Paul Kaminski hated his job…not so much the exhausting hours spent at the machines, pulling taut wire across cut corn stalk, but the bastards that ran the joint. Paul had worked at lots of jobs over the years since he and the other doughboys shipped home from Europe: as a grease monkey on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a cobbler in a shoe factory, a watchman at Philadelphia’s sewer farm. He’d even survived the Spanish Flu, his stubby body turning blue for half a day before his Mama nursed him back. But the Micks that ran the broom factory had it in for Polacks and they’d stuck Paul right next to that Nigra, Jordan.
Even seated, Jordan towered over his machine, a head and shoulders taller than Paul. His coal black skin made him almost disappear on the shop floor – where the only light shone from dingy lamps hanging from the rafters and through high yellowed windows. Jordan sang Negro church songs. His baritone voice boomed over the clatter of the stitching machines. He laughed when Paul complained.
“You neva’ heard nothin’ so sweet, Mista Paul. Nothin’ so pretty.”
“You gotta learn to speak English. I can’t understand half of what you’re singin’.”
“At least my songs is in English, boss. The ones in you-all’s church is Latin or some such gibberish.”
Paul grinned. Jordan had him there. “Yeah, yeah. But it’s proper gibberish.”
He hadn’t gone to church regularly since he’d left home for the war. But he remembered the one time his Mama, dressed in her best Sunday coat and wearing a hat shaped like a helmet, took him to high mass at St. Augustine’s. The choir sang Gregorian chants, the men’s bass voices sounding like the rumble of distant guns, only with better harmony.
The broom factory overlooked the Delaware River, right across from Camden. After a ten-hour day, Paul walked five blocks to the streetcar and rode it north to Kensington, to a two-story brownstone, a wife and a couple teenage daughters. Before he’d climb on the streetcar, he’d down a few drafts at Sully’s, one of many taverns that opened right after the end of Prohibition. After gulping the beer he wished his bosses would waltz through the doors so that he could tell them where they could stick their broom handles. But while his mind filled with thoughts of payback and hazy images of the war, of dead soldiers lying at the bottom of muddy trenches, his body sat motionless on the barstool, and he seldom spoke with anyone.
After they’d been working side-by-side for a couple weeks, Jordan began following Paul after work. They walked in silence, the Negro a step or two behind. Along the way, they’d pass the rag picker’s wagon, the old nag and its owner slowly clip-clopping their way home. When the broom makers reached Sully’s Paul heard, “Sees ya tomorrow, boss,” and Jordan turned down a narrow cobblestone lane. At first he feared Jordan might jump him, steal his pocket watch and the five dollars in his wallet. But after a few weeks, he figured that it was good to have the big man dogging him, good protection against the bums that might waylay a straggling worker and pick him clean.
Paul got to know all the songs Jordan sang and would ask for his favorites. On a hot July afternoon, he leaned back on his leather seat, wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shirt sleeve, and listened to Jordan sing “Come Down, Angels.” The dye crew had just finished dipping a batch of the Mexican broomcorn into the aniline vats to give it a green industrial color. Other men collected dried stalks of different grades from the racks, dunked them in barrels of water for a few seconds then hustled to re-fill the boxes next to each of the 14 broom makers’ stations. Paul continued attaching stalks to the handles by binding their ends against the shaft with thick silver wire, his fingers crooked from years of tugging the taut wire into place. He worked carefully but quickly and in a few minutes laid a broom on a half-loaded pallet to be pulled to the drying area. Across the stifling hall, some fat-assed foreman yelled “move it, move it, move it,” and the crew hurried to feed dried brooms between rollers to remove the seeds, then into a press that bent the strands to the desired flat shape and stitched across them to hold it. When Paul heard the foreman, he clenched his fists and muttered, “What an ass.”
After Paul worked for a couple of hours, his machine started to whine. Climbing from his seat, he knelt and saw that a big chunk of broom stalk clogged the belt drive. He reached in to clear it, the belt wheel spun and his hand caught in the track. Paul screamed. Heads along the line turned toward him – gaunt faces with wide-spaced eyes, Italians, Polacks, Irish, Jews, Germans, Lebanese. They all stared, but didn’t move.
