James Alley, 11/16/2015
Current Occupation: Retired from 25 years as a government employee now seeking enlightenment via freelance writing.
Former Occupation: Get ready: IT Specialist, landscaper, busboy, cook, restaurant manager, stable-boy, produce stocker, adaptive gardening instructor, school bus driver, furniture mover, ice cream sales, handyman, waiter, parking lot sweeper, welfare worker, carpenter, house painter, cat whisperer, lumber yard peon, and assembly line worker.
Contact Information: I’m a native Californian residing in West Sacramento with my wife and three cats. I’ve written whenever work and life’s obligations would permit, beginning with a novel about a special young girl on my welfare caseload who magically prevailed in the shadow of her mother’s profound mental illness. I’ve had a sprinkling of successes over the years: a story in the national magazine True Romance, short stories in various men’s magazines, numerous stories in the literary journal The Yolo Crow, a chap book including the writings of six local-area writers, and two unpublished novels.
At a time when life was simpler and more complex, but money was as critical as it would ever be, there was an interesting help-wanted sign in the student employment office at the university. Mike seldom went in there, but on this day made a point of looking. He needed some income. Summer was starting and it got old asking the folks for gas and food money. It was bad enough living at home in the first place.
It sounded pretty good. Description: 6 workers needed to move furniture into a Beverly Hills office building. Duration: 4 weeks. Salary: $2.80/hr. Deadline: ASAP. Contact: Rick Stern
He carefully followed instructions, took one of the pink Job Interest sheets from the table and wrote in the job number: 72-1408, the contact person: Rick Stern, his own name: Mike Carson, address, phone number, and social security number. He handed it to the woman behind the front desk, Mrs. Emeline. She was large and well dressed and had swirled blonde hair. She glanced up to him briefly, then looked away. She took a phone call, then sorted various papers on her desk. Finally she looked to him.
“Did you find something?”
“I think so.”
She read the pink sheet carefully, then pulled a file from her drawer and read that. “Have you ever moved furniture before?”
He shrugged. “Yeah.” He’d helped a million friends move from one apartment to another. He’d helped his sister and her husband move. He’d helped his mother rearrange the living room furniture. Hell yeah, he’d moved furniture before.
“Are you available beginning next week?”
Mike nodded, “Yeah.”
“For four weeks?”
She gave him an application. He completed it. She said to call back on Friday. Mike went back to his apartment and told his roommate Dave Jason about the job, then called Garth in the Valley. He was home from school for the summer too. Everyone needed work and this sounded good, and good money.
Dave Jason and Garth followed through immediately, rushed down to the university employment office and filled out the same forms. They all called back on Friday and were told to report to S&H Interior Design on Santa Monica Blvd. at 11:00 a.m. Monday.
They drove there together. It was a new brick and glass office building. Inside the glass doors all was cool, carpeted, muted, and dark. The directory said S&H Interior Design was on the third floor. They rode the elevator up and found the suite.
A receptionist took their names and asked them to be seated in the waiting area. There were three other young men there, one tall and blonde, two smaller and Asian.
After a few minutes, the receptionist said, “You can all go in now,” and pointed to the door. They all got up and trudged through the open door into a hallway where they were greeted by a neatly dressed and well manicured man. He was smiling and cheerful. “Welcome! C’mon in! Step right in here. I hope there’s room for everyone.”
They stepped into the office. There were only three chairs, so the first three sat down and the other three stood.
The man introduced himself as Rick Stern and shook the hand of each of the six young men, then took a seat behind the desk.
Mike noticed how perfectly groomed he was, how tawny his skin, how immaculate his shirt, how perfect every hair on his head, how stylish his clothes. He spoke very succinctly, was very polite. He thanked the six for coming in this morning. He hoped they weren’t inconvenienced by the traffic. (Five of them had been born and raised in LA and were accustomed to traffic. The sixth, Dave Jason, was born and raised in New York City and was accustomed to traffic too.)
He explained that a new office building had recently been completed on Santa Monica Blvd. and would soon be occupied by the law firm, Honeywell, Heaton, Sturgis, and Lachowsky. He asked if anyone had heard of that law firm. None of them had. He said the law firm had contracted S&H to complete their interior design. Now all that was complete and the furniture purchased and waiting to be installed. A professional moving company would oversee the move, but the six here in the room would do the heavy lifting.
They all had to sign a contract and agreed to report to work at the Santa Monica Blvd. site on Wednesday. As they rode home, Mike commented that Rick Stern seemed to be a pretty nice guy. Garth agreed, but added, “Although one or two too many touches.” This he said in a slightly high voice, alluding to the fact Rick being obviously gay at a time when being gay was not yet openly acceptable.
