Growing Up Teamster

My mother and I stood at the picture window, watching the chaos unfold: two competing news stations were setting up camp on our front lawn, their crews charging back and forth from the vans and barking out orders about lights and wires and towering cameras that rolled onto the grass and left deep, burrowing tracks in their wake.  A pony-tailed girl patted makeup on a female newscaster dressed in a garish, neon-blue suit, and a male newscaster directed two men to set up reflector panels and lamps close to my father’s black Cadillac, where a section of yellow police tape remained, flapping in the breeze.  My father stood calmly in the middle of it all, waiting to be interviewed, surrounded by fat cables that tamped down the grass in snaking rivers.  Off to the side, our overweight black cat, Magoo, stalked these cables–I watched him jump into the air, land on one, curl himself around it.  His back feet rabbit-kicked, but no one noticed.

The night before, someone had driven by and pumped six shots into the back of my father’s car.  They were trying to hit the gas tank because they wanted to blow it up: an apparent warning for my father to end his strike with the eighty-seven construction companies he represented in Rhode Island.  My sister, fifteen and two years older than me, took the news with adolescent coolness before heading off to a friend’s house, and my handicapped brother asked if he could play with the bullet casings.  I tried to act cool, too, but I wondered: how could Dad end anything if he, along with our entire family, blew up, too?

Out on the lawn one of the cameras was pointed at the six bullet holes, the red light on top blazing, and two men were trying to push our gawking neighbors out of the frame.  The high-heeled newscaster in blue flashed a toothy smile at my dad and raised her microphone, and Magoo, still overlooked, continued the hunt. His fat butt rose into the air, wiggling.

“This isn’t good,” my mother said quietly at my side, and I pulled my eyes from scene outside.  Normally as composed as my father when there was an “incident,” this time she actually looked scared.  Her eyes panned the lawn.  “Be right back,” she said, pushing past me and out the door.

I watched her stride across the lawn, waited for her to order everyone away, to tell my father that it was finally enough.  Would she actually demand that my father quit his job in front of all these people?  Move us all to that huge farm where our last two dogs now lived?

But she didn’t issue any ultimatums; she leaned down and reached between the cables, stood back up with Magoo in her arms.

Back inside, she smiled in relief.   “That was close,” she said, scratching the cat behind one ear.  “They could have trampled him.”

Later, after the camera crews had packed up and left, and our lawn was squashed flat and ravaged by high-heel divots, my father came inside.  He gave us a weary smile, turned back to the door.  My mother moved to his side and placed her hand on his back.

“It’ll be fine,” she insisted.  My father nodded doubtfully and sighed.

Panic rushed into my body: I was young, not quite thirteen, and my powerful dad was a giant in our house.  He always refused to be intimidated by lurking strangers in the night, but if he suddenly couldn’t deal, then what happened next?

They finally stirred, remembering me, and I saw my mother’s brave smile.

“It’s okay,” she said to me in a firm voice.  “But you know how much your father loves his lawn.”

I stared, incredulous.

My father regarded me with sorrowful eyes.  “I fertilized every day, honey,” he said.  “The grass was so green and lush.”

My mother nodded sadly, rubbing his back.

At times it was impossible for my parents to shelter us from the dangers that came with my father’s job.  I heard about the three men in ski masks trying to hack down our back door with an axe from our well-meaning, elderly next-door neighbor.  He assured me that he had a phone right beside the bed, so I shouldn’t worry if anyone “tried to get us again.”  There were men who congregated in our kitchen long after bedtime, talking loudly about the cement company owner who pushed a shotgun into my father’s chest when he refused to back down, and we all saw the naked Barbie doll on the front stairs, a knife plunged into her chest, when we came home from school.  And I was aware that none of my friends ever ate dinner with beefy bodyguards, nor did they require shooting lessons with their fathers on remote farms.  It was impossible for our parents to shield us completely, or to protect us from the threatening phone calls that started to sound the same after time: We’re coming to get you; You’re next; We’re going to kill you tonight (tomorrow, in a hour, in a minute); We’re coming and you’re next, etc. Before long, it became a matter of habit to simply write the time, date, and gist on the pad beside the phone.  As the years passed my parents would sometimes discuss these written entries during dinner.

“Apparently Michelle is next this time,” my mother said once, turning to me. “When are they coming again?”

“Tonight.”

“Tough break, honey,” my dad said.  “Do you want an extra dessert before they get here?”

“They’re coming for me, too,” my hopeful sister interrupted.  “In an hour.”

My father glanced at the pad.  “Sorry, you didn’t write it down.  Doesn’t count.”

Even when we were younger we weren’t fooled for a second by this glib, silly talk at the table, but it helped get us through; we all knew that a detective would come and wire the phone again, that my father’s bodyguards were probably parked outside at that very moment.

