Chapter VIII: Busted Again
A special warmth and a great feeling of comradeship emerged after I joined the Party. Almost every night I was invited by some comrade or other to come and "break bread" with him. That meant a plate of stew or whatever was on the menu that night. Most of our comrades lived in the poor sections of either the East or West Side. None of their apartments were elaborately furnished, but there was a special warmth about them that was welcoming. You had a feeling that, among your comrades, you were considered one of the greatest people on earth. They showed a genuine concern about your well-being and your health, and they wanted to share what little they had.
In those wonderful days of mutual concern, if a comrade failed to show up at a meeting, great concern was shown. Perhaps he was sick or injured. Someone was assigned to visit him. With such interest and love, was it any wonder that I felt I had found my niche, the right group to be with, the right party to belong to? I, too, quickly developed that comradely attitude and found myself eager to share what I had.
Many things I found hard to comprehend at the moment. The "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," the "Withering of the State," "Surplus Value," "Imperialism" and "Dialectical Materialism." Someone handed me a heavy volume of Marx's Capital. I read the first 50 words and had to put the book aside. It was impossible to understand. I found it easier to stay away from such high political readings and stick with the things I could easily understand, like 15- or 20-page pamphlets on working conditions.
In my field we were committed to making the maritime industry our main concern. Ships, tankers, barges, seamen, longshoremen--anything or anyone that dealt with water transportation. It did not mean that we were not interested in or connected to other industries. Many times we were called upon to send maritime workers to other areas of the city to help on picket lines or to protect a union officer that was being threatened by anti-union goon squads. We became aware of a strong feeling of solidarity with other workers. We shared their thoughts on the picket lines and quickly learned of their grievances and they learned about ours.
One morning I was handed a bundle of literature at the union hall and given the usual ten-cent fare, along with 20 cents for lunch. I carefully wrapped the bundle of Daily Workers, Marine Workers' Voices and several pamphlets. I was told what ship to visit. Another comrade was heading in the same direction, though to a different ship. It happened that I had about ten slot-machine slugs that were usable in either the subway or the El system. Why spend a nickel, I asked myself. I tin-foiled the slug and told my partner, "Look, if you don't want to use a slug that's okay with me, but I'll use one. Come in back of me quickly and drop your nickel in; that will erase my slug which otherwise will be on view in the powerful optic glass." He agreed.
At the elevated terminal at South Ferry, I walked into the turnstile, expecting my friend to come charging behind me. But, for reasons never explained, the dummy used another turnstile. I wasted no time dashing for the train. I could hear someone shouting behind me. Turning, I saw a plainclothes transit system detective hot on my heels. Alas, the damn train did not pull out fast enough. I was yanked off and led like a top-notch criminal to a side door in the change booth. He recovered the slug as evidence.
He was a big Irishman, with an old-timer's moustache and a derby hat. His brogue made him sound like he just stepped off the boat from Ireland. "So, me lad," he said, "at last we caught you. You think it's right to put slugs into the machine now, do ya?"
"I had to do it," I said. "I'm on my way to get a job. I could never make it in time if I had to walk."
He searched me; since I had the good money stashed away in my watch fob pocket with my belt over it, he never found it. But he did find the rest of the slugs, along with some tin foil. "So, yer been cheatin' like mad all along," he said. "Well, we'll see what the judge has to say about this."
I knew that my goose was cooked unless I could talk him out of going to the station house. "My poor Irish mother will be heartbroken when she hears about this," I said, looking downcast.
"And what part of Ireland would she be from?" he asked, sounding concerned.
"Why, from the best part, from Waterford," I replied.
"Ah, lad, now that is a mighty pretty spot. I'm from County Cork myself."
I could see now that I had this seamus hanging on the ropes. He displayed a certain amount of doubt on his face. He was no longer belligerent. I felt he was going to say now get the hell out of here, but I was wrong.
"Well, I have to take you in. I wish I didn't have to, but too many people saw me nab you, including the man in the change booth. But I won't report these extra slugs I found on you and maybe I'll say a nice word to the judge so he'll show mercy. Tell me, what's in the package?"
"Oh, some old clothes," I said, hugging it tighter under my arm and wishing there was some way I could dispose of it.