On Tuesday Mike and Dave Jason were called by the secretary at S&H Interiors. The job was being postponed until the following Monday. Meanwhile, on Thursday they were to report to the offices of the Teamster’s Union on Ventura Blvd. All the workers on this job would be in the union. Their pay would be $3.50 rather than $2.80. This was getting better and better.
On Thursday Mike and Dave Jason and Garth arrived outside a modest two-story brown stucco building on Ventura Blvd. Inside was a spacious carpeted reception area. At a desk sat a beautiful brunette. She smiled. “You must be Mr. Carson, Mr. Jason, and Mr. Gaston. Go ahead and have a seat. Mr. Franzese will be with you in a few minutes.”
They seated themselves. Once again they saw the tall blonde guy and the two Asian guys already seated. The six waited for a while. The room muted, the walls dark imitation wood. They were surrounded by black and white photos of what looked like gangsters in black suits posing in night clubs and at job sites. Pure Mafioso. Then two guys out of central casting entered from a side door, black suits, Italian, all jokes and overbearing.
One stopped in his tracks and said, “Hi boys.”
They all said hi.
“Welcome to the Teamsters Union. You here to get sworn in?”
None of them was sure what they would be doing. Mike shrugged and said, “We’re going to be doing a furniture moving job in Beverly Hills starting next week and were told to report here today.”
The guy seemed pleased. “The S&H Interiors job?”
“We did a little favor for you boys. Someone was trying to pull a fast one on us, but we sniffed ‘m out. This job’s going to be strictly union. It’ll put a lot more money in your pockets. How does that sound?”
Mike nodded. “Good.”
The guy looked to everyone else. “What about the rest of you? You asleep or what? You wanna make more money or less?”
Now they were all awake. Everyone nodded and agreed aloud that they’d like to make more money.
The guy was pleased. “That’s what I thought. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do for you. Strictly union wage. A living wage.”
Mike felt obligated to respond. “We appreciate it.”
Now the other guy approached them. “My name’s Willy Sanducci. I’m the Teamsters Rep for West LA and Beverly Hills.” He extended a hand to Mike. He said, “Mike Carson.” The guy’s grip was like a vice. He turned to Dave Jason. Dave stated his name and the two shook hands. Then he went around the group, each of them following suit, stating their name and shaking hands with Willy Sanducci.
Then the first guy said, “Willy will be your union rep. He’ll be the most important person in your life for the next few months. Any problems at the job site, you talk to Willy. He’ll straighten things out right away. Willy doesn’t fuck around.”
The group of young men – barely beyond boys – wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not. Were these guys for real? Mike knew instinctively the time for laughing would be later, not now. These guys might be clowns, but they were assuring the group they’d be paid well for this work, and who can argue with a good salary? But he was worried about Garth. He knew not to make eye contact with him. As for Dave Jason, he was probably not getting any of this anyway. Or maybe it seemed pretty routine coming from New York as he did. These guys might be his neighbors back home.
Then the first guy said, “By the way, I’m Rocco Rizzi. I’m Willy’s boss, so if he gives you any shit, just let me know.” He smiled approvingly, then shook hands with each of the six.
“Boys, what’s going to happen today is you’re going to meet the big cheese, Benny Franciamoni, the president of the LA Teamsters. Then we’re going to swear you all in and you’ll officially become brothers with all lifetime rights and protections of the union. How does that sound?”
When no one said anything, Mike said, “Sounds pretty good.”
Rocco continued. “Now all that comes with a price. Nothing’s free, right boys?”
“For all the rights and protections of the union, you’ll be expected to do two things. You know what those two things are?”
No one knew.
“Pay your monthly dues and keep your nose clean. In other words, play by the rules and don’t cause any trouble and you’re good as gold for life. This is a golden opportunity for you boys. You don’t know how lucky you are right now.”
Now the tall blonde guy took the lead. “I know I’m lucky to have a job. Work is hard to get.”
Rocco enjoyed this. “That’s right, boys, and don’t forget it. But just because work is hard to get, don’t let the boss try to Jew you out of a fair salary, alright?”
The group was silent, uncertain how to respond to this.
Everyone mumbled alright.
Mike was beginning to feel a sense of dread. This was getting too crazy. He knew Garth too well. They grew up together. Garth lived for humor. It was already clear the two must not to make eye contact until they were far out of sight of this place.
Willy and Rocco worked the group for a while longer, enjoying their seniority over the group, and their self-importance. Meanwhile the group was weakening, being softened up by so many body punches. Mike was concerned. This could go the wrong way.
Finally the group was led through a door down a hallway to an office with the sign JAMES L. “BENNY” FRANZESE, PRESIDENT. Everyone was respectful, quiet, as they entered the office. It was a large room, at one end a huge desk, behind it a hunched-over little guy looking a hundred years old, a heavy toupee perched on his head and puffing on a big cigar.
