Pitcher Perfect…5

…My dad worked there until his death in 1971, about 8 years. He loved this job: worked right downtown in the heart of the city and even won some favour and recognition with a few promotions. Just when things were finally improving financially for him, and with his oldest daughter being engaged, he dropped dead of congenital heart failure at the young age of 54.  Of course he loved his Pilsner, his Buckingham’s and did little exercise in his later years except by getting up off of his butt to change the television channel.

Sitting there with my mom on that stoop on that summer evening of 1968, the excitement of my circumstances just seemed too trivial in comparison. I immediately got up off of the step, went into the house, found my dad sitting in his chair and gave him the biggest hug I could muster. I told him how proud I was to be his son and how much I loved him!

The next day and the days after that next day at work were gruesome. I may have been making three dollars and forty five cents an hour but no amount of money could compensate the physical pain and misery of that job. Shovelling gravel into those inanimate buckets, hour after hour, day after day, for the hottest summer on record was pure unadulterated torture. I was dreaming of them.  My bucket list! The only sound heard, besides Zal’s taunts for more “fucking pitch” being the grunts and groans from our bodies and the huffs and puffs of our laboured breaths with every shovelful of gravel taken.  Sweat just poured down every crease and crevasse of our beings. Taking stints up on the flat roof itself provided no relief with a hot glaring sun beating down mercilessly on our lithe bodies.  The humidity was a killer. The hard physical work and the potential for dehydration made it harder and harder to keep our pants above the waist.  As roofers we had the plumber’s crack in spades. It was kind of comical watching everyone on the crew continuously pulling up on their pants or tightening their belts as if stricken by a nervous twitch.  On top of that, by the end of the day, our calloused hands were the worse for wear as newly formed blisters would crack then burst, then sting, as the flayed skin would shed and coagulate with the pus and the blood, which became an ugly brownish red in colour.  The soles of our work boots expanded vertically, about 2-4 inches, as the tar and gravel stuck to the undersides of our boots as we walked around by the area of the hot tar kettle, the conveyor belt and the adjacent pile of gravel. It would take us some time to scrape the gooey mess off of our boots at the end of the day. We felt so tall in our high gravel heels! 

End of the day? Sore and bruised and filthy dirty in sweat and dust. The long ride home on the bus and subway, lost in thought, dead to the world and praying hard and fast for rain on the morrow or watching the clock, counting hard the seconds, minutes and hours before the whole miserable routine would repeat itself. Please, dear God, let it rain tomorrow for when it rained roofers didn’t work. It was Murphy’s Law and not God’s law that ran the day for it only rained on the weekends.

The summer finally ended.  I was in great shape physically, well tanned and had a few bucks saved in the bank. I helped out at home financially, naturally, but I didn’t have to give the majority of my earnings to my parents as I no longer went to the Catholic private high school for boys. I thank God for that! Looking back on that hot and humid summer, my first real well paying job, I could have easily said that life was good. In some respects that summer was Pitcher (sic) Perfect.

 

Zal is dead. His crew is gone. The Maritime Foreman died relatively young. No one could understand his eulogy.

My uncle’s roofing business no longer exists. Jimmy Hoffa disappeared never to be seen or heard from again.  Hal Banks was discredited for corruption and is also dead. 

Everyone has the right to work, union or otherwise.

Pitcher Perfect…4

…Excitedly, I told them the whole story. They were very pleased for me yet I sensed a bit of disappointment, sadness, or melancholy perhaps from my mother as I related the story, especially about my new hourly wage.  My pop just seemed to take it all in stride. Later, on the front stoop, alone with my mother, I questioned her about my bit of good news.

“Are you not happy about this” I said.

“No, no, no, not at all, I mean of course I am happy for you” she reassured me.

“Then what’s the problem” I pressed

“It’s your dad” she said. “Sometimes I feel so sorry for him.  This is nothing against you, don’t get me wrong, but he has been working all of his life and all he has to show for it now is ninety dollars a week. While I am very happy for you, as I am sure your Dad is, it just seems so unfair to me that you are making almost one hundred and forty dollars a week – in this your first real job.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t too excited any more. It did seem so unfair. I was so proud of my dad. He did work hard all of his life. It wasn’t his fault that circumstances beyond his control dictated the path he would take in life.  He was a product of the great depression, a World War Two vet, fought for us and his country then had to make do with whatever non skilled work there was in the big city after the war.  He and thousand upon thousand of other vets were vying for too few good paying jobs. And while he did luck out as a junior accounts shipping and receiving manager for a very large aerospace company, he became a victim of the vagaries of the cold war with its politics and policies and geopolitical mumbo jumbo and smoke and mirrors.  What was lost in translation in all of this political posturing was delusion and the reality that thousands upon thousands of highly skilled professionals, skilled and non skilled workers, lost their jobs in what was to become the city’s, the country’s “Black Friday,” a precedent setting day of a bargain basement deal in the global aerospace industry. The country bowed to international pressures and cancelled a highly sophisticated interceptor aircraft that out performed anything that currently existed or was even planned for.  The aircraft was well ahead of its time and that was its problem.  No, Black Friday, 1959, was not a day of bargain basement deals but a day of financial mourning.  Fourteen and a half thousand direct jobs were lost that day with another fifteen thousand indirect jobs gone that were tied to the company’s supply chain.  On top of the financial and employment woes the country lost a great deal of intellectual property and prestige as well as a great many aerospace engineers and technologists as they ran for the exits never to return again.  My dad was no engineer but no less vulnerable as a human being as these highly skilled men and women. 

