It Won't Work; Life's Progressive Movement is a novel under construction. Gain access to 215 pages of text by visiting the store at www.readingsandridings.jimdo.com
The Work Crew
Desk telephones lay hidden in old, brown, cardboard boxes, on freshly sanded parquet floors of an old warehouse, each box covered with thick layers of clear plastic lilted with construction dust. This must have been an office space. With all new walls going up, these phones were pushed aside, out of the way of sheetrock and shipments of corner stripping.
They were going to make a new art gallery. Many walls had been constructed, different angles to suit the taste of the interior designer. Paintings and sculptures sat in the old gallery on the Embarcadero awaiting transport upon completion of the new space.
Emerson was proud to be a part of this work crew. He took pride in the project and though about the paintings that would be displayed on these new walls. Each wall would have a function; an elongated sculpture would be put over there, a portrait would look good in this corner. The original beams crossed the ceiling, now stripped and exposed to hold lighting fixtures.
As Emerson went about his work creating a new space he considered the aesthetics; the building itself was industrial art surrounding art. He was the only member of the crew, with the exception of John the Ripper, who worked with the finished creation on their minds. To the others, it was only a job. The others went about, working as little as possible, looking for blind spots to get lost in to have a can of beer or a short snooze.
The telephones rang, all at the same time, the sound lost among the new walls. Echoed footsteps could be heard scurrying through the maze of half-done walls. The ringing resonated through the white echo off high ceilings. Those who weren’t out to the store getting another six-pack searched for one of the telephones. They got lost in corners, walked through thresholds only to end up where they had started. They listened for the direction of the closest ringing, through gaps where doors would be hinged, then, silence.
“Hey Steve, Steve!” John the Ripper called out looking for the crew chief. His voice shrilled strangely with the coldness of the empty gallery like a trapped body calling out from the bottom of a well, the vibrations bouncing off the maze of walls.
“Here John; by the garage!” Answered Steve.
John headed there, his work clothes typically torn and stained with different shades of wet, fresh plaster, his shoulder-length blond hair coated tasteless dust, his mad-dog moustache and goatee two toned from where his tongue had licked clean itchless particles. His crusty construction boots slapped heavily towards the daylight in the shaft of light at the garage entrance.
“Are we getting paid today or not,” he demanded, hands on his hips.
“Don’t ask me; it’s up to Dan,” said Steve sitting nonchalantly on the loading dock, watching pretty women pass on the sidewalk, his butcher hat pulled down over his forehead almost up to his eyes. “I’m waiting, too.”
“Where is that cocksucker?” John scowled as he turned to reach Dan’s office. “We get paid today or I am out-of-here!” On the way there, he passed Emerson. “Come with me a second. We’re getting paid!”
Emerson, surprised, followed. He was down to his last dollar, too. The unemployment check wasn’t due until next week. He though it would be a good idea working off-the-books while getting unemployment insurance from The Hole in the Wall job, but it wasn’t turning out as he had hoped.
In the office, the only room in the warehouse un-refinished, “Big Potato” Don was talking with Lawrence, a partner, one of the gallery owners. Three hundred pounds of gray-bearded girth looked up when John the Ripper and Emerson approached their space. Don was the jobber of the gallery project; all money ran through him. The clean-shaven, well-dressed benefactor stood aesthetically posed, like a sculpture, aloof to the confrontation with the riff-raff. He shook Don’s hand and left the room. The boys parted to let him pass through the doorway.
“I have the money right here, boys,” said Don closing a drawer. “See Steve at the end of the day,” he said taking the receiver off the phone without catching their eye. John smiled broadly satisfied, turned, and went back into the warehouse, his arm on the shoulder of Emerson who he treated like his little brother. They were supposed to get paid weekly; it was the tenth day.
John and Emerson went to clean out their mud boxes in the bathroom sink; it was almost the end of the day. Outside, the sun drenched the San Francisco sky, beautiful, but the daylight was short. Dozens of emptied beer cans lay scattered at the service elevator. John methodically cleaned his blade and mud box. “Watch carefully,” he said to Emerson.
