Chapter XIX: Pacific Gas and Electric
Someone told me that the Pacific Gas and Electric company needed men in the boiler room and generating units in their San Francisco plant. I visited their employment office and with hat in hand applied for a job. "And what experience do you have around boilers or generators?" I was asked. Expecting this question, I had brought along my engineering certificate. I laid it on the desk. The interviewer was surprised and smiled. "Mr. Bailey," he said, "you're really overqualified for a fireman's job. You should be applying for a stationary engineer's job, but no engineer's jobs are open. With your experience, we're happy to have you aboard in one of our plants. Are you ready to go to work tomorrow morning?" he asked as he handed me back my license. After a few more words about the routine and possible benefits, I was on my way out the door with an assignment slip to my new job in the morning.
I kept my mouth shut to my friends about the job. When I left the house to drive to work, I managed to take a different route each day. The job itself was an easy-paced, no-pressure job, with no one leaning over my shoulder while I worked. The plant engineer on the watch was the boss. Once he knew that I knew my way around and showed some responsibility to my job, that was the last I would see of him for the watch. The engineers respected me, because they had gotten the word that I had an engineer's ticket.
Days flowed into weeks, and before long I was counting my third month at the plant, which was located just a few miles from my North Beach neighborhood. In most jobs, someone in authority is always trying to get the best of the personnel to work on their watch. So it was at this plant. I was happy with the shift I was on, however I had left my phone number with the engineers on the other watches and gave them permission to call me in the event that someone did not show up and they needed a fill-in. At least once a week I would get a call, sometimes at odd hours of the morning. That in itself was a sign of my dependability. There were times when I cursed myself for being so liberal with my time, especially when, because of lack of sleep, I walked around like a zombie.
Around the fourth month, I wondered about the FBI's efficiency. Surely the FBI and the cabal of right-wingers weren't ready to forgive me and let me go on working. Of course, I was careful; still, if an effort were made, I could be detected.
One day I was asked to take some wrenches to another building within the giant complex. It was a section whose working crew did not come into contact with the crew in my plant. As fate would have it, I ran smack into an old member of the Marine Firemen's Union and a fierce right-winger. This guy was one of those smiling, happy-go-lucky, disarming characters who greet you like a long-lost twin brother, with hugs and back slaps. "So, you're working in the boiler room?" he said. "How nice to hear that you're a member of the family."
Two days later, I was on the job about an hour when the booming voice came over the loudspeakers. "Mr. Bailey is wanted in the superintendent's office on the third floor, now."
I heard my watch mate call me. "Hey, Mr. Dependable, they're on to you. Looks like a big promotion. Good luck." As I worked my way toward the stairway several other guys wished me well, including one of the engineers who jokingly said I was about to take over his job.
I had no idea why I was being called, but I soon found myself being caught up in the glee and good feelings of the men I worked with who all thought that I was being rewarded for my attention to the job. When I stepped into the large mahogany-paneled office, I found three men waiting, all with their backs turned to me.
"My name is Bailey. I was told to come to this office." I stood there mute. No one said a word. Then one of the men said, "You going to tell him?"
"No, you tell him," the other guy said.
"Okay, then. I'll tell him," he replied abruptly. Then he turned to face me. "Mr. Bailey, we feel lucky to have been informed that you, as a leading West Coast-Communist, were preparing to blow up this plant. Yes, we were lucky to discover this plot in time."
I was shocked, almost frozen still. In the first few seconds I thought it was some sort of joke someone was pulling, that they were all going to break out laughing and offer me some new job, but that moment passed as I watched him stutter and look uncomfortable.
"Sir," I said, breaking into his next line of thought, "will you be so kind as to put that in writing?"
"No, I won't. There will be no writing!" he shouted. "I have called the security guard to escort you off these premises. You have five minutes to empty your locker and leave the grounds. Your wages will be mailed to you. I will notify the FBI that we have taken care of the matter."
The security guard walked over to me and gently placed his hand on my arm. From the look on his face I detected he did not relish the job he was asked to do. Since I knew he was uncomfortable, I did not want to make it harder on him. I walked out the door with him close behind me. When we entered the main floor, the work crew saw me coming. "Here comes the new vice-president of PG&E!" one of the guys shouted. "Hey, Bill, put in a good word for me, will ya?" said another. I was oblivious to the friendly words of warmth that were showered on me, and I was in no frame of mind to respond to them as we walked quickly to my locker, removed my gloves, a shirt, an old pair of shoes, and two fried-egg sandwiches, my lunch for that day.
The guard stood a few feet from me and watched me clean out the locker, allowing me the dignity of not being manhandled. I walked out of the plant with a heavy heart, in silence. I got into my car and drove off, with the guard still in view in the rear mirror.
I fumed inside as the car headed home. I thought of the guy responsible, that back-slapping character I ran into. He most likely raced to his right-wing buddies in the union, and they in turn called the FBI. I could almost hear the FBI thanking the ultra-conservative officials in the union for spotting me. I tried to make the best of a bum situation by telling myself how lucky I was to get so many weeks of work at PG&E without being fired sooner. But that rationalization did not put out the fire within me.
While the rage was subsiding, I still had to hustle the rent and pork chops, as well as think about the next issue of the Black Gang News. There were a few small jobs that cropped up that eased the situation. Some Italian shoemaker, an old friend, bought a house and needed the inside painted. I took on the job and pressed into service another screened-out seaman. After a week of slapping paint around we picked up enough to take care of rent money and continue the old habit of eating. Other jobs, like cleaning out someone's backyard and hauling the junk off to city dumps, kept me in shape and saved me from tightening my belt another notch.
The political situation in the country was getting no better, and the Party was still in disarray from the arrest of the leadership. The trials and the constant drives to get money for defense drained a lot of our energy.
The rank-and-file members of the Party got an order one day to practice a "dry run" at disappearing. The goal was to disappear without leaving the slightest hint of where we would be. I thought the whole idea stunk. Who the hell were we trying to fool? Certainly not the FBI. Hell, all they had to do was consult one of their informers within the Party and we could be picked up any time. Besides, I was opposed to running out and going into the so-called underground. I was prepared to go to jail for principles. I would work like hell in jail as I did on the outside to convince people that our cause was a just one. No, I thought that going underground was a waste of time. I could understand disappearing to a refuge if it was a matter of life and death, if it was a situation where you were threatened with being killed or seriously maimed. But not if the danger entailed only a possible jail sentence. No, I said, I will not partake in the disappearing act. I will hold my ground, and the nuts in the Party who made the decision can go to hell.
That night I kept all the lights on in the house. I opened the windows for some air, played Madam Butterfly on my record player and laid back, thrilled by the voice of Renata Tebaldi as she sang of pain inflicted by an officer of the American Navy. The cad!
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three