Chapter VIII: Introduction to "Honest
The firm where I worked employed about 20 people. They made fiber-board sample cases for salesmen. There were several presses, a lathe, a number of rivet machines, glue pots and tables. When I wasn't working at a rivet machine I was slopping glue in the sample cases and inserting a fine lining. Caught up with gluing, I swept, then piled. that's how it went for eight hours a day. After I got home, there was no time for playing in the streets with the guys; I was too tired. I began getting into bed earlier.
For the first month the job was interesting, as were the men I worked with. There was a lot of kidding around on the job, and that made the time go faster, the work less tiresome. With the passing of each week, the work became more burdensome, dull and uninteresting. I had learned everything there was to learn in the small shop. The more I learned, the harder I worked. I was more in demand now. However, my piddling pay remained the same.
At that time, Harry Longlegs had returned from his latest "convalescence." He was in great shape: nice and tanned and enjoying good health. During the three previous weeks, he had been managing the spending of my little paycheck, even recommending how much money my mother should give me for lunch or spending money. I had been getting 35 cents each morning. That took care of a sandwich, soda and carfare. If I walked home, I saved the carfare. Cigarettes were two packs for a quarter--that is, the expensive ones like Luckys, Camels or Chesterfields. There were also cigarettes you could get for ten cents a pack. Since I smoked only a pack every two days, cigarettes posed no problem. On Saturdays and Sundays, though, I wanted money for the local movie houses.
I brought my check home this payday and handed it to the mother. Harry Longlegs looked it over. "Same amount, heh? Does anyone down there work overtime?"
"Yeah, a couple of guys do," I told him.
"How come you never work overtime and bring some extra money home?" He asked.
Refusing to answer, I walked into the bedroom. I was tired and depressed. Arguing with a man who wasn't even carrying his weight in the house was the last thing I wanted. I closed the door, but I could hear what he was saying to Mother: that I lacked ambition, had no drive, would never amount to anything. She just listened. I walked back out to the kitchen. I spoke to my mother. "I need a dollar for some shows this weekend." Harry looked at me with a shocked expression.
"A dollar is too damn much," he declared. "Walk across town to the Bowery. There's lots of cheap movies there. You can go for a nickel or dime. Give him 50 cents," he advised my mother. She fumbled in her pocketbook and found two quarters. She put them on the table. I tried to catch her eye, but she kept her head bowed. I scooped up the 50 cents, put on my coat and walked out. I never went back to the job.
I returned, instead, to the subway life. During the ensuing days, I succeeded in rounding up a few cabs, selling a few papers and even now and then washing dishes in a few restaurants in exchange for meals. I had five dollars stashed away in my watch pocket as I headed for the subway. I went up to the first person I saw and asked for a nickel to get me into the subway--a gimmick I used to conserve my own assets. Most people would say, "Sure. Get in the turnstile." They would drop the nickel into the slot, and that was that. As luck would have it, though, the first guy I bummed turned out to be a detective in need of a pinch. To the station house we went. There he searched me, but to my delight he failed to find my five dollars. Night court was in session when we got there. I was booked. The charge: panhandling/vagrancy, a misdemeanor. We entered a courtroom full of people, most of whom were men and women hauled in for selling without a license. They were taken care of pretty fast.
"Peddling neckties on 45th and Broadway without a license, your Honor," said the prosecutor.
The judge looked at the person's record. "This is the second time this month you've been cited. You people will just have to learn that you must get a license to conduct business on the street. Fifty dollars. Next case."
About 15 minutes later my name was called. "Stand up and face the judge," ordered the detective who had arrested me. I did as bid. The court grew quiet. The prosecutor intoned, "No prior record, your Honor." The judge cleared his throat, "Now, exactly what was this boy doing when you arrested him?"
"He approached me, your Honor, then panhandled me for money," said the detective proudly. A sympathetic murmur arose in court from the men and women sitting there on bare wooden benches. Even the detective turned at the sounds of disgust.
The judge turned to me. "How old are you, son?"
"I'm 19, your Honor."
