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There is something special about moving furniture for a living in a city like New York. Oh, I don't mean the furniture itself, which is pretty much the same wherever you are; no, what sets  The Big Apple apart is the variety of characters you find yourself working with.

 

This was back in the eighties and for all I know things have changed, as visitors from the States are constantly telling me. Personally, although I never contradict them, it seems to me that some of the things they report must be just a bit exaggerated. No Sex Shops on the Deuce? Never happen. No Three Card Monty artists on Fourteenth? Give me a break. And where would all the Bad, the Mad, the Wannabe Actors, the Jazz artists between gigs, the lost immigrants ...where would all these colorful characters find work if not in the Seasonal, No questions asked, Lavishly tipped Moving industry?

 

The best part of the job, for me, was all the stories we only learned a part of. Who was the thirty something lady we moved from one studio apartment (one room and a bath) to another just like it? She had a camp bed and one wardrobe's worth of clothes and some books, and we gave her a ride uptown to her new address which was strictly against the rules but what the hell, and when we had moved her and her meager belongings in, she gave an eighty bucks tip to the foreman, and while we were all congratulating ourselves on an easy twenty apiece, she turned and gave the same amount to each of us with the same quietly amused smile.

 

Whatever happened to the guy with terminal Aids we moved downtown from a posh penthouse in the Upper East Side? He had those lesions they get in the last stages, and he was exhausted by the whole business, you could tell. I was packing the apartment alone because, well to be honest, none of the other guys would set foot in the place. Everyone had the ill informed belief that the Aids virus would go feral at the first opportunity, so I loaded the dollies and stacked them by the elevator. That was how I had a ringside seat while the owner's best friend spent the whole move trying to convince the poor bastard to sell this and give away that, and I was there when he threw up his hands and cried, 'I don't care, take anything you want.' I was there when he offered me a glass of water with the damndest smile you ever saw, which only twitched a little when I drank it down without stopping.

 

So the customers were a treat, and no two jobs were alike, but the best part was the variety of guys we had working with us. We had two Russian immigrants: there was Peter, a refugee from Belarus who had literally jumped ship in New York Harbor and now was desperately homesick. He finally went home during a general amnesty, or so his mother claimed, but not before getting my address so he would have someone to write to if it all went pear-shaped. Then there was Russian Mike, so called to distinguish him from yours truly. I never got his history straight, he claimed to have been born in Hungary but his first language was Russian, which would have made him a bit of an oddity because none of my Hungarian friends would have admitted to knowing a word of the language, it was a point of honor with them. He had straggly long hair and a beard to match, and looked a great deal like pictures of Rasputin, with a deep voice that fit the part. I always got the impression he felt he was doing work that was beneath him, and I used to tease him by calling him Munkás Mike, which is like Bob the Builder in Hungarian.

 

One job I did with him, the customer was a lovely lady, single and some kind of executive on Wall Street. Everyone was smitten with her to some degree, but it brought out the romantic in Mike. During lunch break he went down to the nearest Liquor store, which was out of character, and brought back what looked like a very expensive bottle of wine. Then at the end of the job, when the tips were shared out, he brought out his gleaming bottle with the fancy label and in his deep and thoroughly Rasputin-esque voice he presented it to the customer, saying, ' Herrre, I buy this forrr you, forr your eyes. I drrream about yourr eyes tonight.' To give the lady credit, she accepted the gift gracefully, if with a slight air of alarm.

Then there was Joel, a tough Jewish kid who claimed to have been a Hells Angel- that's a more or less famous Motorcycle Gang in America that dates back to 1948.

That made him something of a celebrity because as you might imagine, we didn't get very many ex- Angels in the Moving Business. He had everyone spell bound with his tales of daring motorcycle rides and spectacular spills, and he certainly looked the part, with the sleeveless tee shirts showing off his bulging biceps. For some reason the female customers were quite smitten with him- I'll never forget the time he tapped me for ten bucks during a job, explaining that the lady we were moving had invited him out to dinner and he didn't have cabfare.

 

Only as time went on did we learn there was a darker side to Joel. Once he asked me if I would go with him to pick up some stuff he had in storage. The place turned out to be a Drug Rehabilitation Center, and as we went through the door I saw a transformation I'll never forget. Gone was the swagger, the confident tough guy attitude. Behind the reception desk was this nerdy character with round spectacles and a crew cut, but one look at his face and you knew who held all the power.

 

'Well, Joel, I didn't expect to see you back here so soon. What can we do for you?'

 

Joel grimaced and kept his eyes on the floor. ' I, uh, came to pick up my stuff, ok?'

 

'What stuff is that?'

 

I had feeling that the Nerd knew exactly what Joel meant but just wanted to make him sweat a little. One of the perks of a low paying job like that, I suppose.

 

'Uh, well, my guitar, and, you know, my stud and stuff.'

 

'The diamond stud, you mean? And the guitar? ' The Nerd pursed his lips and seemed to consider. ' You wouldn't be going to pawn those items, would you?'

 

This wasn't said in an accusatory tone, more like a we-both-know-that's-what-you-usually-do-isn't-it kind of voice.

 

'No, I just, like, want to have them, you know?' said Joel doggedly, still with his eyes on the floor. ' I got a job, I make good money.' He glanced up at me and I readily agreed that this was no more than the truth.