I never thought of money, really, or the disparities of a working wage or the harshness, unfairness of life until that very moment.  A sixteen year old shouldn’t have to think about these things. To me it was all a lark. We were living the life.  Our school, the priests, the nuns, my friends, sports, play, have a good time, smokes, and the movies and on and on she goes. I never contemplated where or how we had the means to have a house in the burbs, a car, food on the table, clothes, or the ability to attend the private catholic high schools at St Basil’s and St Mary’s. Never to want for anything! Always excited and never to be let down at birthdays or at Christmas. Looking back on those days now I marvel at the financial ingenuity and discipline of my parents.  How did they do it while managing a host of demands from us kids and responsibilities on such a meagre wage?  How did they get by without granite?

Even at a young age in 1959, I sensed that something terrible had occurred to my dad. After all, I remember one of my boyhood friends, “Nibs” Van Vlyman, left our neighbourhood suddenly with his family for California. I couldn’t connect the dots, of course, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that happened. To their credit, my Mom and Dad kept this away from us.  We did not know or fathom how close we were as a family to losing it all, the house, everything.  

My Dad could not afford to be choosy. He had to do anything and everything that came his way to make ends meet. Digging ditches, yes, working for the municipality as a manual labourer, yes, an Orderly in a mental hospital? Yes. Praying hard? Yes. I can clearly visualize his big boots and canary yellow rain gear drying out in the furnace room in our basement. I remember our teachers stressing to us all in those days that if we didn’t get an education all we could hope for in the future was to be a ditch digger for the city.  Imagine my thoughts and horror, shock and utter sadness, in seeing my own father doing just that.  It wasn’t that my dad wasn’t smart or lacked education. No, he was very smart. He was just a product of his times, a discarded remnant of his government’s folly. Not a real person just a statistic.  Yet he was a member of the greatest generation this country ever had.  It is no wonder to me, or surprise, that he threw all of his war medals into the city’s harbour.

After a few years of doing many manual and soul destroying jobs, he did manage to get a junior position at one of the country’s major banks. He acquired this position through his brother-in-law, who convinced him to swallow his pride and accept the job. Being a bank it didn’t pay all that well but it was a living wage and being a bank it was very secure.  In those days, bankers, especially investment bankers, were not the rock stars or the amoral financial wankers that they are today. At best or worst they were extremely conservative, boring and pedantic…

Pitcher Perfect…3

…I was not a union man. I didn’t have the union card, the union number. I couldn’t talk the union talk so I couldn’t walk the union walk. I didn’t know the secret handshake or the secret code word. I was scab. No I was worse than a scab. I was the bloody cut under the scab, that was oozing scab puss from scab blood from the scab scar under the scab or so they told me.  Now what?  

The local union rep must have taken pity on me as he approached me a few minutes later.

“You have to be a union member to work this site.”  he said

“But I am only working for my uncle, for the summer.” I pleaded

“Doesn’t matter.” he reiterated. “No union card, no work. It’s that simple.”

He gave me the address for the union hall, somewhere downtown. As we were out in the East end burbs on this job site it would take some time for me to go there.  I left and I did and arrived there about mid afternoon. It turned out that my particular skill set – manual labourer – was a sub-sub section of a sub section of the section of another section of the Teamsters charter. Oh, I had heard of these guys. Jimmy Hoffa and all of that. Or Hal Banks and his band of the great lakeside reprobates.

Into the union hall I went to a chorus of boos and hisses as my reputation and celebrity status at the job site had preceded me.  I waited a short while but was soon greeted by an elderly lady, late middle age, heavily made up with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.  She wore thick, black rimmed glasses and reeked of nicotine. A chain smoker I surmised as memories of my grade seven school teacher came wafting back to me

“Follow me,” she ordered, just like the best of them. It would seem to me that assertiveness was part and parcel of being a Teamster, part of the job, or so I thought.