"And where are your parents?"
"I have none."
"You have none?" he repeated incredulously.
"That's right, your Honor."
"Well, eh, when did you lose them? How long have you been on your own?"
"My parents died when I was 14, sir. I've been on my own ever since."
"You have no sisters or brothers, or anyone else to take care of you?"
"No, sir. I'm on my own," I replied with a modest look on my face and a quiver in my voice. Two cronies sitting close to the judge moved quickly toward him. In my eyes, there were three people conniving against me. I had visions of being led off to reform school. I was trapped. I started hating myself for bumming this guy, especially when I had five dollars safely tucked away in my pocket. Their conference lasted about 30 seconds.
The judge was speaking. "I am astonished," he was saying, "at your great stamina at survival. It is indeed a tribute to the youth of America. Here before me stands a young man, devoid of the love of a mother and the guiding wisdom of a father, fighting against the odds of a hostile environment. Young man, this court will not look the other way in your hour of need. This court will dismiss the charge of vagrancy against you. Out of respect for the hardships and loneliness you have faced, and will face in the future, this court will award you the sum of five dollars to help you on your way."
The two men near the judge smiled. The judge's great humanitarian gesture moved several people in the crowd to applaud, but the rest, not sure if applauding was permitted in the court, merely nodded their approval. A reporter quickly started to scribble. One of the men beside the judge left the podium and handed me a five-dollar bill. I looked up at the smiling judge and thanked him. "Can I go now?" I asked.
"Well, since this is Thursday, you can stay over until Monday. That way you'll have a nice rest and a fresh start." A jailer started walking toward me. I thought fast.
"Judge," I said loudly, "I have the chance of a job tomorrow. I must be there at 7:30 in the morning."
"All right, then. You can be released in the morning." With that the jailer led me through a door into a long cell-lined corridor. "Hey, Archie," he shouted to another guard at the far end. Archie met us halfway along the cell block. "This must be the first case in history where a New York judge gave someone money instead of taking it away! He gave this guy a five-dollar bill."
"Who's he? Some friend of the judge?" Archie wondered. Prisoners caged in the cells heard the conversation. They stared at me as I passed them. My cell had two bunks. So far I was the only tenant. I took out the five dollars and opened my shirt. I found a safety pin in my coat and pinned both five-dollar bills inside my underwear. If I was to be robbed, the would-be thieves would have to undress me to do the deed. I slept with one eye open, waiting for something that never happened. In the morning, I was set free.
Shortly thereafter I dropped in to see my mother. I gave her a few dollars. That made her happy. She told me she'd been talking to a guy upstairs named Flynn. A fellow Irishman, he was a stevedore boss down on one of the West Side piers. She had been after him for months to do something for her son. Every time she heard him on the stairs, she went out on the landing to ask him the same question: "When are you going to do something for your own kind and put my lad to work?" This same evening was no exception. As he came thumping up the stairs she corralled him. From where I was sitting in the kitchen I could hear him yell, "Oh all right! All right! Have him at the pier at 7:30 in the morning."
The pier was only three blocks away. A circle of men was forming at the pier gate. I joined it. At 7:30 sharp Flynn broke through the circle, and pointing here and there started picking the men who would work that day. Most of them he called by name. He passed me up about three times. I felt he had forgotten his promise of the night before. I didn't care one way or another, since I'd been up early and was falling asleep. The longer I stood there, the more I disliked the whole idea. "You," he finally shouted, waving a bony finger at me. I jumped out of the circle and headed onto the pier.
We were being paid from eight o'clock, but here we were inside the pier fifteen minutes early. We went from door to door, pulling on chains to roll up the high doors that opened to the outside dock. That was time the employers were getting from us for nothing. No ship had come in. However, a big railroad barge did arrive alongside with 20 freight cars. We hauled long gangways up to the barge deck; then, grabbing hand-trucks, we walked up the gangway to the boxcar assigned to us. For the rest of the day, we ran in front of that hand-truck. Flynn proved not an easy guy to get along with. You could be working like a mule, yet he'd never be around to see you perform. Just let one piece of freight fall off your hand-truck, though, and he'd be right there, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. "You better change your boarding house," he'd advise. That remark usually meant you were washed up at the end of the day. When these accidents happened to me occasionally, however, he'd say nothing. He'd just scowl and shake his head. I figured he was thinking about having to pass my mother's door to get to his place. He knew she wouldn't hesitate for a moment to drop a piss-pot on his head. So where other guys got the gate at the end of the day, I got by.