Jordan lunged toward him, and hit the breaker bar that disconnected Paul’s machine from the power drive. Rolling the belt wheel back, Paul yanked his hand free. Angry-looking cuts sliced the insides of the fingers on his left hand. Streams of crimson dribbled onto the factory floor. His heart pounded and he fell sideways onto the concrete.
“Get the hell outta here, Stumpy, and take care of that hand,” Moran, the shift foreman yelled. “And make it quick. I got a bunch of guys outside itchin’ to take your place.”
Everybody except Jordan called him Stumpy since Paul barely cleared five foot two.
In the stinking latrine, Paul held his bleeding fingers under the water tap. He fumbled in his dungarees, pulled out a half-pint of rye, and sloshed some whiskey over the wounds then some into his mouth. Yellow spots with dark rings floated in his eyes and he stumbled. Black hands caught him and guided him to the bench.
“You take it easy, Mista Paul. We’ll get that tied up real quick.”
With surprisingly nimble fingers for a big man, Jordan folded a bright neckerchief and wrapped the hand, tying the fingers together so that the pressure squeezed the wounds shut. The hand throbbed but the bleeding stopped.
“We’d better get back,” Paul said. “They’re gonna dock us for slowing down.”
“Don’ you worry, boss. We’ll leave when we’s good and ready.”
“Like hell. I won’t have ’em kickin’ us into the soup lines.” Paul pushed himself up and they returned to their stations.
That night after work, they walked their normal route. Paul finished the rye, to kill the pain he told himself. At Sully’s, he stopped and turned to Jordan. “You really got me out of a jam today. Ya wanna come in and have a beer? I’m buyin’.”
Jordan stared openmouthed for a moment. “I ’preciate your offer, Mista Paul, but they won’ serve me in there.”
“Sure they will. I’m a regular. They’ll do what I tell ’em.”
“No sir, they won’t. But thanks for offerin’.” Jordan turned and strode along the narrow street, kicking at tin cans and other garbage strewn across the cobblestones. Paul shook his head and pushed through the tavern doors to the sound of Sully calling, “Hey, Stumpy.”
During the summer of ’35, Philadelphia really cooked, with brownstone tenants sleeping on open porches or roofs, awaiting any feeble breeze off the river to provide relief. But the dockside breweries aired out their kettles at night which stank up half the city. At the broom factory, the bosses put on a night shift to handle the extra orders and the warehouses emptied out. Paul wondered why brooms and booze sold so well with the streets still full of out-of-work men.
“They ’bout workin’ us to death,” Jordan complained one lunch break.
“You better believe it. The Micks are makin’ money hand over fist. Like that old song, ‘The rich get rich and the poor get children’.”
Jordan grinned. “Ain’t that the truth. I’ve got four of my own.”
Paul eyed the factory door, making sure Moran and the other foremen weren’t near enough to hear. They sat outside in the building’s stifling shade along with the other workers, sweating, and devouring their cold sausages, cheese, and biscuits during the half-hour lunch break. Paul pulled his battered canteen from his haversack, one of many Army souvenirs, and drained half its contents, a diluted version of the raisin wine his wife still made in their basement. He stared at Jordon. The black man’s head leaned against the corrugated metal siding, gray-haired at the temples, eyes closed.
“You want some of this?” Paul offered.
“Nah. If I drink that stuff, I gets sleepy and wind up losin’ fingers.”
“Yeah, but ya wouldn’t feel it.” Paul chuckled. He pulled his white bone fife from the pack and played Army songs he’d learned while bivouacing along the Piave Front. Jordan hummed along.
That Saturday the bosses really pushed them. When two of the machines broke, they worked the crew through their lunch break to make up for lost production. After work, Paul and Jordan staggered toward the streetcar and Sully’s, not talking, just putting one foot in front of the other. At the tavern, Paul clamped onto Jordan’s arm before he could leave.
“Come on, ya gotta want a cold beer. Let me buy ya one.”
“That sounds real good, boss,” Jordan said. “But I told ya, they won’t serve no Nigra in that place.”
“Yeah, well tonight they’d better, God damn it.” Paul pushed Jordan toward the swinging doors, the black giant dwarfing the balding white man. Paul had lost most of his hair – from the mustard gas attacks, or so the corpsmen had claimed.
The crowd quieted when they entered and climbed onto barstools. A half-dozen of the factory bosses sat at a corner table covered with empty pitchers. Moran glowered at the duo.
“Give us a couple drafts,” Paul told Sully.
