The summer following my first year in graduate school at the University, I took a job running a drill press in a small shop that manufactured surveying equipment. The place wasn’t bad as such places go: it wasn’t as dirty as some, the work wasn’t physically exhausting, the foreman left you pretty much alone so long as you did your job. The main problem was boredom: take the piece out of the box, set it in the fixture, drill it, turn it over, drill the other side, tap it, take it out, blow it off with the air hose, set it in the box with the finished parts, take another piece out—every three minutes throughout the day. The noise of the machines prevented conversation except during the half-hour lunch and two ten-minute breaks. One of the drill press operators compared it to watching the same “I Love Lucy” re-run all day long. The normal workday was ten hours: the last two hours were voluntary, but most people stayed for the overtime pay.
Among the time-servers was Mike, who had been there for eight years. Less than thirty, he had already lost several of his front teeth and most of his hair. He disdained the stool the company furnished; from starting buzzer to quitting time he was on his feet doing a little two-step in front of the drill press. Shoelaces untied, shirt-tail flapping and baseball cap turned to the side, his hands would fly over the machine levers and fixture clamps as the drill spattered oil and metal chips in every direction and the finished parts piled up in the box. In a different kind of factory he might have been seen as a menace to union standards.
As a young man I had left college to embark on a proletarian journey that would take me over the next twenty years into quite a few places like this one. Here, because I had been hired as summer help, I was identified as a student. From my first day on the job Mike sought me out.
“Are you going to try and talk me into going back to school?” he asked me in our first conversation. “I’ve only got a GED and I was never much for school.”
When I told him that I was not, he seemed satisfied, until he asked me the same question a few days later. Altogether he must have brought the subject up a half-dozen times. Nevertheless, on several occasions he remarked that in spite of my education I was “just like a regular guy. I always thought those people at the University were stuck-up, but I can talk to you.”
Down the street from the shop was a creek that two centuries earlier had furnished power to the mills alongside its banks. Giant carp now flourished in the waters below its falls, finding shelter among the tires, beer cans and shopping carts people had discarded there. Often Mike and I would go down to the creek side at lunch and drop a line in. Eating the fish was out of the question, but they were fun to catch.
The main topic of conversation at these sessions was schemes for getting out of the shop. Mike pursued the subject with passionate intensity. I, of course, having already in part effected my escape, could not bring a full commitment to the exercise, but I did my best to hold up my end. No proposal was too fantastic for consideration, no idea was rejected without careful examination. Legality entered not at all into our calculations: only fear of getting caught led us to decide against most of the plans put forward. We rejected carrying a gun on a “job” because it increased the likelihood of our getting hurt and the penalties in case of capture. I don’t remember that the danger of hurting someone else ever came up.
“I got a kid,” began Mike, as he explained to me one idea that stood out for being perfectly legal. “I figure that if I start him in his fourth birthday, with three hours a day practice the kid ought to be able to learn to kick field goals and extra points every time. Do you know how much money those guys get for a couple hours work a few Sundays a year? They never get tackled, they don’t get dirty, they hardly work up a sweat. It’s not even like the kid has to be some great athlete or anything, just be good at kicking the ball between the goal posts. Anybody can learn that if you start him young enough. I sure wish my old man did that for me—then I wouldn’t have to be in a place like this.” He paused and shrugged his shoulder. “Probably,” he concluded, if I did bring up the kid to be a placekicker, by the time he got old enough for the pros, they’d pass a new rule outlawing platooning.”
Most of our dreams for getting out fell back on the common fantasies: inheriting money from an unknown relative, striking oil in the back yard, winning the lottery. The lottery had a special appeal: virtually everyone in the shop played, most relying on number combinations they believed to possess mystical properties. Although all were aware that the odds were against them, there was a logic to their regular purchase of the tickets: everyone who had been playing for a while had either won or knew others who had won small prizes—a hundred dollars or so. The few dollars lost each week didn’t seriously alter the financial status of someone already accustomed to doing without, but the rare hundred-dollar windfall was the occasion for a spree, a personal treat the winner could relive over and over again while inserting pieces into the drill press. It was a form of saving for a sunny day. And there was always a chance for the big kill. In that shop, not religion but the lottery was the sigh of the oppressed, the spirit of a spiritless condition. (The substitution of the lottery for heaven was a sign of progress, since the odds against making a big score in the lottery were only a million to one.)
On one occasion Mike tried to explain his rapid pace of work, for which he took a lot of ribbing from others in the shop. “The reason I work so hard is that this is the only thing in my life I’ve ever succeeded at. I was never any good in school. I was rejected by the navy. I screwed up my marriage because I drank too much. But in here, as long as I put out the work, I’m OK. It’s something I’m good at. Can you understand that?”
One noon toward the end of summer, Mike and I were standing on the shipping dock, watching the members of the congregation drift back from the watering holes where they had drunk their lunches. I was mulling over an incident that had occurred the day before. I had left after eight hours instead of the customary ten. The foreman had assigned another man to my machine for the last two hours, and asked me to show him the job. I had run through the operation, taking care to warn the man, a recent immigrant from Poland, that if he fed the drill down too quickly it would grab the soft aluminum, spin it out of his hands, break the drill and maybe hurt him. The next morning when I came in, I went over to ask him how he had done. In reply he showed me two bandaged fingers and proudly pointed to a box full of finished parts. A quick count revealed that he had turned out almost as many parts in two hours as I was accustomed to turning out in a day.
As I was going over in my mind plans for getting the guy to slow down before he killed the rate on the job (including breaking his other eight fingers if necessary), one of the assemblers, a black man, turned the corner to head into the shop. Mike muttered something.
My mind elsewhere, I didn’t hear him clearly. “What did you say?” I asked.
“Are you from out of state or something?” said Mike. “I called him a nigger. Don’t they use that word where you come from?”
“Well, I don’t,” I said.
“Oh, I forgot, you’re at the University. They’re all liberals there,” he said with a laugh.
Before I could reply, the buzzer sounded, calling us to our devotions.
Now Mike, although brought up in a neighborhood world-famous for its resistance to school integration, lived on a street where the majority of residents were black. In response to questions from whites on the job, he simply explained that he liked living with black people. He got along well with most of the black workers. I wanted to learn more about how he thought. But first, I would have to straighten something out: no one was going to get away with calling me a University liberal. When mid-afternoon break came around, I walked over to Mike’s work station and said, “I want to ask you a question and I want you to think before you answer. I’ve spent twenty years in places like this. Do you really think that a couple of years of college makes that much difference in what I am?”
Without a moment’s hesitation Mike replied, “Oh, I was just kidding. You know I think you’re OK.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, there’s a lot of smart people at the University,” he added, citing a member of the Law faculty who had recently been in the news for winning a major court decision on behalf of a local pornographer.
It was no use. The more he praised me as one of the boys and spoke of his admiration for the University, the clearer it became that between us there was a great gulf fixed, and that a summer together in the shop and a few story-telling sessions would not erase his accumulated suspicion of the academic world and all of its representatives.
After that he always greeted me either as “Einstein” or by the name of the University. We never had our talk about racial attitudes; there didn’t seem to be any point. He no longer used the word “nigger” in my presence (once or twice visibly checking himself as he was about to do so). And I never did figure out how to get that Polack to slow down on the job.
Noel Ignatiev is editor of A New Notion: Two Works by C.L.R. James: "Every Cook Can Govern" and "The Invading Socialist Society".