August is the reason the French refer to September as “reentry.”
Like some Old World countries, the Belle Republique takes a month off after the bombast and celebrations of July. Americans should do that here in the New World but wouldn’t this just be the thing to interrupt our motorcycle rallies and guns shows? Besides, we must grudge the notion of vacation. Isn’t it a national trait? Instead of seeing time off as deserved, ah, earned, business and our hamsters on wheels go-getting natures insist we disdain time away from the millstone.
That’s just wrong.
American laborers have been brainwashed into believing other runners aren’t just catching up, staying even, but getting ahead. There is no finish line for the rats. Just continual race.
The billions of accumulated days Americans forfeit yearly by not taking deserved vacation is a crime. Someday let’s hope our inheritors and successors not employed in the hospitality industry lope off en masse during future Augusts.
Let them besiege the beaches, loll around pools, campgrounds, crowd picnic areas, tour national cultural sites, barbecue in backyards – theirs or their neighbors’ – during the eighth month. Our nation will not grind to a halt. It will enter September refreshed and revived.
It pleases me to state my parents and those elders I grew up among, people who imprinted me, were not the types whose jobs defined them. They established where their jobs started and their lives began. The former never slopped over into the latter.
Theirs is a habit I’ve brought along with me throughout life. It’s why I have two cell phones. One for work, the other for real life. A work phone for toil, another for quotidian living. Or as I tell associates unable to grasp such simplicity, “When I’m at work, I’m at work. When I’m at home, I’m not at work.”
Read a story a few days ago about some boss who intruded into a staffer’s time off. Apparently, there was some issue Type A just couldn’t let wait until business hours. I awarded that a rude laugh. How the put-upon underling dealt with the matter is immaterial to me. My response would have been, “You’re here for a beer? No? Otherwise, all I’m serving are knuckle sandwiches.”
Father, as gentle a man as he was, might’ve chuckled. He was not confrontational. Until pushed. Then he could be made to roll cars. Ours was a union household. Most of the people we knew lived in union households. Reflecting on that upbringing, more union households today would mean greater economic prosperity. A Boomer, it’s how my cohort thrived. Perhaps if the generations succeeding ours hadn’t succumbed to trickle down blandishments and managements which mistook pyrite for gold in moving manufacturing into states with compliant populations and then abandoning these to offshoring, the future would appear less limited – or if you’re so deeply in hock at an early age – bleak.
But that’s the thing about being buried so early. Youth and strength should deliver opportunities to climb out of the hole. But does this upcoming bunch have the necessary drive and desire?
Maybe they’ll accustomed themselves to being stuck and stalled. After all, who are their mentors?
Augusts have left me too few pivotal moments. None of them involving “a” girl. The girl. At least not for the summer season. No Sandra Dee in this Troy Donohue’s progression. Not even an Annette to my Frankie.
Yet the month lends several moments towards my development. Traits I carry, exhibit (for better or worse), and still develop. Or the maybe the last is “rasp down.”
Two years before Arizona. A high school junior. Went out for football. Always a field events performer. Thought gridiron might provide better preparation for the indoor and outdoor seasons.
The coach was not a martinet. Just inflexible. Grant him this, he was a man of his era. He’d have been a leader unable to transition into today. His system would not thrive now.
All one needs to know is he consciously installed – and damned near cemented! – an at best mediocre Anglo at starting quarterback when a better black candidate availed. Looking back, this occurred so frequently its acceptance went uncommented upon. Why state the obvious?
Anglo males during the mid-1970s couldn’t imagine someone so unlike them occupying the glamor spot, could they? Winning is always nice. But seeing a reassuring reflection through whom they might live vicariously is better. Which is why in the past no shortage of teams in any league at every level never achieved their possible pinnacles. Comfort cost them victories.
What compromises must one make to live with that?
That 1975 August mother decided she wanted to vacation in Montreal. She never bothered asking whether I wanted accompanying her that week. Her assumption was correct. That I’d miss a week of two-a-days immaterial. Here’s a fine example of women and sports – she thought I’d make up the absent practice sessions when we returned. As if these were simply classes or lessons.
Although father would not join us, his was of the same mind. He must’ve suspected this time with mother important in ways I wouldn’t fully comprehend until adulthood. My parents didn’t bother explaining much. However, they demonstrated plenty. Those examples seeped in deeper than words.
At times we would vacation as a family. Other times my parents would travel apart. I’d go more places with mother, yet father, the sons of his eldest brother (my cousins), would frequently spend Saturdays tramping into the still pristine countryside of our still underdeveloped county and nestle in our fishing spot. Always on mild days, always beneath blue skies.