And as kids we learned there were more important things in life than fearing faceless bullies–like protecting a beloved, obese cat from harm, or coaxing a ruined lawn back to life by fertilizing again, and then kneeling down to whisper apologies to the grass.  We knew my dad was supposed to be a “tough guy,” knew he would always watch over us, but he was also the same dad who quacked loudly as he threw bread into the pond behind our house for the ducks, who scooped up spiders and pretended to thoughtfully chew on them: “Tastes like bacon,” he’d say, and swallow.  And that humor would ease the tension and remind us that we were all safe.

That protection allowed me to learn much more from my father than the inevitable truth that the world is full of dangerous people.  Because when the men with guns and axes and threats faded into the background, my father showed me why he plowed forward in the face of such dangers–and this is when my real education took place.

He kept “the list” in a spiral notebook, and on evenings before he had to leave town to fight an arbitration case or attend a conference, we would review it together.  The pages were filled with the names and numbers of the men he represented in Local 251 as a Business Agent, and then later as President.

“Call Eddie at the hall right at 5:30am, and then write down all the available jobs from men who called off,” my father said the first time.  His finger trailed down the page.  “Then you call the guys in this order.”

These available jobs would be filled by men on the list who would work even if they were bedridden with the flu, because they didn’t have the luxury of full-time employment or calling in at the last minute for vacation or sick days.  Sometimes the order on the list changed, sometimes the list was rewritten, but what stays with me the most is my father’s quiet instructions.  How he’d tap a name and begin.

“Call Pete first.  His son needs surgery, and insurance won’t cover it all.  I’m working on that, but he’s scared.  He gets the first job.”

I’d watch his finger tap the next name.  “Then Stevie.  His wife is pregnant and she’s having some trouble.  It’s their first kid and he might want to talk about it, so listen, okay?  Let him talk.”

“Okay.”

“Next is Ray.  He’s been out of work for a while and he needs to make his pension.  But call him back five minutes later.”

“Why?”

“To make sure he’s out of bed.  He’s getting older, and he falls back to sleep.

“And then Jimmy Z.,” my father would say, tapping.  “You know him, the one we ran into at the hardware store?  His arthritis is getting bad, but his wife just lost her job and their daughter is getting married next month.”

The list went on, and on those nights the dangers receded completely, and the lives of the men who called to talk to my dad at all hours, or showed up at our front door unannounced, including holidays, started to take shape.  Not just a gruff, awkward man at the door holding a bottle of scotch and interrupting us while we opened Christmas presents, but a son who had to pay for his mother’s funeral.  Not just a faceless man on the phone who interrupted dinner three nights in a row, but a father with five children who was terrified he couldn’t make his next mortgage payment.

Dad wanted me to see why his job was so important, why he would never back down when faced with threats–he wanted all of us to know the real men and stories that urged him out of bed before the sun rose, that made him come home at times long after it set, and why he could never walk away.  What I learned from my father was compassion.

Of course I’m not naïve enough to think my father was a saint or that there weren’t men who feared him, or even that he did everything by the book.  Sometimes we overhead conversations between our parents about “lessons for scabs,” and we all knew that sometimes the difference between the good guys and the bad guys was a little murky.  But what I saw growing up was a man who struggled to make things right–I saw a father who spent countless hours at our kitchen table working on unfair termination cases or detailed contracts because he wanted to make sure these men had better benefits, better working conditions, better lives.  So it didn’t matter when his detractors openly speculated about how Teamsters really got the job done, because these people didn’t see the anguish on my dad’s face when a strike went on too long, and then the determination when he turned our kitchen into a makeshift diner despite his colleagues’ criticisms: his tired men deserved a warm meal, and they would get one.

To this day, my long-retired father still gets his hand pumped at the grocery store or a restaurant or even in a movie theater.  People still stride across rooms to thank him for saving their jobs or putting food on the table.  The men are older and retired now, too, and more times than not it’s actually the sons or daughters of these men who say hello, who clasp his hand and explain who they are and when their fathers passed away.  And in these moments, as my dad relates a funny or moving story about their fathers and I watch their grateful faces, I realize that I’m learning from my dad still: helping others doesn’t have an expiration date, and it can trickle down in the most unexpected ways.  And it’s always, always worth the risk.

As an adult, I can see that my father isn’t the perfect man I once believed he was, and that he is, like everyone else, full of flaws and imperfections.  But in these moments, when I see the happy tears in a son or daughter’s eyes as he talks about the parent who is gone but not forgotten, I am certain of one thing: my dad is still a giant.

3 Comments

  1. kirsten
    Posted September 27, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    my life is so dull…….

    sigh.

    love this. My favorite part is the thought of a family sitting around the table saying who’s turn it is that “they” are coming for. LOL.

  2. Saskia
    Posted September 28, 2010 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Nicely written, Mel, as always. Very interesting and touching, too.

  3. Posted September 29, 2010 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Oh my Uncle Jimmy, how I love him and you all so much. I have such interesting memories of which I find myself telling my friends often. Yes, the spray of bullets down the side of the car certainly made an impression. I loved holidays when we would always stop by on our way home to CT or MA and the basement would be filled with family and friends, food to feed a King and the best Pin Ball machines I had ever seen. I could go on and on…so happy you will for all of us..love you!

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*