Herb and Leo Are at It Again – fiction by Shelley Ettinger

Unions, organizing, immigration, and friendship then and now.

 

I’ll have an egg white omelet, rye toast dry, tomatoes instead of potatoes, and Sanka. Please.

Give me dry toast, wheat, a half a grapefruit, cottage cheese and a nice cup of tea. And I thank you, sir.

He’s new, no?

You don’t recognize him? He’s here three four years already. Before, he was always with the stacks of plates, the clearing tables, the dishwashing.

So he’s got a promotion now, waiting tables. And speak of the devil, here you are with our beverages, sir, lickety split. Ah, the nectar of the gods. Thank you very much, uh, lean in closer, I can’t quite read your name badge, ah, Miguel. Thank you very much, Señor Miguel.

And I thank you as well, Miguel. Well! Miguel! So you notice I’m a poet? No? That’s all right. My wife doesn’t notice I’m a lover either. Ah, you’re a gentleman, I see, very kind of you to smile at my jokes. But you’re busy, I know, it’s your breakfast rush, go already, go.

He’s got a limp, Herb, you see? Lucky Nick lets him wait tables.

Listen, Leo, these Greeks, if there’s one thing they know it’s restaurants. Like how your pop knew the rag trade. Whoever he hired you could rest assured they could stitch. Nick has this Miguel here waiting tables, you can rest assured he is quite capable.

Ach, hot hot hot. Watch yourself, Herb, you shouldn’t burn your tongue.

I’m blowing, see? Though I do thank you, Leo, for your kind concern.

So Miguel the waiter, hey? So far he does a good job.

Why not? He’s a person. It isn’t brain surgery.

The limp, I mean. But he compensates pretty good. See how he favors the one side? Like me with my elbow. Still full of shrapnel to this day, courtesy of Mr. Shickelgruber and his Aryan minions from Hell. You learn, Herb, you learn how to do without. All these body parts, a person thinks they’re necessary, I mean an elbow, for god’s sake, a person thinks it’s an absolute, and then when it’s not available for use you work around it, your shoulder, your other arm. You were a lefty, you used to picture yourself on the pitcher’s mound at Ebbets Field, you struck out many a stickball slugger on Cortelyou Road before you graduated Erasmus and got sent across the pond, then your left elbow gets shot up, well by god you train yourself to be a righty. So my signature’s a little sloppy. Overall, I manage. So I’ll never play for Brooklyn. You accept. You adjust.

Accept? Adjust? You’re not talking about elbows anymore, are you? Please, for the love of god, let us not revisit the crime of the century. The Dodgers are long gone. Move to Los Angeles already you miss them so much.

Point taken, although it really is not necessary to put it quite so harsh. All I’m saying is I did not let my shattered elbow hold me back. You take a hit, you suffer a little then you move on.

You’re telling me something I don’t know? Me with my built-up shoe? Jesus H. Christ, Leo, stick to the point. We’re talking about our waiter here, his limp. Which, who knows, he maybe got crossing over, he was shot by the border patrol maybe, or by those brownshirts –

Brownshirts? This day and age? What are you talking about?

The minutemen they call themselves. Goddamn fascist vigilantes, oh yes my friend, this day and age indeed. So no need to bring up ancient history, okay?

Hey, you’re in charge.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

You with your bigshot union position–

Corresponding secretary of the retirees’ auxiliary to Local 17? This by you is a bigshot position?

You’re modest, Herb. An attribute in a handsome devil like yourself. But brass tacks here if you don’t mind. I’m talking about before. Shop steward, that was something.

Not that anyone ever noticed.

No, you labored in the trenches. You’re not getting any scholarships named after you like that glory hound Jake.

Credit where it’s due, Leo. He was president. Elected over and over. Look at all we won, eight contracts, two strikes. When we started we had basically nothing.

Sure, sure.

And now, me with a pension, not a mint but enough to get by with Social Security, and I got health care, the kids don’t have to worry, they can live their own lives, I got savings even, two weeks in Miami every winter, Sylvia and me. So look, Jake might not have been my favorite fellow, but he was our president. They name a scholarship for him I do not begrudge. His picture up at the local hall, fine. I am not a petty person and it would be petty of me to resent that Jake they remember and me they don’t.

Yet you are the one had me push my pop to rehire Moe Turlington.

This we had to do.

And when Pop died and Ma cried me into taking over, when I crossed back over the class divide, which by the way I freely admit –

You admit nothing, even after all these years! Oy, Leo, do I really have to explain it again? You never were one of us.

