SMASHING KNIVES by Peter Nolan Smith

In the Greater Depression the employment opportunities for a man my age were limited in New York City, however my absolute willingness to work overcame most obstacles and for the past two months I have labored at a different job every few day.

I have trawled Harlem pawn shops for loose diamonds, videoed Off-Off Broadway plays, transported bronze flower planters to a 5th Avenue penthouse, installed intricate radiator covers at Dolce / Gabbana’s penthouse, constructed theater sets for PS 122, and babysat sullen children in Brooklyn brownstones.

Hoping for a holiday position as a part-time Santa Claus I grew my beard long, except the daughter of my landlord and good friend AP said that I looked scary.

Off came the St. Nicolas scruff and I subwayed to West 47th Street to sell a gold ring at my old diamond exchange.

After buying the ring Lak asked from behind his counter, “Don’t you work in a metal shop?”

“Yes.” The foundry was located in Greenpoint by the Newtown Creek. My cousin’s 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. Its sentimental value was nothing. The handles were worth abotu $30. “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 calculated Rick’s workers would process several thousand knives in a week. “Give me ten. I’ll see what my cousin thinks.”

Lak stuck the knives in a bag and I walked down the aisle to the door.

“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 said that he was a good salesman. I nodded a silent hello.

I explained the job and the octogenarian said, “Sounds like easy money.”

“I’ll let you know how easy.” I exited from the exchange and rode the train to Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
Rick and his crew were assembling a steel project for a Midwestern museum. I showed 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.”

“We split the take 50/50, but only if two of my workers can knock out a hundred each hour.”

I waved to Oscar and Julio. The Mexican brothers were hard workers. If anyone could find the right method, those two could. They came from Oaxaca.

“It’s a deal.”

I left Rick with 600 knives.

I brought 400 back to my apartment, figuring that I could whack out a good two hundred a day.

That Thanksgiving morning 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, so 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 was 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. Martina the blonde bartender served me a Stella.

“You don’t look happy.”

“I’m not.” I drained the first beer in less than a minute and told her my tale of woe.

“That next beer is on me.” Martina had a good heart and I drank five Stellas before stumbling home to my bed and weary dreams filled with knives.

The next morning 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. I sat at my perch under the porch and began to hammer.

The five hours lasted ten in troll time. Saturday was worse since I had another 100 knives to do on Sunday.
That night AP, my landlord, returned from his holiday in the Hamptons 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. I had been that close to death.

On Monday morning I called Rick. He didn’t sound happy.

“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.”

“You know, Uncle Carmine would have never accepted this job.”

“I didn’t know it before, but I know it now.”

At the metal shop Oscar and Julio didn’t say hello. Oscar muttered ‘cabron’. worker. He was absolutely right, I was a bastard, but at least the handles weighed less without the blade and I trudged to the subway, calculating the value of the silver at about $20,000. Any thief would have loved that score, but I looked like a dirty worker on the L train and I arrived safely on 47th street at noon.

“How’d it go?” Manny asked from his desk.

“I’ve never been scared of hard work.” The powder from the handles was scratching my lungs and my right hand trembled with cramps.

“How you do it?” Hlove stood at the counter.

“Brute force.”

“A better technique would be to have a compressor cutter and boil out the pumice with ammonia.” Hlove knew the backend of the jewelry business from over twenty years as a manufacturer. “But without ventilators you’d kill everyone in the shop.”

“So I was stuck with Plan A.”

“Better you than me.” Hlove sat down to my old desk. We both understood that the only thing worst than working a bad job was not working at all these days and he meant it when he said, “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” I walked back to the gold buyers.
Lak was impressed with the results and paid me on the spot.

$1000 filled my pocket. $300 went to rick. The rest would be gone by the next dawn. I had kids to feed in Thailand.

“You want more?” Lak asked, as if he expected me to refuse his offer.

“Yeah.” I took another 200 to pummel in the backyard.

The following morning I resumed up my position.

Hammer in hand I smashed apart the first knife. My 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 lugged the knives 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 last 100 on a East River dead-end. After three hours the police arrived on the scene and the older cop asked for my permit.

“Permit for what?” Dust from the knives hovered three meters around me. Its ingredients violated every EPA mandate.

“For working here.” The cop was confused about the proper misdemeanor.

“I need to finish this off, so I can feed my kids.” It was the truth.
The two cops looked at each other. The had kids and the driver warned, “Don’t let us find you 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 had forgiven this morning’s trespass. His children were attending private school.

“I was done two days ago. Now the task was done.”

“Good.” We drank a bottle of wine in celebration. The second bottle was to get drunk. I deserved it.

The next day I stopped by 47th Street. Lak 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?” Lak was shocked that I possessed the strength for this work.

“Yeah, the shop said it wasn’t worth the effort 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.” 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.

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