John was an expert; in construction for years. He was an expert at cleaning blades. One blade cut the crust off the other. Slowly, he rubbed a large sea sponge across the length of the tool. Water from a busted drain pipe overhead condensed into a muddy pool under their boots augmented by the unrestricted splash from the faucet tap as John cleaned. Emerson stepped back.
“If it’s not done right, the blade can never make a straight line on the wall again,” said John, head cocked to look at Emerson straight on as he washed. He reminded Emerson of a surgeon who just stepped out from an operating room. His ventilation mask hung over the thinning hair above his forehead, almost looking clownish. As he breathed through his open mouth, Emerson could see two rows of randomly chipped teeth laced with rust-like tartar, framed by his goatee.
It had only taken a minute for Emerson to clean his tool; it took John the Ripper about ten.
“Take your time, bro,” he said patiently leaning towards Emerson, a dozen foul-smelling alcoholic odors attacking Emerson’s offertory sensors. According to John, Emerson had been working too hard.
“Nobody is working today anymore. Why you busting your ass for?” Emerson stood still with the sponge in his hand and looked over as John, finished cleaning, pulled down his zipper and pissed into the sink.
“I believe in equality,” John said who then dropped his pants to rearrange his underwear. “They work, we work. They fuck off, we should bust our asses? No way, Jose.”
This manual labor was all new to Emerson. Since his downstairs neighbor, Bob, had recommended him to Steve, Emerson had to take John’s advice; become one of the boys. Bob was an old hand; he had done this work back in Jersey. Emerson knew nothing, not even how to fake it. If he looked like a fool, he wouldn’t be able to hang around. But being a fool meant doing his work quickly and efficiently; nobody else was. “Big Potato” left the premises. The crew was off to the corner grocery. Emerson didn’t want the guys to hate Bob for bringing him on the job and making them look bad. They wouldn’t work harder, so Emerson needed to learn the art of procrastination; John the Ripper was a good teacher. In no time, Emerson picked up hints on how to work two hours and get paid for eight.
Jerry, the hanger-on from Daly City, Steve Mueller, and John the Ripper casually stood at the loading dock on the back side of where the gallery main entrance would be, gulping down beers. Five more crewmen were somewhere inside, laying low. Cars zipped past on Geary Street getting through the Tenderloin. A shopping bag lady stood on a corner examining her collection; a broken old black man pushed a shopping cart his way up the street towards the Civic Center, going nowhere special. Business-suited walkers, brisk in twos and threes, wasted no time hurrying by, hands deep into their pockets. If there was a lady, she was safely in the center. They had parked across the street after lunch and were heading back to City Hall, too.
Jerry, Steve, John, and Emerson gulped their beers and enjoyed cigarettes. Across the street, a tall, chalky-faced black woman swaggered by, bobbing her head, holding her wig down in the breeze, her coat buttoned up to a bosom uncontained. Her eyes caught any face that chanced to look in her direction. A man went up to her and chatted. Together they entered the threshold of a boarded up flat just as an electric bus glided by; then they were gone as static wires rattled passed in echoes of motion.
Steve was handsome and rugged. He could get into modeling. He was well aware that his chiseled face and devilish gray eyes were a fashion photographer’s dream. His six-foot two frame was impressive, his shoulders broad and firm, like a logger’s. He spent his time posing, but not in front of a camera. Emerson could detect a hint of child in him. Raw red skin of his neck blended into a shiny tan face with winter freckles.
“When do we get some cash, Steve?” John demanded, his thin, short, almost crippled body leaning to a side as he spoke, his weight on his left leg, his muddy eyes glaring up in the direction of Steve. “You know the guys gonna be on your ass if you don’t come up with some green soon.”
“I told you John; you’ll get paid when I get paid.” He turned to Jerry for reassurance with a roll of the eyes and a smile. Jerry brought the beer can to his mouth. He looked at Emerson; Emerson could tell he had seen this John-Steve dispute many times before.
“Aee, we wanna see some,” John repeated still frozen to his left foot.
“I can’t give you what I don’t have; look,” Steve gripped the cigarette in his mouth with his teeth and used both hands to turn his front pant pockets inside out. A few dollars and change crackled to the sidewalk.
