Reporters looking for the "Reporters" Blues" piece should scroll down to the prior post. This is weekend literary fare.
ELENDELE’S UNION BLUES
The chambermaids, dishwashers, busboys, waiters, and toilet cleaners of the city’s plushest staying places wanted another dollar-an-hour pay out of the sultans who owned them and ran their lives. And so members of the Waiters and Dishwashers International Union had hit the streets to trumpet their gripe.
The local president, a big cigar smoking Irishman named Whitey McEntee, was a good contact of mine and he invited me to come down and stand on the platform behind the speakers and get an in-close view of the demonstration and speeches. The union wanted to improve its relations with the press and the community.
Whitey had been doing the long downslide. They were saying he was out-of-touch with the membership, to say nothing of reality. In the old days, he told me on the ride out to the rally, all the working class were white ethnics like himself. “Your Irish, your Eyetalians, Polish and what have you,” he explained.
“Things are different now. Everybody speaks Spanish. They’re all idea radicals. They don’t even want to learn he English,” he expounded.
“Whitey,” I rammed him, “you’re the son of immigrants. This country has been built on successive waves of people from other countries.”
“Yeah, well the difference is that now it’s built and they’re just coming to tear it down.
“Anyway, I’m gonna give the speech,” he told me, “and we’re gonna have this new organizer we found translate. That way we can connect with the membership and take some of the heat off me about not caring about their problems and what have you.
“You know Dominique,” he saddened me, “they’re saying I’m an old bureaucrat who’s only interested in feathering his retirement nest.”
I liked Whitey, yet what they were saying was true. It was time for him to step down, but I was entering a phase in my life when no truth seemed absolute any longer. A time when suddenly there was another side to every story. I reveled in such confusions, and I reveled in this one, too.
He had been a legendary union man in his day. Stomping the back alleys of restaurants and hotels with a stick, a leg from a giant table he yanked away in a dispute with some boss or other, in his hand, patrolling in the name of the weak and exploited. His own armed, one-man workers party. If time had passed him by did that mean nothing was owed? Were there no years of glory and repose in it for the gray centurion?
At the rally 4,000 brown-skinned union people gathered from all over town. They were fashioned badly, toothless, disease-ful, and hunched. Age had already scrounged in certain places on their still young faces.
They were unhappy people and their simmering made everything seem like they’d no voice and knew only how to whisper.
They were walking in a thousand half-circles, lackadaisical, and the site of Whitey lit no fires. To them he was the white guy who got $30 in dues a month they would rather have for beer or for all the babies they held so dear. The old union leader started slow and finished slower with a speech about, “the need to feed our kids,” and “the right to a decent life.” About how “they” had taken from the working man the fruits of his labor, and so on.
His truths were still truths. They just weren’t very new ones.
Still, the crowd flamed at the slow burn of the translator’s words. I strained to see her over the heads in front of me. She came into focus. The abundant swirls of curls were familiar. It was Elendele. She was doing the worst translation job ever in the long history of language. Whitey’s “fair wages for good work” became “work for all, overwork for none!” from that mouth, which even from a distance exuded chiclets and mint. His “hard as nails negotiations” became “wild cat strike at the dinner hour!” as the wily sloganness weaved her web through the unwashed ones.
All the scrubber-uppers were heaving and seething and she moved them with a magic wand that was invisible in her hand.
Whitey, with Elendele’s help, had given the finest radical summation of local unionism in all his later years, closing unwittingly with a violent rhetorical flourish – a command to shut downtown down (towndown).
The crowd clenched a fist of 4,000 fingers and he turned and smiled at me with his big cigar in mouth. The white shoe of his right foot tapping a satisfaction dance. I felt sorry for the old guy. Just beyond his rounding frame were the wild arms and bouncy hair of frightening new times. Times that knew no order. Times fired not on fossil fuel, but on a hot cold-bloodedness, diluted with chemicals and half-potions, mostly unsavory. I felt sorry for us all. Then I trembled. A man of my times, just a few moments before, I now wondered if the effortless future had already cleared a space on its shelf of relics for me?
Whitey turned back to the crowd and the smile went icy and the warm eyes cooled in a confusion soup, and then concern, as the workers began to rip up a bus stop and gash the tires of motorists stopped at red lights, yanking a Porsche driver through the window by his beard – dashing a blood-bucket across the sundrunk and prickly tar.
Whitey tried to subdue the suddenly class-conscious rabble in a language that could no serve him. Truncheon police were dispatched to traumatize and smother the hope that was spreading. I headed away from the scene and saw Whitey being cuffed and thrown on his face into a paddy wagon.
I followed Elendele to a cool and lightless café where she ordered cappuccino and vanilla sticks and spread some pot on a table for seed-cleaning. I was sure she did not remember me. Her face was tense and she smoked the drug thing in wild fever, furrowed her brow and shook her leg. She was thinking deeply, ontologically, and I hesitated in interrupting the forceful mental machinations because I was, quite frankly, terrified of the lawless trade union girl.
“Miss,” I misnamed her, “the kind of stuff I just saw doesn’t do much for reputations.”
She must have been biting at the bit. “I’m not interested in being respected so much as I am in being remembered.”
I stayed within the confines of my profession: “I was wondering if I could have a word with you about the rally.”
She looked up at me and noted who I was. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, “I know who you are. You’re the Communist who was at that Cuban hypocrite’s house months and months ago.”
“You’re part right. I’m no Communist. I’ve been finally convinced that any country with just one party can’t be much fun to write about.”
“Then what are you doing here?” was her cynical styling.
“I have some questions about what happened back there.”
“Too bad,” she said.
“Too bad what?”
“It’s too bad you’re not a Communist. In a capitalist society, journalists, as muckrakers, are best suited for the job if they’re Communists – oppositionists…Do you smoke Maria?” she asked, shoving the little white stick she’d fashioned in my direction.
“No, it makes me insecure.”
She got up to leave.
“Except,” I amended, “in a case where it can help me get a story.”
She smiled a smile that was a sharp-edged thing. A sliced crescent moon smile that revealed a yearning for distant places and a filling placed in the back of her mouth that forever shimmered and made her glamorous.
I accused her of double-crossing Whitey with a lousy translation. She said then what everybody had been saying about Whitey being a stale loaf, and I told her so. Her face grew pinched with the implication her thoughts were not somehow novel.
I told her he’d been arrested and she ruptured a little laugh. Then she began laughing harder, then choking. There were tears coming from her eyes and she was getting carried away.
“You’re getting carried away,” I informed.
“It will be the best thing to happen to his career in twenty years,” she lurched for higher ground. “The hotel workers make five dollars less in this town than they do in New York and San Francisco. Hey! We’re world class aren’t we? This buggering is through. This incest between lion and lamb must cease. I mean, we’re world class here, right? The blowjobbing of the boss has reached its orgasmic apex, the…”
“I’d like to take you out to see a movie or something,” I interrupted out of
courage. Out of boredom. Out of the need to impress myself.
“I know you would,” she said, impressed, too. “Let me settle this union thing, curdle in its blood for a while, get my translation fee squared away and then I’ll call you.”
Exchanges occurred, which she kept discreet, as if the trading of numbers and addresses was something to be whispered about, to be kept from a world full of suspicion of romance. As if she wanted her whole story to come up a conspiracy.
I turned away dizzy under the second-hand spell of her Maria. I bore down on the door and all the silver on the other side of it and opened it on my nose.
I did not see it. I could not hear it. But she laughed at me.
She laughed because she had bloodied my nose.