Way up in the Bronx is the Emerald, a broken-down old Irish bar, just under the Buhre Avenue elevated tracks, and around the corner from the American Legion Hall where the plasterers’ monthly union meetings are held. So you could say I’ve spent some time in the Emerald.
No matter what month it is, it always seems to be raining. I’m not talking showers, but fucking pouring rain. Sewers choke and gurgle, and the sidewalk looks permanently orange and red from the glow of the neon lights from the bar, bodega, and pizza places that line the avenue — businesses that are just barely hanging on. It was one of those neighborhoods you didn’t come to but passed through, like the Lexington Avenue express train that roars overhead on its way to some other avenue, some other place.
Outside the bar, John huddles under the small awning, smoking and hiding from the rain. He’s a wiry redhead from Northern Ireland, and he might be little, but he’s as mad as they come. “How are we, Darryl?”
I fold up my umbrella and join him for a quick smoke.
“Fucking some rain, ‘eh, John.”
“A typical Irish summer day it is.’’
“ How’s the school job going?” I asked.
“They got us working like real assholes. The whole job is fucked up!”
“I don’t know, John. Every job gets worse and worse. Anyone else here, yet?”
“There’s a few of us in there, Darryl. How’s the Post Office job going?”
“It’s fucking huge. I got fifty-four guys on black iron, lathe, scratch, brown and white, and ornamental.”
“I don’t know how you can handle it, Darryl, running all those big jobs. The stress, it’s not good for the soul. Neither are these.”
He held up a Marlboro Light and laughed and took another drag.
“I like the challenge,” I said. “Besides, it helps make the day go faster.”
We walked into the bar. Brendan, Kirin, and old Irish Nick were already there, sitting at the corner of the bar.
“What’s up, guys?” I said. We all shook hands. I nudged Nick on the shoulder.
“Hey Nick, when are you gonna fucking retire? If I had your money, I’d burn mine.”
Nick just gave me that grin of his and handed me a Bud. A few beers later, I was feeling pretty good. Brendan took a sip of his beer. He was a tall, skinny Irishman, and even though he was my age, his hair was completely white.
“Darryl, how you getting on over there on the West side?”
“Pretty good; how’s it by you?”
“All right. I got about two weeks left. You gonna need a man then?”
“Absolutely. Don’t even bother calling. When Metro lays you off, just show up with your tools. I’ll put you right on.”
“Good man,” Brendan nodded.
I look up and make eye contact with John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States of America. His photo sits in its dusty perch above the cash register.
Matty is banging on the register; the drawer won’t close as usual. Matty was the eighty-four-year-old proprietor of the place. When he was a much younger man he was a plasterer just like the rest of us. Just for fun, sometimes we’d say something like, “Hey Matty, we heard, when you were on the tools, you were a real shit mechanic.”
This drove him crazy. Whenever it happened he would reach under the bar and pull out his old broken-in plaster trowel – he called it “Katlin” – and start dragging it across the yellowed and cracked, plaster-stucco walls.
“If I was younger, I’d bury all of you’s,” he’d say. “Nobody can swing a trowel better then old Matty from Galway.”
That night we left Matty alone. He was content shuffling the old, battered barstools he’d salvaged off the street over the years. Besides, we had bigger things to do than fuck with Matty. The place looked particularly dim in real nicotine and fake mahogany. The walls, ceilings, and floors were as dirty as the air.
That night worried me. This wasn’t gonna be any regular union meeting. There was too much going on with our benefit money and our representation. I got off the bar stool and walked to the back of the bar towards the bathroom. My cell phone started ringing — fucking cock-sucking phone. The fucking thing never fucking stopped.
“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you got your brothers around. You’re a family man. You’re never alone …”
Regina, laughing, holds the phone up to the turntable while West Side Story is playing. She had convinced herself I was gonna get killed, and it was just like her to laugh when she was scared.