“You want to divide this up between six workers? Go right ahead.”
“Jerry defended Steve. Steve had some class; he could make a saint feel like a fool with his gaze.
“We won’t get anything John. We gotta put the first coat of mud on another dozen walls.” Jerry put his hand on John’s shoulder. John promptly walked out of reach and stamped his crusty boots back into the gallery.
“We finish those walls today, finish them today John; we’ll see some money tomorrow.” Jerry looked over at Steve for confirmation but didn’t get any. John was gone before Jerry could finish.
After having his cigarette, Emerson walked through the warehouse and returned to the bathroom where John went back to cleaning his tool. He tried to keep busy by rewashing his blade.
“What those other guys doing?” John asked
“What did I tell you? Don’t bust your ass around here, Em; no way.” John turned off the running water and threw his sponge into the toilet. “C’mon; let’s walk to the store.”
Emerson was getting used to the operation. This professional time wasting began to look good to him. The ethics were subterranean; no one was supposed to know that you weren’t doing any work. He picked that up while walking around on his way back to the bathroom. On the way, he saw a guy named Jessie, part black, part Chicano. He was the token Indian in the crew, long black hair and sweatband, gritty red face and hollow cheeks, sweeping up the same twelve-foot square Emerson passed, coming and going. Already he was feeling like a member of the crew.
He followed John and listened for approaching footsteps always with a piece of sandpaper in his back pocket in case someone looked. In the same spirit, Crew chief Steve and his honcho Jerry, with a worker’s approach, kicked up their heels as if to be on the way to some place important, even if it was only to the other side of the gallery to have another beer or snort of cocaine. Emerson didn’t have to prepare for any encounters; he was habitually at work. It wasn’t easy for him learning how to waste time; he wanted to earn his five bucks an hour.
When Bob brought him to the gallery a few weeks before to meet his friend, Steve, he had told him that Emerson was an experienced painter from back East. Steve couldn’t have cared less. The only painting Emerson had ever done was his bedroom in his Mom’s Gramercy Park apartment and his studio near Brooklyn College. He had never plastered or put up sheetrock before. Bob walked him through it, pointing out the particulars and apprenticing him to John the Ripper, so-called because of the excellent demolition and gutting he had done in Arizona.
“Now this wall is gonna have to be done over, boy. Someone really messed this up; jeezus.” John reached down grabbed hold of the loose end of a masking tape which jutted out through some dried plaster on a wall.
“‘Just get it done,’ that’s all they think about; put the god-damned shit up on the wall and go home.”
“Plaster over it; that’s all,” said Emerson before realizing John’s double standard; only he could know he was wasting time.
“And leave billows in the wall? You’ve got to be kidding!” he seriously replied.
“What do you care? So long as you’re paid,” Emerson said.
“Why are you taking responsibility for it; it ain’t your fault.” Said Emerson but John and Bob knew Emerson had put it up.
“Jesus; are you going to take responsibility when Big Don sees it?” John twirled around in disbelief over Emerson’s stupidity. He still didn’t get it.
“C’mon; walk with me to the store.” They walked through the gallery to the rear service elevator. The crew was working hard.
“You wanna get paid or you wanna bust your ass?” Another prostitute with long strides and caked face passed them by.
“Hey, toots; wanna see some nice cubby-holes?” She passed. Turning to Emerson, John explained, “You’re getting five an hour; right? More hours mean more money; right? What the heck do you care about doing a shitty job over again?”
“But it can be plastered over again; no?” John the Ripper just shook his head in disbelief at Emerson’s stupidity.
They bought a six pack and headed back, a half hour later. Everyone was still working hard on their walls. They walked through to the loading dock. Jessie was there having a beer. John had one, too. Emerson had a cigarette. Steve and Jerry came huffing by. They had just gotten out of Steve’s flatbed Chevy.
“Needed some tape,” Steve shouted and hurried into the warehouse with a determined look. Jessie and John laughed. Emerson was starting to understand. He remembered what his Pop had told him about bosses: “The fish stinks from the head.”
“I saw some tape in the projection room,” Emerson yelled as they flew passed
“We’ll be needing more,” Steve yelled back without turning. “Quarter inch too wide.”
