Authors: Dan Fante
For my mother, Joyce Smart Fante: poet, editor, and for almost fifty years the wife of one of the most impossible, magnificent sons-of-bitches who ever lived. With love, Ma. With love.
‘There are no lies but the lies that are stuffed in the mouth of the hard-knuckled hand of need, the cold iron fist of necessity…’
I GOT MY first job in New York City two days after I arrived. Monday. It’d taken me four days to hitchhike from L.A. I became a staple puller at an advertising company that did effectiveness studies for TV commercials. Clerical Assistant.
270 Madison Avenue. Third Floor. Schwermann Research, Inc. The gig came through an office temp place that advertised in the want-ads in the
New York Times.
At eight-thirty that morning I began asking people on the street near Penn Station the way to get to Olson’s Temp at Forty-second and Sixth. The second guy I asked gave me directions by bus. I walked to save the carfare. It was ten blocks.
Ms. Herrera, the placement counselor, never looked up when she called my name and I got to her desk. She had lots of black make-up above her eyes and there were no apparent breasts behind her shirt. I was handed a pen, a clipboard and a long double-sided application. I sat down with the form and did what I do most of the time with job applications - make shit up. It’s a game I play to balance out the boredom and stupidness of having to spend time filling out forms and waiting endlessly in lines at employment agencies. I invent two or three companies where I’ve worked and say they have moved or gone broke. I use that as my ‘Reason For Leaving Last Position.’ It usually works and it eliminates the discussion of whether I was a good employee or not. The challenge comes when the agency
person behind the desk asks stuff about my work history and I have to remember the sequence of what I wrote down on the application. If I’ve been drinking, concentrating and recalling my lies can be difficult.
Herrera saw that I’d completed all the blanks and boxes on both sides of the page and that I could spell and appeared to be alert so she gave me a quick pitch about how Olson’s charges their client companies and pays their people. Then she looked down on my form at the ‘Last Job’ section where I’d filled in ‘File Clerk/Counter Assistant.’ It was fairly easy for me to read my own upside-down printing.
‘Seagram’s Music Supply,’ she hissed through her teeth. ‘That was clerical?’
‘Mostly,’ I said back. ‘I worked the register too when we got busy.’
‘You left because…?’
‘I wrote it down. It’s there on the form.’
‘I said, reason for leaving?’
‘Business relocation. They moved.’
‘Elsewhere. Washington State, I believe. That’s there too.’
‘Before that, you worked…where?’
‘Daniels’ Press. It’s there.’
‘How long have you lived in New York, Mister Dante?’
‘Two days. I’ve relocated too.’
Herrera was tall and thin and oozed silent business pressure hysteria. I could tell that she regarded me and the rest of the flesh that moved through her cubicle as a hacker in a slaughterhouse might, making his cut, tallying the slabs on the moving hooks as they passed. It was okay with me.
Ms. Herrera signed something on the bottom and checked off a box. She had nicotine stains on her big fingers and one of her stick-on fake nails was missing off the thumb of her
writing hand. Opening up a 3 X 5 card box labeled ‘Clerical,’ she hurried along the tabs until she came up with an assignment she must have regarded as suitable, then copied the information onto a three-part 8 X 10 form. Over my shoulder I saw that more people had filled her ‘Applicant’ bench against the wall. Five or six new bodies to be expedited. More meat. Every time a new one sat down Herrera gave a low grunt and made a pissed-off face.
Suddenly we were done. She tore off the top copy of the form with the job on it, stood up and handed it to me. Interview over. I asked about directions to get to the assignment on Madison Avenue. Herrera shook her skinny face from side to side as if to say, ‘Why am I the one who gets all the dazed, cheesedick out-of-town fucks off the street to waste my time?’ She jerked her chair back from the desk and stomped down the aisle to the front door that faced Forty-second Street. I followed.
Outside on the street she lit up a Newport, sucked in a huge hit, then pointed east toward Fifth Avenue. ‘Walk that way,’ she said, still holding most of the smoke in. ‘That’s east. Got it?’
I nodded and watched her exhale.
‘The second light is Madison. Turn right at Madison. That’s south. Two-seventy Madison is on the right side. Take the elevator to the tenth floor. Ten. You can remember that. Ten. The address is there on the paper I gave you. If you have any more questions, consult the information on your placement form. I’d provide you with a detailed color-coded map with arrows and circles and little stick men except I’ve got five more “clients” to see on my bench right now. I’m not a tour guide.’
