Growing Up, Masculinity

White Boy: A Summer Job and the Making of Manhood, Part I

0.

ON A HOT SUMMER AFTERNOON in 1953, I answered the doorbell at our family home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was fourteen years old, and alone in the house at the time.

I opened the front door and looked through the screen door to see a black man, naked to the waist and sweating heavily, standing on our small front porch. He wore filthy trousers and some kind of old shoes, probably tennis shoes. His glistening arms and chest were covered with grass clippings, which clearly marked him as a “yard man” who had been working the yards up and down Stanford Avenue.

“I need a drink of water,” he said.

I hesitated, for I knew—as he knew—that no glass in a white household could be touched by black lips.

“You got a milk bottle?” he said. “Just put it in a milk bottle. That’ll be fine.”

In those days, milk was still delivered to the doorstep in heavy, wide-mouthed glass bottles. I went to the kitchen, found an empty milk bottle, and filled it with water from the faucet in the sink. There was a residue of dried milk at the bottom of the bottle, which turned the tepid tap water an unappetizing, cloudy white.

I returned to the front door, unlatched the screen door, and handed the black man the bottle. He drained it within seconds. He handed the bottle back to me and thanked me. Then he was gone. I never saw him again.

 

1.

Four years later, in 1957, at the beginning of June, I reported for my first summer job, at the Bartlett Chemical Company, in New Orleans. My family had moved the previous year from Baton Rouge back to the Crescent City, where my mother had been born and both of my parents had been raised. It was the summer after my freshman year at Yale.

The Bartlett Chemical Company had offices on South Peters Street, near the Mississippi River, now an upscale area of restaurants and condominiums, but then in the heart of New Orleans’ grimy warehouse district. My father had known Walter Bartlett, president of the company, since their college days together at Tulane University in the early 1930s.

My father could earlier tell me only three things about the job. It would involve work in the warehouse. I would need to bring work clothes and gloves. And my pay would be the minimum wage: one dollar an hour.

I took the Broad Street bus to Canal Street, paying a fare of 7 cents. I then transferred to a streetcar to reach the river, and walked the six blocks down to South Peters Street. At the company office, I was introduced first to Walter Bartlett; then to Herman Stolley, the company treasurer; and finally to Bernie, the warehouse foreman, who was known only by his first name. All, of course, were white.

Bernie would be my nominal supervisor. He was a typical graduate of New Orleans’ Catholic school system: tough, but fair. The windows of his office protruded into the front part of the warehouse, giving him a good view of the loading dock, where truckloads of chemicals were dispatched every day to oil-drilling firms along the Gulf Coast.

Bernie led me into the warehouse, and to a little shack next to the dock, where I could change clothes and keep my lunch. He said that one of the men would explain my duties to me. Then he strode back to his office.

I entered the shack and changed into my work clothes, pausing to admire the 1950s pin-ups on the interior walls. I came out and slowly paced the loading dock, not sure of what to do.

 

2.

There shortly came a quiet voice to my right.

“Hey, White Boy.”

I turned instinctively. I was now the only white person in the warehouse, boy or otherwise. Indeed, for the entire summer I worked there, I would never be called by any other name.

“Hey, White Boy, lemme show you somethin’.”

It was George, one of the older men, genial, courteous, and soft-spoken. He always had a floppy cap on his head, and an engaging twinkle in his eye. After giving me a short tour of the warehouse, he led me to an area at the back, some 20 yards from the loading dock. Although it was only early June, the temperature there was already nearly 90 degrees. Unlike the front office, the warehouse was not air-conditioned. Only the rush of exterior air drawn in by huge, industrial-grade electric fans at one end of the building made conditions bearable.

 

3.

George stopped before an enormous pile of brown paper sacks, or “bags,” each of which had originally held 100 pounds of a powdered chemical. From the labels on the bags, I recognized several of the compounds, such as potassium chloride and magnesium sulfate, from my freshman chemistry class at Yale. Although some of them were mildly caustic, all were safe for me to handle. Unlike the neatly stacked bags in the rest of the warehouse, however, the bags in the pile were not intact. All of them had been punctured, torn open, or ripped apart, allowing the contents to spill out. Chemical dust and warehouse dirt covered the entire pile and a large area of the surrounding floor.

I asked how the bags got that way. George turned to a nearby fork-lift truck, which he called a “dinky,” and pointed to the two large, protruding steel tines of the fork.

All bags in the warehouse were stacked by hand onto pallets—small, square, double-layered wooden platforms that provided a space for insertion of the dinky fork between the layers. An entire pallet-load of bags, weighing a ton or more, could thus be lifted up by a dinky, moved around the warehouse, and, if required, deposited into one of the many storage lofts beginning 8 to 10 feet above the warehouse floor.

