Darrel Ellis, Family Group at Amityville, 1983, ink wash and charcoal, 29 × 38 inches.
I can feel the expressway. The security, my mother’s blue car. How big and how perfect the machine. Luminescent green figures, steady dials in the dark. It is 4:30 on a weekday morning and my mother is driving me to work. We ride the high curve of Interstate 94 and we see miles of sky, slightly more vibrant than midnight blue, a blue suggesting some orange, the faintest hint, the sun coming. And I loved the radio, love the bass speakers and the late night soul station that played jazz and no words, and mother and I could sit next to each other in our own thoughts, to the same beat, and not say a word and be groovin, be ridin, fast, with wind and no stop lights. No merging traffic. No interruptions. Dark homes sleeping. Late night all ours.
My last free moments. The expressway safe, black, luscious free territory where I could half sleep and be happy but when mother took the Livernois exit, even if I was asleep, sodden, desperate for sleep, I could feel her taking it. I could feel the car underneath me slowing from 70 to street level. I could feel us going down, and even though the morning lights were timed green, and her brake shoes were new, brake fluid, power disc driven, air cushioned, mother’s stops never sudden, I would always wake with a start and in sadness, somewhere along the stretch of Livernois that ran between the I-94 and the Cadillac Assembly Fort Street Plant.
Midas touch. Muffler shops. Faded golden arches. Coffee shops. Burger joints. The insides of the places were white and formica and black people sat on stools around a counter. Men, a cook and a waitress. Nurses. White uniforms and dark faces. Dark wigs. Men’s backs broad in stretched flannel. We stop at a light. Don’t look over mother says roll up your window. Hipsters pull up next to us and pull away. Baby blue Eldorado. White hat pimp mobile.
You ought to be glad you have a job mother says, it’s not easy to get a job these days mother says to me honey I know you don’t like it in there. She had gotten up before me to fry chicken breasts and sprinkle them heavy with hot sauce, salt, and pepper, and put these in a brown bag for lunch. Then she put on her black coat and house shoes and tied a scarf around her head in rollers and we stepped out into the cold and the million star night, grass iced and wet, chilly Venus morning star, looking out for hoodlums who might knock us in the head on the way to the car. Hope my car starts, mother said. I hoped it didn’t, but it always did and she never ran out of gas. We saw the sign, CADILLAC, high above the yellow brick factory as we turned the corner. White fluorescent lights show through dirty windows. A parking lot surrounded the factory. Fenced in. We roll across empty railroad tracks and the night is no longer ours. Hundreds of figures park new cars and carry lunch pails. There were clean guards at the gate where mother dropped me off. It can’t be that bad mother says. She hands me my lunch. I never say thank you. You know your father worked at the factory mother says, and your grandfather worked here 41 years. I don’t care.
A locker door slammed close by Daddy’s head. He blinked his eyes. “C’mon,” a black man Daddy knew named Lil Willie said, “Line’s starting in a coupla minutes.” “Hurry up who,” Daddy said frowning. “C’mon big fella,” Willie said slapping him on the back, “They gon workus today.” Willie seemed like he couldn’t wait. Daddy could. He rose with a dazed, rote motion, his clear, protective shop glasses in one hand and brown lunch bag in the other. Fear and sadness stored high in his stomach, tight, shoulders, tight. He left the men’s locker room with Lil Willie, dragging, hands in pocket, towards the body shop. “Step lively, step lively man,” Willie said. “If you’re one minute late they dock you six.”
Wendell Headley, Secret Admirer, 1983, pastel on paper, 18 × 24 inches.