I’m doing the Biltmore Theater while my father is dying in a nursing home. Working six days a week, the job is killing me. Life had already killed my father. Regina would sit next to his bed, and my father would whisper, “I’ve been kidnapped. No. I was taken hostage and held as a prisoner in the basement of a nursing home, but I escaped and I made it all the way to Cuba, and I drank martinis with Fidel Castro.”
Regina would just keep holding his hand. She would laugh, not scared anymore. Not me. I just kept shifting, nervously dying for a cigarette and to be somewhere else, anywhere else.
On the phone she says, “I love you baby. Who’s got it better than us?”
“Wait up for me. We’ll have some drinks, and I’ll tell you everything.”
“I love you.”
“I gotta go.”
I hang up and walk past the two old whores that always hung out in front of the only working bathroom. I take a piss. On the wall is a homemade sign, “No sex in the bathroom. You are being watched.” As if to punctuate the statement, a crudely-drawn eyeball, complete with broken blood vessels, was drawn at the bottom of the paper bag it was written on. I get back to my barstool. By now, the place has taken on that sullen Irish feel, the one that comes from too much work or not enough of it.
Then the Italians arrive: Frankie, Angelo and Vinny. Matty eyed them nervously, his trowel behind the bar, close at hand like a baseball bat ready to be pulled out and used, but only as a last resort. Frankie was leading the crowd as usual.
“Darryl, how you doing, good looking? Kirin, baby, how are you?”
He tossed down a handful of crumpled bills.
“Matty, get my Irish friends here some drinks.”
Frank grabbed a stool and dragged it over. He sat down and threw one arm over my shoulder and the other over Kirin’s shoulder. The little leprechaun almost disappeared under Frankie’s massive arm. It was like watching those giant snakes on TV, the ones that slowly wrap around a gazelle in some African Tundra until the little thing disappears.
“Who loves ya, baby!” Frankie hollered. The place isn’t sullen any more. It is alive in a flash, like some dead amusement park ride that’s somehow come back to life. Different colored broken bulbs flashed, glowed, and blinked. You could feel the gears starting to move, slowly at first, then faster.
“Hey, Matty,” Vinny yelled. “You any good with that old trowel of yours?” Matty leaned over the bar nice and calm, well-wrinkled and ready for his once a month comeback.
“How come you can’t get a blow job in Italy?” Vinny started laughing.
“I don’t know. Why, Matty?”
‘‘’Cause all the Guinea cocksuckers are over here!”
“Hey, Matty,” Vinnie says smiling, “how come there’s no Irish lawyers? ‘Cause they can’t pass the bar.”
Matty throws a dirty bar rag over his shoulder and starts washing out glasses. Poor guy can never win.
Mario stood up. “Okay, no more fucking around. What are we gonna tell these mother fuckers tonight?”
“I think we should let Darryl start the meeting,” Brendan said. “He knows how to ask the right questions the right way.”
“All I’m gonna say,” I tell the guys is, ‘“Mr. DiMarco….’, I never call him Vito. I like to play the game. You know, kill them with kindness. Argue, but be a gentleman, not an asshole, ‘Are you gonna respect the decision made by the majority of the men? Yes, or no?’ Look, guys, they can throw us out of the union, but who’s gonna do all the work? We did nothing wrong. We engaged in a discussion in a public place on our own time, of our own free will.’”
“It’s like I say, if we all stick together, we got nothing to worry about,” Frankie interrupted. “Hey, Mattie! How long were you in the union?” Frank asks.
“Only a few years. Got out. Wanted no part of them boys.”
It was five minutes to six, so we spilled out the door of the Emerald together — a united mass, an organized, pissed off, slightly drunk group of plasterers. There used to be twelve-thousand of us in this city.
We were once the highest paid and most respected trade. I saw the old pictures and heard the stories. Plasterers used to come to work in suits and ties. That was sixty years ago. Then in the fifties, drywall was invented, and an entire industry almost disappeared over night. There were less than two hundred of us left now. And only about forty who gave a shit enough to even show up at the union meetings.