In the course of this work, the warehousemen often punctured bags with the tines of the fork. Bags could also fall off the pallet and burst, or be jammed or run over by a dinky. In addition, some bags were found to be damaged already when they arrived by railroad car from the manufacturer, or were damaged during the unloading. The bags in the pile had obviously been accumulating for many months in advance of my arrival, and numbers of freshly damaged bags were being added to it each day. But no bag could be shipped from the Bartlett Chemical Company warehouse unless it was intact, held the requisite 100 pounds of chemical compound, and was properly sealed and labeled.

George turned back to me, and gestured toward the pile:

“Your job gonna be to recondition them bags.”

 

4.

He showed me what I would need to do this: a heap of flat, empty, but unlabeled chemical bags, of the same size as the originals; some partially filled and labeled bags, which I would use as refilling sources; a platform scales that went up to 100 pounds; wire strands called bales, used to tie the necks of the bags, with a tool for tightening them; and a set of stencils covering the names or formulas of all the powdered chemicals in the warehouse, together with a pot of black ink and a coarse brush.

Easing a ruptured chemical bag from the pile, George gave me a leisurely demonstration of the process. He poured the contents of the ruptured bag into a new, empty bag and topped it up with chemical from the source bag until the weight reached 100 pounds. Then, after twisting the neck of the bag to close it—“You give it a little twiss,” he emphasized—he attached and tightened the wire bale.

Finally he stenciled the name of the chemical onto the bag, lifted it up, and dropped it onto the nearby pallet reserved for reconditioned bags. It was simple, and it looked easy.

In fact, it would be even easier than it looked from George’s demonstration, for I would also have the use of a dinky. That way, I would not have to lift any bags, but could simply shift them laterally from one pallet to another, using the dinky to provide whatever height adjustment was required. George gave me the key to the dinky, showed me how to start and operate it, and wished me luck, saying that I could always come to him for help. I told him that would not be necessary.

 

5.

I first practiced starting, stopping, and operating the dinky. It was safe to use, but I noticed that it appeared much older than any of the other dinkies in the warehouse. It was hard to start and keep running, and the controls for forward, reverse, tilt, and lift did not work smoothly. I did not find it easy to get the dinky into the right position, or to raise or lower the fork to the desired height, so that I risked further, inadvertent damage to the bags. I had a lot of trouble shifting the bags themselves, which were much heavier than they looked.

More than a dozen chemical compounds were represented on the pile. But the refill bags were in no particular order, and I had to hunt for the right one. For some chemicals, no refill bag had been provided, so that I had to find, bring back, and open an intact bag to continue. I was surprised at how much manual strength was required to bunch and twist the neck of a filled bag, and to wrap it tightly with the wire bale. Some of the stencils were defective or worn out. Initially, I used too much ink, which produced smeared and illegible labels; I then had to start over with another empty bag and repeat the entire process. After an hour on the job, I had reconditioned three bags.

 

6.

 Suddenly Boss Man was at my side.

“Who been twissin them bags?” he demanded.

Using only one of his huge arms, Boss Man jerked a ruptured chemical bag from the pile as if it were a bag of peanuts, and hurled it to the floor. He grabbed an empty bag, filled it, bunched and baled the neck, brushed a perfect label, and tossed the finished product onto the pallet of my dinky with a single hand. It took him less than a minute.

“Don’t you be twissin them bags,” he smiled, and walked away.

I never twisted the neck of a bag again. By the end of the morning, I had reconditioned a few more bags. Then it was lunch time.

 

7.

Exactly at noon, all of the other men disappeared. They left so quickly that I didn’t notice where they had gone. I went to the shack and got out my lunch. When I had finished, I strolled around the warehouse loading dock. I killed nearly an hour, wondering where everyone was.

At one o’clock, Bernie’s voice boomed out over the warehouse loudspeaker:

“Hey, let’s go! Let’s go back there!”

There was no response.

One minute later, Bernie’s voice boomed out again, louder, and more urgent:

“Hey, let’s GO! Let’s GO BACK THERE!”

The men now began to straggle from somewhere in the back of the warehouse toward the front loading dock. Dinkies were fired up, and the warehouse sputtered into activity. With the exception of a single day—the last Friday in June—this warehouse lunchtime routine would never vary in any way during the three months I worked there.

I picked up where I had left off before lunch, managing to recondition a few more bags before closing time at 5 o’clock. No one had spoken to me since Boss Man. I washed up, changed into my street clothes, and retraced my path of that morning. It was good to get home.

 

To be continued…

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