Growing Up, Masculinity

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


Over the next few days, I got better at my job. I became familiar with the dinky and organized all aspects of the reconditioning process. My arms and hands began to grow accustomed to the work. By the end of the first week, my daily output of reconditioned bags began to exceed the average daily number of freshly damaged bags. I began to make a dent in the pile.

Yet there was still much to learn about the warehouse and the men within it. I first observed and explored the warehouse layout.



The loading dock was the central focus of warehouse activity. Every day, numbers of large, flat-bed trucks would back into the dock to be loaded with chemicals to be shipped to customers. In order to park a truck in exactly the right position, the driver depended upon the warehousemen, who used a strange and specialized language for this function. With practiced gestures for forward, back, and to the side, and with piercing shouts of “Wah!,” and “Way!” and “Ow!,” they quickly coaxed every truck to within an inch of the dock threshold. I never understood the meanings of these terms.

The trucks entered the warehouse complex through an external gate, which opened upon a walled yard in front of the loading dock. By contrast with the warehouse, which held only harmless powdered chemicals, the yard was used for storage of all liquid chemicals, which were hazardous. Within the first several days of my job, George gently told me that I was never under any circumstances to enter the yard or to attempt to assist anyone in handling the liquid chemicals.

My own work area was at the back of the warehouse, far from the loading dock, and next to an exterior wall. From this area there extended a long passageway, lined aloft with chemical-bag storage bins, to another end of the building, where a large metal double door opened upon the street and a railroad siding. Deliveries of powdered chemicals typically arrived by railroad box car, and were unloaded by the warehousemen onto pallets. It was soon clear to me that I would not be asked to assist in this work either.

Sometimes I would pause in my assignment to watch the warehousemen load the passageway storage lofts with newly delivered chemical bags, stretching the lifts of their dinkies to the maximum height. I later learned that, until well after the Second World War, all such loading was carried out manually, with ropes and pulleys. I recall wondering how anyone could have done that during the heat of a New Orleans summer.



I next began to pick up the rhythm of the warehouse, which was as regular and predictable as the tides of the sea. Precisely at 8 a.m., the men sprang to work, loading trucks for shipments to customers. An ice-cream van arrived mid-morning, always at the same time, and there was a brief break. At noon, the men all disappeared. One hour later, Bernie’s voice boomed out over the loudspeaker, calling them back to work. Railroad box cars were typically unloaded in the afternoon. Work ended at 5 p.m. on the dot.

In addition, once every week or two, one of the senior men drove Walter Bartlett’s personal automobile, a handsome 1956 Chrysler New Yorker, into the warehouse to be washed by two of the more junior men. No one resented this chore. That was the way it was back then.

I reconditioned chemical bags all morning, and all afternoon, taking short breaks here and there to get ice cream, to watch the men load the trucks in the dock, or to see them unload the railroad box cars. The only time I was unoccupied was during the lunch break.

The lunch break was a bleak period of the day, as I was then entirely alone. To save money, I always brought a sandwich lunch, but that was gone in ten minutes. There was no where else to go in the surrounding warehouse area. So I began to kill time by learning to use the splendid Keuffel & Esser slide rule that my uncle in Texas had given me as a high-school graduation present the year before. It had a mahogany core with white celluloid facings, and a fine leather case. For a number of weeks, extending well into July, I read the detailed instruction manual and practiced computing advanced mathematical functions, trusting that my expenditure of time and effort would be amply rewarded in the future.

But getting to know the warehouse layout and routine was easy compared to getting to know the men themselves. For many days, hardly any of them spoke to me. It was unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for any white man to be employed in the warehouse. Initially, there were rumors that I was the son of the company president. Except for George, who had been asked to look after me, they all kept their distance.

Our differences went beyond race and education to physical strength. I was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and weighed about 120 pounds. I could barely lift a full, 100-pound chemical bag. Some of the men were hardly bigger than I was, but every one of them could lift a full bag with ease. Boss Man could handle two such bags at the same time, one under each arm.

Boss Man was the undisputed leader of the warehouse crew, the man with the most seniority, the highest pay, the greatest authority, and the newest dinky. He was not especially tall, but he was heavy, and enormously strong. Alone among the men in the warehouse, Boss Man was privileged to speak directly with the white warehouse foreman Bernie. I later learned that he was also on personal terms with the company president, Walter Bartlett, and the Bartlett children, whom he often visited.