I was taken to Central Station where I was fingerprinted and mugged. In half an hour I would appear in court. "Have you ever been arrested?" asked the cop as he fingerprinted me.
"No," I replied, lying. Why make it easy for them?
Fingerprinting and mug shots over with, he told me to go into the washroom and wash the ink off my hands. I carried the bundle with me. When I came out it was without the bundle. The cop was busy pulling out drawer after drawer, looking for a file on me. For no reason I can think of, other than he didn't look in the right drawer, he found no record. He stamped a big NO RECORD across my card, then led me through a door into the courtroom. I felt relieved as I sat down in the prisoner's section. No previous record, no bundle of Communist literature.
A case was being argued in the courtroom. Lawyers from the International Labor Defense were defending a Young Communist Leaguer. She was charged with slugging a cop with her handbag while on a picket line. The ILD lawyers were demanding that she be released without bail pending her trial. No, said the judge, into a cell she goes.
"Are you going to send this young, defenseless girl of 20 to be locked up in a dank jail cell for the weekend?" asked the lawyer. "Is there no decency, no concern for human values? This child should be denied the love, warmth and security of her mother? Are we not witnessing a callous display of class injustice?" The lawyers voice rose higher and higher. As soon as he stopped there was a burst of clapping from some 30 people seated in the courtroom, all friends or comrades of the young woman, who stood before the judge with an angelic look on her face.
"Clear the court immediately," shouted the judge as he rose and left the room. Three uniformed cops quickly removed the ten back rows of people. Only a few were left sitting, and they had appeared shocked at the lack of decorum of those who were ousted. I felt confused. Here was one of my class-conscious soulmates carrying the good fight from the picket line right into one of the organs of the oppressive state. But the judge was being provoked by the courtroom demonstrators to the point where he would surely throw the book at her and anyone who would come after her. I wavered back and forth, trying to figure out some other methods she and her comrades could have used.
When the courtroom was clear and silence prevailed once again, the judge returned to the bench. "Now, counselor," said the judge, but before he could say another word he was cut off by the girl's attorney.
"Your Honor, may I make a brief statement that may adjudicate this matter to the satisfaction of the court?"
"Mr. Counselor, this court has shown more than its share of patience in this matter. You show no respect or regard for the officer who was hit in the face with a handbag full of marbles and may lose the sight of one eye. The fact that he was doing his duty at the time as a peace officer means nothing to you. Now you stand before me pleading for leniency for a defendant who packed the courtroom with her supporters who screamed obscenities. I have had it. Now go ahead and make your statement. I suggest you be brief, since my patience has been worn thin by this ordeal."
"It would seem to me," said the lawyer, "that since the court will not reconsider this unusually high bail on my young client, that you may wish to reappraise your decision by my further request. As an officer of the court, responsible to both my client and the court, I ask that the young defendant be placed in my custody. I guarantee that she will appear in court on the day and hour prescribed by you. I ask that Your Honor grant this request."
"I see no reason why this court should be compelled to grant the request, especially in view of the events that took place a few minutes ago. The court has ruled that the defendant be incarcerated pending trial. I see no reason to change it," argued the prosecutor.
"I do not need anyone to make up my mind for me," said the judge irritably. "I'll grant the request; have her in this court Monday morning at ten." He looked at the clerk. "Next?"
"The City and County of New York versus William Bailey. The matter before the court, that of William Bailey being charged under Penal Code 319-606A, that on this day he defrauded the Interborough Rapid Transit Company of their legal fee for transportation on their trains, by depositing a slug of no monetary or legal value. There is no prior record of the defendant."
The Irish detective said to me, "Just stand, and I'll talk to the judge."
"Are you the arresting officer?" the judge asked.
"I am, sir," said the detective. "But may I say, sir, that since this is his first offense, and he has made it clear to me that he will atone for his ways, that I would suggest leniency, sir?"
"I don't know. I really don't know. So many people today are trying to cheat their way through life in everything. They go into grocery stores and take things without paying for them. They think they can drop slugs in subway turnstiles whenever they feel like riding them. The mores of the country are fast going to hell. All right, young man. I'll come to the point. From now on, if you ever find the need to ride the subway and you have no funds, take my advice and walk. Meanwhile, I'll give you six months' suspended sentence. Don't ever appear before my court again."
