Memoir

Confessions of a Picket Line Scab

I was just looking for a simple summer job when I applied for the fill-in doorman position at a fancy Manhattan hotel. But suddenly I was on the front lines of a fierce standoff filled with furious union workers, frightened guests and simmering violence.

Confessions of a Picket Line Scab

When we went to apply for the doorman job, my brother Frank and I were quickly ushered past the line of black men and women who were waiting to fill out applications, and sent directly to the hiring manager’s office. All union hotel workers were on strike.

A bald white man in glasses pointed to us and said “hire them.”

That day we were given light brown doorman suits with green stripes and walked out to face the strikers. As soon as we swung open the heavy glass doors of the air-conditioned hotel, we were met with the clamor of the crowd. The screams mingled with gusts of heat, blanketing over us, sucking the oxygen out of the air.

They were only about a hundred feet away on the sidewalk, chanting “Hired today, fired tomorrow” over and over. The strikers alternated their chants with “NO HOUSEKEEPING, NO SECURITY.”

The workers shook signs at us that said “GO HOME SCABBIES.” They were from the Caribbean, from South America, from Africa even from the Bronx and Brooklyn. They were maintenance men, housekeepers, and security guards. They were like the people I had grown up with — hardworking, with kind round faces. Some worked late-night shifts, going home at six in the morning. Some worked into the night, leaving at eleven in the evening.

My parents were adamant about it: “If you want to go to college you have to have to work during the strike.” I didn’t even fully understand what the strike was about.

It was 1986 and the previous year, during my second year of college, Frank and I had worked at The Berkshire Hotel on Madison Avenue as doormen and elevator operators. Prior to hotels, I had worked as a deli counterperson, a dishwasher at a restaurant and a maintenance man at a women’s clothing store.

But I didn’t know the details of the union strike. I’d read about them in newspapers and in history books. It’s one thing to read about a strike, it’s another thing to be embroiled in the center of its chaos. To make matters worse, the union wanted this strike more than the workers. I was on the side of workers, who wanted their jobs. Going on strike meant losing pay; but if they didn’t go on strike, their livelihoods would be jeopardized.

Until the day I showed up to work as a scab, I didn’t know that people would be howling at me for eight hours until their eyes filled with tears of disgust. A doorman doesn’t only see the strikers as he enters and exits a hotel; he’s their kicking post for eight hours a day. None of us knew that the people would get so heated they’d even throw explosives at us.

Frank worked the eight a.m. shift. I started my eight-hour shift at eleven in the morning. For the first two hours, the strikers were quiet, eating breakfast, assembling. By the time I arrived, the crowed had thickened, the pitch of the chants increased. Our shifts overlapped, and then Frank left a few hours before I did.

Even in the first few days, the strikers angrily screamed at us, banging pots and pans as they shouted. I saw all of the ferocity on their sweaty faces. They wanted to hang us for being scabs. In a moment of fear and rage, I wanted to run at them with knives in both hands and hack my way through the crowd. Then again, I loathed myself more than I despised them.

After the first week, the banging and screaming wasn’t enough. The strikers wanted to chase us away from manning the door. They began lighting cherry bombs and tossing them at us. The cops didn’t stop them; they were on the side of the union strikers.

One morning I arrived and the mob had already reached a frenzied shriek, like the Devil had been let loose.

“You motherfucking scabbie,” a tall Hispanic man yelled, as he raced left to right, up and down the street. He was close enough for me to see that his eyes were red, his face unshaven. Thick black curls matted his head, drenched with perspiration. I looked directly at him as he shouted, but it felt like I was dreaming. I wanted to go to him and apologize and yet I wanted him to stop. I would have bashed his head with a brick to make him stop.

“Don’t listen to him,” said Frank.

“I’m trying not to, but I can’t not listen to him.”

“Just turn away,” said Frank, walking towards an approaching taxi that drove up to the hotel.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a loud popping sound, then smoke from a cherry bomb exploded a few feet away from us. The guests stepping out of a taxi recoiled in disgust, their hands protecting their faces. I watched the smoke from the explosive curl and twist in the light summer wind. I looked at the cops in the distance, standing near the strikers. They didn’t do anything. They turned away, hands in pockets, on walkie-talkies.