I didn’t play stickball in the street? I didn’t help my mother and sister on the Singers after school every night?

My god, the bona fides get dragged out again. Okay, let me amend. I grant you, Leo, when we were little kids your family was poor like the rest of us. But when your pop got his cousin the undergarment king to invest, when he rented a shop, bought some second-hand machines, then voila, presto-change-o, the Gettelmans joined the bourgeoisie. Petty division, I grant you, but not for long. He was smart, your pop, how he got in on government contracts when the war came, uniforms, canvas tents, and then, after, when he figured out the import angle and added the GetEuro Furriers line, boy oh boy the money poured in. So kindly desist with the sob stories about your impoverished youth is all I’m saying.

OK fine, Pop was a boss. OK, I slung hems with the rest of you shmucks only a few years after I recovered from the war. But as for what happened with Moe Turlington, I was still a stitcher, by god, still a union member, when the plant manager – aw Christ, what was his name, Jesus, my mind is

going –

Leitner –

Of course, Leitner –

That goddamn putz –

When that goddamn putz Leitner fired Moe for missing work for two days.

Moe’s out for two days, and why? Because his wife’s in the hospital. Burn unit. Remember how bad it was, Leo? Second degree. Her face, her neck, her arms.

A damned shame. God, the scars she ended up with, poor gal. So Moe’s out because his Agnes is badly burned –

By a guest at the fancy-shmancy hotel where she worked. Threw a fit when she delivered his room-service breakfast not quite lickety-split –

Which was not her fault in the least –

Who cares whose fault? Jesus H. Christ, Leo, God forbid the hoity-toity have to wait an extra minute to eat! All that matters is the fat cat picked up a pot of piping-hot coffee and threw it in her face.

So Moe doesn’t show for two days, and when he comes back that putz Leitner taps him on the chest, tells him he doesn’t have a job anymore. Moe tries to explain about Agnes but Leitner says I told Gettelman not to hire a shvartze, get out, get out, you’re through. Now it so happens that I’m there, I’m waiting to clock in, I see the whole thing.

And you dashed to the remnants room yelling my name, and you found me, you grabbed me, told me what was going on, and the two of us ran back out front. But by then Moe was being hauled out the door. Two of Leitner’s goons – you remember them, Leo –

I certainly do. Sal the Stoolpigeon Strucci and Irv Obey-Me-Or-Else Yelnick. First- and second-floor foremen.

Good for you, Leo, with the names. See, you’ve still got a working brain cell or two. So  you and me, we push in there, try to pry their hands off Moe, hey, leave him alone, we’re yelling, hey what’s going on, and Sal swings around and smacks me a knuckle sandwich – Jesus, was he fast, I never saw it coming – and Irv grabs you and drags you backward away from Moe, by the elbow, mind you, the bad one, and you let out a howl –

The pain was, ach, you wouldn’t believe. I actually went blind for a minute. Afterward I felt bad I hadn’t held on to Moe, but when Irv squeezed my elbow everything went blank.

So Moe was on the street. The only Black they’d ever hired. Never missed a day till then.

Magician with a needle. Beautiful work he did. A woman got a mink he stitched, she looked like a queen, believe you me.

Good union man too. Came to every membership meeting.

So why wouldn’t Jake fight for him?

Does the solution to this mystery take an advanced degree?

He was prejudiced?

To say the least. When he saw I was writing up an emergency grievance to demand Moe get his job back, you know what Jake told me? Don’t, he says. Herb, please, he says. The colored are only trouble. And lazy. I told him he was nuts, of course. I defended Moe, great worker, I said, and Jesus, you can’t call him trouble just because his wife’s injured, so you know what he says then? Okay, says Jake the president of Local 17 whose name is on the scholarship they gave to a Chinese gal’s kid this year, fine, I’ll grant you, Turlington’s not lazy. But it’s just as well they let him go. What the hell does that mean, I ask, and Jake says that if Moe stays after him will come more. Like a plague, like locusts they’ll swarm. They’ll take our jobs. They come up from the South, picking in the fields isn’t good enough for them, they want the city life, they want to work with machines, and they’ll take less pay, you’ll see, pretty soon wages are dropping, the unions are losing steam, and we’re out on the street, it’s like the 30s again, we’ve got nothing, and the shvartzes, they’ve got the jobs, they’ve taken everything. So it’s for the best, says Jake. I’m sorry for his troubles, but it’s better he doesn’t come back. Otherwise pretty soon this is a colored shop and everything we’ve got is all shot to hell.

You never told me this, Herb. I knew Jake didn’t lift a finger but I never until this day heard this speech he said to you.