We walked down Buhre Avenue, Matty is standing in front of his bar yelling and waving his fists in the air.
“Give ‘em hell, lads! God bless you all.” I walked with Frankie and pulled him over to the side.
“Frank, what’s gonna happen tonight?”
“You’re gonna tell Vito and the rest of them to suck our fucking cocks, but nice and sweet like you always talk, Darryl “
I lit another cigarette and I guess I seemed jumpy because Frank said to me, “Don’t worry, Darryl. You just sit next to me tonight. Nothing’s gonna happen to nobody.”
We file down the narrow stairs to the basement recreation room of the once utopian working-class American Legion Hall. There are no ping-pong or card tables anymore. The only thing left from those solid working class days is an empty green plaster room, its floors covered in beige cigarette-burned tiles. The usual crowd sits on folding metal chairs. The Irish are huddled in one corner smoking, the Italians in the other, the blacks in the middle, and the Spanish in the back. Everybody is smoking, passing around half-empty Poland Spring water bottles. Our communal fraternal ashtray, the sharing of the communal ashtray, makes us a collective force against the greed and corruption that destroyed our union and our trade. These wise guys didn’t give a shit about plastering. They only cared about how much money they could steal before they went to prison. The only chance we had of surviving was to get away from these motherfuckers, join the bricklayers union of New York City and take control of our own future.
In the front of the room was a table where our union leaders sat like senators at a congressional hearing or judges in a prison beauty pageant. They looked over the room and through every man in it – – cold, hard stares, fidgeting in their chairs, ready for a fight or a war, chain smoking, too, sharing their own private corporate executive communal ashtray, a white Styrofoam coffee cup, the edges brown and dirty. Behind them on the dirty green plaster wall is a sign that says, “No Smoking.”
The sergeant at arms, six-foot-five, three-hundred-pounds, unfurled a small American flag. There we stood, one hand on our hearts, the other on our cigarettes, pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. The words “and justice for all” had barely left our lips when I said, “Mr. DiMarco., are you gonna let us join the ‘brickies’ or not?”
He blew a big puff of smoke and looked right into my eyes. We were maybe ten feet apart.
“You’re free to join any union you want, and why don’t you take all your little buddies with you. Because this union has no place for members who would undermine their own local.”
That’s what the meeting was about, the fact that fourteen of us had the balls to take control of our own future and meet with the bricklayers in their union hall in Queens. The bricklayers’ union hall in Queens was above a bar, and in the back of the bar was a secret elevator that took you up to the hall. As soon as I saw that secret elevator I wanted in. I wanted to be a proud Local 1 man. Fuck the pension. I wanted to ride in the old prohibition elevator.
The night we showed up at the “bricky” hall, Vito and his boys were waiting for us in front of the bar in a black SUV. Apparently the news about the secret elevator spread quickly. What are you gonna do? There’s always a rat somewhere. They were all there: Vito, the union vice president; Sal, another vice president; Johnny, the apprentice coordinator; and even hired muscle. Nick the Greek, our business agent, was videotaping the whole thing.
Sal came up to us in his usual skin-tight shirt and pants. He was a real knee-breaker. Hurt you, take your money. That was Sal, all two-hundred-fifty-pounds of him. His father-in-law was a major moneymaker for the DiAngelo crime family. The combo made him a very dangerous man. Sal was doing the gentleman wise guy routine. He came up to us and shook my hand.
“How yous guy’s doing? Listen this is a free country …”
Whenever a wise guy said “free,” it was always followed by “but” and sure enough…
“But if you guys think you’re gonna plaster with the ‘brickies’, it ain’t gonna fucking happen. If you walk through that door and into that hall, we’re gonna bring you’s all up on charges. And you guys ain’t gonna plaster ever again in this city. You understand me?”
“Sal,” I said, “we’re just going into the bar to have some drinks. We don’t know nothing about no meeting.”
We walked into the bar, and Nick the Greek yelled, “I got all you assholes on videotape!”