“They’re going to fucking kill us,” I said to Frank.

“I know,” he said. “Just keep moving. If we keep moving, they can’t get us.”

That day, the strikers threw a few more cherry bombs. Some came very close.

The next morning, the racket from the crowd picked up shortly after I arrived. The sun was hammering down on all of us, like it was angry. There was something in the air, something sinister.

Then, the cherry bombs started again.

We tried to focus on the tasks, helping people from taxis, taking luggage into the lobby. But we looked over our shoulders and behind each other, worried about a sudden attack. My neck twitched. Meanwhile, the sun poured down in disgust, its rays like burning spikes.

Suddenly, there was another cherry bomb explosion, then a commotion. People had gathered around a cop rolled into a fetal position on the ground. A cherry bomb had blown up in his face. The other cops were scrambling around to help the injured officer. His police cap sat a few feet away from him.

Now the police moved towards the strikers. I couldn’t hear what they said. The cops signaled to the strikers that they needed to move back. Suddenly, an ambulance came, its sirens exaggerated and brash, like wounded trumpets. The EMT put the wounded cop on a stretcher. An EMT worker grabbed the cop’s hat and placed it atop his body on the stretcher. The cop was writhing, his hands on his face. I didn’t see blood. The sunlight chased the ambulance down the street as it left, the reflecting light violently flickering off of its back windows.

That was the last of the cherry bombs.

A few days passed. The screaming and noise had become normal to us. Frank and I talked loudly over the crowd when we spoke. It was war. Who was going to get out of this alive?

Then a taxi pulled up, but it wasn’t my turn to help the guest. It was Jerome’s, the doorman who’d only two days ago replaced the first two doormen that had quit, or were fired. There were new doormen hired and fired every day. The hotel needed a stable of about six to eight to cover the three daily shifts.

Jerome walked toward the taxi, opened the door. I could sense there was some hesitation on the part of the guest. Then Jerome nodded in agreement with the guest. He walked towards Frank and me.

“They said they don’t want me. They want you to come over.”

“What’d they say?” I asked.

“They didn’t say nothing”.

I walked over to the cab, opened the door and said, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, take our luggage please. We don’t want a nigger touching our bags.”

Shocked, I held the door of the cab open and then went to the trunk.

The man and woman emerged from the taxi. They were dressed luxuriantly. The woman was long and slender, wearing slacks and high-heels. The man wore sunglasses, his hair was perfectly quaffed, slicked down with grease.

I grabbed their suitcases from the trunk of the taxi and loaded them onto the cart. After I walked the cart over to the bellboy, the man said “Take this.” Pushing up his sunglasses, I saw the blue of his eyes, like miniature paradises. He handed me a handsome tip. “I’m glad you’re standing up against these pieces of shit.” He winked, then pushed his sunglasses back down over his eyes. The sun quickly beamed off his glasses, making him impossible to look at. I took the money and walked back to my brother.

“He gave me ten dollars,” I said.

“Look at you. You were lucky, you got the Hollywood stars. I got the cheapies,” he said, showing me the two dollars and fifty cents he’d received.

“Yeah, but you always make more,” I countered, still dazed from the man’s words.

“It’s the shift,” he countered. It wasn’t just the shift. Frank never took a break. He kept going, he kept hustling. I took my allotted fifteen-minute breaks to smoke pot a few blocks down the street. I could do this stoned, maybe. Frank didn’t even take lunch.

Frank showed me how you could get a five-dollar tip from a cabbie if you directed an airport fare to them. He’d learned it from another doorman. Limo drivers might give you ten dollars if you gave them multiple fares. This would piss off the other cabbies who queued in line to get an airport fare. It backfired on us once.

I directed a guest to one of the cabbies not in queue. As I loaded the luggage in the trunk of the car, I pocketed the five-dollar bill that sat on the carpeted red surface of the trunk. The cab pulled away. One of the drivers who had been in queue jumped in front of the other taxies in line.