It’s not something I like to repeat. They make a big deal of him, he’s one of the greats, that’s fine. It serves a purpose. Which tarnishing his image would not.

Now I know why you needed me.

I defied Jake. I filed the grievance. But he wasn’t going to back me up – hell, for all I knew, he’d go behind my back and tell Leitner to put the kibosh on the whole thing, Jake was perfectly capable of that – so you were the next best thing. Because boychik, I grant you this, you were plenty gung ho in those days. Of course you had nothing to fear –

The boss’s son. True. So you whispered in my ear, you got me hepped up, go talk to the fellows, you said, you know the ones, the hotheads –

I never said hotheads, Leo, this is maybe how you saw them, but to me they were the best, the strongest union men –

Potato potahto, Herb, we’re saying the same thing. Your comrades. The pinks.

Now you’re redbaiting me, Leo? Sixty years after the fact?

Not at all. I simply speak the truth. You told me to go to the commies –

The militants –

The ones who’d fight for Moe Turlington. The good guys.

Yeah.

Ah, here you are again, Miguel. Steaming hot egg white omelet, just like I like it. Thank you so very much, my good man.

Me too, thank you very much indeed.

Mmm. Delish. You know, Herb, I wonder.

What?

I wonder does he speak?

Miguel? What do you mean?

I mean we haven’t heard a peep.

Doesn’t mean he’s mute. I mean, come on, Leo, what does a waiter have to say? We give our order, he writes it down, he delivers, we thank.

Usually there’s a little back and forth, though. The banter isn’t there. So I’m wondering if he speaks English.

Who knows? Who cares, for that matter. As long as he gets our orders straight.

Can he really pull it off, though? In the long run, without any English? The waiter after all must interact with the customer. It’s a two-way street.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Based on an egg-white omelet, dry toast and Sanka. Which he managed fine, as we both can see.

True. True.

I’m on his side. I just want to make that clear right here and now.

Whose side?

Miguel’s.

I’m not? Suddenly it’s a question of sides, waiters versus eaters?

Please, Leo, get with the program as my granddaughter Stacy says. I’m talking about the Mexicans. Look around you.

I’m looking.

Not waiters vs. eaters. Bosses vs. workers. Like always. Now the Mexicans are moving up. This to me is a wonderful thing. The poorest, the worst paid, they start to do a little better, this always benefits the whole working class. So naturally, what do the bosses do? They start a war against them. They creep around, with their tricks, their lies, and they try to sucker the rest of us into thinking it’s bad for us the Mexicans are moving up.

Not Nick. He’s got nothing against Miguel and his pals. Happy to have them. This he has told me.

Of course. They work like the dickens. I’m talking about the big bosses. The class.

Ah. The class.

Goddamn right. The capitalist class. And their goddamn jingoistic advance guard that’s running this country into the ground. The Lou Dobbs crowd.

Oh god in heaven, please let us not speak of Lou Dobbs. My food will curdle in my belly. How he rants and raves on TV every night it’s like Goebbels all over again, I cannot stand to even hear that goniff’s name on a fine spring morning like today.

But look what’s happening, Leo, look at Miguel.

So what about him? A fine looking young fellow, I hope he does well, if he doesn’t speak English yet I’m sure he’ll learn, don’t jump down my throat about that, an off-hand comment, I take it back.

It’s us who should be learning Spanish, but that’s not my point on this I quite agree fine spring morning as we sit here in our favorite diner having our low-cholesterol breakfast like we do every morning, me so Syl can get an hour’s peace to do the crossword before I return to try her patience for the rest of the day, you before beginning your strenuous daily routine of movie going, park bench sitting, and web surfing. Spanish, English, the language question is not my point.

You never finished making your point about how we got Moe Turlington his job back, which is how come I’m not holding my breath for your point about Miguel the Mexican waiter.

Same point, Leo, same point exactly. Look, your pop’s goons got rid of Moe Turlington, your pop would have never hired another Negro, and we turned it around, Moe got his job back, and not only that, we kept the pressure on till eventually he broke down and let some more in. We did it how? By you working on your dad, sure, that didn’t hurt, although in truth it was more about scaring him with the specter –

The specter which doesn’t seem to be haunting Europe any more, to your

dismay –

Oh doesn’t it? Have you taken a look at Greece lately? Or France? Don’t count us out, buster, this has always been and will ultimately be the final mistake of the ruling class –

In whose ranks you still insist on counting me.

Did you not inherit one-half the assets when your pop died?