White Boy, by contrast, was at the very bottom of the warehouse hierarchy. I was the man with the least seniority, the lowest pay, the least authority, and the oldest dinky. Between Boss Man and White Boy, every other man in the warehouse stood in an unwritten but rigid rank, determined by seniority, and graded by pay, duties, respect, privileges, age of dinky, and access to Boss Man. Only the most respected and trusted men, for example, were allowed to handle the hazardous liquid chemicals stored in the front yard beyond the loading dock.

The front office also maintained a distance from the men in the warehouse. Although Bernie came into the warehouse frequently, he usually spoke only to Boss Man. Walter Bartlett—known among the men as “Mr. Walter”—was a kind and generous man, and well respected by all. But he seldom entered the warehouse himself. He preferred to appear in person only on ceremonial occasions of the highest importance.



Within three weeks, I had demonstrated substantial progress. I had mastered the reconditioning technique, and had learned to use my dinky efficiently. The pile of ruptured chemical bags I had originally tackled was now noticeably lower, and the bags I had reconditioned were now to be found throughout the warehouse, stacked alongside pristine bags. Some of them had already been shipped to customers, and there had been no complaints. The white foreman Bernie seemed pleased. But the real test of my performance would be the reaction of the other men in the warehouse.

Toward the end of June, as I was stenciling a bag, two of the men walked by my area and paused briefly to observe my work. They were both careful not to speak to me directly, or to look in my direction.

“Them bags lookin’ good, ain’t they?” said one to the other.

“Yeah,” said the other, “that White Boy, he doin’ good.”

Then they sauntered away.



By this time, in late June, I had become a familiar face in the warehouse. I had learned the names of a few men, and some of them were now willing to speak with me briefly during work breaks at the loading dock. I took this opportunity to raise a matter I had been curious about since my first day on the job. I asked several of the men where everyone went at noon.

Their answers were vague and evasive. “Oh, we jus’ be takin’ a break, you know,” said one, turning to his dinky. “Yeah, some people, they be goin’ in the back,” added another, as he walked away. It was clear that no one was going to say anything more than that. I let the matter drop.



But these casual conversations also presented an opportunity to learn more about the forbidden territory of the yard that lay right beyond the dock.

The yard was dominated by numbers of large metal chemical tanks, each with a filling cap on top, and a lower valve at one end for dispensing the liquid. For shipment of the chemicals to customers, the contents were drawn off into huge glass bottles encased in sturdy wooden frames, containers known as “carboys” (from the Persian quarrabah, a large flagon). Dozens of empty carboys, awaiting filling and dispatch, lay strewn among the tanks.

Of the chemicals represented, liquid ammonia—called “armonia”—was the least toxic, and the most often shipped; the smell of ammonia usually permeated the entire front of the warehouse. Further up the toxicity scale was sulphuric acid. However, I learned that concentrated sulphuric acid, a syrupy liquid, was fairly safe to handle, as it did not become really corrosive until it was cut with water.

By far the most dangerous chemical in the yard was nitric acid, known as “nitra.” Shipments of nitric acid were uncommon, but they drew special attention and precautions. Men usually stopped other work to watch the process, and on several occasions I was asked to stand back further into the warehouse. Particularly in the case of nitric acid, it was again made clear to me that I should never go anywhere near the chemical tanks in the yard.



I was also curious about something I had noticed during my walks through the long passageway leading to the railroad siding. About halfway down, on the right, set into an otherwise featureless wall beneath the storage lofts, was a simple wooden door, of the type you would see in a modest home. It was the only door in the passageway, and, as far as I knew, the only such isolated and incongruous door in the entire warehouse. I did not know if it was locked, since I did not try it, but it was always closed when I walked by.

I asked several of the men what lay behind the door. Their answers again were vague and evasive. “Oh, that ain’t nothin’, jus’ a door,” said one, with a wave of his hand, and looking away from me. “Yeah, you know, jus’ a door, that’s all,” agreed another. Again I let the matter drop. But in my mind, I began to call it the Secret Door.



During the last week of June, an unusual excitement began to build in the warehouse. Friday, June 28 was the last work day before the end of the Bartlett Chemical Company fiscal year. In accordance with custom, annual bonuses would then be handed out to the warehousemen.