The escalator was long and silver and full of green suited men running like so many elves, to the paint shop, up to upholstery, down to the repair bay, to the body shop. At the bottom of the escalator men scattered towards different work areas within the shops. Each area was under a different foreman and each area had its own time clock. Lil Willie and Daddy worked under a foreman named Meter, a huge white man from Alabama. In charge, proud of his white shirt. They worked near the very beginning of the line, where body bottom after body bottom was dropped onto the line by an awkward, stiff moving fork lift like machine. The machine was operated by a little Polish man who never spoke, ate lunch by himself and was rumored to have 25 years in. Hitting with a smash, locking into the line, traveling, the body bottoms were then slammed with front fenders by the next two men on either side of the line. They picked up fenders from wire bins an arms length away. Space, move, space. Turn, pickup, turn slam, turn pickup turn slam. The next two men put in the back fenders and the next two put in the doors. Another forklift machine dropped the roofs on top of the whole thing and Daddy and a white man named Drambuie stood on a platform on either side of the line, putting the first welds on the roofs with electric welding guns. All the men in the work area thought Drambuie was strange. He looked like a marine. Short. Even featured face that looked studious in black shop glasses. He wore headphones everyday during the whole shift. The men were upset because he did strange dances, moving his waist in a circular motion that Daddy found offensive.
Next to Drambuie and Daddy worked Lil Willie, who worked in the pit, the hellhole place. Lil Willie and his partner across the line worked six feet underneath pushing up guns to weld wheel housings from below. They had four guns to weld in four different places, and if they couldn’t catch it they let it go. They were paid 25 cents more per hour for working in the pit, caught with heat, with smoke, with sparks and bad air. They needed the money. The kick of the firing guns. Lil Willie’s partner was a man called Searge. Searge had done time and sometimes wore prison clothes to work instead of his green work suit. He chawed bacca while working and the guy on afternoons complained that the work station was like a spittoon. Working on his wad, criss crossing his brow, Searge worked the guns, fought the cars with them. Pink face dirty. Shaped like Popeye, “Hell man,” he’d say, “keep on like this I’m going back to jail.”
Sleepwalking, grouchy men punched in at the time clock. Meter stood underneath the whistle, his hand on the cord and his eyes on his watch, verifying the time. Men ran to their work stations, pulled down their shop glasses, put on their gloves. Daddy punched in and took his place on the platform, behind his sooty claw gun. He nodded to Drambuie. Already dancing. One by one men appeared, from the washroom, from the candy machine, from the cafeteria, and took their places along the line. Locked into the chain. And it became like the day before, like they had never been away. Meter pulled the cord several times. Shrill whistle insisting. A grease and oil job. Steel and sprocket. With a mechanical groan, the great line began.
Pat Steir, Imagine, 1977, ink on paper, 22 × 22”.
A diesel fueled vehicle backfired and sent clouds of smoke into the work area. Small, flaming metal sparks bounced off Daddy’s shop glasses. He balled up his mouth to keep them out, and worked. A mean nigger. Meter walked the floor. Added insult to injury, checking the men as they worked, watching them, scowling, folding his arms, standing behind them. He was envied, sitting down. He had been threatened and was escorted to and from his car each day by armed plant guards. He told men he didn’t like to hold it. Their only cry “Union.” “Wait for the rep,” he said. The ceiling in the body shop was high, with windows the men couldn’t see out of but they could see a blue and a reflection of sunlight and they knew it was morning. Watching the minute hand. Performing their functions. Over and over again. Some men could work while dozing, dreaming of the day they slept till noon. Johnny Bee was the relief man in the body shop, working each man’s job for 18 minutes in the morning and six minutes in the afternoon, giving the man time to go to the bathroom and get a cup of coffee. Job by job Johnny Bee worked his way down the line and then he came to Daddy, jumping on the platform and putting on his gloves. He was envied. He had variety.
Daddy wasn’t hungry. He drank water and went to the bathroom. Straight into a stall and locked the door. He didn’t have to go, he just put the lid down and sat on it, breathing hard, staring at the white stall door straight ahead. The men’s bathroom smelled of cheap pine cleaner, and there was one big tub and fountain where the men could wash their hands and feet. The other stalls were filled with men in hiding. Having secured Meter’s permission and an emergency relief man so they could go to the toilet, they were now taking too long. Sitting, staring, counting off seconds of freedom. It would take up to five minutes sometimes before Meter remembered they were gone. Jingle fat and pencils, white shirt, stormed like a wild bull to the bathroom. His nose flared. Calling names. He saw three pairs of men’s shoes. “Gleason, Hogabook, get back to work.” The stall doors opened, and the stalled, cornered men came out. “Get back to work” Meter said, red faced. If he’d had a whip he’d of used it. “You ain’t going to the bathroom for a week.” “Union” the men cried. “Wait for the rep” Meter said, walking over to the last stall and kicking the door. “Relief” Daddy said, dulled already, dead tired.