And did I not invest nearly every penny into good works? The Gettelman Trust for Toilers’ Children’s Education? Gettelman Foundation grants for labor organizing? The GetEuro Furriers High-Tech Retraining Fund? Didn’t I skedaddle out of the executive suite as soon as I could talk my sister into taking over, and didn’t I spend the next 40 years diverting as much of the Gettelman profit as I could toward the Gettelman philanthropies?

Every penny of that profit was stolen from workers’ labor, Leo. This I have explained to you at least a thousand times and this you still pretend not to understand. The profit was not yours to allocate. In any case, your family is wealthier than ever –

Hey, not me, buddy. I took a living wage, enough to support my wife and kids, that’s it.

OK, the rest of the Gettelmans. Filthier rich every day, according to the stock ticker.

Yeah, you got to give it to Estelle, she turned out to have some head for business, didn’t she? Garment industry’s nearly dead, but not Gettelman. Started diversifying back in the 60s –

Leo. Please. I can live without a review of your family’s ever-expanding fortune. Every penny stolen, I repeat. Today worse than ever – shall we speak of the fabulously popular GetGoin’ sneakers? Of the, what, dollar a day the jobbers pay teenaged workers in, hey, who knows, Miguel’s home town maybe?

No, let’s not. It’s terrible, you know I agree.

You agree so much, give it all back.

Ach. I got no say-so whatsoever. Estelle’s kids are in charge. You think you are going to move them an inch with your lectures on the labor theory of value, you are worse senile than I thought.

What about your grandkids’ trust funds?

Untouchable. This my Mildred saw to, on her deathbed. She knew you’d try. She knew you’d hock the chinik with this business about it’s really the workers’ money. And here and now, the year 2006, age 85, in my own rational mind, what’s left of it, I do agree with you. The money rightfully speaking did not belong to the Gettelmans. It is wealth the workers created. Which Mildred foresaw you’d persuade me, which is why she took charge of the paperwork and I cannot touch one penny of the grandchildren’s accounts.

Oh well, you did your best, you’re a good-hearted son of a bitch, and so I breakfast with you every day and will continue to until one of us, preferably you first, drops dead. Primarily because of how you helped Moe Turlington get his job back. And afterward, how you hocked your pop to hire more Blacks. And then, when you headed the firm for those few months, how you undid your pop’s dirty accounting and stopped paying them less.

None of which prevented you guys from walking out on strike again.

Why would it? Anyways, why are we talking about Moe and how we fought for him? I’ll tell you why.

I’m all a-quiver.

Very funny. I’ll tell you what’s not funny. What is not funny is that Miguel the waiter they call illegal.

He is? Does Nick know?

Leo, please, I’m speaking broadly. No, I do not know any particulars about Miguel’s own situation. Although chances are that he does not have the documents the government requires, and, yes, chances are Nick knows and uses this fact to pay Miguel next to nothing and on top of this less than nothing for benefits. But the main point is, say Miguel did in fact cross the border without permission, how dare they call him a criminal.

But if he has no papers, isn’t that –

If he has no papers he is a worker without papers. Did your father have papers when he came over in ’09? Legitimate papers? Didn’t you tell me he paid some Warsaw wheeler-dealer to fake up documents?

Yes, this is the story he told.

Did your father speak English when he came over?

Not a word.

Did he save up for years, then send to bring his folks over?

This you know, from his annual end-of-year speech to the workers.

Can a human being be illegal?

I’m not sure I follow now.

Your father, however he finagled his way over. Miguel, shot at the border maybe. Or my mother, born during the ocean crossing so she all her life was a citizen of nowhere. Anyone, no matter how they got here, no matter what piece of paper they have or don’t have. Illegal? No, no, no! No human being is illegal! This is the battlefront today, this is where the class war –

Herb, please, calm down, you’ll pop an artery. And lower your voice. You’re not on the picket lines here, we’re just eating a nice quiet breakfast like we do every morning. Besides, me you don’t have to convince. Me, I have no problem with Miguel or José or Maria or any of them.

But will you fight for them, Leo? Will you take a stand like you took a stand for Moe Turlington?

Herb, I was a young man then. For god’s sake, what are you asking me to do now?

March with me, Leo.

You? March? It’s one thing those protests when that crumbum Bush invaded Iraq, we stood in one spot the whole time. But march?

That’s right. Over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Okay, Herb, now you’re talking crazy. I have never once in all these years mentioned it, I know you think the buildup in your right shoe evens everything out, you walk as good as anyone, you think, but now I must tell you, my friend, this is not so. I see the effort in each step, and –

So what if it’s an effort? What is life but a struggle to get from here to there? To move forward? Forward, wasn’t that the name of the newspaper my folks used to read? Why should it be easy? What’s a little pain? You don’t think it’s worth it it’s because you’ve never had to, never really –

Don’t start in on me again, Herb. Just tell me when and where if you don’t mind.