On my way out of the building, the desk cop who had fingerprinted me said, "Hey, you. Come here and get your bundle that you left in the washroom."
What a great feeling to be free of judges and courtrooms. With the bundle under my arm I raced back to the union hall. There was great consternation among the half dozen guys at the hall. My riding buddy had reported that I had been arrested. The International Labor Defense lawyers had been notified and were trying to track me down. I was elated by the comradely feeling of concern for my welfare. No one was critical of me for using the slug, but no one said it had been a good idea, either.
So I was back in business again, slightly wiser to the "spot system" used by subway guards and aware that not all comrades could be relied upon to use their brains when requested to do so. I made sure that I would never again pair with that guy.
Days turned into weeks. There was something new for me to do every day. I read a lot at night when I was not attending some meeting or class. I attended street meetings, helping to set up the soapbox and passing through the crowd to sell literature or hand out leaflets.
In Europe, Hitler was making the most noise and gathering his forces. Persecution of Jews was becoming common. The ruling crowd in England was playing footsie with the Fascist regime preparing to take control in Germany. Their overall strategy, of course, was to incite and encourage a fascist nation to wage war on the Soviet Union. The two most pressing topics raised by the Party at its meetings was the growing menace of fascism in Europe and the depression at home. Wage cuts were taking place among those workers who still had jobs. All over the country, the small "left-wing" unions were making some progress, despite the fact that the employers had labeled these unions as Russian-led and their members as Russian dupes or Communists.
In many areas where there was no AFL union in the field, a left-wing union was set up. Nationwide, the leadership of the AFL sat on their fannies, completely demoralized, doing nothing to organize workers into their unions. But when the left-wing unions started to gain ground they denounced them, thus siding with the employers.
The Party put forward a series of slogans and programs that were fast capturing the imagination of the people: unemployment insurance for the unemployed, old-age pensions, guarantee of the right to a job, decent housing and medical care, the right to organize into unions, no discrimination because of race or color. The Party also created unemployed councils. The function of the councils were to fight for jobs and relief and to educate the unemployed to support strikes and not be used as strikebreakers.
From the ranks of the unemployed emerged many outstanding leaders. The councils held regular meetings and organized social activities. One of their main functions was to fight evictions. As soon as someone's furniture was moved to the street, we would gather it all up and move it back in, even if it meant smashing the locks. When this failed and it looked like the dispossessed family was locked out, members of the council would canvass the neighborhood, collecting a nickel here and there until they had enough money to satisfy the landlord.
National elections were on the horizon. President Hoover was incapable of solving the depressing mess that the country was in. The Soviet Union made it known that there was no such thing as an unemployed worker in their country. If the Russian people could exchange their capitalist system for a system that guarantees everyone a job, asked the Party, then why can't we abolish capitalism in the United States?
Our Party was growing. At every street corner meeting we asked for recruits. In most area of New York City the Party soapboxers were well-received, but not everywhere. I was at the union hall one day when Emory Reddin, a marine worker, appeared with his jaw wired up. He was pioneering a series of soapbox meetings in a West Side neighborhood, and on evening while he was speaking, some teenagers threw a can full of tomatoes at him. It landed directly on his jaw. It broke his jaw and blackened his eyes. Undaunted, he pledged to go out the following night to the same place and pass out leaflets. Such was the stuff that some Party members were made of. Perseverance, determination and grit were the order of the day if we were to be successful in organizing. If there were dangers or obstacles in a project we undertook, discussions were held and methods tried until we met with success. "There's no obstacle that can't be overcome," was the slogan we applied to everything. If things looked bleak, and sometimes they did, there was always an old-timer who would remind you that Karl Marx had already pointed out that capitalism's doom was inevitable. No exploitive system would last forever; every system would eventually die from its own contradictions and corruptions. Finally, they would all create their own grave diggers and bring in a new permanent order of things, where the workers would rule and poverty and want would be a thing of the past. However, he said, don't sit around and wait for it, get out there and bring it about.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two