John ran in making noise to catch Steve. “Here. Have a beer, and bring back some pay.”
Emerson and John went back into the gallery and strolled around for an hour or so picking up their step only when they passed a fellow worker who picked up the beat just the same.
John handed Emerson his mud box and blade and put him to work on a wall he had been doing. That was part of the game, too. Emerson finished John’s wall as John headed somewhere out of sight, to get something. Just then, Bob walked by.
“You gonna sand all that extra mud? Be gentle.” Bob put Emerson’s blade to the wall and took off more than half the mud he had put on. John’s crusty boots could be heard coming back.
“Hey Bobaloo; where did you stash that beer?”
“Break time,” said Bob in a smiling song handing the blade back to Emerson and walking to the loading dock. Emerson got the drift, but he had to clean the blade before he could leave; that was the end game.
Emerson caught up to them at the service elevator which they passed through from the gallery to the street. Along the way, they caught Jessie working his ass off. The four of them went to have beers.
Jessie was real good at pitching his blade into the newly sanded floors. “Watch this, motherfuckers,” he said, grabbed a blade in each hand, and tossed them over his shoulder. They both stuck in the floor. Bob tried. John tried. They all tried and had their beers and smoked cigarettes. Jessie had a joint. They smoked. This work was more fun than staying home, and the highs were free, treats in the name of a happy work force, and five an hour to stretch, if pay from Steve came before he blew it all on coke.
“Big Potato” Don sat in his office, the night watchman’s room of the former warehouse, making telephone calls. Every time Emerson passed by “Big Potato” looked like he was falling asleep; never once did Emerson hear him say anything into the phone, yet he held the receiver at his left ear, elbow on the desk holding his hand up, right hand on a pen. He may have been writing specifications, ordering materials, or doodling for all Emerson knew. Someone had to be doing something to make the gallery. Don was so quiet that Emerson figured he was the one who put it together; others just made noise to seem like they were busy. Don’s graying hair wrapped around wire-framed glasses askew on his nose as he drooped to his desk, belly pressing against the drawer. Emerson thought he looked like he was about to die; a doctor must have told him to take it easy so he wouldn’t.
Emerson had been at the gallery for two weeks putting in a good five hours work though he stayed for eight to get paid for more and get a ride home with Bob who was doing the same. Everyone made sure Steve or Don or Jerry saw them at five o’clock. Steve and Jerry made sure Don saw them at five o’clock unless Don said he had to go somewhere and left early. Steve’s perk was Don was gone so he could leave early, too; the others just had to stay or take their chances of being docked.
Somehow, they managed to finish the first coat of plaster on the walls. That third Friday, Steve paid the crew. Not everything they were owed though; he democratically divided up the shares of whatever money he’d got. Jessie was the exception; he had been on the job since day one and he was Steve’s personal friend. Both Bob and West Virginia Mike, the family man who lived in Daly City, got slightly larger shares because they had families to support. Emerson received an equal share, regardless of hours worked, with John the Ripper and Jerry, though Jerry had perks hanging with Steve. “Dickerer” Mike, slow and methodical, not to be confused with Mike “The Family Man,” came down with hepatitis and disappeared after the first week; he got nothing.
John was feeling blue the day they got paid. He must have drunk too much over the weekend and ended up sleeping in the gallery besides a pile of wood scaffolding; that’s where they found him Monday morning.
Rumor had it that John the Ripper had been in a mental hospital in Minnesota for a few years; that’s why he was the way he was. This bothered Emerson. John was a bit cockeyed, but he was a good worker, a master of mudding and the scaffold. He was also the most sensitive guy you would ever want to meet. He smoked and drank like the rest of the crew, but he was different. He slept in the gallery, he said, to stick around and keep an eye on Steve’s equipment. Emerson believed it; the others thought he was crazy.
Emerson sat on the loading dock alone one morning. Across the narrow street were the backs of dilapidated Victorian houses, trash piled in their backyards, like dozens of others in the Outer Tenderloin. They sat within sight of City Hall and government buildings ready for re-development. Picket fences wrapped around, warped and unpainted.