Monday. Across the Brooklyn Bridge to the federal building. A Day Without Immigrants they’re calling it. The whole country, a general strike almost. Leo, it’s like 1935 all over again!

Terrific, so they won’t miss two alteh kockers on the bridge. We could maybe wait at the federal building? Take a stand, so to speak?

You wait if you want. Me, I cross. With Stacy. Her whole class is walking out. She said she’d borrow a wheelchair from the nursing home where she works after school. She’ll push me the whole way if I want. Oh – hello again, Miguel. Yes, I guess we are done. Sorry about the yelling.

He’s a firebrand, Miguel, what can I say. Always has been. A miracle we’re friends all these years. Yes, sure, go ahead, take it away, thanks, thank you kindly sir.

Syl? Syl, hello, are you there? I don’t hear you so good, you’re breaking up.

Herb, you’ve got a cell phone? Since when?

Hold on a minute, Syl. Yeah, Leo, last month for our 60th anniversary, from the kids. Apparently it’s now a must-have for the likely-to-have-a-stroke-or-break-a-hip crowd. So we can call 911 as we lie dazed in the street. What’s that, Syl? Right. She says, assuming we’re conscious. And look, sorry, Leo, that was rude, I should have excused myself before dialing.

No kidding. There’s an etiquette to these things, buster.

Quite so. In fact, hold on – no, Syl, not you. Leo. You, Syl, I’ll call back. OK? But hey, in the meantime, you’ll do me a favor, doll? Look up Moe Turlington’s number, would you? He’s with his daughter now, up in Westchester, it’s a 914 number. Thanks. I’ll call back in a few.

You’re calling Moe? Didn’t know you two were in touch.

Oh, sure, every now and then. A few others too. Whoever’s still breathing. Ever since those meetings in Harlem.

I don’t recall those meetings.

You weren’t there, Leo.

Ah. After I went management.

No. This was when you were pushing your dad to hire Moe back.

I did better than push. I forced the old man to see he had to back off or –

What he saw, Leo, was more than you did.

What the hell does that mean? Such as?

Now look, Leo, I never told you back then because we needed you to think you were Moe’s only hope, and by god you took your charge to heart so well that to this day I forgive you for your family being fershtinkineh rich, but Moe and me and a few of the other guys had some meetings in Harlem with some organizers there –

Without telling me? Ever, until this very day?

I do apologize, Leo. I should have told you long ago. At the time, though, it was best you didn’t know. You had to go in like gangbusters, which you did, had to let your dad have it, which you did.

And meanwhile, behind my back, you’re what? With one of those party cells up there?

Something like that. See, if you’d failed, it would have been a big fight. Led by the Blacks. Pickets, there would have been. We were going to pull out all the stops, whether Jake or Leitner or all the rotten stinking bosses liked it or not.

And Pop knew. You said he saw more than me. All these years I’ve thought it was me got Moe’s job back.

You did, Leo. Because of you we never had to take it to the next step.

No, it was because of you were ready to.

Your father was many things but stupid he was not. He saw Moe wasn’t going away, and he saw there were more behind him. Just like these blood-sucking bosses have got to be shown with the Mexicans. Because mark my words, my friend, these Mexicans are on the move. Like Miguel here – pretty soon he’ll be in the streets, limp or no limp, he’ll be marching across the Brooklyn Bridge –

Not on Monday he won’t. There is not a chance in hell Nick’s letting him skip work –

 No? You don’t think so, Leo? Well, how about this? How about you go talk to your friend Nick. Have a chat, appeal to him, tell him he’s a prince among men, a mensch, and tell him that what a mensch should do on May Day –

May Day! Oh Christ, I should have known.

The calendar is not a secret document, my friend. It says quite clear: Monday, May 1. You’ll mention it to Nick. He knows from May Day – he’s Greek, his whole country shuts down. You’ll give him a nudge, Leo, he should close the restaurant so Miguel and the rest can march for their rights. While you’re talking to Nick, I’ll get Moe on the line. See does he want Stacy to get a wheelchair for him too. And, oh, Leo, if you want to point to me, if you want to mention to Nick that your friend Herb over here is on the phone with a tough union guy, guy who once almost brought all of Harlem down on your poor old pop’s head, well if you think that would be a helpful point to make, Leo, be my guest. You always were a persuasive son of a gun.

 

 

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