Winter of ’74 was hard times for many. There was another economic recession, beginning a year earlier, a part of the endless business cycle of boom and bust. Having just graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in Speech & Theater, finding a job related to my education was futile. So, like most college grads, I scoured the want ads for something in Business Management.
To my good fortune (tongue in cheek) I secured an interview with a major linen supply company located in downtown Brooklyn. Someone from their corporate human resources department interviewed me, and, to my joy, I got the job!
I can never forget my first day at work. It was a bitter cold January morning. I trudged from the subway station through a few inches of freshly fallen snow and arrived at the plant. It was this giant block long concrete building, gray and unassuming.
Inside, they ushered me into the office of the manager. He was this overweight Italian American guy who spoke with a New Jersey accent (we Italian American NYC folks could tell the difference). He had on a suit and tie that you knew he didn’t like wearing, and his hair had too much Brylcream or Vitalis for my taste. The sweat poured from his ‘ I need to lose 50 pounds ‘ face and brow, his office being as hot as the outside was cold. Prior to taking me around for a tour of the plant, my new boss summed it all up with one sentence: “Kid, remember, the more we in management save the company in expenses, especially labor, the more we receive in bonuses.”
Our first stop was the vast area of the plant where the washing and drying of the linen took place. This tremendous area, enclosed by steel doors, looked like the inside of some prison movie set… You know, the workroom where the inmates did their jobs. It had to be at least 100 degrees, as the washing machines and giant dryers were giving off unbelievable heat!
As he showed me around I couldn’t help but notice that he and I were the only white people. From up above us I saw a sea of black faces, mostly women. They wore outfits that must of come right off the Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix box. I imagined how the plantations during the Antebellum era down south must have looked as we floated by at least two hundred sets of eyes. “You see, kid” , he laughed, “they fear me here. They know that one misstep, and I’ll can their black asses!” Had I been transported back in time over 100 years?
My second day at work was spent with one driver out on his route. I rode shotgun on a truck that had seen better days. We made so many stops, at bakeries, butcher shops, coffee shops, restaurants… Any sort of business that utilized linen: towels, wipes and aprons. This route happened to be in the Bronx, and I got some education on the many neighborhoods there.
On each stop I was to accompany him into the business and help a bit. I soon found out that these drivers had a really shitty job. You see, the dirty linens were not always neatly piled or bagged up for him. No, he had to search the premises for them. These were dirty, wet towels, aprons and wipes, full of horrible odors, blood, grease and grime. In one bakery we had to search the premises for linens. As we stepped down into this rather dank and dark basement, I could see the rats scurrying about the railing. I almost fainted! He just laughed and said “They’re as scared of you as you are of them.”
Back in the truck, the driver told me about his union. “This is what they call a Sweetheart union, kid. The companies got the union officials in their pocket. We complain about all kinds of conditions and about our shitty pay, and all we ever get is lip service.”
By the end of the day I could see how right this guy was. By the end of the week, after going out with three other drivers on their routes, I quit! I walked into the manager’s office on Friday afternoon, as he and his boss, the GM, were drinking coffee. I thanked them for giving me the opportunity, and told them I had found another job in my field. They looked at me and then to one another. The GM, a 50 something thin and balding guy, dressed in a fine fitting expensive suit, said to my manager, “I told you, we can’t send our new guys out with those **** drivers…. They’re all **** commies!”
They both scolded me for not giving the standard two weeks notice, and when I asked for my pay I was told I had to wait until the next payroll period. How long, I asked ? “Hey, you’ll get your pay, just be patient. Ask Muriel in the office as you leave and she’ll tell you when.”
After waiting 10 days for my check to come in the mail, I asked my buddy, Torch, to drive me down to the plant. Torch (real name Elliot) was a Vietnam vet who had a tremendous chip on his shoulder. We walked into the lobby of the plant and I asked Muriel for my pay. She gave me this look that told it all: I wasn’t going to get paid, or I would be waiting a long time to get it.
Torch reached inside her sliding window and almost grabbed her by the throat. “Hey, give him his money! Or else!” She buzzed her buzzer and out flew the manager from his office. “What the hell is going on here!?” Torch turned to him and said, “Hey fatso, either my buddy leaves with his money or you leave with a broken **** nose!” The GM now hurried out of his office. Before things got out of hand I said “Listen, if I don’t get my pay which is coming to me, I come back with the cops!” They had Muriel write me a check, and we left.
From that moment on, I realized what American feudalism was all about. Do you?