I did follow her and before too long I was ushered into a room on the second floor.  It was a smallish room cramped with oversized furniture, which smelled of stale tobacco and cheap whiskey, or perhaps it was stale beer.  I wondered if anyone here had been sick or shot or murdered or worse or something in these chairs. Perhaps their legs had been broken, or their arms. Was anyone garrotted here? I thought. I kept looking behind me.  My mind was racing and getting way ahead of any rational thought. I have to stop watching Elliott Ness and the Untouchables.

An oversized desk was stationed just in front of a pane glass window, which appeared as if it was shaded in a ghastly shade of yellow, especially when set against the afternoon sun.  The whole room seemed to be permeated with tobacco smoke and reeked of stale air. The scene was suffocating.  It was surreal.

“Sit down” a very high pitched voice, almost feminine like, cracked from the vicinity of the desk. I couldn’t quite make him out due to the glare coming from the mid afternoon sun through the mid afternoon window.  On further inspection, on sitting down, opposite from where I sat, I was confronted by a very large, grossly overweight man, very old, about 40. Balding with a comb over, his face was pudgy with puffy cheeks and puffy lips with a puffed out bulbous snout that was riddled with reddish and purplish veins, all puffy, which over stepped its bounds above a small puffy mouth and an equally puffy triple chin. Like a sommelier, his nose was so big and puffy that it must have seen, sniffed and sensed its way through too many cheap whiskeys.

“So,” he said.  “How did we get ourselves into this predicament?”

“We?”  I thought. He went on.

“This site is a union site young man.  In fact all of the construction sites in this city are union sites.” he waved his hands to no one in particular as he was prone to talk with his hands.

“Now, you wouldn’t want to shut down all of the construction sites in this city would you? Would you?” he repeated, his voice rising somewhat, in a sort of lilt, as he stressed his point. His two hands locked in what appeared to me as a karate chop manner aimed at my face!

“Uh, uh, no sir.” I stammered in a nervous stammer.

“So,” he said so a lot. “All you have to do is join the union and all will be fine with the union world.” After all, the union is there to protect you and provide you with a fair wage.”

My interest perked and piqued. He suddenly had my full attention. Fair wage? Wasn’t a dollar and twenty five cents an hour considered a fair wage?

Sensing my confused interest with what must have been an equally confused and dumb look on my face, he went on.

“Three dollars and forty five cents an hour” he proffered. And all you have to do is pay us twenty five dollars a month, in union dues of course”

“Let’s dues this” I thought but hesitated, thinking about my uncle’s reaction.

“But what about my uncle” I said. “He may not want to pay me that rate of pay.  After all, he offered me this job at my fathers urging.”

“Your uncle knows the rules full well. In fact he hired another student just yesterday and at the union rate. You are being conned I’m afraid.  It always seems to occur in families”

I was kind of pissed off.  At my uncle. “Why would he do this to me” I thought?

“Here, sign these forms and you’re in. We’ll take your dues off for the whole summer with your first pay docket. Good luck”

I shook his puffy hands, signed the forms then left, in a hurry, not quite knowing what to do. Damn, I forgot to ask about the secret handshake! Back downstairs and in the main hall I went for the pay phone and called the office.  My older cousin Russell answered. He was my uncle’s, his father-in-law’s estimator.  I explained what had happened and he told me not to worry. He would handle it with my uncle. Just show up for work tomorrow, same site.

Show up indeed.  With that I went home for the day. I couldn’t wait to pass this good bit of news on to my Mom and Dad…

Pitcher Perfect…2

…What could one do for the kettle and the kettler were at ground level. The cook could only move that pitch as fast as the kettle could heat it up and melt the black tar into a gooey black sludge or black liquid paste and pump it up to the roof. Zal would pour it from a spigot into a bucket from where it would be moved by members of the crew to the next section of the flat roof.  This was tough, hot and hard physical work. You had to wear gloves, boots and thick textured long pants, always, to prevent indirect scalding.  When it was hot and humid outside, as it was everyday during the summer of 1968, hell seemed a luxury.

My job was to shovel gravel into a bucket that, when full, was drawn up to the roof via a conveyor. Once there it would be moved manually to where a fresh batch of pitch had been laid. The gravel would then be spread out over the tar to await curing then hardening to a gravelled white, charcoal glazed blanket of surface protection against all elements.  My uncle liked to brag that one could depend upon him as he was leak proof. Watching this operation I could see why.  When we were at full tilt that conveyor could turn 4 to 5 buckets in a line.  We couldn’t always maintain that rate of pace for it was hard exhausting work shovelling gravel into those buckets but Zal, for some inexplicable reason, was always trying to get the most out of us.  For all of his gruffness, his bravado, his hubris, and his profanity, his was a unique form of leadership. We all respected him. Perhaps it was out of fear but I think it was more out of valued appreciation for the dedication and loyalty he continually demonstrated for a job that was dirty and more than menial in its descriptive sense and less than compromising in its expected output.