From a second floor window of one Victorian, a young woman with full breasts leaned out to check the weather and caught Emerson’s eye. They remained still, gazing at each other’s staring, looked down the street, and their eyes met again. She might have been wondering what was going on in Emerson’s warehouse; Emerson wondered if the inside of her apartment looked as bad as the outside. Her living condition, poor, discounted, broken-hearted; missing her ship at such a young age was a revelation to him. It reminded him of Flatbush Avenue. Was it any different? Both he and the woman were about twenty-five. Were they any different, too? A bubble engulfed the two; they stayed in each other’s radar on account of each other.
“Hey sis; lookin’ good today!” Bob shouted. He had come quietly out of the elevator shaft and saw the woman Emerson saw in the Victorian. He popped open a beer can. She pulled her head in, closed the window, and drew the curtain. Bob and Emerson laughed; Emerson was really sorry he scared her away.
“Walk me to the store, Emmy.” Emerson got up from the dock and walked him.
When they returned, Steve, Jerry, and John were sitting on the loading dock. There was something Steve was handing out; it looked like money. Soon West Virginia Mike and Jessie were descending on the scene, like hungry bears smelling honey. That was how it was whenever Steve came up with some cash. This was an under-the-table operation; nobody was ever sure when they would get paid again. It was up to what Steve and Jerry negotiated with “Big Potato” Don and what Don got from the gallery owners. On that occasion he handed them all thirty dollars; he owed them much more. Emerson was indignant when Steve left; all jobs in the past had paid him in full at the end of each week; never anything like this.
Bob had temperance. While Emerson ranted about not getting what was owed to him, Bob sat smiling; he knew he was owed nothing in life. He was happy to get what he got for himself and family.
“Why doesn’t Steve pay us in full?”
“Doesn’t want us taking off till the job’s done,” Bob answered and guzzled his beer.
“I should be happy to have this job, right? Stop complaining, right?”
“If he paid me in full, Jesus, I would cut out right now,” said Bob.
“I have nothing to use the bread on, anyway,” said Emerson who, in addition to this job, was getting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and a balance in a checking account in Hibernia.
“Oh, really?” Bob looked at him in disgust. He wasn’t thinking of buying beer and cigarettes for his children. His pay meant clothes and food.
There was a rolling paper company upstairs in the old warehouse. The guys who stuffed twenty sheets of wired leafs into little printed packets which said “Roach Papers” tested their product on the loading dock at noon. They and Emerson had lunch together. Bob drank his beer.
“Never did like pot; it always made me think too much,” Bob said.
After lunch, everyone squeezed time from the day; Emerson floated through it. Steve didn’t have a promise of a penny. Emerson and Bob didn’t work. Who knew that people worked like that, non-labor, a joke? But Emerson held his tongue and followed Bob.
The walls remained undone and their pockets remained empty; but this wasn’t a strike, or was it?
Bob was getting food stamps, too, for his family, welfare and Medicaid, too, from his common-law wife for her and their kids. The gallery job wasn’t pocket money for Bob. But his wife, Cathy, complained about his alcoholism eating up their funds, so Bob did something about it. He paid for his own alcohol.
Jessie, the black-Chicano-Indian worked his ass off every day. Some days he was brought away to another job that Steve had going. One day, Emerson counted all the holes in his t-shirt; twenty-seven, not counting the holes covered with dried mud or paint. Emerson couldn’t imagine how someone could walk the streets with the holes that Jessie had in his jeans; his prick was almost hanging out, exposed with each left stride, ripped from zipper to knee, filthy matted nappy hair, his dull black eyes always yellowish-brown with puss. Was he sick of past injustices? Nah. Given up? Nah. What kept him alive? Who knows? He toiled in his corner of the gallery like a member of a chain-gang. He got by on disintegrating muscles,. Emerson felt inclined to help; he could use encouragement. Jessie needed no one’s help.
The crew was occupied in strategically separated areas of the art gallery, behind walls, out of each other’s sight. Nobody worked unless they were being watched. At the sound of beer cans being popped, tools were dropped.
“Did you see the new cubby hole, Emmy?” John the Ripper said one day, his ventilation mask hung on his forehead like a single bra cup. His eyes turned wild like Charles Manson’s in anticipation of showing Emerson his find.