‘Can I bum a cigarette?’
She made another face then dug into the pocket of her skirt, producing a pack, handing me one. ‘Anything else?’
I had matches. I lit it myself. ‘I’m not trying to be funny. Which way’s the Empire State Building? I’ve never seen it.’
Herrera yanked the door open, sucked in a last drag on her Newport, started to go in, got interrupted by a thought, then stopped suddenly and turned back. ‘Let me see your copy of the placement form again,’ she demanded.
I dug in my pocket and handed it back.
‘Crap! Jesus! I forgot to write her name down…Ask for Nancy. You have to ask for Nancy.’
‘Can you remember? It’s not on the job order. You’d better write it down!’
‘Nancy. I ask for Nancy. I’ll remember. I knew a Nancy once. Her whole name was Fat Nancy.’
Herrera’s eyes rolled, she turned, flicking her cigarette toward the street, exhaled a deep sigh, then went back inside. The door sucked closed behind her.
My hourly pay was $8.
Having a job provided the money for me to move to a better place. I wasn’t sleeping because of my yakking brain and the constant break-ins and the flimsy locks on the room doors at the Thirty-fourth Street YMCA. I’d been paying twenty-two bucks a night plus tax. I’d walk to the bathroom to take a squirt and have to watch buttfucking in the communal showers.
The weekly rent for a single room in the rooming house I moved to on Fifty-first Street was $150. That left about seventy-five dollars each week after taxes to go toward other expenses. In the new place the bathroom was down the hall too but it was a one-person deal with the added amenity of a locking door.
For fourteen consecutive days after my first day at Schwermann, the thumb and the first finger on my right hand were red and
blistered from using a mechanical staple-puller gadget that pinched my skin. At lunch break on my last Friday at the job I had shooters, beer back and bar pretzels with one of my temp co-workers, an actor named Brad O’Sullivan. Brad’s spot at the job was the next area down from me in the windowless file storage room at Schwermann. His assignment was to separate the reports after I’d pulled the staples and taken the report covers off. There was George too. He was one down from Brad. George went from tab to tab in the reports counting the numbers of felt marker marks in the boxes and recording the data.
Me and Brad drank and ate pretzels and did some math on a bar napkin. Between the two of us we’d torn apart about fifteen hundred reports. I held up the hand and showed him the blister on my thumb. Brad shook his head. By the time we were headed back from our lunch break, I’d decided fuck it.
Herrera at Olson’s Temp acted uninterested about me quitting Schwermann when I called her the next Monday morning. But then she began asking questions about what my boss had said when I said I was leaving. What I said. What Nancy had said back. That shit. I had to sell Herrera, convince her that I hadn’t been petulant or acted like an asshole, in order for her to trust me and send me out again.
While we talked on the phone she looked up my file. I’d come in on time every day except for a couple of times. She saw that there had been no supervisor complaints. After the interrogation it was determined that I would be eligible for reassignment.
I could hear her wheezing while she fidgeted through the files on her desk. ‘Okay, now I remember you,’ she gasped. ‘Dante! New in town. Right?’
‘Still here, Dante? Still lost?’
‘That’s just swell, Dante,’ she said. ‘What I’ll do is go over the list of the new phone-in assignments that’ve come in. I do it once a day for each of our people calling in for reassignment. Once only. When you call in remember that. If you like something say “Stop” and I’ll stop while you write it down. I don’t go back once I’ve read off a job. Got a pencil?’
‘A pen. I’m ready.’
‘Remember, Dante, say “Stop.”’
She started reading the alphabetical list. Most of what she had sounded okay but not more than a couple of notches above the staple-puller deal. ‘Arcade Ticket Taker, Auditor’s Assistant/Collator, Assembler’s Helper.’
‘Keep going,’ I said.
The ‘Cs’ ‘Ds’ and ‘Fs’ weren’t much better; ‘Car Detailer, Dish Washer, Cook’s Helper, Fill-in Delivery Man. Fitter Assistant, Flyer Distributor.’
‘Garage Attendant, Label Sticker/Packager, Loading Dock Clerk…’
By the ‘Ss’ I could tell that Herrera was out of patience. ‘Survey Taker, Supply Room Stock Man…C’mon Dante,’ she said, ‘my gum surgery was more fun than this.’