The wages were 48 1/2 cents an hour. After 44 hours of work per week, I was handed $21.36. I took the money home, where my mother relieved me of all of it. Then she handed me $1.36 as my weekly allowance. Since they didn't allow smoking on the job and it would have been impossible to light a cigarette anyway, almost everyone chewed tobacco. Around noon, the hotdog man would bring his pushcart to the pier. For a nickel you got a hotdog and a half pound of sauerkraut. Two of these were almost a meal. But my mother always made lunch for me, so the $1.36 stretched through the week.
The job lasted four months. I became fairly good at it. The hand-truck and all its idiosyncrasies became second nature to me. For the first three months, I had been totally unaware of the real game being played on that pier: a special "Retirement Fund" was being organized for Flynn, who had one of his favorites contacting each stevedore regularly. He'd collect 25 to 50 cents from each man every week. That didn't include extra collections to buy Flynn a bottle of "Irish Mist" every Friday, on his birthday or on any other holiday the man's cronies saw fit to celebrate. Anyone who didn't kick in weekly was given the worst kind of work and was soon washed out of the job entirely if he didn't straighten up. For the first three months no one had bothered me about the collections. At the beginning of the fourth month, however, a Flynn crony, an ex-boxer with cauliflower ears nicknamed "Canvasback" approached me. It was all I could do not to reel under his foul alcoholic breath. "Hey you," he called out to me.
"You been here for three months."
"Yeah? So what?" I never did like this guy. Here I was, working my guts out on the job. But every time I noticed him he was sitting on his ass.
"This is a collection for Paddy Flynn when he retires."
"Oh yeah?" I asked. "When's he gonna retire?"
"How do I know? I'm just taking the collection. What're you? A wise guy?" He regarded me suspiciously. I could see he was getting a bit excited because he rapidly sniffed through his nose, just like most ring fighters.
"No, I'm no wise guy. I just wanted to know, that's all," I said.
"Well, how about a contribution then?"
"You mean you ain't gonna give nothin' for the boss's retirement?" he asked roughly.
"That's right," I told him, wondering if I was going to get slugged.
"You sound like one of those wise punks. You think yer pretty smart, heh? Maybe you're better than us?" A whistle blew, calling the men back to work. I headed for my hand-truck. Behind me, the half-inebriated, foul-smelling, punch-drunk ex-boxer was mumbling words I couldn't make out. I was angry with myself; I hadn't told him off strongly enough. I was mad, too, that the men I was working with every day, men who appeared to be good guys, were allowing themselves to be blackmailed into kicking back some of their hard-earned dough to Flynn, who wasn't likely to retire for twenty years.
Every day sweat poured down my face and back from running the loads on my hand truck; I lived in fear of mistakes and went home all aches and pains. Now along comes this plug-ugly, whose flattened nose takes up most of his face, trying to shake me down for an hour's pay. The hell with the bum! And with Flynn, too. The hell with all these guys who kicked in to this petty graft!
Little did I realize that this practice was widespread up and down the waterfront, not just in the port of New York. Because there were no unions, all sorts of gangsters and their crooked schemes dominated life on all the piers. If you wanted a job you had to grease the palm of the creep who controlled the employment. While many men resented the practice of paying off, most went along with it because they needed the jobs. They saw nothing on the horizon that indicated anything better in the near future. To be blacklisted from one pier was the same as being blackballed from all of them. In a few days, word got out and it meant no more jobs for you. In the long run, it was easier to kick in. To me it was the worst form of humiliation a working man could be put through. Not only must he bust his back on the job, not simply must he scurry like a whipped dog, but he also had to pay part of his wages in kickbacks for the privilege. Not for me, I thought.
