By Noel Ignatiev
August 4, 2020
(From An Unpublished Novel)
There was a constant battle between management and the day gang over shanty time. The men were expected to go to the shanty in the morning, pick up their tools and go out on the job they had been assigned that day, returning only for a half-hour lunch and later at quitting time to put away their tools. However, they stretched their time in the shanty as much as they could. They had coffee in the morning after line-up, returned to the shanty as much as a half-hour before lunch, and came in early in the afternoon to wash up and put away their tools. During the day they often dropped in, ostensibly to get parts for the job from their lockers, taking advantage of the errand to relax. Often, even at times when Petlin and Jackson were the only ones officially allowed in the shanty, it was full, with millwrights, motor inspectors and other maintenance people from the day shift, and even laborers taking a break. Once Petlin answered the phone when the general foreman called the shanty looking for one of the day crew; even though the man was there, Petlin said he was not, which won him the appreciation of the man himself and others on the day crew. Occasionally one or another foreman from the front office would raid the shanty before lunch, chasing out those who were not authorized to be there, and for a few days it would be relatively empty before things gradually returned to normal.
Among the members of the day gang were Stokes and White. They were both black men, and avowed Christians. Stokes was a welder; White had been a turn motor inspector but had been forced to drop down to a lower-paying job because he refused to work Sundays, regarding Sunday work as a violation of the sabbath. Belonging to different denominations, they held extended discussions over doctrine, citing passages from the Bible as evidence. Their disputes about the all-loving, all-merciful and all-forgiving god often got so heated that each appeared ready to murder the other. When they got too noisy, others in the shanty would tell them to shut up, pipe down, etc.
One day Stokes turned to Petlin and asked, “How about you, brother – have you found Christ?”
“Why, is he lost?” responded Petlin.
“No, but you are if you haven’t found Him.”
Petlin readied himself. “I don’t want to be unfriendly,” he said, “but I expect you’ll have more success arguing with Brother White than with me.”
Before Stokes could pursue him further, White called Stokes over excitedly to show him a verse he had found that demonstrated the soundness of his interpretation of Bible law. They soon had their heads buried in the book.
Petlin shook his head in wonderment. He asked Sourwine, who was sitting next to him, what he thought of all that.
“As far as I’m concerned,” answered Sourwine, “if I can’t see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, or fuck it, it doesn’t exist.”
There was no shortage of characters. One fellow had written a book, with maps and charts, “proving” that the earth was shaped like an apple with a bite out of one side, and that flying saucers were visitors from the “bite.” The odd thing was that his understanding of global geography did not seem to affect his life in any practical way: mad north-north-west, when the wind was southerly he knew what route to take to Detroit and how long it took to get there.
Another man had a theory that a superior species had conquered the earth and was raising human beings for food. “What else can explain the world?” he would inquire of doubters in a perfectly reasonable tone. Other than on that one subject, he, too, seemed unaffected by his bizarre view.
One fellow thought weather forecasters deliberately exaggerated the severity of upcoming storms in order to sell more snow-blowing machines. No one argued with him.
Another walked around always with a paperback book in his pocket, which he took out and read at every opportunity. Curious, Petlin asked him what he was reading. It was a pornographic pulp, the same as he always read. The discovery made Petlin feel unclean, and afterwards he made sure not to sit too close to him on the bench.
One of Petlin’s favorite characters was Poulos, whom he had worked with his first two days in the mill. Poulos was so consistently sour in his outlook and so narrow in his interests that he fascinated Petlin. For the last two years he had been the highest-seniority motor inspector in the blast furnace division. The distinction brought with it privileges, among which was his regular job in the skip house. It was a soft job, consisting to a large extent of waiting around for the furnace to fill up so he could stop the skip and work on the control board. In good weather he spent most of his waiting time leaning on the rail on the walkway outside the skip house, watching the traffic up and down the furnace road. The common sight of him leaning on the role stimulated comments.
“Been polishing the rail?” said one man, as the day crew was washing up for lunch, a man a few years younger than Petlin.
“Why, you puppy, be quiet when the men are talking. You haven’t started to lift your leg when you pee. I’ve got more time in the shanty than you’ve got in the mill. I’ve got more time getting my ass chewed out in Fletcher’s office than you’ve got in the mill.”
Poulos talked as if everything around him was there to make him unhappy. Supervisors, co-workers and helpers, auto and TV repairmen, traffic cops and parking lot attendants, telephone operators and bus drivers – all made his life difficult, and he waged the struggle against them with unflagging energy.
Today he was complaining about the trash collection. The city where he lived, and where the mill was located, had elected a black mayor following a series of white crooks and incompetents, and he claimed that his trash was not being picked up as often as before.
“They used to come twice a week. If they missed a day I could call City Hall and they’d send a truck. Now it sits for a week.”
Jackson, who took special pleasure in needling Poulos, responded, “That’s how it works. It used to be my trash would be there in the alley. Now I can call City Hall and they’ll send a truck. It shouldn’t bother you, though – white trash doesn’t smell as bad as black trash.”
Poulos sneered at him and shifted to complaining about his neighbor, with whom he had been battling ever since he moved onto the block.
“The son of a bitch. He lets his dog shit on the bushes in front of my house. He parks his car in front of my house. Who the hell wants a ten-year-old Chevy that hasn’t been washed since he bought it sitting in front of his house? Use common sense, Jackson, would you want it? This morning I came out and found a pile of cigarette butts on my curb. The son of a bitch emptied the ashtray from his car.”
“You need to move back to the ghetto,” said Jackson. “We like to throw our trash out the second-story window.
It helps the grass grow.”
“I told the son of a bitch,” continued Poulos, “to quit dirtying up my curb or I was gonna get the law on him. He just laughed in my face. He said if he felt like it he would come over and take a shit on my front doorstep and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.”
The men were laughing (except Poulos). Jackson, holding his sides, asked, “What did you tell him?”
“I told him if he ever shit on my doorstep it would be the undertaker that wiped his ass.”
“Hey, Poulos,” said Jackson, “Tell us about the time you worked foreman in the stockhouse.”
“I heard it from the car man. Poulos wrote out the sheet wrong and had him send up twenty-seven skip loads of limestone in a row. There was so much stone in the furnace they were casting bricks.”
“I suppose you never made a mistake in your life, huh? I suppose you’re one of those geniuses like Fletcher. I feel sorry for you, kid, having to work helper with a genius like Jackson.”
(Update: Charles Kerr will be publishing “Acceptable Men” in the upcoming future. You can get on their mailing list at charleshkerr dot com)