The bartender backed up, folded his arms, and glared. “I ain’t gonna serve no ’coon in my place.”
“See, I tolds ya, Mista Paul. I’ll just be goin’ and–”
Jordan began to slide off the stool but Paul reached over and grabbed his arm. Jordan’s muscles felt like tight steel bands. “Just stay put.” He stared at Sully. “So ya wanna play it that way, huh? Set one up for me.”
The bartender hesitated but reached for a mug, held it under the tap and filled it to the brim. He set it in front of Paul who drained half the glass then slid it over to Jordan.
“Here, finish it for me, will ya?”
Jordan grinned. “Sure will, boss.”
After Jordan downed the rest of the beer, Paul retrieved the empty and shoved it toward Sully. “Set me up again.”
Sully snatched the mug and flung it against the brick wall at the far end of the bar. It exploded into shards that dropped to the floor, raining down on slumped-over patrons.
“Nobody’s gonna drink from a glass that a ’coon’s drunk from, not in my place.” Sully’s voice shook.
“That ain’t none of my business, just set me up another.” Paul slammed his fist against the counter. Jordan raised his head and stared coldly at the bartender.
Sully complied and in a few minutes another mug smashed against the wall. The drinking and destruction continued for four or five rounds. The bar crowd thinned out. For a time, Paul felt immune to the danger that surrounded them, almost like his blurred memories of northern Italy, with the Hun’s machine guns rattling, the damn Lieutenant blowing a whistle and yelling at them to move out, move out, move out, and the muddied soldiers crawling from the trenches to face a curtain of lead. The memory of the Lieutenant’s red face, yelling, made his own cheeks burn.
The factory bosses at the corner table stood and moved toward them.
“Time ta pay up,” Paul announced and laid a crumpled dollar on the counter. Jordan slid from the stool and shook his broad shoulders, like a prize fighter before moving to center ring. The bosses stopped in their tracks.
“Thanks for the beer, Sully. Ya better clean up that mess,” Paul said, pointing to the pile of broken glass, “or somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
They walked slowly along the bar and pushed through the swinging doors. But once on the street the broom makers tried to control their laughter as they hurried away.
“Sorry about that, Mista Paul. You won’ be drinkin’ in that place no more.”
“Don’t matter to me. There’s plenty of other joints.”
“Maybe, I can take you to the club near my place. Nobody ’ll bother you so longs as you’re with me.”
“Jesus, Jordan. I’ll have ta think about that one.” Paul laughed.
On Monday morning, Paul found a new guy working at Jordan’s machine. He waited until lunch to confront Moran in the office where the higher ups ate their meals under the spinning blades of a ceiling fan.
“So what the hell happened to Jordan?” Paul demanded.
“Why should you care about that Nigra?”
“He made brooms better than anybody on the line. You’d have to be real stupid to fire somebody like that.”
“You callin’ me stupid, Stumpy?” Moran unfolded his barrel-chested body from the chair and stood in front of him, almost touching.
“My name is Paul.”
“Whatever you say, Stumpy…and you’d better watch it or you’ll find somebody new workin’ your machine.”
The other foremen in the office sniggered. Paul spun and left them there, laughing. He walked outside, slumped against the building, and watched the heat waves wiggle up from the tarmac. Another line from the old song came to him – The rich get rich and the poor get laid off. He ground his teeth.
The next day at lunch, Paul retrieved his Army haversack from the cloakroom, sneaked up to the office door, pulled the pins from two fragmentation grenades, and rolled them into the room filled with Moran and his buddies. Paul ran and crouched behind his machine.
The explosions rocked the building, shook the dust from its rafters and filled its cavernous interior with acrid smoke. Paul stood and stared, his hands clenching and unclenching, his small body shaking. Minutes passed before distant sirens and clanging bells broke the eerie silence. Paul slipped out a side door and joined the other workers milling about the yard.
They’ll blame it on the unions and their commie pinko leaders, Paul thought. In his mind, he saw clearly the Army Lieutenant blowing that damn whistle and shrieking at the troops to move out, saw the exhausted soldiers stare back with dull eyes before they took cover behind the sandbags, refusing to commit suicide. Why had that screaming bastard tried to force their hand? Why had Moran done the same?
That evening Paul guzzled beer at a different tavern down the line and listened to the background stories about work, kids, and mayhem.