“Hiya boys!” he called out in a rasp. “Sit yourselves anywhere.”
Now this was too much. Again the office was surrounded with photos, even one of Jimmy Hoffa, others of Teamsters officials, all Mafiosos, on docks next to freighters, at railroads, at construction sites. But Benny, the little Mafioso perched behind this desk, was over the top, a caricature. The group seated themselves on the plush couches and easy chairs and waited for what was next.
Benny spoke loudly, in a back-room poker game rasp. “Well boys, welcome to the Teamsters Union. I understand you’re going to be moving some furniture.”
“Yeah,” someone responded for the group.
“And you’re gonna get union pay, ha? How ‘bout that?”
This was all too much. The group was weakening further. The opening act had been a great set up, now Benny was killing. Mike gazed straight ahead, focusing on Benny, trying to give him his highest respect, trying desperately to disregard the rest of the group.
Another Mafioso in a black suit came in and spoke briefly to Benny, then left. Benny said, “Boys, we’re going to swear you all in in a few minutes. Meanwhile we’ll wait here and get to know each other a little better.”
Everyone wondered what that meant. Mike felt almost panicky, struggling to contain a smile. Thank God the room was dark. Behind him Garth sat quietly, but for how long? Mike would not make eye contact, even in this darkened room. That would be danger. Still, he maintained hope that with concentration and intestinal fortitude they would all survive this bizarre encounter.
But Benny was relentless.
“So tell my about yourselves, boys. Any a you been movers before?”
Mike waited. He was ready to tell about his moving experiences, but then one of the two Asian guys spoke up.
“I worked for Beacons the last two summers.”
That was good. A solid interaction. Benny said, “Beacons, huh. Whereabouts?”
The Asian guy said, “Monterey Park.”
“South LA,” Benny rasped. “Did you get union pay?”
The guy said, “I don’t know.”
“Was it a union shop?”
“I don’t know,” the guy said, sounding amused.
“What was your pay?”
They guy said, “Three fifty an hour.”
Benny shook his head. “That was union. Congratulations. You’ve already got union seniority. You might end up supervising the rest of these guys.”
The guy said, “I don’t think so.”
Benny waved to the rest of the group. “How ‘bout the rest of you. Anyone else been a union mover before?”
Mike couldn’t contain himself. “I’ve moved a lot of furniture, but I’ve never been paid for it.”
Benny flicked his cigar. “Whattaya mean, never been paid. You workin’ for free?”
Mike said, “I’ve helped a lot of friends move. I usually get paid in pizza and beer.”
The group chuckled.
Benny nodded. “That’s good, helping your friends. But I bet you wouldn’t want to work all week lifting furniture and get paid nothing more than a few pieces of pizza.”
“That’s where the union comes in. Boys, when I was your age I’d already been working for ten years, since I was a kid. And the wages were nothing. You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread with a day’s wage. But let me tell ya, the unions have fixed all that. You’ll get a decent wage you can live on.”
Everyone was grateful, but then, they were all college students planning to work for a month or so, then move on with life. Still, yes, they’d be glad to receive $3.50 instead of $2.80 an hour.
Benny said, “Boys, I started in the sweat shops in New York’s lower east side. Any of you familiar with that area?”
“It was a rough area and you had to be tough to survive. It was hard work, but I did like I told you boys. I kept my nose clean and played by the rules. I helped start the teamsters in New York. Now look at me today. I started dirty and with nothing. Now look at what I got.” He gestured to his surroundings. “This big office, assistants, a beautiful secretary out front. Any of you get a good look at Tina out there? Not too hard on the eyes, huh?”
They’d all seen Tina. She was fifteen years older than them, heavily made-up, and from a very different world.
“You guys can have all this too. You just gotta work and keep your nose clean.”
Benny took a couple more puffs on his cigar, blowing blue billows into the already thick air. There was an awkward silence. On his desk was a little toy with six suspended steel balls hanging in a row. Mike had seen these before. If you pull the ball at one end away from the others and let it go, it falls back against the others, transferring the energy to the opposite end, forcing the ball at that end to pop away and bounce back, in turn causing the original ball to bounce, the cycle repeating itself until the energy is dissipated, all this revealing the basic laws of physics.
Absently Benny pulled the ball at one end and watched the chain reaction, then turned to the group.
“A little toy to occupy myself,” he explained. “When my wife calls and asks what I’m doing, I tell her I’m playing with my balls.”
The group stared in disbelief. Was Benny trying to amuse them, playing down to them, or was this typical Mafioso union language? They were left to ponder this as his phone rang. Benny picked it up.