The bonuses were an important part of the men’s compensation. For the higher-ranking men, in a good year, bonuses could reach many hundreds of dollars—big money in those days. There were rumors that the previous year had been a particularly good one for the company.

Shortly before noon, all the men in the warehouse gathered into a group near the loading dock, and a hush of expectation fell over them. Since this was obviously an annual ritual of long standing, it was not clear to me that I should be a part of it. I found George nearby, and asked him if I could now go to the shack and get my lunch. With a gentle motion of his hand, and a few quiet words, George suggested that it might be best for me to stay and observe the ceremony. There would be time to get my lunch afterward.

Promptly at noon, Walter Bartlett walked into the warehouse, carrying a stack of white envelopes in one hand. He made no remarks of any kind. Upon reaching the threshold of the loading dock, he turned and began to call the names of the warehousemen, in order of their rank. Each man stepped forward to receive his bonus check, beginning with Boss Man, and then slipped away to the back of the warehouse. But several of the men paused to peek inside their envelopes. From their broad grins, it was clear that the rumors were indeed correct. It had been a good year.

The company president continued until he had called the names of all the black men in the warehouse. Each had received his bonus check, and each had slipped away. I now stood alone, the only man left.

But Walter Bartlett had not forgotten me. There remained a single white envelope. He called my name, and I stepped forward to receive it. Inside was a check for five dollars. It seemed like a fortune.



It must have been sometime during the second week of July. It was noon, and I went to the shack to get my lunch. When I came out, I expected to find that all of the men had gone someplace in the back, as usual. But one man had lingered behind.

“Hey, White Boy.”

I recognized George’s voice, and turned around.

“Hey, White Boy, we was wonderin’…”

I looked at him. He seemed ill at ease, and fumbled for words.

“We was wonderin’, you know, if you’d like to come in the back…”

I still did not know what he meant. There was an awkward pause. Finally, George adjusted his floppy cap, and turned to the back of the warehouse.

“Hey, you come on with me,” he said.

George led me down the long passageway to the railroad siding, just as he had done on the morning of my first day at work. This time, however, he stopped in front of the Secret Door. He opened it, went inside, and motioned me to follow.



I stepped into a small room, and into the glare of a naked light bulb dangling at the end of a long cord from the ceiling. The only other source of light was a window, opposite the door, with panes that had not been washed for many years. The walls were bare boards behind unpainted two-by-four studs. Nails, driven into the studs at irregular intervals, supported various work shirts and caps. The dirt floor was partially covered with scrap sheets of cardboard and discarded chemical bags. A faded portrait of Jesus, depicted as a white man, was tacked on the wall to my right.

Within the room—on derelict, ramshackle, junkyard chairs and stools— sat all the other men in the warehouse. Six of them surrounded a makeshift table, a battered sheet of plywood propped up by two wooden fruit crates. At the head of the table was Boss Man, looking straight ahead, and quietly shuffling a deck of cards.

Not a word was spoken. Except for the rhythmic riffling of the deck, there was silence. No gesture of greeting was given, nor did any eye turn to meet mine. All but Boss Man sat as still as statues. Yet from the slightest shift of a hand, the almost imperceptible raising of a brow, the nearly inaudible shuffle of a foot, and the faintest puff on a pipe, I could tell that my presence had been expected.

At first I did not know where to go. But shortly I spied a gap between two of the men seated on the far side of the table. There, on the floor, on a worn red cushion wrested from some long-vanished sofa, was a place for me. I took my seat, and Boss Man began to deal.



The game was called Tonka. It proved to be a variant of gin rummy, and I picked up the rules fairly quickly. The stakes were not high, mostly nickels and dimes, although a few quarters occasionally made it into the pot. There was some genial conversation over the paper-sack lunches the men had brought into the room, but not much. One of the rules seemed to be that the less said about the game, the better. The hour flew by.

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

“Hey, let’s go! Let’s go back there!”

We put down our cards and settled our accounts. There were some oblique words of congratulation for the day’s winner. A minute later, Bernie’s voice boomed out again, louder, and more urgent:

“Hey, let’s GO! Let’s GO BACK THERE!”

The men picked up their work shirts and caps, and straggled toward the loading dock. Dinkies were fired up, and the warehouse once again sputtered into activity. For the rest of the summer, I played cards with the men every day at noon.

To be continued…

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