Masses & Mainstream
January, 1955, pp 38-41
I WAS never surprised to find that my father had been something else in his time than I had ever dreamed of; I suppose the only thing he had never been was rich. He told me once that for two years or so, he had been gripperman on the cable cars - that is until they decided to do away with cable cars in New York entirely. It surprised me less that he had been a gripperman - something I had never heard of before - than that there had ever been cable cars in New York City; but he explained that there were in the old times, running south from Forty-Second Street, on Seventh Avenue, I believe.
Years later, in San Francisco, I spent the better part of a day riding the cable cars up Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill and all the other hills and little valleys that make San Francisco like no other city on earth, and for hours I watched the gripperman handle his three long levers with grace and competence, a wonderful survival of a world that is no more.
So there it was, and my father had been a gripperman. He had large, beautiful and strong hands, and he was superbly muscled, lean and hard to the day of his death, and always, from the beginning of memory, I remember those hands. They were the hands of a working man; they were his rock and his foundation, and all he ever had in the world were those two hands.
I am not completely certain of what work he did first. He went to work at the age of eleven, as I did, but he talked little of the work he did before he was seventeen years old. I think he worked in a stable in downtown New York - that was in the 1880's - curried horses, cleaned wagons, but there were many other things too.
In those times, man and boy too worked a twelve-hour day, and fourteen hours often enough, and when my father was fifteen years old he went into a sweatshop and worked from seven in the morning until eight at night. He was of a generation of working people to whom laughter and joy came hard and uneasily, and I will never forget the glad excitement of his face when he did laugh, the sunshine breaking through, and the wonderful pleasure that I and my brothers knew because he was laughing.
There was a time when he had been on strike for seven months and then, when the strike was broken, laid off for longer than I care to remember, and the burden of support for the family, of eating and drinking and paying some of the rent, so we would not be put out on the street, fell upon my older brother and myself.
I was twelve then, and we had a newspaper route which brought in ten dollars a week for the work of both of us, and it meant that on Sundays we had to rise at three in the morning, in the cold darkness of night, dress, and drag our aching, over-used bodies to the collating station. My mother was long dead, and my father was father, mother, and guardian angel to three small boys - with never enough to feed them or clothe them or to overcome his guilt at being able to do neither.
The only compensation was that strange communion of working people which bound us together, and on those Saturday nights he would rise a half hour before we did, prepare breakfast, wake us gently, help us to dress, feed us breakfast and watch us go all with that silent anguish in his face that only the poor know, and having once seen, the poor can never properly forget.
I never really believed that my father had ever been young, and when he talked of his youth, I always felt that he was describing a third person. There are some people who remain young and clad in youth until the day they die, even though they live to be eighty, but my father was not one of them, although there was youth enough in his body, his stride, and his amazing strength. He had the arms of a blacksmith, and they came from his years as an iron-worker.
IN THOSE days, just at the turn of the century, there was a great vogue in New York - and in other American cities too, I suppose - for wrought iron. Not only were the new-fangled fire-escapes built to a large extent of wrought iron, but it was used ornamentally on stoops, horse-cars, wagons, for iron railings to guard open cellars, and in a hundred other ways. Much of this ironwork was wrought in the hot forge, over charcoal fires with hammer and bellows and the strong arm of the smith, who was called in this trade, a monger - a method of working iron as old as man's knowledge of iron. The iron sheds were on the lower East and West Sides, near the rivers, and the race of mongers were akin to the smiths who shoed the thousands of horses and the wheelwrights who repaired the thousands of iron wagon-wheels.
My father told me how as a boy he would rather be in an iron shed than in paradise, and how he would take his sandwich and can of beer in his lunch hour, squat in the open side of an iron shed, and glory in the roaring flames, the hiss of the bellows, and the mighty clang and clamor of the hammers.
He began as an apprentice of the lowest rank, a boy who ran errands, dragged iron bars, and made endless trips to the nearby saloon for beer to quench the smiths' raging thirst. Then he became a tongs-boy, permitted to hold and move the metal as the smith worked, and finally, a full-fledged smith in a leather apron, with his own hammer to beat and subdue the red hot iron.
But even if the style and method of working iron had not gone out of existence, he would have broken himself on the anvil; and in later years until I finally learned, I often puzzled why a man of his wit and skill could never depend on anything but his own two hands. With the end of the wrought iron industry, he became a tinsmith, but the use of tin for troughs and sinks and roofing had its own short day, and inevitably he gravitated toward the one industry in New York that increased steadily, and became a cutter in a garment factory. He had to learn a new trade, and he learned it well - and in between these three, how many others? I watched him work as a journeyman painter, and I worked with him once on a plumbing job, myself clumsy and incompetent next to his incredible hands. He had a store of patience that was inexhaustible, and his temper was as long as the time between sunrise and sunset. Only the manner of training a dollar to work for him and increase of itself was unknown to him.
