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I wouldn't want you to get the idea that moving furniture is a fun job no matter where you are. There are places where, shorn of the theatricality that New York City brings to everything, it is simply and solely manual labor. I was living outside of DC one spring for reasons which have nothing to do with the present story, and being low on funds as usual after a winter spent touring Europe I sought out the nearest Moving Company and applied for work.

This was my first experience living 'Down South'- which is something people forget when they see pictures of the Capitol with all that white marble; to wit that DC is in West Virginia and well south of the Mason Dixon line.

The boss of the company was an affable gent with the red nose of the habitual drinker, and seemed glad to take me on with only a verbal quiz as to my experience. I was not particularly surprised to learn that all the rest of the staff, drivers and helpers alike were Black; this was the South after all, and in most Southern States over 50% of the population is Black or some mixture thereof. What did kind of startle me was that they all, helpers and drivers included, were serious drinkers.

When I say drinkers I don't mean the usual six-pack of beer per man that you find in a lot of companies. I was was on a job in the Big Apple once when a customer spotted one of the helpers with a can of beer and outraged asked the driver, 'Do you allow your men to drink on the job? ' The driver, a wizened old timer, blandly replied, 'Do you put gas in your car to make it run?'

No, I'm talking coming in to work with badly shaking hands and nipping a pocket size bottle of vodka all day until the metabolism kind of leveled out by lunch time. This wouldn't be condoned normally but I was to learn that this particular company was a special case. As the boss explained to me one afternoon when he himself was in an expansive mood, it was his policy to hire as many confirmed alcoholics as possible. 'See, a man who drinks has no idea of his limitations. He will do things that someone in their right mind would never dream of.' This was said bleary-eyed with a broad smile and I was shortly to learn that it was no more than the truth.

They were certainly a jolly crew to work with, once the morning hangover had abated. We were sent out once to move a huge piece of machinery that took up a whole two car garage. I never learned what it was, except that was circular and probably weighed well over a ton. We had to shift that mother about six feet forward for some unknown reason, and I couldn't believe it as we took up stations around the perimeter and prepared to lift barehanded without a Johnson bar in sight. (that's a six foot piece of timber with two six inch steel wheels and a beveled steel plate set at an angle at one end, generally used in tandem for moving really heavy objects- the name is a reference to a slang term for the male member, lol)

Everyone was joking as though this was the funniest thing in the world, and when one of the drivers stumbled into place he shouted, 'Wait y'all, I got to get a toe hold here!'

The whole crew fell about laughing. One of the helpers shouted, 'Rivers think he can move the whole world can he get a Toe Hold! ' and that really set them off. Then in the midst of all that everyone bent down and somebody called the count, and we actually did pick the damned thing up and shift it forward a foot or so. A couple more efforts and it was where It was supposed to be. That set the mood for the whole day, someone yelling out 'Get you a toe hold, man,' whenever a piece of furniture like a break-front or a sleeper couch had to be shifted.

Me being White seemed not to bother anyone particularly which felt a little strange after having gone through the Sixties when, after the first camaraderie, relations between the races became to say the least strained. Here there was none of the suspicion and banked resentment I'd come to expect. We'd pile out of the truck and I'd catch sight of my reflection in the midst of the crew and that white face would stand out like a beacon, but no one called me 'whitey' or 'honky' or made any reference to my color at all. I did notice one thing, though. Whenever the customer had to be consulted, I would be the one nominated to relay the question. Also, of course, the customers were invariably White.

At that time, White people from the South would say whenever the question of Race arose that relations between White and Black were friendly and cordial in the South. This I found to be true, insofar as it applied to the indigenous population. A friendly and cordial relationship prevailed, rather like that between a man and his dog. There was no question of equality, White supremacy was unquestioned and taken for granted by the Whites, and played up to by any Black who wanted to hold down a job and feed his family. I was an anomaly, coming from the North as was obvious every time I opened my mouth.

Another curious aspect of the situation arose during a lunchtime conversation with one of the men I'll call Charles. Charles was nearing middle age, at a guess, and had a one of those sad looking droopy faces that reminds you immediately of a bloodhound. Charles had thought of a business venture that would get him out of humping furniture for a living. All we had to do, he insisted, was open up a yard for selling second hand tires. He knew of a place, it could be rented cheaply, and he knew a mechanic who did inspections on rich people's cars where good tires could be had for next to nothing. The mechanic would simply say the tires were worn and needed to be changed. I have to say the scheme sounded plausible, and I was briefly interested in the proposition, but I had a little trouble understanding what my role in all this would be.