At 11:30 Meter pulled the whistle and the line stopped for 30 minutes of lunch. Some of the workers went to eat in the cafeteria, while others sat at benches and tables near water fountains in the body shop. Women workers sat together, unable to take off their worksuits and just wear tank tops and jeans because Meter had said, “Some of the fellas around here might get too excited.” Hair done neat and hands somehow always clean, the women sat at a cool table near the door, playing cards and smoking. Daddy sat at a table with men from his area, Lil Willie, Searge, Johnny Bee, and others, all looking in their brown paper bags and lunch pails hoping for a surprise. Some of the fellas shared cold booze from a thermos brought from home. Some men read the newspaper, some read dirty magazines, and some like Daddy, chewed the lunches with their eyes roving, plotting and planning, other’s like Searge, thrashed and tore at their food hungrily, as though they expected someone to snatch it away. Factory number runners spent lunchtime with nub pencils and notebooks, moving from table to table, collecting figures, using telephones near the plant office to call in lists of bets. Some men scheduled emergency doctors appointments for that evening.
Cincy, a young man with a blond afro went from table to table discreetly distributing leaflets for the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. He came to Daddy’s table and gave leaflets to all the men. Then he asked them, “Y’all heard about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers?” Daddy chewed, his eyes straight in front of him. “What about you brother,” Cincy said, tapping him on the shoulder, “How about a small donation for the League?” Searge, sitting next to Daddy, glowered, his eyes like two embers. He squished his lunch bag, bread crusts and apple core together into one hard ball and got up from the table muttering, “out here eight hours a day, breaking my back and turning black with soot and filth like a goddam slave, and you talking bout Leagues of Revolutionary Black Workers. I’ll be damned if they ain’t gon be some revolutionary white workers out here soon enough.” Cincy tapped Daddy on the shoulder again, “Say, how about a small donation.” Daddy strained his eyes towards Cincy as if he couldn’t see him clearly, saying, “Who?”
“I got chicken, I got greens and cornbread,” Grandmother said as I came to her kitchen table and sat down like a man. Mad. Heaving. Sleeveless muscles. I ate with gusto. Charged through with a fork. I mopped up gravy. Grandmother worried that I did not bathe enough. “You know that dirt’ll get in your skin and you won’t ever be able to get it out I’m telling you.” Factory people darkened. I saw the empty swingset through her Venetian blinds. There were acadia’s covered with ants out in the backyard, and a cherry tree. I came home from work by 3:30. Nappy headed. Spitting, sitting with my legs wide open. Radio preachers. Grandfather watched game shows in the living room and I slung one leg over the other, talking to him, who knew the language. “They working us like hell out there pop,” I said. “I know they are,” he said, “Right in the middle of the summer, right before de model change, we used to work seven days a week in the summer time.” “Seven days?” “That’s right. Seven days a week. Shoot,” he chuckled, “Y’all got it good now. We used to make 50 cents a day, not by de hour but by de day, and we was glad to get that. Gail they used to be cars jammed up all the way up Livernois to the expressway wit fellas trying to get in there and work, for 50 cents a day. Y’all wouldn’t do dat now would you.” My grandfather retired after 41 years on days at Cadillac. He cannot sleep past 5:00 in the morning, when he gets up, he reads the paper and listens to the country music station. Wears sandals and socks. Needs me to cut his toenails. He seems proud of me. “Y’all got fans now ain’t you?” “Yeah, we got em.” “See we didn’t used to have no fans till the union came in. Used to be guys fallin out in dere all de time, and dey just drag em out de way and de line just keep on going.” Pop gave up cigarettes and alcohol when he retired. A man can only live like that for so long he says. “I guess come September you be ready to go back to school.” “You can say that again Pop.” “Naw,” he smiles, picking up his unlit cigar, “guess you won’t wanna go in there n’more.”
Darrel Ellis, The Night My Uncle Went AWOL, 1983, ink wash, charcoal, 30 × 40 inches.