In all those years we had fishing licenses never saw one fishing warden. Of course, had we ever chanced flouting the requirement, it was a sure bet some guy wearing a Smokey the Bear hat would’ve been on site lickety-split to inspect whether we had proper permits before our first lines were cast.
Did anything important ever get discussed? Doubtful. While casting, reeling, and waiting for a bite to stir the surface, our words became fewer. Lapping water, birds calling among themselves, a fox, raccoon, squirrel whose misstep alerted us while seeking to avoid contact emphasized the peace.
Anyway, my parents’ separate travel served as their design for living. It worked for them. Summers, mother would go to Cape Cod, Atlantic City, Saratoga Springs, even Montreal. Father? Who knew where he’d spend those times apart from us. He might’ve told her. He had no need to tell me. And I didn’t ask.
By herself or with me, mother chose destinations she found quite agreeable. Although she always enjoyed visiting relations Down South, the atmosphere outside these warm cocoons left her agitated. She easily accustomed herself to less strenuous existence in the North. What black person wouldn’t have? During visits South, she needed to slip into a persona that kept the region’s more intolerant whites docile. Otherwise, ordinary living could jump hectic quick.
Did mother choose destinations, among people where and among whom she’d less likely to be seen as just “black” (in the pejorative) than simply human? Can only speculate how many will read that and go, “Huh?”
If I’ve surmised correctly, then I know her feelings exactly. Works for me. And that’s all that matters. Not sorry.
Informing coach ought have been routine. He made it a thing.
He gave some spiel about my absence letting down the team. Even lent some examples of other teammates who’d forsaken joining their families for comradery created through repetitious pad smacking.
If the poor fellow hoped to guilt-trip, he failed. That must’ve been the moment I discovered my immunity to it. Moreover, what tools those guys must’ve been who chose grass stains, sweating, and grunting over pleasurable pursuits with family members.
Again, only later in life did I realize I possessed priorities. Wonder where those emerged from.
Coach took the ease of my decision with difficulty. The poor fellow struggled. One already saw and heard mental gears turning in his head about how he “was going to show” me. And when returned he’d buried me as deeply in the depth chart as possible. So deep a coroner could’ve declared me dead. Remained there all season. Even during the tilt against our crosstown rivals.
Father actually attended that game. The only one he ever would. I seethed. Afterwards, coach justified my butt remaining glued on the bench all season long “punishment” for the “selfishness” shown during that one missing week of summer practice.
One hopes my utter lack of remorse shook him.
No. I didn’t wonder until years later whether would he have meted out the same to an Anglo player. Evenhanded as he portrayed himself, evenhanded as I remember him, yes, he would’ve. And that’s fine. Except he pulled that shit on me.
Keeping my powder dry, a valuable lesson acquired from father, I’d already determined my senior year’s preparations for indoor and outdoor track would not include football participation. Perhaps coach was prescient. Maybe he caught my vibe.
At my empty season’s end team dinner, I still received a varsity letter. Undeserved, it was nonetheless appreciated. An exchange that maybe tacitly recognized excess on one hand and acknowledged its stoic acceptance on the other.
Mother never asked about coach’s response. Again, in this instance he was immaterial. We anticipated our trip to Quebec!
Now the Adirondack, back then the Montrealer, the Amtrak train crushed rails between New York and Quebec’s biggest city. Outside of where we entrained until Albany’s approaching outskirts, travelers got to see the old Dutch towns along the Hudson, the river which itself inspired a glorious school of painting.
North of Albany, woods thickened. Chugging through James Fenimore Cooper landscape daydreaming passengers needed scant imagination to spy Hawkeye and Mohicans. In this desolation, only a lonely American Revolution redoubt interrupted the pastorale until signs of habitation start paralleling Lake Champlain’s west shore into Canada.
Before 9/11, entering or leaving Canada by rail or road required little more than a drivers license. And mother didn’t drive. Tell the truth, though, just giving whoever manned each nation’s passport control a high sign sufficed. Yeah. I presume the whole length of the 49th Parallel shared the same stringency.
We never know what we miss until it’s gone.
The usual snacks sated our northbound hunger. She’d prepped odd sandwiches. Cream cheese and grape jelly smeared on plain bagels. For those expecting fried chicken, not sorry. Never ate such sandwiches at home. Never ate them on the Northway into Saratoga Springs. Only into Canada. Going home? Relatively unremarkable fare from the café car filled the void.
Going to Montreal was special. Years later once I became an adult this particular sojourn never lost its excitement. Summer or winter, it didn’t matter.
