In the Greater Depression the employment opportunities for a man my age were limited in New York. No company wanted to pay my worth, for a younger man will do the job for a third the wage and his knowledge of labor resistance is zero. However my absolute willingness to work has overcome most obstacles as I labored on the black market.
Over the past three months I have surveyed NY pawn shops for loose diamonds, videoed theater pieces, transported bronze flower planters to a penthouse on 5th Avenue, helped install bronze radiator covers in Dolce / Gabbana’s fourth-floor apartment on the Hudson River, constructed sets for PS 122, sold gold for friends, and babysat children.
Most recently I grew a beard to be a Santa Claus, except the daughter of my landlord and good friend AP said that I looked scary. Off came the scruff of X-mas and I found my next job on West 47th Street.
“Don’t you work in a metal shop?” Laki asked from behind his gold buying counter.
“Yes.” The metal shop was in Greenpoint. It had every metal-cutting machine needed for that trade. I held up my hands. “And I’ve kept all my fingers, why?”
“We have thousands of silver knifes.” The young Indian from New Jersey showed me one. It had once been part of a family’s heirlooms. The sentimental value was worth nothing. “The blades are stainless steel and the handles are silver. I’ll pay you $1 a knife to get rid of the blade and plaster inside the handle. I have one guy who does 500 in a night.”
“Sounds good.” I envisioned my cousin Rick’s workers pounding out several thousand knives in a week. “Give me ten. I’ll see what my friend says.”
That evening I rode the subway to Humboldt Street. Rick was working hard on his projects. I showed him the knives and he said, “This sounds like an Uncle Carmine job.”
Rick and I were related through the plumber from the Lower East Side. During the late 80s I never worked thanks to the Sicilian’s largesse with black market schemes. These cash cows weren’t easy to find in the New America.
“Only if making the money is easy.” Uncle Carmine never liked breaking a sweat.
“We split it 50/50, but only if two of my workers can do sixty an hours each.”
I waved to Oscar and Hugo. The Mexican cousins were hard workers. If anyone could do it, those two would find the method. They came from Mexico DF.
“It’s a deal.”
I left Rick with 600 knives.
I had 400 at my apartment and figured that I could whack out 150 in six hours and that weekend I sat in the backyard of the Fort Greene Observatory with a hammer, chisel, and pliers.
No one was home to hear my hammering hundreds of times per hour. Poultice fogged the garden. I ripped the blades from the silver one by one by one.
No music. No beer. Only the hammering of metal.
After one hour I felt like one of Santa’s helpers, after two hours I had descended to a coal miner, after three hours I was on the chain gang and at sunset I retired covered in blue dust as exhausted as a slave laborer in Stalin’s Gulag with only 150 knives to show for six hours’ work.
After a hot shower I dressed for drinks at Frank’s Lounge. My right arm was throbbing from the constant pounding, the fingers on my left hand were swollen from the knives twisting in my grip. That $150 was the toughest money that I had ever earned in my life. I drank two Stellas at the bar and stumbled wearily home to my bed.
My dreams were filled with knives.
I woke up with my right hand twitching for the hammer.
I drank a coffee at Ralph’s and returned to my perch under the porch.
The five hours lasted ten in troll time.
That night AP, my landlord, returned from his weekend excursion and his wife took one look at me.
“You want a glass of whiskey?” Betsy was a kind-hearted soul from San Diego. She understood that I was working for my kids and rent.
“Yes.” I was too weary to say more. The shot of Jameson reminded me of life. There had to be a better plan than this.
On Monday morning I called Rick. He didn’t sound happy. I already knew why, because I wasn’t happy either.
“We finished the 600.”
“You want me to bring over more?”
“No.” He didn’t have to explain why.
“I’ll come pick them up.”
Hugo and Oscar didn’t say hello. Everyone laughed at my job. I wasn’t laughing. It was harder than I thought it would be. Uncle Carmine would have never accepted this job. I took my 300 and Rick’s 600 to Laki. The gold merchant was impressed with the work. $900 filled my pocket.
“You want more?” Laki asked, as if he expected me to refuse his offer.
“Yeah.” I took another 200, figuring to pump them out in the backyard. I had bills to pay.
At 9am the next morning I took up my position. Hammer in hand I smashed the first knife apart. The downstairs neighbor opened the garden door and asked, “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Sorry.” I packed up my tools and went upstairs to my room.
AP suggested that I work on the roof. A steel beam stretched across the building. I pounded out a hundred in three hours, while AP was in the city.
“Yo, man, that’s enough.” AP was furious with the clanging noise. “The entire house is shaking.”
“I guess I don’t know my own strength.” I packed up the knives and rode my bike down to the river, where I finished off the 200. The police came at the end and asked to see my permit.
“Permit for what?” Dust from the knives clung to the three meters around me.
“For working here.” The cops were trying to figure out a charge.
“I’m just trying to finish this off so I can feed my kids.” It was the truth and they warned, “Don’t let us find you back here in thirty minutes.”
“I’ll be gone in twenty.” The sun was dropping behind the Manhattan skyline.
I returned to Fort Greene devastated by the day’s toils.
“Are you done?” AP understood my need to do this job. He had two kids in private school.
“Yeah.” At my age I had been done two days earlier.
The next day I returned to 47th Street. Laki examined my knives. They weren’t as clean as the first batch.
“It’s getting you, isn’t it?”
“Truthfully, I never worked so hard in my life.”
“You’re doing them?” Laki was shocked that a man my age would have the strength to do this work.
“Yeah, the shop said it wasn’t worth it and the truth is that it isn’t worth mine either.” I handed him the last load.
“What about for $1.50 a knife?”
“I’ll think about it.” It was Wednesday. I had enough money in my pocket to last until Monday.
Something better had to come my way before then.
After all this was New York City.