My mother died when I was a little boy, leaving my father with the overwhelming task of raising three small boys. I suppose we were just as poor before my mother died, but she somehow had the skill to draw a mask over the naked face of poverty, and this my father alone could not do. Work as he would, twelve and fourteen hours a day, he still could not feed us and clothe us; and he gave away our childhood the way millions of working class fathers in so many lands gave away the childhood of their children. My older brother went to work when he was twelve, myself when I was eleven - the beginning of an ache, a weariness, a tiredness that came not only out of work done, but out of play and gladness passed by. Possibly it was then that my father became old; he had to sell our youth, just as his own was sold, and his face became gray and tired, the life gone out of it.
I LIVE in a time now when in my country the word socialism is far from popular, and communism little better than an epithet, but until I was sixteen years old, I don't chink I had ever heard those words, or if I had, that I was in any particular way conscious of their meaning. I knew that Bolshevik characterized a variety of obscenities, made plain to me by the rotogravure supplements in the Hearst newspapers, but the wild riot of rapine, starvation and murder therein described was sufficiently apart from my own experience for me to be unconcerned to any large degree.
I was then working as a messenger for the New York Public Library for the fine wage of twenty-two cents an hour - at a time when so many had no wages at all, and it was one of a dozen jobs I drifted in and out of, in spite of my father's pleas that I learn a decent trade; but I liked books, being around them, handling them, reading them - and I read everything and anything, so long as it had the shape of a book and told a story for me to escape into. It was at this time that a librarian put into my hands George Bernard Shaw's Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
She had no wish to subvert me; she was someone who became interested in me when I once happened to remark that late at night I occupied myself in writing stories, and when I gave her some to read, she observed that none of them were about my own orbit of experience. I tried to explain, and found myself explaining that I had no manner of understanding or power to understand my own orbit of experience. So she gave me one or two short pieces to whet my appetite, and then the book to satisfy it.
I didn't like the title; the title embarrassed me. I was just turning seventeen years old, but I was a man in the earning of my daily bread, in the battles I had fought for my own survival, in the blood and filth and hardness I had encountered in my own jungle world of street and work, in the profanity that marked my rich gutter speech, in my extensive if lopsided knowledge of the facts of life and biology - and I wondered what I could learn from a book earmarked for "intelligent women."
That night I learned. I began the book that night, at the kitchen table, the heart of family life and work, with my father and my two brothers beginning to doze opposite me, and then I went on reading after they had gone to sleep, and I read until there was light in the morning sky, with the world dancing and leaping in circles and for the first time with a glint of reason breaking through the insanity of how I lived and was, and where I had come from and where I was going.
Yet it was not George Bernard Shaw, not the kindly librarian who turned my mind from the "righteous paths" and turned me forever into an enemy of class oppression and class justice; it was not they alone who showed me that my poverty of body and mind, my physical and mental hunger, my ragged clothes and broken shoes were not simply personal bereavements, visited upon me by some crafty fate, but rather the price I paid for belonging to that great and mighty factor in modern history called the working class - no, it is not that easy to "subvert," as our present day Neanderthalers call it; no, it was life that did the "subverting," and Shaw, of ever beloved memory, only took the senseless hate and resentment and directed it to paths of understanding, reason and creation.
YET I could never convince my father, my wonderful, strong, wise and patient father, whose hands were gifted with magic, whose heart was big and strong beyond breaking - who, in a curious way, was the best the working class produces; and who always, always belittled himself to justify his own poverty. How deeply it had been hammered home in him that the race was to the strong, the good, the best! - so deeply that he could never admit that we inhabited anything but the best of all possible worlds. Only he had failed.
Only, I say that he had not failed. He gave me a worker, before my eyes and that way until I die. The bitter, endless arguments we had about the system and its meaning, those were nothing against himself who was the largest argument of all, teaching me just in his being.
And he wanted me to be a writer, and without him I would not have been a writer. He, who could barely read and write, would sit silent and even awe-stricken, night after night, as I sat with sheets of paper, making stories - which I then read aloud to him and to my brothers. They were very poor stories, pathetically poor, but I became a writer because the three people who listened each night to what I had written knew that they were not bad stories, but miracles because words were written at all. It wasn't that my father's literary judgment was poor; it was because his wisdom went far deeper than any matter of literary judgment.
It was shortly before he died that I published my novel, The Last Frontier, in which I wrote the dedication, "To my father, who taught me to love, not only the America that is past, but the America that will be." My father was already an old man, older than his years, worked out and used up, and very sick, and he wondered how I had meant what I wrote - for all the pleasure it gave him. For, as he said, he knew so little of the America that was past and was so deeply troubled concerning the America that would be.
I couldn't explain to him that in himself, he was the America that would be; and I think that of all my angers in so many angry years, the longest lasting is that he, who was so splendid in so many ways, should have been robbed of that most precious of possessions: pride in and knowledge of the generations of millions like himself who had built with their strong hands what was best and truest in the America of the past.