Never asked about what prompted cream cheese and jelly on bagels to become our constant into Canada accompaniment. Later after learning more about mother’s life as a singleton, I assumed these having been acquired tastes through a family she’d worked for in domestic service.
Good people who’d have her accompany them into Canada on vacations.
Though she found eventual sinecure then collected a pension as a rehabilitation aide, “working in peoples’ homes” were mother’s first jobs upon migrating from South Carolina to New York. I doubt many palates familiar with cream cheese – or even bagels – in her part of the Rural South. So, a combination of “exotic delicacies” introduced to her by some cosmopolitan employer? Why not?
While now visitors staying in boutique lodging might be desirable, she wouldn’t have found it favorable. No auberge for mother. I understand the significance, her likely reluctance. The smallness might’ve been too close reminders to traveling Southern blacks of her generation. Not saying an auberge would’ve been unsatisfactory, but its size, inconspicuous location, limited amenities would’ve refuted the standard to which she’d seen herself as risen. Quaint? Yeah. But not for her.
We stayed in one of those main boulevard/global brand/housed in an imposing edifice hotels that gladly welcomed guests from the Maritimes to celebrities with the same practiced elan. Why, Elizabeth Taylor could’ve been sitting and sipping at the bar beside some fisherman from PEI.
Though had Miz Liz been bending an elbow there, mother would’ve quickly and rudely bounced the angler from his perch then settled herself next to the icon. See, Elizabeth Taylor had been mother’s favorite actress.
Back to the hotel itself. Hard for younger generations to grasp such distinctions. Black history, American history in general increasingly ignores aspects veering from the myths of our righteousness and infallibility. I know how being regarded as just another guest would’ve appealed to a black woman born in the 1920s Jim Crow South, one whose early life, as of her contemporaries, had been made as arduous as possible.
In Montreal, we indulged in the touring and gawking that might’ve tagged us as hayseeds in New York. Is there a word for “hayseeds” in French? If there is and had we heard it we wouldn’t have known. We were Anglophones.
And unlike in France with the French, Montrealers didn’t give us Americans side eye as far as language. Those encountered either spoke fluent English or passable English or – “Moment!” – graciously dug up somebody who could passably translate.
But we were Yanks. And the importance of that distinction will be made clearer in a future post.
In town, mother and I were not joined at the hip. Certainly, we saw plenty of sights together, did plenty together. Yet there were occasions when she just wanted to wander by herself. Good thing I was a son because a daughter might’ve felt some kind of inferiority or unworthiness.
A guy, though? I could go off on my own. In fact, she encouraged independence. Maybe even adventure. More so than father. At 17, I gather she believed me mature enough, cautious enough, to steer clear of “situations.” And should I have somehow found myself in one, well, maneuver out of it.
That was part of learning.
Rather than grill me when I returned, hers were gentle yet often pointed questions. Neither of my parents ever resorted to the Third Degree. She didn’t pump information. Instead, seemingly genuine curiosity diminished reluctance in the telling. A neat trick, that. Showing interest, feigned or real, rarely failed revealing more. When a reporter, I consciously used the same method.
Her coolness was a lifetime trait. At least for the extent of her lifetime with me. After the 9/11 attack, I phoned my parents to tell them my morning’s appointments had been conducted in Connecticut. Because our company made its biggest bucks in the money part of Manhattan.
Mother answered the phone. The earpiece didn’t gush with relief at my safety. Instead, my voice confirming her of my having avoided destruction and carnage, she let this simple response speak volumes: “Oh. I already knew.”
Years later as an adult either visiting Montreal on my own or with the Squire, or as he was then known, the Stooge, I couldn’t help but recall some of the places and things she and I had seen and done. It’s amazing how barely retained past instances can suddenly jump to the mind’s forefront with a vividness probably akin to acid flashes.
Why should I have again thought of us people watching while seated in the outdoor portion of that restaurant over there? Or our entering the hushed, cool, dark confines of the city’s Old Port cathedral and inside my feeling the gratitude of parishioners who’d donated to its construction, either through labor or contributions? Or of this memory – one that required sang-froid, the kind escaping too many grown men, much less teens verging on adulthood.
Ours had been a chockablock day. Strolling had exhausted mother. So much so we stayed in to eat. She ordered an early dinner and had it delivered to our room. A little while later a knock on the door. A voice announced our meal’s arrival. Just like in the movies, a man in hotel livery wheeled a cart bubbling with steel dome covered dishes entered.
Room service erected a collapsible table then draped an off-white table cloth upon it. From the cart’s lower shelves, he withdrew glasses, linen, and flatware. He set two places. Removing the domes revealed a main attraction of baked chicken wrapped in bacon.