For the next month I was assigned the worst jobs on that pier. Even my good hand-truck was taken away. In its place, I was given one with a bent axle and bad handles. Just dragging that truck around empty was rough enough. Loaded, it put every muscle in my body to the test. I left the pier evenings dragging my ass. I began to fear going to work in the morning, not knowing what would be next. Twice during that month I ran into Canvasback. Each time he opened his mouth and grinned, showing a mouthful of broken teeth. I was determined to take anything they handed out. However, my body wasn't up to it. At the end of the fourth month, I concluded I was fighting a losing battle. On Monday I failed to show up. Much to my mother's dismay, that ended my stint as a stevedore.
One beautiful Sunday I was down at Battery Park, where there was a small aquarium. Nearby were some pleasure boat landings. The way the park jutted out from the end of Manhattan made it the meeting place of the East and Hudson Rivers. Most ships, barges and tugboats that entered the harbor had to pass Battery Park. I watched as the world's then-biggest liner, the Leviathan, slowly glided past the Statue of Liberty, made the turn into the Hudson River, then headed toward its uptown pier. This sleek ex-German liner was a magnificent sight. Once known in Germany as the Vaterland, it was impressive to watch, listening to her giant whistles blow to clear smaller craft from her path.
Ships had always wormed their way into my soul. They implied far-away, enchanted places like those in storybooks and moving pictures--smoky dens in Port Said, the rickshaw men padding barefoot through Shanghai's noisy streets. I made up my mind that the next day I would go from pier to pier, ship to ship, and try to get a job on one of them.
Unions in those days had no control over the jobs aboard American merchant ships. In fact, what few unions there were on the waterfront were dormant. If a seaman wanted to ship, he had various ways to solicit his own job. He could cater to one of the shipping "crimps" who preyed along the waterfront. These were "professionals" who worked hand-in-hand with the steamship companies. their job was to screen out malcontents or radicals who might get aboard and create trouble for the owners. They, in turn, favored a group of seamen loyal to one or two companies.
One shipping center, financed partially by government funds and known as the United States Shipping Board, hired men for ships run by the government. Unfortunately, this outfit was run by some shady characters who had their hands out for side-money. Aside from coal-passers or coal-burning firemen, many of the better jobs available through this agency were simply sold.
For me, the best plan was to go from ship to ship. By three that afternoon I was pretty well bushed. I must have boarded 20 ships, sought out the officer in charge and been turned down. Some had men posted at the top of the gangway who wouldn't let me aboard. On some piers the guards would prevent me from entering without a pass.
Finally I stood at the gate to Pier 1, the last, not far from Battery Park. Lying snugly against the pier was a small freighter named the Lake Gaither. She was one of a dozen belonging to the Newtex Line, a freight-hauling company that ran ships between New York and Texas ports. Compared to the mighty Leviathan, she looked like a lifeboat. Yet she was the last ship on the Hudson River side of New York. I decided that, after visiting her, I'd call it a day. Perhaps tomorrow I could start along the East River and work my way uptown. The mate was a tall man of 60 with the appearance of a slow-moving farmer. He was sitting at a small desk in his combination room. "Sir," I started, "do you have any jobs open on deck?"
He looked me up and down, lowering his head and peering over his glasses. "How old are you, son?" he asked.
"I'm 21, sir," I lied, gulping several times and trying to remember quickly the birth year should he ask for it.
"How long have you been going to sea?" was his next question.
"About five years, sir." He drew the long thin palm of his hand across his chin. He started to say something, hesitated, then said, "There's an ordinary seaman's job open. You want that?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir!" I almost shouted.
"All right, then. You can get your gear and be back aboard to take the gangway watch at six tonight." I didn't tell him that I had my "gear" already with me. In fact, on me. But I dashed off wildly, ran across the street and bought a toothbrush, a pair of socks, a pair of dungarees and a blue denim shirt. I got back on board in time to stand watch at the top of the gangway.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One