There’s got to be a point to my existence.
Since there isn’t. . .
Five AM: Friday begins like Thursday begins like Wednesday … a nineteen fifty-eight Gold Pontiac Bonneville parks next to my fifty-three Chevy Coup in Benoit’s Bar & Bistro lot. André, a twenty-six-year-old Québécois with an ebony pencil-thin mustache and matching goatee, pushes past a creaky screen door. Dawn breaks. He enters a darkened room, dances up to a fifty-foot mahogany bar, places a scared black steeled-toed engineer boot on a brass rail, and drops two bits. He’s about as cool as a Northern Pike, and the happiest man in the world. “Couple of drafts, barkeep.” He slaps my rear and grins, “Frenchy, got a smoke, eh?” Love it when my Canadian friends call me that, even though I was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Frankie né Francois Louis Robichaud, here. Peach-fuzz under my chin, itches as I unravel a pack of Luckies from a rolled-up white T-shirt sleeve. “Merci Monsieur,” says André as he lights a coughing nail. An intense, lingering horn blows. “Salute.” We down two Molsons, adjourn a brief team meeting, and cross to the other side of the road.
Three brick stacks tower over the blackish-red foundry, emitting unknown toxins. Foul odors. Below fed standards, whatever that means. What are ya gonna do Frankie? What are ya gonna do? We enter and put on fresh army green work uniforms. Men in the break-room whisper about joining the union. Same bullshit. Friday begins like Thursday begins like Wednesday … the big guy and his four passengers here yesterday — canned today. Immigrant or guest workers have no power. I’m born here, so I confront the sup. “First time, man.” He shrugs, “got caught talking to suspected organizers. What do you want me to do about it, kid?” Company hires more newcomers. Pinkerton moles have eyes on André. Can’t have ‘em. Not if I can help it. Cycle of the oppressed. The horn blasts.
Center of attraction: Eight hours a day a conveyor carries hundreds of black sand molds, held in place by two-by-four steel casings, around the production line. Soot blocks our nostrils from naming the hazardous odors coming from the galvanizing room. Absent the fuckin’ canary, it’s a coal mine in here. Oh boy, we get to make joints and fittings today. Half way along the track:
Molten rapids curl from the furnace at a thirty to forty-degree angle
down a sinuous course … rollin’ like a white-water river.
How hot is it in here? About as hot as André’s armpit. Furnace guy’s in position to remove the stopper. He yells, “next!” I swing a twenty-five-gallon bucket in place, ease down a chain with my righthand, overhead cable rattles, eye-check on the double prong-safety, step back into a wide stance, and grip handlebars and nod. When level approaches six inches below the lip, “yooo!” Furnace guy closes off the stream. Last of the iron runs its course, *plop* filling my vessel. Through dingy glasses, a glance at the safety hook — whirl — drops land on scarred black steel-toed engineer boots and green pant cuffs, as I slow-walk beside the line. Release safety catch and tip. Pour, fill-up molds, empty pot, and repeat the cycle. Several ways to sabotage a breakdown along the line for a thirty-minute impromptu meeting. Liquid iron, *drip drop drip … builds on wheels and tracks.
Twelve Noon Friday my friend cups his hand, whispers advantages of unionizing. “Not only about the money. Masks and other stuff, eh.” Back door squeaks, a shadowy figure slips out. I make my move. Too slow. Too late. Big black Olds speeds away. Pinkerton agents. I toss ‘em the bird. At the lunch table, mates talk about their sexual prowess and exploits. Eighteen yesterday, hate to admit I’m still a virgin. Made it to third base, twice. To get my more worldly Québécois friends’ respect, I make up shit. They know. It’s a wonder some of these guys didn’t die from their sexual misadventures. I sense akin to them cause my grandpa’s from Quebec City. Horn sounds: ten minutes. We adjourn. André likes to grab-ass. Whistling, dancing, and flexing in the mirror, he glances at us iron pourers and smirks. He’s the happiest man in the world since the honeymoon. Gotta love these guys. He slaps my butt. “Hey, ya bastard,” I punch his hardened gut. He raises his left eyebrow. Ah, shit. Brings his arm around my neck in a mighty headlock and gives me a noogie. I shake it off. We laugh.
Suits wearing modern respirators walk by on their way to the galvanizing room. André be the saboteur after lunch. Swings empty bucket in place and whistles, The Internationale. Three workers sing-along.
He’s ready to roll:
Rollin’ . . . Rollin’ Like a White-Water River
As we pourers clamor for workplace democracy
that glowing stream flows wild and free
angling down hill at forty-degree.
As the orange molten rapids curl that sinuous course
we iron pourers clamor for workplace democracy.
“Yooo!” André pulls away, turns, grins, and whirls — sparks fly here and there. He swings his empty bucket into place, eases down his chain, cable rattles, eyes on the double prong-safety, steps back, grip the bar, “Yooo!” Furnace guy closes off the stream. Through dingy dark glasses, glances at the latch — whirls — drops land on scarred steel-toed boots and work pant cuffs.
He screams, “Mayday! Mayday!” Safety latch rattles. I flip mine, and race to his side. Others tilt their buckets upright, lock latches and follow. He almost escapes. Just when I though things couldn’t get any worse, André trips and falls. A pint to the crotch. He screams, “Mama,” while lying down shaking on a soot-covered concrete deck. I yank down his jeans. Leather work gloves… I cringe, ease a glowing marble-sized ball of molten iron from his penis. More drips down his leg.
A week passes. André is still unconscious, his wife by his side. My flesh turns cold as ice. It doesn’t look good for my friend. I pound a fist to the top of my forehead; I am having strange ideas, like there’s got to be a point to my existence. Since there isn’t, I fear for my future. This waiting for something to happen is driving me insane. Enough of this BS for a dollar more an hour than A&W Root Beer. I can’t work here another day. There are many ways I can escape my fears. I put in a request with my draft board to speed up my status. They oblige me. Maybe joining the army is not the best one.
May 1, 1968 and I’m back from the war. Left a boy, returned a man. I’m enrolled in college, majoring in Labor Relations. Changed my name from Frankie L. Robishaw to Francois Louis Robichaud, out of respect for my Québécois mates and my roots. Workers and the union’s organizing efforts, followed by a recent protracted strike ended in success. I stop by Benoit’s Bar for a brew and pass out copies of my chapbook, Remembering André. Beers fifteen cents now. I raise a glass, “Salute.” This time I’ll be the one to whistle The Internationale. Union pourers sing-along:
Debout, les damnés de la terre
Debout, les forçats de la faim
La raison tonne en son cratère
Safety devices needed replacement. That’s bull shit. Should have been criminal charges. A healthy settlement for little Andy and his mom, though.
Preamble to the charter reads: IN MEMORY OF OUR HONORARY UNION BROTHER: André Boudreaux.