26. INDUSTRIAL ELECTRIC CO.
I came back to our Uptown apartment after a long day of mowing city parking strips in Metarie Parish, where the upper crust of New Orleans society had their homes; old Antebellum style estates, stately oak trees with Spanish moss and Magnolia trees hundreds of years old. One of the crew had told me that the Magnolia trees had been planted in hopes that the fragrant blossoms would mask the smell of horse droppings.
Marino wasn’t home yet. He’d probably stopped off at a bar like he usually did after work. We’d attended some symposia at Tulane together; a rousing gospel performance and a lecture by beat poet William Burroughs and both had tickets to the upcoming Jazz Festival but otherwise weren’t spending much time together. He had begun seeing a black lady from the neighborhood named Bernice and I was trying to get to know Lisa, a friend of Boggs’ lady friend Betsy. We’d had a date or two; wandering the French Quarter together, having coffee au lait and beignets at Café Dumonde and drinks at Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.
She knew New Orleans well, having lived there most of her life and was hip to musical trends I barely knew about, Zydeco being one of her favorites. I was looking forward to sharing some time with her during Jazzfest and had already gone over the schedule and identified several acts that I hoped to catch. I recalled seeing Roosevelt Sykes before. He had been the opening act at the Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan a couple years ago.
I checked our mailbox, a crude paper towel dispenser that we had turned upside down and hung on a couple nails outside our door. There appeared to be a business card in the bottom and I picked the box up and fished the card out. It was from one of the sign companies where I had applied for work. It had the company logo on the face of the card, Industrial Electric and was on Magazine Street not too far away by bike. On the back of the card someone had written: Please report for work on April 30th. This was the news I’d been hoping for! A chance to earn my keep in a field I enjoyed and hopefully work my way into the art department designing large electric displays.
Right away, I grabbed my sketchbook and began practicing my drawing. I drew big loopy gestural lines that resembled a face and then carefully shading the edges of the line until the features had form. I’d brought a set of colored pencils with me and found a sheet of glass to do some mono-prints on and had asked the neighborhood kids to pose for me.
After a storm had briefly knocked out our power a couple weeks before I had picked up a few candles and was looking for a coaster to set one on. I looked on the upper shelf in our only closet and found a small framed devotional image of Christ holding his flaming Sacred Heart in his hands with a phrase printed below in a swirling script; Whatever is prayed for in my name shall be granted. As faithful as I tried to be to the teachings of Jesus in my heart I didn’t really think praying for things did that much good. Still, it was a lovely image and it reminded me of the gold-fringed banner that I had seen as a young boy in the sacristy of St. Margaret’s many years before. I hung it on the wall next to the door of the bathroom and went back to my sketchbook.
Two weeks went by quickly and I got some new clothes and made sure I shaved before showing up for work. I still had long hair though and tied it back and stuck it up under my baseball cap. I made sure to get to the shop well before I was to report and was dismayed to see workers carrying picket signs around the business. “What’s goin’ on?” I enquired of one picketer. “Assholes are switching to a non-union shop so they can cut our pay and benefits”, he said with a sneer. “What a drag!” I tried to say with conviction and got out of his way. Thankfully, the picketers weren’t blocking the doorway and I was able to enter the office where an elderly white woman with short gray hair and a purple summer dress peered up at me over the top of her glasses. “Can I help you, dear?” she said with a pleasant tone of voice. “Yes, I was told to report for work?” I said questioningly. “Oh, All right, one moment. Excuse me”. She got up and walked to a private office across the hall. “Mr. Richards? There’s a young man here reporting for work”.
Mr. Richards came out and reached for my hand. “Glad to have you with us, son” he said looking directly into my eyes and putting his other hand on my shoulder. “C’mon into the office”. I followed him in and sat in the chair he directed me to. “You noticed the picketers?” he said while reaching for a cigar with bejeweled fingers. “Unreasonable louts!” he said with disgust. “We offered them a five per cent raise across the board and asked for a couple measly concessions and now it’s all this”, he waved at the window towards the street. “What is the starting wage Mr. Richards?” I inquired. “Oh, we’re not pikers here”, he responded. “We’ll start you out at two seventy-five an hour and see how you work out”. This was only twenty-five cents more an hour than picking up garbage for the parks department. “Well, I don’t know”, I ventured. “Don’t worry”, he said. “We’ll get you up to three in thirty days if you can hack it. C’mon, I’ll give you the lay of the land”.