Charles who was probably by this time on his second bottle of Jim Beam, looked around for confirmation from the other men, who agreed sagely that this was a great idea. 'Mike here is like my son,' Charles stated affectionately . This didn't appear to surprise anyone, of course Charles and I would go into business and be a success, and about that time I realized that everyone else was also on their second bottle of whatever it was they were drinking. So the afternoon degenerated as most of them did into alcohol fueled incoherence, but it got me thinking. I realized after a while that what Charles had been proposing would have been a sound business model for that time and place. He would supply the contacts in the Black community, the know-how and expertise, and I would be the Front Man, providing simply by my presence an air of legitimacy, i.e., I would appear to be the White owner of a business with a Black employee. I wondered bleakly how many Southern businesses operated in this fashion, and how many actual Black entrepreneurs had found this wormhole to success.

Around about this time a new man was hired. He was young, Black, about my age, and surprisingly enough sober. He confided to me that he was trying to get enough money together to return home to Boston and marry his girlfriend. Probably on the strength of his sobriety he was immediately given the job of loading up a lot from storage and delivering it to somewhere in Massachusetts and I was picked as helper probably for the same reason. I'll call him John.

John was delighted with the job, partly because it was an immediate step up in the employment market, and also because this delivery would give him a chance to stop off and see his lady. On the first leg of the trip I took out my lunch which consisted of a round of buttered panbread made from a mixture of flour and cornmeal. John looked over with a delighted smile and said, 'Hey buddy, looks like you got a little Soul in you!' which cracked us both up.

I can still see him every time we stopped for a break on the way, saying proudly at the end, 'OK, pardner, let's MOVE OUT!' like a tank commander going to the wars. We made the delivery and on the way back John made the promised stop at his lady's house. By then it was gone nightfall, a kind of soft summer night and we were parked on a backroad with no streetlights. 'Hey, go on, ' I said. ' No problem, I'll be fine in the back of the truck. '

'Come on, man, we can put you up, come on in,' John insisted

' Naw, I'll be fine, I'd just be a fifth wheel,' I said somewhat embarrassed. From the way John talked about his lady this was bound to be some reunion.

John's open expression clouded. ' We can find a girl for you,' he coaxed, ' It'll be fine!'

It has been a whole lot of years since then, and if you think I have wondered often what would have happened had I said yes, you'd be absolutely right. The last word in awkward situations? A kind of Eskimo hospitality ? Or just an open-hearted invitation into a world normally barred to me?

In the event I demurred and was rewarded by seeing John's face fall in disappointment, while I spent the night lulled by the soft sounds of crickets , wrapped in a nest of moving blankets and wondering what it was about situations like this that made me freeze up the way I did.

John was less ebullient on the way back, which might have been regret at leaving his girlfriend, but I couldn't shake the notion that I'd failed some kind of test. In the event we never did work together after that; John had his own crew and became 'one of the fellas'.

This was my first experience of the way alcoholics treat non-drinkers. Being White I was immune, but the others were not about to let one of their own get uppity and refuse to join in when the paper wrapped bottles came out of coat pockets first thing in the morning. Before too long John was laughing and lurching around the yard with the rest, his face suffused with a helpless gaiety and sharing the general hilarity over nothing at all that characterized the late afternoons.

I decided I had had enough. One morning the Boss revealed to me that they were going to order me a boiler suit with the company logo and make me a foreman, and that afternoon I found myself riding back to town with Rivers driving, and him so drunk he kept snatching at air in a helpless attempt to locate the gearshift, laughing fit to bust . I managed to convince him to stop and I walked the rest of the way, effectively ending my employment and filing a claim for unemployment benefits citing unsafe working conditions.

Thus I never got to see what happened to John, or whether he ever managed to save enough money to marry his girl. Could I have helped him? To be honest, until this precise moment I never gave it a thought. Add it to the load of regrets, then, which in common with a lot of other guys my age I drag around clanking and rattling like Marley's Ghost. What did happen was that while waiting for my first unemployment check I took my concertina down to Georgetown, which had a concentration of nightclubs and restaurants where all the diplomats and officials in DC went to unwind, and started my career as a busker.

 

But that's another story.

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