Growing Up, Masculinity

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


Mid-July was a transition point for me in the warehouse. For the first time, I now had something interesting to do over the lunch break. In addition, I had become expert in my work, and had already cut the size of the pile of damaged bags in half. I felt that I could actually recondition all of the bags by the end of August, a prospect that had seemed unlikely at the beginning of June. I was also gaining physical strength, and hoped that I might now be invited to help with other warehouse tasks. Most importantly, I seemed to have achieved a new level of acceptance, both among the men in the warehouse and within the front office.



The white foreman Bernie, for example, had seldom spoken to me since my first day at work. One morning in late July, however, he came out of his office and saw me reconditioning chemical bags. He called me over to him and asked if I wanted to go for a ride, explaining that the warehouse crew was short that morning, and that he needed to round up a few more hands. I joined him in the cab of a flat-bed truck that belonged to the company, and we sped out of the front gate into the warehouse district.

Young black men idled on nearly every street corner. Bernie stopped at a corner, put his head out the window, and said, “Wanna work? Dollar an hour.” One of the men clambered onto the back of the truck. At the next corner, Bernie made the same offer: “Wanna work? Dollar an hour.” Two more men clambered aboard. Within ten minutes, we had our hands.



I had also had little contact with Herman Stolley, the company treasurer. But one day near the end of July, he offered to give me a ride to Canal Street after work, saving me a long, hot walk of six blocks.

Riding with Mr. Stolley was a treat, for he owned a new chrome-laden 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, a head-turner even then, and a car destined to become one of the great icons of twentieth-century American automotive design. I managed to snag a few more rides in the coming weeks.



By the end of July I had become a better card player, and I could now hold my own with the warehousemen during the lunch break. The men became more open with me, and I finally learned all their names. The daily card game was an opportunity to speak of personal experiences, of life and love, and of work in warehouses elsewhere in the city. The rich and intricate culture of black New Orleans was spread out before me.

I learned that the card game called Tonka was unique to the Bartlett Chemical Company warehouse. Similar games were played in other warehouses in the district, but each of these games had its own name, and its own special set of rules. At the Bartlett warehouse, the stakes were low. But that was not the case at some other warehouses:

“Yeah,” said one of the men, with a puff on his pipe. “ Seen a man go home, take all the clothes out of his closet.”

“Oh, yeah,” added Boss Man, quietly playing a card, with no change of facial expression. “Seen a man drive to the game, come back walkin’.”



By the beginning of August, I was also stronger physically than I had been in early June. I still had trouble lifting a 100-pound bag straight up, but I could now easily shift the bags laterally and move them from a higher to a lower position. I thought it was time for me to help the men unload the railroad box cars, and I began to go to the railroad siding more often in the afternoons, waiting for an opportunity. Although I was still not invited to help, the men began to humor me by letting me come into the box car. This was a major social step forward, since the box car, like the room behind the Secret Door, was territory where the men were unobserved, and felt at ease.

On one occasion, one of the men in the box car posed a conundrum to the others. It was of this type: if Sam has 10 dollars less than Joe, and Joe and Fred together have five times as many dollars as Sam, and Sam and Fred together have 40 dollars, how many dollars does each man have?

From my previous studies in mathematics, I recognized the problem as belonging to a class characterized by a system of linear algebraic equations. I found a pencil stub and began to scribble on a discarded chemical bag. But before I arrived at the solution, another of the men had worked out the answer in his head. (In the example, Sam has 10 dollars, Joe has 20 dollars, and Fred has 30 dollars.) I shortly verified that his answer was correct.



By August, I began to have more exchanges with individual men. One of my favorites was Jimmy Green, considered lazy by some others, but a man with special sense of humor. Whenever asked to do anything, his reply was always, “Later on.” We often joked together.

One afternoon, when all the other men were busy unloading a box car, Jimmy Green approached me in my work area. He showed me a flat aluminum fry pan, heavily incrusted with the black residues of burned pancakes, that he had brought in from his home. He had been unable to remove these incrustations with scouring powder. He now proposed to clean the pan with nitric acid.

I accompanied Green to the yard. After making sure no one was watching, we approached the “nitra” tank. Green placed the pan under the outlet tap, and turned the valve. Dense clouds of white fumes instantly billowed from the pan. Green turned off the valve and stood back, holding up the pan for inspection. The incrustations remained unaltered, but the acid had eaten away the rest of the pan, turning it into a sieve. We both had a good laugh.