Emerson was curious. He followed John as John snaked stealthily around the walls of the gallery; it was a new path. Emerson had never been this way before. This was the path to the new cubby hole. Bob walked hunched, exaggerating, tip-toeing; no one else knew what he had found. The cubby hole was in a far corner of the old warehouse a few steps from the main entrance near an adjoining garage. It was a closet up the wall in a dim corner. John left and retrieved a seven foot ladder; he positioned it up against the newly sheet-rocked wall. He climbed up, his tool belt swaying silently. He disappeared through the two foot square cutout in the wall. Emerson stood at the bottom of the ladder admiring John’s insanity wondering where he had gone. Then, John popped his head out.
“C’mon up, dude; don’t you want to see what’s inside the cubby hole?” It was all so stupid. Emerson thought it might be a prank. He waited at the bottom of the ladder and thought it over
“Well; you coming or not?” John implored.
“What’s in there?”
“I won’t tell you; see for yourself.”
Emerson looked around in despair, he climbed the ladder; inside John crawled around on hands and knees. Nothing was in there; just the smell of a damp plastered closet. Emerson went inside. It was deep. They crawled through the small low area, then stopped and sat for a while, enjoying the solitude. John gave Emerson a wink. Emerson wondered what John was thinking.
“Like my cubby hole?” John whispered with glee.
“Yes; it is very nice. Let’s get back to work.”
“Wait; I believe it is time for a cigarette break.” John climbed out first. Emerson stayed inside for a moment and enjoyed the privacy. It smelled good, too, fresh with the smell of new sheet rock.
West Virginia Mike was at the loading dock sitting on a cinder block, alone. He was a private person. Emerson wished he would talk more. Emerson liked his accent. It made him think of hollers with green sloping pastures, running dogs on dirt roads, abandoned coal mines, red necks, and the bloody union organizing of the factory towns by the Industrial Workers of the World. They were organizing Mike’s grandparents; now Mike is trying to support his family, and his alcoholism, with this two-bit job where cornering the boss for pay is like trying to swat a mosquito. Mike was out of place.
“This job is going too slow; it’ll never be finished,” said John handing Mike a beer.
“When I was in Arizona painting, we could go though damn near twelve six-packs a day. The heat just burns it right out of you; you don’t even get drunk. You can see your sweat like smoke floating off of you. ”
“In West Virginia, the state controls the liquor sales; ain’t that much alcohol in the beer as there is here." John and Mike looked at Emerson who leaned against the loading dock wall. “How about New York City?” Emerson didn’t answer. To John and Mike, he was a greenhorn. He threw his blade into the floor and it stuck.
“You better stop doin’ that John,” said Mike. Big Potato gonna kick you out.” John tugged the blade out of the floor. Tossed it again.
Big Potato was with Lawrence, the owner, watching a film in the naked projection room. “Andy White will be a major exhibitor,” Lawrence commented. “He painted these while living in South Africa from his recollection of the Congo.”
“Big Potato” Don stood slowly, arms crossed, adjusted his glasses and walked out. He had to go to the bathroom. He saw the crew sitting on the dusty floor near the loading dock. He wanted them to see this. “Come with me gentlemen; learn something.”
They followed Big Potato back to the projection room. They listened carefully to the artistic coordinator.
“First of all, whoever is smoking put it out or get out." His word was the law; anyone could be fired with the snap of his finger. John the Ripper stood up hobbling with poor balance. It was his cigarette.
“Sorry Mr. Lawrence; it won’t happen again.”
“Shhh John; the movie.”
“Just get that cigarette out of here.” Lawrence was angry. Big Potato nervously rubbed his fingers over his temples.John stumbled out of the projection room apologizing profusely as he went. Emerson and the rest enjoyed seeing the artwork of Andy White. They told Don and Lawrence they did. They tried to imagine Andy’s paintings on the walls they were putting up and painting white. The walls had to be as straight and beautiful as possible, for Andy. Now their work had meaning. What if someone saw his painting on a messed up wall? It wasn’t going to be their walls. Oh no.