We started drinking. A few minutes later, Frankie showed up. I handed him a beer.
“Frank, what you say to Sal?”
“I told him I was coming inside for a couple of drinks. What, did you tell him?”
“The same thing.”
It went on like that for about an hour, the union outside videotaping and harassing every man that walked through the door of the bar.
“We have you all on videotape going into the ‘brickies’ hall two weeks ago,” Vito yelled.
“Can I see the videotape,” I asked.
“It’s not available,” Vito said, as he plunged another cigarette into his coffee cup ashtray. “Besides, you don’t need to see it. We’ve seen it. If you guys don’t like this local, then why don’t you guys just get the fuck out of here.”
“We’re trying, Mr. DiMarco, but you won’t let us go.”
I thought I might have him. I was a cynical motherfucker and always have been, even long before I joined the union. It probably started at fucking birth. Just when I thought I might be nailing shut the lid of this coffin, Frankie jumped out of his chair. “Where’s my fucking pension, Vito?”
“You don’t understand the situation, Frankie. So why don’t you sit down and stop making a fool of yourself.”
“Fuck you, Vito. I’ve been a member of this local for twenty-seven years. You can’t talk to me like that. I pay your salary!”
Jimmy jumped up. “I’ve been a member of this union for thirty-eight years, and you know what I got to show for it, Vito? I got cock!”
We all started chanting, “Cock, cock, cock!”
Vito waved to the sergeant at arms.
“Get rid of him,” he said, pointing to Frank.
I jumped up. “Vito, you promised us this wasn’t gonna happen anymore, that we could speak at the meetings without the fucking gorillas.”
Vito yelled, “You want to act like animals, then we’ll treat you like animals!”
The sergeant at arms went for Frank’s arm. Frank slapped his hand away.
“You want me to leave, no problem. Just do me a favor and don’t put your fucking hands on me.”
Everyone starts screaming. We jump out of our chairs. Vito and his boys did the same, and we met in the middle of the room. Soon the whole place was screaming and waving fingers.
“You don’t like it, then why don’t you just get the fuck out of here!” they screamed at us.
“Go fuck yourself,” we screamed back.
So that night they threw us out of the union. Big fucking deal. They couldn’t stop us from working, and as long as we paid our dues, they couldn’t touch us. So there would be no Christmas party, which was cancelled, anyway. Instead, we all got a letter asking us to send money to the “Vito DeMarco” legal defense fund. And we couldn’t vote – not like we ever did before. This country may be a democracy, but within the green worn walls of this hall, nothing even comes close to democracy. Besides, we wanted out, anyway.
That night we were lucky. No punches were thrown. No chairs went flying across the room. On the way home, Frankie and I ran into the sergeant at arms on the subway platform. He was actually not a bad guy, once you got him out of the hall.
The next day at the job site at coffee time, the apprentice came back with the coffee and sandwiches. We were all sitting on buckets, smoking cigarettes, drinking and eating. The apprentice was a good kid. He was gonna make a good mechanic someday.
“Hey, kid,” I asked, “at the next meeting, I want you to make sure you keep an empty chair next to you. Don’t let anyone sit in it. You follow me?”
“Yeah, I understand you want me to save the chair for you, right Darryl?”
Frank threw down his empty coffee cup.
“You’re one dumb fucking kid, you know that? The chair’s not for Darryl to sit in. It’s for you to throw at the first motherfucker that gets near you.”
“Frank, I never threw a chair at nobody.”
“That’s why I want you to spend this weekend practicing throwing chairs,” I told him. He was drinking a soda.
“Darryl,” he asked “can’t I practice ducking chairs instead?”
We all laughed.
“You know, kid,” Frankie said, “you’re a real fucking pineapple!”
“Shut up,” the kid said. “I am not.”
“The Hall” is an excerpt from his nonfiction narrative “The Local,” about a union construction worker who inadvertently lands in the middle of hostile Union takeover.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jeremy Price