In his loud rasp, nearly shouting, “Hello, Corky? Yeah. Yeah. Tell the boys we’re coming in next week whether they’re ready or not. And Corky, tell those boys to clean up their act, will ya? Christ, they’re actin’ like goons down there.” He listened for a minute. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Corky! Yeah! Tell’m I’m gonna win that fuckin’ buck-fifty back, will ya?” After another silence, he laughed. “Corky, say hi to Tallulah for me, will ya? Is she still a doll? Okay. Okay. Buy, Corky.”
Again he addressed the little group, now hopelessly weakened and teetering on the precipice, staring absently. Mike heard Garth cough several times behind him, then ask the tall blonde guy for a cigarette. Mike was petrified. He knew the coughing was a reflex to head off laughter, the cigarette a diversion to occupy him and hopefully maintain composure.
But the onslaught was merciless. The group was losing its nerve.
Benny, oblivious to any of this, serenely ensconced in his world, spoke again. “So you boys go to college?”
No one was willing to speak, fearing their voice might betray their mirth. Finally Mike said, “Yes.”
“UCLA,” Mike said.
When it was quiet, Benny spoke again. “Anyone else?”
One of the Asian guys said, “LA City College.”
When there was an awkward pause, somebody in the group spoke, desperately trying to maintain a coherent give and take. “Benny, did you go to college.”
“No, boys, my mother told me I wasn’t a good student. I said, How do you know that?, and she said, Because I went to the school to ask the teacher how you were doing and she told me you play hooky every day. I said, That’s a lie, so she said, then tell me your teacher’s name.” He looked forlorn, then raised both palms facing the heavens and said, “I couldn’t tell her.” He smiled contentedly. “No, boys, school was never for me.”
Mike wondered when they would do the God damned swearing in so they could get out of this place. But it was too late. Behind him he heard Garth yelp, then force a cough, then yelp several more times. Mike looked to the floor and chuckled silently, fearful he was about to laugh out loud.
Then the blonde guy began laughing noisily, then yelping helplessly. Suddenly it was a chain reaction. One of the Asian guys was laughing, and behind him Dave Jason, who didn’t laugh often, was laughing lightly.
Mike struggled mightily, his face contorted by the effort, his lips tight across his teeth, when suddenly he could hold it no longer and a loud whimper blurted forth, then he guffawed out of control for several desperate seconds before covering his mouth in a futile effort to smother the sounds. But now all was lost. The whole group was sniggling, hee-hawing, guffawing, chortling, tittering, snickering, convulsing, and horse laughing with no pretense at control. The laughter roared from the group, a laughter made mightier for having been stifled so long.
All involved were aware that this was inappropriate, and wrong, and discourteous in a circumstance where they were hoping to be hired to make some money. And yet all these facts somehow made their mirth greater.
Benny looked to the group.
“Something funny, boys?”
Now what was to be said? This group who didn’t even know one another’s names were suddenly old friends with a common cause, a common source of intense amusement, and a common emergency.
Again the tall blonde guy spoke. He was maybe the biggest victim here, having been inadvertently situated next to Garth, not knowing that Garth’s tolerance and self-control were so limited, his sense of humor limitless. But now, trying to salvage the situation any way he could, he lamely offered, “Oh, one of the guys told us a joke earlier.”
What kind of sense did that even make? Why would they all suddenly start laughing about a joke twenty minutes after arriving at this office?
“You wanna let me in on it?” Benny said.
Mike wanted to step in, but couldn’t think of anything whatsoever to say, and now his tears were clouding his vision and he was trembling violently.
The tall guy couldn’t even compose himself to answer. Through laughter he said, “Oh, it was nothing. A private joke.”
Mike was aghast. A private joke! That’s not the right thing to say.
Benny sat back in his chair. It wasn’t clear what was going on, but it wasn’t good. This wasn’t what you’d call respect. It wasn’t even keeping one’s nose clean.
They waited a while longer, the laughter now subsided but for an occasional cough or throat-clearing from time to time. They sat mostly waiting for the swearing in ceremony they’d been promised, but finally were told they could now go back into the lobby to sign their union documents. Tina had a stack of papers at her desk. Each of them signed their name in three places, then she told the group they were done and could go. They eagerly stepped out the door into the parking lot.
The feeling was sheer, unadulterated relief.
The six of them, now best friends, stood by their cars and relived the event for several minutes, laughed again, then laughed even harder, then decided it would be best to vacate these premises. They would see one another next Monday at the job site.
As Mike and Garth and Dave Jason climbed into his car, Garth said, “Weren’t we supposed to do some kind of swearing in?”
Mike looked to him. “Fuck, I’m just happy they didn’t take us out back and shoot us.”
The job started as planned on Monday, the crew a tight-knit one with high morale, united for having survived a grueling ordeal together. They kept their noses clean and made union wages. Nobody had any complaints to bring to the union rep. The job was done in six weeks, the fancy new office opened as planned, and the movers dispersed, each heading in their own direction, a pocketful of money and a teamster for life.