My uncle was a self made man.  He was full of life, confident, fun loving with a devious, mischievous charm. Yet he wasn’t the brightest lamp in the shed either, sometime operating at less than full wattage. An interesting sidebar occurred with my summer employment that almost cost him dearly.  As a favour to my dad, he agreed to hire me for the summer at an hourly rate of one dollar and twenty five cents and hour. For me this was more than I had ever dreamed of making. Sixty dollars a week. I had arrived. This was my first real job and I was thankful for his largesse and his confidence in my physical ability and aptitude to meet the demands of the roofing industry.

When I arrived at the first work site I was greeted by the work crew and began with small labour related tasks, manual work. I was in awe of the other more experienced roofers but also with the other construction workers and skilled journeymen at this work site. During the first coffee break one of the construction men sat down beside me and sensing my trepidations struck up a conversation.  Somehow, I think I told him how thankful I was in making a dollar and twenty five cents an hour. How great it was for school, spending money etc. He just looked at me, funny like, then got up and left. I finished my coffee and went back to work. Before Zal could scream for more pitch, sirens went off, scores of contractors, journeymen, labourers and the like came out of the work site and walked off the job like a swarm of carpenter ants leaving the nest for work, only in reverse!

“What’s up?” I asked no one in particular.

“Fucking scab work site” I heard someone yell. Another, then another, then others joining in, yelling, screaming.  Everyone was off the site in an instant.

“What is going on” I thought to myself but dared not to go any further on site so as not to inflame the sensitivities around this work area.  In a flash I was approached by a few older guys in white hardhats. They bee lined it straight toward me, then surrounded me and in no uncertain terms asked me to follow them… off site. I complied and followed then into a car park that was situated about 200 yards from the work zone. Stopping then stopping me they told me to “Fuck Off” and never to return here and show myself anywhere on this or any other union job site if I knew what was good for me.

“Okay” I whimpered.

Pitcher Perfect

“Pitch”, he yelled.

“Pitch,” he yelled again.

We all jumped for this was Zal, the Portuguese foreman of the Portuguese team of my uncle’s roofing company. The other team, as there were two, comprised a group of Maritimers who mumbled their way through the day’s work.  I never knew that English was a foreign language until I met this group of Maritimers that summer of 1968 – the hottest summer of the hottest year on record, I do believe.  At least with Zal, when he screamed “Pitch” you didn’t have to say: “What?” Something that was so common with the Maritimers. But Zal only knew one word of English, “Pitch,” maybe two: “Pitch Asshole!” or maybe three: “Pitch, Fuckin Asshole:” the three English words that came to mind whenever one was in earshot of Zal.  You knew what he wanted.

You could never really tell what the Maritime Foreman wanted as his diction and enunciation resembled that of a person with a bagful of marbles in his mouth. I thought it was just him until I met the other members of his crew. They all talked in the same manner: mumbled jumble. As it turned out they all came from the same small fishing village on the rock.  As it turned out again the Foreman, Bob, married Tom’s sister who was only 12 at the time. Tom was married to Bob’s cousin Jillian, 14, who was the sister of Archie, another member of the Maritimer’s roofing squad, who married Katy, “the caper,” a distant relative, as she lived quite the distance away in the next village, which was about 20 miles around the Cape. Which Cape? Don’t really know as they never said anything other than she was a “Caper” from “away” lad, as they called me.

These two crews always worked apart. Zal’s crew was made up of four of his countrymen, thus the Portuguese crew. The Maritimer’s crew consisted of, well, Maritimers, hence the Maritimer’s crew. What was I? I was the go between as I was told to go between each of these crews and help out as best I could.  I was the summer student. The uncle’s er the owner’s nephew: a fact which presented its own set of unique problems. Not for me but for them, the full time crews, as they immediately surmised a spy was in their midst and would report any or all misdeeds, vocal or otherwise, to the owner, my uncle. I don’t really know why they felt this was the case for even if it was true I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, especially the Maritime crew. When I was around they mumbled as a group, no, they whispered as a group, as if in some huddle, deciding the next course of roofing action, especially if I was within their roofing earshot.  It wouldn’t have mattered because I could not understand a word of their mumbling in a normal voice so when they whispered it was as if they were communicating via Enigma. At least with the Portuguese crew you knew immediately where you stood. Zal didn’t have to speak English for Zal was distinct with his diction. It was a universal diction, like Esperanto. You knew when he was mad, which was almost all of the time, and you knew when he was at peace, with himself that is but never ever ever with us. Thinking back on this I do believe Zal considered himself like the Captain of some roofing ship where familiarity breeds contempt and being in charge, being the Captain, meant being remote and being lonely at the top…of the roof.  He knew he could get things done in his own way. And he was right.

“Pitch” he would yell.

And when the roofing pitch was slow to come!

“Fucking Pitch….asshole.” Zal would yell louder…

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