Several weeks later, I could not find Jimmy Green in the warehouse, and I asked several other men where he had gone. No one would discuss the matter. Finally, one of the men took me aside, and said quietly, “He done put his hands on somethin’ he wadn’t spoze to.”



I was also able to have a few brief conversations with Boss Man. Since he was nearly always busy, these were rare and treasured events. He was an exceptional man, and well deserved his rank. One time our conversation turned to the private lives of the men in the warehouse. I learned that many had fathered children at a young age, and he mentioned one man who had become a father at 17. I asked if that was a warehouse record. Boss Man paused, and looked straight ahead. “I was a grandfather at 32,” he said.



Toward the middle of August, it became obvious that I would be able to recondition all of the damaged bags in the pile by the end of the month. I then relaxed my pace somewhat, and began to spend even more time with the men in the railroad box cars. One afternoon, without being invited to do so, I joined the men in moving some of the newly arrived chemical bags from the top of the box-car stack down to the floor of the car, where they could easily be shifted onto the pallets of dinkies waiting outside. My participation was tolerated in an uneasy silence.

But within several minutes, the mood of the men changed abruptly. With grimaces and gestures, they made clear to me that I was to stop work immediately. I looked through the door of the box car, and saw Walter Bartlett speaking with Boss Man on the sidewalk outside. The appearance of the company president at the railroad siding was highly unusual. I knew to leave at once.

As I walked down the long passageway back to my work area, Boss Man caught up with me on his dinky, and stopped by my side. He looked straight ahead, as always. His words were quiet, but forceful. “Mr. Walter don’t want you liffin them bags,” he said, and sped away.



By that time I had also mastered all the rules of Tonka, and had become a good card player. One of the rules was not, strictly speaking, a rule of the game, but rather a social rule observed by the men. If you held a winning hand, you were not to declare that fact in any way other than by betting.

I had often lost a little money in the game, and my best winnings amounted to no more than a quarter. But sometime in late August, I received a magnificent hand on the first deal, and then drew to an even better one: something like two aces and face cards in the right suits. I had never seen such a hand played by anyone since I joined the card game in mid-July.

But before the betting had concluded, I could not resist letting all at the table know that I was finally going to win big. The other men immediately threw down their cards in dismay, and the game ended in confusion.



On the last Friday in August, I reported to work in the warehouse for my final day. There were only a few damaged bags left in the pile, and these had been newly added at the end of the previous day. I could have made quick work of them, but instead I took my time. There was a last card game at noon; I think I won a dime. In the afternoon, I visited the railroad siding one last time, then swept my work area. Around 4 o’clock, I went into the front office to thank Walter Bartlett, Herman Stolley, and Bernie for the privilege of working there. They were not only gentlemen, but princes all.

I then went back into the warehouse to say goodbye to the warehousemen, for they deserved my thanks and respect no less than the white men in the front office. I first caught up with George, whom I could always spot quickly by his floppy cap. He had been my guardian angel. I thanked him, and shook his hand.

But Boss Man was busy with his work, and so were the rest of the men. I exchanged polite nods and waves with all those I could find. There were no Hollywood farewells. After all, I would now go on to my sophomore year at Yale. They would work at the Bartlett Chemical Company warehouse, or at some warehouse like it, for the rest of their lives.

As I walked back to the shack, I paused a last time to observe my work area. There was not a damaged bag in sight, and the floor was whistle clean. I had done my job.



Within the shack, I surveyed the damage of a summer’s work in an industrial warehouse. My only injury had been a minor chemical burn on the back of my left hand, marked by a small scar. I wear it proudly to this day.

My work clothes were another matter. They had been reduced to rags by abrasion and chemical dust, and were beyond salvage. I threw them directly into the trash.

As I did so, I thought of what I had once read about the slave ships that had taken the ancestors of these men from Africa to the New World. After only a few voyages across the Atlantic, they emitted such a stench that no crew could be found to sail them. They were burned to the waterline, and sunk.



The black men I worked with must all be dead now, but I think of them still. They had little enough to give, yet they gave to me the greatest gift they had to give—the gift that their forefathers had given to their own sons, countless thousands of years ago on some dusty, windswept plain in Africa. It was the gift that only men can give, and that comes to a boy but once. They had accepted White Boy as one of them, and had welcomed me into manhood.

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