old habits fell back into place. Not all remained as before, however. The cold spell had finally snapped. And, as the ice had melted, large pools formed on the factory floor.
Taking the weekly inventory, Lou had trudged through these pools in a pair of rubber boots. With pen in hand, and a clipboard under his arm, He passed the same old faces at their tasks. Johnny, running up the stairs; Stash and Harry, on the asphalt furnace; Tyrone, Wally and the two replacements, knocking blocks from the metal forms. But it was Bernie who now helped George load up the truck (having been assigned Lee’s former job). And, though Nick’s foot had healed, and he was off his wooden crutches, he’d been laid off with the hiring of the replacements. After completing his rounds, Lou had handed out the paychecks.
There was a noticeable absence of the men’s normal payday cheer. Their ‘thank yous’ were fewer, more subdued. Most had avoided his eyes. Then he walked next door to give the two replacements their checks (where they ate lunch apart from the others). Finally, there were Zeke’s disturbing words on the morning Lou had returned.
They’d lost a great deal of business because of the strike; two major accounts had been cancelled. So it was doubtful whether the first round of concessions would be enough. They might have to go back for more.