He wiped the sweat from his bald head with a handkerchief and got to his feet. He led the way and we walked into the cavernous workshop with giant plastic fabricated letters stacked around and huge switchboards for wiring lights and conduits for neon glass. It was just the two of us. “This here’s where we assemble and service the larger signs”, he said. “Back up there is the fabricating shop, the pattern room and the art department.” “Yes?” I said hopefully. “We’re hoping some of our disgruntled employees see the light and return to work soon”, he said, giving me a look out the side of his pudgy face. “Here, we’ll get you started”.
We walked up an open flight of stairs and the temperature rose about fifteen degrees. A sign on the art department door said, “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” Albert Einstein. We walked into the darkened room where drafting tables, chairs, desks and cabinets stood silent. Mr. Richards said, “We thought we’d seen this strike comin’, so we got ahead on a few jobs first and won’t need to fill these positions right away. This way”. He opened an adjacent door and switched on the lights. “This here’s the pattern room. You can start here”. There were long tables with rolls of gray sheets stacked on either end. “This is where we trace the patterns on asbestos so the fabricator can shape the neon to fit the sign”, he said. “You can wear one of them if you want”, jerking his thumb towards one wall where a few respirators hung. He laid out a long sheet of asbestos and carried a roll of paper with an elaborate script for Antoine’s Restaurant and showed me how he wanted the design traced onto the sheet.
After he left me to my work I wondered if I might get assaulted as a scab by the picketers after work and I could see a few pacing back and forth from a dusty upper window. I didn’t put on a respirator and rolled a cigarette instead and turned on an enormous fan at one end of the room. It seemed to me that if I went along with the program and proved my worth I might still get a shot at a position in the art department. Thankfully, by the time I got off work, the picketers had left and there were a lot fewer the next day. “We’re gonna get ya”, jeered one through the fence when he saw me coming into the yard. “I really needed the job,” I tried to explain. “Yeah, My job”, he hurled back in my face.
There were a couple extra workers the next day and I was shown how they recycled the plastic lettering by scrubbing the inner lining with acetone to remove the paint and set to work. I’d done about six letters when this young-looking fellow with a long reddish-blond ponytail came over and introduced himself. “Douglas Nyles, I’m heading up the plastics department”, he said with authority. “Richards said you could help me out if I needed you”. “Right”, I said and gave him my name. He wanted some help carrying sheets of clear acrylic that he would clamp into a metal frame and suspend on a rack and slide upright into an enormous oven. “Once it becomes pliable, we’ll bring it out and cover the letter mold and turn on the vacuum pump”, he explained.
I must’ve impressed him and we got quite a bit done by quitting time. “How about a beer?” he asked. “There’s a bar across the street.” “Jax Beer closed last year”, said the skinny barman when Douglas ordered his favorite draft. “Make it a Dixie then”, he’d responded. I ordered the same. He described how he had lived in New Orleans some years ago and liked it but job prospects had been low and he’d moved to San Francisco to work and had met a beautiful dancer named Marlene working in a gentleman’s club. Now that he’d gotten a decent job he was sending for her and she’d be here in a couple weeks. I gave him an outline of my history and over another couple of beers we became acquainted and after a few working days together became good friends.
Slowly, more of the workers returned and I didn’t feel threatened and everyone seemed to accept the new status quo. I also got to know Molly, the secretary, who liked me and put me under her wing. When she gave me a ride home one day and looked at my humble shack, she determined to fill out my kitchen and gave me some pots and pans and extra silverware she had. “Lord honey, you deserve better than this”, she had said. I thought so too and since Marino seemed to have established himself I was hoping to find my own place soon.