Still, I loved the days I spent in the factory doing physical work: shoveling coal, loading boxcars, welding parts, trucking tubs of parts from one section of the factory to another. I loved helping to install a new twenty-five ton baler, and I took pride in being put in charge of the installation of a new spray booth and bake oven on the factory’s roof. I also helped install two new giant presses, and was fascinated to learn how this was done with pneumatic air jacks, timbers and rollers, rigs and winches. I took pleasure laying in feeder ducts for new welders in the LDFC door assembly area, and working an overhead crane that laid in copper wiring for new conduits.
I usually worked the six-thirty-to-three-o’clock shift, and I especially loved the days on which I was assigned to work with an individual worker. It gave me the chance to get to know somebody and thereby regain the belief that each of the several thousand men around me, despite the dreary, mindless nature of the work, was a unique human being. I recall the lovely feeling, one hot August afternoon, of resting against the inside wall of an empty coal car, sweat dripping down my face, neck, arms, and back—the adventure involved in doing the kind of real work I’d read about novelists of previous generations doing, and the flush of the physical work, conspiring to make me feel sublimely free and easy. The coal car—like Huck and Jim’s raft?—seemed adrift, the noises of the factory far away, and I enjoyed hanging out with the young Black man with whom, side by side, I’d spent the morning shoveling coal.
His name was Lou, and he was a handsome, well-built man of twenty or twenty-one, with a bullet-shaped head and steady open eyes. During the day he shoveled coal at the factory and at night attended school, working toward a high-school diploma. About a third of the factory workers at Chevrolet-Indianapolis were Black, most of them in the lowest salary categories, and most of the white workers—their origins in Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Indiana—were not shy about expressing hatred for them, especially those who’d arrived from the South.
Until I lived in Indianapolis, I’d only read about a sign I now began to see everywhere, in bars, restaurants, and amusement parks: WE SOLICIT WHITE PATRONAGE ONLY. If such signs were shamelessly displayed in a northern city in 1960—a city where, I learned, the Ku Klux Klan had had two hundred fifty thousand members when it was headquartered there forty years earlier—my imagination confirmed my worst beliefs about what life had been like for Black people in the South before 1960 and, as I was discovering, not only in the South.
Before heading out to Bloomington in the fall of 1959, I’d never been west of New Jersey. I knew about racism and anti-Semitism, but in our Brooklyn neighborhood, I rarely experienced it. Yes, I’d heard aunts and uncles talk disparagingly about Black people—about their fears that the “schvartzes” were moving in—and once, when I was eight years old and on the way home from Hebrew school, I was ambushed in the hallway of my building by three Irish kids who called me a “dirty Jew” while splitting the top of my head open with a belt buckle. (I recognized the boys and knew where they lived, and after the police investigated the incident, my mother chose not to press charges because, she explained, the boys came from families “less fortunate than ours.”) But that incident remained singular, and I considered it my good fortune to have grown up in a neighborhood that was racially and ethnically mixed. In my eighth-grade graduation picture from P.S. 246, seven of my classmates are Black, ten are Jewish, the other nineteen either Italian or Irish. From kindergarten until I graduated from high school, I’d hung out with Black kids on a daily basis, and like my family and the families of Jewish, Irish, and Italian friends, my Black classmates came from lower-middle-class homes, most of them in a three-block neighborhood that was a ten-minute walk from my house.
Lou was from Louisiana, and that August afternoon in the coal car he told me his story. His grandfather, father, and older brothers had worked in a factory in his hometown. After dropping out of high school, Lou had worked there too, until three years before when the owner, a white man, accused him of stealing.
“I didn’t do it, man, and I told him so,” Lou said. “He kept yelling at me that I did it and I kept telling him to yell at somebody else, that I didn’t do the fucking thing. When I got home that night my old man took a strap to me. I told him I didn’t do it, but he strapped me anyway. ‘Don’t you be talking back to a white man,’ he said, and my brothers just kept eating supper and didn’t say anything. The next morning I took my money and got on a bus and came north.”
Lou offered me a ride home, and on the way, we stopped at a bar for a beer. “This the color skin God gave me,” he said at one point, shoving his forearm in front of my eyes. “If any man doesn’t like it, that’s his tough shit. A man wants to be my friend, that’s fine with me. He doesn’t, that’s okay too.”
I became friendly with other workers, including Pete Kelly. Pete was a millwright, the highest-paid hourly position in the factory—a jack-of-all-trades, skilled at assembling, installing, and dismantling machinery—and I worked with him for a week, trouble-shooting a row of presses. Pete was a wiry man, about five foot five, a plug of tobacco always set in his cheek. He had a reputation for being “a character,” and he worked at maintaining it. He’d walk the aisles singing “My Old Kentucky Home” off-key, and goose workers who didn’t see him coming; at the end of his shift, after putting his holster and tools away, he’d edge toward the punch-out clock, and when the siren went off he’d be first in line to punch out, after which he’d lean back against a wall and chide workers still in line for “working overtime.”
At the end of our last day together, while we were washing up, he turned to me. “You won’t have to do this shit when you get to my age,” he said, and then, as he made for the punch-out clock: “They expect me to be their clown, so I’m their clown.” And later, over beers: “Even if you’re a skilled worker like me, what do you have to look forward to?” he asked. “Same old stuff, day in and day out, and maybe the union gets you a raise every couple of years. But nothing really changes. You’re lucky, kid, so you remember to take good care of yourself, okay?”