Why, yes. Canadian bacon.
The fellow disarticulated the bird before plating the pieces then strategically circling them with dishes holding starch and veggies, a spice rack, sweets, and a basket of bread. With a final flourish he presented a bottle of wine. He uncorked the vin, splashed just enough in our wine glasses, then bade us to sit. Mother he helped. Me? I was on my own.
While seating her, she duked him. He gave her proffered note a sly glance, not an inspection. The denomination tendered – a greenback, not a Loonie – obviously pleased him because he cheesed “madame” with every tooth in his mouth while thanking her.
There are Las Vegas service industry workers who need to learn from that guy.
Before leaving he ascertained everything was in order. When mother determined it was, he bade us to enjoy our meal. What? No “bon appetite!”?
The wine was no surprise. Just a treat. A vintage accompanied an occasional meal of ours at home.
After devouring dinner, and cracking another bottle of wine, mother declared her day done. She expected what remained of her evening to soon enter sleep. Being needlessly redundant, she told me I should go out and stretch my legs.
I went over to the window. We had a high vantage looking east. Sunset burnished Old Port. But below us even warmer viewing. In a neighboring high-rise hotel whose windows were angled sharply towards ours, a gloriously naked woman framed herself behind glass. Young, shapely, firm, her hair – drapes and carpet – deep russet. She also took in the descending sun’s effect on Old Port, though from a different point.
It was clear she shared the room with another. Now and then she turned her head to provide mute comment or reply. Or laugh.
I hadn’t realized I’d lingered with such focus at the window. Mother joined me and followed my eyes. She gave me one of “those” looks that necessitated a smirk. I acknowledged both with the universal “Yeah? And?” sign of dismissal. Forearms bent forward from torso, palms up and parallel to the floor, a slight head tilt and snarl for punctuation.
When I returned eyes to continue my appraisal, the vision had vanished. Ah! One of life’s many chanced-upon delights too briefly appreciated. Drat!
Toughest Hours Ever
For the summer ending my sophomore year at Arizona, father got me a job at the General Motors plant employing him. His having worked there over 27 years, I imagine my approval for employment was rote. The hiring office would’ve saved its energy for applicants with no connections. For “strangers” winnowing would’ve been as thorough as Talmud scholars parsing text.
I guess this made me a legacy of sorts. See? It works for the children of working people, too.
That summer and the one following heightened my esteem of father. Not that I hadn’t held him aloft before, but toiling in that factory raised him higher. Those GM hours erased any abstractions I ever had about how food reached our table, what maintained the roof above our heads, how everything else I took for granted appeared.
That summer also made me fully appreciate work and its rewards. While Sophomore Composition remains the best formal instruction I’ve ever received, the cumulative almost six months on an assembly line provided the finest life lessons, during which I developed nimbleness through meeting people wholly different than myself, and firming views on the labor-recompense exchange.
During those 1978, 1979 weeks, I pulled 4 p.m. into midnight shifts.
After clocking in the job demanded daily strenuous physicality. What muscle groups weren’t tasked across 8-to-9 hour shifts? Though college track and field workouts, practices, events spared my 19-year-old body the aches and pains and sprains of far senior assemblers, nothing could’ve lessened the nightly draining which hastened thankful slumber.
Then, demand for product so great, GM insisted on mandatory overtime. Every other Saturday required our shift’s presence. Union representation agreed that if assemblers didn’t appear ready to work on scheduled Saturday afternoons, we shouldn’t bother coming in on any following Monday.
Who didn’t those 8-9 extra hours kill? They disrupted the homelives of men and women with families. And for single guys like me, postponed by a week of heading out with the gang and finding some “summa-summa.”
To ameliorate an entirely lost weekend, I’d pack a cooler with a six. Or two. After quitting time in the murky and quickly emptied parking lot, instead of roaring out, I’d pop the trunk, either throw a cassette in my portable stereo or find tunes on a radio station, then slug bottled suds that had been anticipated since I packed them in ice earlier in the day.
The Palisades reared across from the plant. At night, houselights twinkled below, car lamps coursed along roads high and low. The job always made me exhale. Saturdays made me exhale deeper.
Luxury housing now occupies the east shore Hudson River acreage between Tappan Zee and Sing-Sing. For decades a low-slung, spread-out, uninviting, rust-gray hulk imposed itself on neighboring marinas and neat clapboard houses. Into this unsightly grinder did I join father and countless other tens of thousands over decades to build cars.
Inside the facility men and women manufactured automobiles through methods we today should regard as merciless. Forget images of present-day manufacturing plants, nearly whistle clean, brightly-lighted enclosures whose efficiency marvels with robotics. That innovation has supplanted how many humans in industry?
