September 30, 2015
By Michael Calvert
“No loan for Johnny, Pauline. I thought about it, but I just don’t trust him. He stiffed me before,” said Joe as he stood barefoot at the kitchen door from the hallway buttoning his shirt.
“Yeah, but that was right after the boy lost his arm. He needs a loan to buy a car with an automatic transmission. He’s going to kill himself shifting gears with one hand,” said Pauline as she made more coffee in the small kitchen with a formica and chrome table and four matching chairs.
“Your brother lives pretty damn well, “ Joe stated in a way that discouraged argument. “He could have paid me back. In my business, I have to trust a lot of people, but I know who to trust and Johnny’s not one of them.”
“But, Joe, poor Johnny’s had a tough time since the accident…”
Joe snorted and said, “Single Wing doesn’t have any trouble shoveling your spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna into his mouth every other day. He should have been named Freddie, Freddie the Freeloader, chuckled, and turned toward the bedroom.
The phone rang and Joe said over his shoulder, “Get that, Pauline, someone wants to bet on a pony.”
“Fleet of Foot in the fifth at Saratoga for $50,” Pauline repeated into the phone as she wrote in her spiral notebook. “Got it down, Vincent.”
Pauline poured some fresh coffee into my cup as I waited for Joey. As his best friend, I was always around. Joey’s house was a lot more interesting than mine, and I, too, loved Pauline’s cooking. We had played on St. Gabriel’s football team in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade, and now we were trying out for our respective high school’s freshman teams. Joey was a star running back, big for his age and fast. I was impatiently waiting for a growth spurt and a long shot to make the team as a defensive back.
Pauline took more bets as I nursed my coffee and read the sports page. Even though both the Redlegs and the Indians were off to good seasons by early summer, the Columbus Dispatch featured stories about Ohio State football throughout the year. That day’s paper reported that returning players were working construction over the summer to gain strength.
When Joey came down to the kitchen, he announced that he wanted six scrambled eggs with bacon and toast. I rose to the challenge and Pauline whooped as she poured olive oil into her largest skillet and it began to sizzle as she reached for the eggs.
“OSU’s players are getting in shape working construction jobs. We need to get in shape and make some spending money, too,” I said pointing to the newspaper. He skimmed the article.
“Huber Homes is building a bunch of houses near my grandma’s house in the East End,” Joey said.
“You boys are too young to get a work permit. Margaret said her son had to wait until he was sixteen to work at Kroger’s. You should just enjoy your summer vacation,” said Pauline as she pushed piles of eggs from the skillet onto our plates with her spatula.
Joey and I figured out how much we could make as construction workers while we walked over to Dick’s house and what we could do with it. I would save for a car, and Joey would get season tickets for Ohio State’s home games. Dick loved the idea of working construction. His cousin, Frankie, made good money as a carpenter’s helper.
Soon we were sticking our thumbs out on Sunbury Road headed for Huber Homes. A colored man about our parents’ age pulled his Buick over on his way to work as a porter at Eastern Mall, a mile or so from Huber Homes.
“Where are your tools?” he asked after we told him of our plan to get construction jobs at Huber Homes. Dick assured him that we wouldn’t need tools as carpenter’s helpers. He raised his eyebrows, nodded, and asked our ages, nodding again when we told him. Since he was early, he said he could take us all the way to Huber Homes. He wished us luck before making a U-turn.
“OK, let’s find the boss and get hired,” said Dick as we approached the curving rows of foundations in a sea of brown dirt, some with stud walls only and others with roof trusses. Bulldozers growled, hammers pounded, and nail guns popped like guns in a war movie.
I wasn’t as optimistic as Dick pretended to be and I suspected Joey wasn’t either. I asked a young guy at the first house who to talk to about getting hired. Shirtless, skinny, and not likely to be a football player, he said “Tony” and motioned with his head toward an older man studying blueprints on a crude table.
“Tony,” I said in deepest voice I could muster and standing as tall as I could, “We want to work construction this summer.”
He looked up and stared at us. “We want to get in shape for football,” I said to break the brief silence.
“Do you boys know how to saw a square joint?”
I hesitated since I had no idea what a square joint might be. All I could think of was the square knots we tied in cub scouts.
“Well, I think the best way would be to come around from the back,” I heard Dick say.
“Sorry. I don’t think I can use you. You might try Angelo pointing at a thin, spidery man with black curly hair holding a clipboard.
As we crossed the graded roadbed, I asked Dick what the hell a square joint was. He shrugged and looked skyward. Joey and I exploded with laughter. (Later we learned that a square joint was simply a board cut at a ninety degree angle.)
We composed ourselves and approached Angelo. He seemed doubtful at first, but then he said he had trucks with trusses coming the next morning. If we could start at 7 am we could help his crews unload. We quickly assured him that we would be there. We didn’t ask about pay, hours, or anything else. We almost skipped back to the road to hitchhike home.
Dick and I stayed at Joey’s and Pauline drove us to Huber Homes the next morning. Angelo put us on a crew offloading pre-assembled trusses from flatbed trucks and carrying them to each of the dozen foundations under contract to Angelo. For the rest of the week, we unloaded and stacked two-by-fours and boards, window and door frames, and PCV and steel pipes. Our arms and legs were sore for a couple of days, but we slept soundly. We were going to be ready for football.
