In the Greater Depression the employment opportunities for a man my age were limited in New York City. A younger man would perform the job for a third of the wage, however my absolute willingness to work overcame most obstacles and for the past two months I have labored on the black market at a different job every few day.
I have surveyed NY pawn shops for loose diamonds, videoed theater pieces, transported bronze flower planters to a penthouse on 5th Avenue, installed bronze radiator covers in Dolce / Gabbana’s fourth-floor penthouse on the Hudson River, constructed sets for PS 122, sold gold for friends, and babysat children.
Hoping for a seasonal job I grew a beard to be a part-time Santa Claus, except the daughter of my landlord and good friend AP said that I looked scary. Off came the scruff of Xmas and I found my next job in my old exchange on West 47th Street.
“Don’t you work in a metal shop?” Laki asked from behind his gold buying counter.
“Yes.” The foundry was located in Greenpoint by the Newtown Creek. The shop 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. The fancy piece of cutlery 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.”
“What’s that?” Manny my ex-boss looked at the bag. My old position was taken by Hlove. He had once had his own jewelry company. Manny and Richie Boy said that he was a good salesman. I nodded a silent hello.
I explained the job to Manny and the octogenarian said, “Easy money.”
“I’ll let you know.” I exited from the exchange and rode the subway to Humboldt Street in Greenpoint.
Rick and his crew were working on a railing project for a Midwestern museum. I showed him the knives and he said, “This sounds like an Uncle Carmine job.”
“Only if making the money is easy.” Rick and I were related through the plumber from the Lower East Side.
“I hope this is easy.” Uncle Carmine never liked breaking a sweat.
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.
“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 Oaxaca.
“It’s a deal.”
I left Rick with 600 knives.
I brought 400 back my apartment, figuring that I could whack out a good two hundred in the light of day.
That Thanksgiving 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. I offered a prayer to Thor and began my task.
Poultice fogged the garden. I ripped the blades from the silver one by one by one.
No music. No beer. Only the clank of steel on steel.
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 dressed in my unwashed clothing and descended from my apartment, dreading the day ahead of me.
After a coffee at Ralph’s Meats on Lafayette I 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 slaving for my kids in Thailand.
“Yes.” I was too weary to say more. The shot of Jamison’s 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, but not me. Uncle Carmine would have never accepted this job.
At least the handles weighed less without the blade and I trudged to the subway. I calculated the value of the silver to be about $20,000. No one on the trains paid me any attention. I looked like a dirty worker and I arrived on 47th street at noon.
How’d it go?” Manny asked from his desk.
“I’ve never been scared of hard work.”
“How you do it?” Hlove stood at the counter.
“Best would be to have a compressor cutter and boiled out the pumice with ammonia.” Hlove knew his business. His hands were clean. “But without ventilators you’d kill everyone in the shop.”
“So it’s Plan A.”
“Better you than me.” Hlove sat down to my old desk. He was my age. We both understood that the only thing worst than working a bad job was not working at all these days. He meant it when he said, “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” I walked back to the gold buyers.
Laki was impressed with the results and paid me on the spot.
$900 filled my pocket. It would be gone by the next dawn. I had kids to feed in Thailand.
“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 young downstairs neighbor opened the garden door with a frown on his face. Martine worked nights. It was barely 9am and he asked, “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Sorry.” I packed up my tools and lugged the knives and 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. A minute after his return he climbed onto the roof.
“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 on a dead end. 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 fine.
“I’m 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 biked back 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 patch.
“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 and if you can’t make it here, then I’ll be damned if I have to make it somewhere else.