In the old GM plant antiquated methods and means built modern cars. Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times wouldn’t have missed a beat there. Well, yeah, I guess he would’ve. Nonetheless, what he might’ve observed on that manufacturing floor wouldn’t have been unfamiliar.
Throughout father’s and my own times at GM, no component was attached without human effort. And ergonomics did not exist within any of those walls. Bodies needed to twist, torque, bend repetitiously. Unwieldy implements which affixed this to that needed maneuvering then steadying before those screws or bolts could solidly join the two.
One stood on his or her feet throughout the workday. A half hour lunch break then two 15-minute rest breaks provided too short relief.
On the Hudson River as the plant sat, the region subject to bouts of soaking humidity, the structures also became ovens in summers. Sweat didn’t pour off assemblers. It cascaded. No volume of water too much to guzzle. This despite every window possible open to let heat escape as well as ramjet blowers circulating air.
Its physical toll had the plant constantly hiring. It was nothing for fresh hires to quit after their first week; day; during lunchbreak.
Why and how did workers like my father last until retirement? On the front end, terrific hourly wages that became kingly with overtime. Those and generous benefits negotiated by the United Auto Workers union. On the backend, enduring 30 years delivered exceptional pensions.
Each of the described above are the incentives which further motivated women who toiled on that line.
I don’t know how long women had been integrated into the line. From what I saw and heard I gathered this a fairly recent development. A mostly unpleasant, unwelcome one at that. To state a good number of male co-workers exhibited resistance to women’s presence, softens the occasional male outbursts men directed at them.
Oh. Wasn’t that era one of mucho-macho machismo?
Me, in there? I entered with size and confidence. Most importantly, I kept eye and ears open, my yap shut. (Advice father drummed into me.)
Sure. I had opinions about women on the line. Basically, long as they pulled their weight, carried their water, there was nothing to beef about. They belonged. Simple requirements women met.
Not the response that would’ve pleased too many of the heavy breathers we all worked among.
Tenor of the times: instead of complaining to foremen, shop stewards, management, the beset-upon repelled often incurred nonsense with dignity. No shrieking outbursts. Nor silence. Not acquiescence. But dignity. To a woman, they firmly put tormentors in their places. To have done otherwise would’ve strengthened those opposing them and their presence. And little by little, I believe all but the mentally densest dick-swingers glacially gathered tides turning against them.
Those women were at GM for identical reasons as men – the aspirations a weekly GM check could fulfill. They didn’t want to make waves. Like the men, women there sought to pay off mortgages, buy better durables, provide the best for themselves and their children.
Universal goals. They weren’t there to steal jobs from men. Or expose men who shouldn’t have been there. But if the second a result …
As a boy, I’d occasionally overhear loose chatter from people who lacked any clue regarding hourly work at the plant. Especially from loose lips of speakers who knew no one employed there.
The first canard was workers “made too much.” The second, work performed didn’t justify the sums paid. Even some schoolmates, having heard such from their know-nothing (or maybe jealous) parents, parroted these statements.
No schoolmates whose parents or family members or neighbors punching the clock at GM ever blathered in this manner. We knew who buttered our bread. We also knew on which side the bread was buttered. Particularly like me if they scored temporary employment there or decided to follow mom’s or dad’s career path after high school.
I was a “floater.” During my months there, I substituted for vacationing or sick assemblers. The job might’ve lasted a day. Or maybe most of a week. Daily a foreman gave me my shift assignment.
The only tasks never involving me were welding chassis or painting. Other than that, I roamed the acreage.
The education gained while employed in ground-level manufacturing cannot be replicated in our United States. We’ve sold off too much of our capability to “build stuff.” Domestic production consolidation and short-sighted offshoring have severely reduced American muscularity in this corner of the global economic arena.
Even if the United States were to conjure a substantial revival of homegrown manufacturing, the antipathy shown for industrial labor runs deep. Industry and the trades have no cachet. Jobs pretty much requiring skilled intensive labor inclusive of dexterity, utmost focus, and possible necessary applications of elbow grease sit low on jobseekers’ wish lists.
What we of a certain age, of an increasingly receding America, acknowledge as honorable lucrative blue-collar professions, our inheritor generations judge as pursuits without prestige. This from groups whose recently bestowed college degrees have left them adrift, underemployed, outright jobless, in hock either way.
Yet when a part of life emergency surfaces, who’s on speed dial? Even those wishing to be elevated into the elect are grateful a car mechanic, mason, carpenter, or plumber answers the call.