Friday was payday. The guys on the crew passed the time by talking about their plans for the weekend. Mostly drinking and getting laid. Joey, Dick and I were thrilled at the prospect of having money in our pockets. Maybe we’d take girls to the movies, have popcorn and candy, go to Bona’s for a pizza, and maybe make out with them.
At four o’clock, Angelo asked us to come to his trailer. He shut the door and told us that we had been good workers, and he had work for us all summer. He asked if we wanted the work. We all assured him that we did. Then he casually said the first paycheck only comes after a full week, and we would be eligible for for a check in a week. We said we would be on the site at 7 am on Monday morning.
When Joe heard that we had not been paid on payday, he said, “That’s bullshit. You tell him you want to be paid for your time last week. No excuses. If you don’t get your money on Monday, call me. You understand me?” he said with steel in his voice. We nodded in unison several times.
Angelo was not on the job site Monday morning. Trucks with asphalt shingles were waiting to be unloaded. Each package was only a yard long and six inches thick, but weighed sixty pounds. As the temperature rose, the oily asphalt became sticky and emitted a bitter smell. The tiny stones embedded in the asphalt were abrasive as sandpaper. Our hands became red and raw from unloading the heavy packages.
Several houses had roof trusses in place and plywood decking nailed down. Angelo arrived in his sky blue Oldsmobile after lunch, and said to get the shingles on the roofs. We began to heft the packages onto one shoulder, climb the crude ladders made on site while using our free hand to hold onto the rungs, and heave them onto the roof. The sun beat down on us, the packages bore into our shoulders and pressed our tennis shoes onto the ladder and the abraded our necks, arms, and hands. We were exhausted by the time the shingles were all on the roof decks.
Dick, Joey and I were gulping Cokes purchased from the “roach coach,” a truck with coffee, Cokes and snacks that came by twice a day and charged twice the supermarket price. We were whipped. Joey reminded us that we had to talk to Angelo.
When he was alone, we approached him and said, “We deserve our pay for last week, and we want it today.” Joe’s determination filtered through us. We were surprised to hear ourselves demanding our pay immediately.
Angelo burst into a torrent of angry words, rapid gestures, and increasing volume. “Get off the God damned site! Right now!” he yelled pointing to the construction gate. He wheeled around, took rapid strides to his trailer, and made it shudder when he slammed the door.
Joey emerged from the phone booth with a grin. “He’s coming out here.”
As we waited, Dick said, “I don’t think that son of a bitch was ever going to pay us. He though he could take advantage of us. We were chumps to let him do that.”
Angelo drove out of the gate just before Joe’s big green Packard glided to a stop in front of us. Joe was in the passenger seat, and Bud Bond was driving. Bud looked like a former NFL tackle fifty pounds over his playing weight, but intimidating at six foot-six. Joe called him Porky Pig. He was a constant companion and maybe a bodyguard since Joe often had large stacks of cash to pay betters that had a winner.
We rushed into the back seat, said Angelo had just left, and pointed in the direction he went. “Step on it, Bud.” The Packard lurched forward, gaining speed and weaving between cars until Joey, Dick and I spotted Angelo’s Oldsmobile cruising along in the right lane. As we began to gradually pass him, Bud gave the horn three quick bursts.
Angelo looked over frowning. Joe pointed to the shoulder of the road. Angelo’s eyes opened wide. He saw me at the back seat window, turned, and floored his Olds, but it was too late for an escape. Bud was now a half a car ahead and steadily moving into Angelo’s lane, just a foot from Angelo’s front fender. Angelo was forced to a stop on the shoulder. He jumped out of his car waving his arms like a mad bird and walked toward our car as we watched through the rear window. He halted when Bud stepped out of the driver’s seat and Joe emerged on the other side. Angelo’s eyes darted from one to the other and he backed up with his hands raised in surrender.
We could not hear what was said, but Joe was doing most of the talking with his finger almost touching Angelo’s nose. Angelo was nodding rapidly. Joe stepped back and Bud poked Angelo’s chest with his finger so hard that Angelo staggered backwards.
Joe was chuckling when he got back into the car, but Bud was still muttering about that “little bastard.” Joe told us that we were following him home to get money to pay us. He asked what our hourly rate was. “He never said, but laborers get $4 an hour.”
“You’re getting $5 an hour Bud said, still seething. Joe nodded.
We followed Angelo into his driveway as he hurried up the porch steps glancing over his shoulder at us. Soon he emerged with a zippered money pouch from Huntington Bank.
“That’ll be $200 each at $5 an hour for a week’s work,” said Joe evenly. Angelo began to sputter about laborer’s standard wage.
“I said $200 each. We might want to charge a late fee, too.”
“I want a God damned collection fee, Bud yelled from the driver’s seat.
“OK. OK. OK,” Angelo said as he counted out thirty twenties and scurried back into his house.
We cheered, Joe beamed and Bud laughed.
As we rode home clutching our twenties, Joe turned in his seat and said, “You boys should never have trusted Angelo. I wouldn’t trust him any more than I would Pauline’s worthless brother Johnny.”
“I’d like to twist one of Angelo’s arms off and make him a “single wing” like Johnny,” said Bud with renewed anger.
Joe chuckled for a couple of minutes.