 

There was some more palaver but finally the Nerd had to give in, I gathered because Joel had been released and they really had no legal right to hold his property. That night in gratitude Joel invited me back to the West Side Apartment he was sharing with a young lady- actually sharing is the wrong word, it was more like the way a lonely person will adopt a feral cat. Joel played folk songs and the girl and I sang along, and at one point after a few glasses of wine I asked him what was the story with the Drug Rehab?

 

'Heroin, man.' said Joel succinctly, fingering a soft chord.

 

' Why'd you do it?' I asked because I was really curious and a bit drunk, ' I mean, what do people get out of it?' I think we were roughly the same age but the look I got then was two years older than God.

 

'Well,' said Joel, putting down the Guitar and lighting a cigarette, 'It's like this. Say you come home, and some psycho bastard has broken into your place and killed your woman and your two kids. Now, if you're on a high, you don't get totally wasted and lose your mind. What you do, you say to yourself, hey, that's really fucked. I'm sure gonna miss that chick, and the kids were great, and if I ever catch the sonofabitch that did that someday I'm going to mess him up big time, but it's all cool. That's what Heroin does for you.'

 

Some of the outfits I worked for had a sort of class system. The college boys tended to do smaller jobs; we had a couple from NYU who'd cannily cornered the market on Art Moves, where a big painting had to be crated and transported. Then there were the Hispanics, who tended to work together on big office moves; they loved wheeling file cabinets and desks into the elevator and across the lobby; some of the moves used as many as four trucks in rotation – wheel the stuff on, wheel it off and go back for the next load. Often it was midnight before the job was done.

 

Then there were the Jazz musicians- they were mostly black, and liked working together. One summer there was a new guy, tall, with an aristocratic sort of face. His name was Omar, and the word was he came from Africa, the son of a Royal Family off to New York to sow a few wild oats. The Jazz musicians more or less adopted him, and he seemed to get a real kick out of working on the trucks; I remember him always with a big smile as though the contrast between hauling furniture and what ever kind of life he led back home tickled his fancy. One morning, though, I came into the office to find everyone sitting around talking in low voices. Finally the dispatcher came out – he was a little guy with spectacles and a bald patch, and he had to look up to talk to Rupert, who was about six-two and played trumpet. I heard him murmur something, and Rupert sat down like he had been poleaxed. 'Oh, no man!' he shouted, his eyes screwed up in pain, 'Not Omar!'

 

It seemed that Omar had been in a truck driven by Julius, the lead drummer in some group or other. Julius had taken an off ramp too fast and the truck had turned over, killing Omar who had been riding nearest the window. Julius was of course heartsick and hadn't come in to work, and we gathered that the Company was in trouble with the family in Africa who wanted an explanation as to what their heir apparent had been doing riding in a truck in the first place. I'll always remember the few times I saw Omar, and never without thinking of his life which began on the endless plains of Africa as a member of a Royal household, and ended so pointlessly and suddenly on the other side of the world . I remember how he always looked as though life was just one big joke after another and I wonder if, somewhere, he is still laughing.

 

I mentioned in another node that one of the companies I worked for was called 'Nice Jewish Boy With Truck.' That particular company actually had been started, so the legend had it, by the owner whom I'll call Simon, when he was at NYU and schlepped furniture for relatives and friends to pay his tuition. Later on, he went into the business in a big way, with a whole fleet of trucks, all painted bright orange with the company name in faux Hebrew lettering, which more than once caused them to be stoned, so I was told, when they drove through the rigidly Orthodox Hasidic neighborhoods. I wonder what the reaction would have been had it become known that Simon had converted to Scientology.

 

In those days, very little about Scientology was generally known. I still have no idea what it is all about, but working for Nice Jewish Boy was at least an education in the business end of it. We were all encouraged to think of ourselves as partners in the firm, and there was a point system, rather like the 'shares' that used to be the basis for pay on a whaling ship, whereby you were paid according to how much responsibility you were willing to assume. Drivers got more than helpers, the guy with the clipboard who took care of the paperwork was paid the most, and so on. Anyone could do any job if they thought they could handle it, was the idea. It always seemed nonsensical to me, as it was precisely the cheerfully anarchic nature of the work that I liked, so I let responsibility and its attendant rewards run off my back like water off the proverbial duck , as did most of the others.

 

One time we moved a dentist's office to a new building, and several days later Nice Jewish Boy received a complaint that a carton of valuable dental instruments had gone missing. Everything had been numbered for the inventory and there was no doubt about it; the carton had been loaded at one end and never made it to the other. This was serious business for although not all the guys were what you would call model citizens, out and out pilfering on the job was rare. Mostly what I think happened was that the light fingered among us would use the opportunity to case the premises and then return after hours, so to speak.

 

Simon and his fellow Scientologists evidently decided to put their principles into action to deal with this nefarious deed. What they came up with was to say the least original. Every man who had been on the move was called into the office, one by one, where they were told that the man who had committed the crime had not only robbed the Dentist, but caused the Company to lose face and pay a substantial bit of money in restitution. The thief had therefore actually robbed each and every one of us, since we were all partners in the company and its interests were the same as ours. There was a good deal more but I forget the rest, the conclusion being that if anyone knew who the culprit was they would be doing themselves and all of us a good turn by giving him up.

 

I'm sure Simon and co. were sincere but there must have been a flaw in their reasoning, for the guilty party never did come to light. Outside the office I heard a couple of the Hispanic guys discussing the experience.

 

'Hey,' said one , ' what is all thees Scientology boolshit, anyway?'

 

'I dunno, man,' replied the other, ' I theen it means you got to rat on you frens.'

 

 

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