The strikers cheered the cab driver’s victory.

“Get back in line,” I said.

“What are you going to do about it,” the driver shot back.

“Fuck you is what I’m going to do about it,” I said, banging on the roof of his car.

The crowd clapped. My brother came towards me, as the driver got out of the car. He was a lanky African man, maybe two feet bigger than me. If we’d all stabbed each other to death, the strikers would have applauded.

“I’ll break your fucking face, asshole,” I said, almost beside myself with rage. My brother and I stood like two sentries, unmoving. The driver looked at our faces. He knew we were not going to move.

“Tough guy, eh?” said the driver with an accent, now cracking a smile. “You are one tough motherfucker. I won’t fuck with you. If you crazy enough to fight these people, who knows what you might do?” he continued, pointing at the strikers, now frenzied, yelling, banging pots and pants. He got back in his car, laughing and drove away.

We had gained respect among the cab drivers, among the other doormen and even among the strikers. Even if they wanted to kill us, the enmity we achieved was like the respect demons in hell give each other.

Smoking pot made the days melt into each other. They were connected by screams and sudden roars of the crowd. One night I had a dream that I was driving in a black Cadillac limousine through an empty town. My limo was air-conditioned, but I could see the mix of humidity and sun glare from the car window. In a broken-down wooden house, I saw a door ajar. As we drove by, I peered inside and saw a swarm of naked savages attacking each other, some biting, tearing the flesh off others, some dead. As we continued to drive, the car slowed down and was approached by a gang of zombie-like creatures. They clawed at the car, their eyes red and bleary, their teeth long and sharp. Then they smashed the window of the car open and a gush of hot air flooded the interior. The sun was so strong it melted down on the scene like golden snow. In utter fear, I was sweating, my heart thudding. Then I woke up.

Weeks into the strike now, I had heard that the hotel union was gathering its forces to march up Sixth Avenue. I didn’t know how many people would be marching, but I was told there would be many thousands.

“Where do we go when the marchers come?” I asked Frank.

“We continue to do our job,” he said. Being my older brother, Frank felt he had to calm me and not make my nerves any worse. I know he was afraid, too. I could tell by the look on his face. We’d grown up in a tough neighborhood, standing together, back to back. The difference now was that these weren’t street kids. This was the bigger world, the world of unions, of people who had children and full lives.

Later that day, just before Frank’s shift ended, we were told the march was now coming up Sixth Avenue.

“How many people are marching?” Frank asked.

“Maybe ten thousand,” said the Bell Captain, Tommy.

“What are we supposed to do?” Frank asked for both of us.

“You keep your position, standing at the door.”

“We can’t leave?”

“No you can’t leave. You took this job,” said Tommy. He could care less if we lived or died and he wasn’t embarrassed to show it.

About two hours later, we could see a massive crowd of people, some bearing signs, some blowing whistles. The collective sound was thundering, like the earth was breaking open to let a demon serpent devour it. There were thousands upon thousands of people.

“Let us come inside,” pleaded my brother, attempting to open the big glass door, leaning his head inside the hotel.

“No, you’ll have to stay out there. Besides, you can’t leave now,” said Tommy, closing the door. He was right. There was nowhere to go.

Now the crowd of marchers were closer to the entrance. To me they looked like one big creature with thousands of tiny heads. They looked like a pink, brown and black worm that was twisting and writhing as they slithered up Sixth Avenue. They weren’t walking. They were slicking across the ground, rolling and undulating like a long train of guts.

As they came towards the Hilton, the police formed a barricade. Like a virus they pushed against the membrane of the barricade. The police pushed back. The crowd oozed out and shrunk back. There was shouting and cursing. The din was deafening.

Frank and I didn’t speak. We just stood side by side in awe. We didn’t hate the people marching. I no longer felt fear. I felt exposed. The mass of guts that slicked up the street wasn’t out there; it wasn’t something else.

Frank and I knew that our blood and guts were mixed in that fleshy bloody heap.