She started on the ‘Us’. ‘Usher.’
I knew immediately. ‘I’ll take Usher,’ I said. ‘Theater usher?’
‘I’ll take it.’
She gave me the location and the name of the person to see.
She waited, wheezing, tapping the phone with her pencil, while I wrote down her directions on how to get there by subway. The manager’s name was Mrs. Lupo. An Italian name. I was optimistic.
Herrera surprised me by saying something conversational. ‘So, Dante,’ she hissed, ‘did you get to the Empire State Building?’
‘I was a block away on one of my lunch breaks but I didn’t go in.’
‘Soo…what’d you think?’
‘Tall…I thought it was tall.’
There was a click on the other end.
I’D BEEN DRUNK most of the weekend for no reason other than boredom. Beer and wine. I like to walk sometimes when I’m drunk, especially when I’m in a new place. So I walked on Saturday. Uptown on Riverside Drive next to the frozen Hudson River. Up to Grant’s Tomb. Then down Broadway. Buying brown-bag short dogs of Triple Jack wine, stopping at the newsstands and used book stores. Paperbacks, three for a buck. Passed the Ansonia Hotel, Seventy-second Street, Lincoln Center.
On Sunday I was awake hours before sunrise. I tried to write before I drank, working on my play, then gave up and hit the wine to stop the head noise. I ordered eggs and toast when the luncheonette on Eighth Avenue opened. The waitress had the name tag LaVonne. Friendly. Pretty, even white teeth.
After that I drank some more in my room and read my ‘new’ used Hubert Selby until I couldn’t concentrate. Then I walked down Eighth Avenue. In Greenwich Village I passed chic outdoor cafés and people getting out of limos. It reminded me of L.A. and Beverly Hills so I turned west toward the docks and found a coffee house bookstore. A rummie with a ponytail was playing chess by himself. He had no cigarettes but he had a philosophy degree from NYU and said Edna Millay once lived on Hudson Street, e. e. cummings on West Fourth. He went on about dead Jesus until I got him off it and then about a trip he’d made to Alaska. What me and the rummie had in
common is that we both had done a lot of walking. I bought us coffee and he pulled the cigarettes out of my pack one after the other and smoked them. When I left him I found Hudson Street but I never found Millay’s house.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
I arrived late that Monday afternoon for my first day at the Loew’s Sheridan Movie - filling in for a man named Guido who was in Palermo for four weeks because his father died. I looked forward to the job because I always liked movies and because of the dark and the imaginary world and the smell of popcorn.
Herrera had told me that Mrs. Lupo was an old lady but a good client. Herrera’d said that she was ‘funny’ and ‘moody.’ A stickler.
The minute I saw Mrs. Lupo I knew that nobody in the theater but her could be the boss. She was small, under five feet and weighing less than ninety pounds. Her hair was pure white and she wore slacks and noiseless soft-soled black nurse’s shoes and she had an intense, bosslike, rat face. I pegged her immediately as a stalker. She was way past retirement age but it was evident from watching her that she could out-speed-walk any employee in her theater.
She had me follow her to the unheated men’s dressing area in the movie theater basement and pointed to a rack where there were white shirts and clip-on bow ties and parts of ten or fifteen beat-up old tuxedos. Lupo told me that when she was a girl first starting out as a vaudeville usher, Georgie Jessel had once changed his clothes in this very clammy, shitty, cold basement.
The black pants and jackets hung worn and shapeless like the abandoned uniforms of a defeated platoon of head waiters. Mrs. Lupo stayed outside the door while I tried on pants and tux jacket pieces until I was finally able to merge a combination that came close to my size.
When I opened the door of the dressing area, she looked me up and down, sucked at her teeth, then announced, ‘That’ll do. You’re responsible for the cleaning. That and the shirt laundering come out of your pocket. Personal expenses.’
Then she walked over to the clothes rack, grabbed the first two available beat-up tux shirts and passed them to me. ‘These’ll be yours. There’s a Chinese on the corner of Seventh Avenue. They charge a dollar a shirt. Don’t get the heavy starch, get light starch only.’
Then she snatched off a frayed, dirty, clip-on bow tie that swung from the triangle of a wire hanger with half a dozen others and tossed it to me. ‘You need this too,’ she said, looking me up and down again. ‘That’s it,’ she declared to herself. ‘You’re done. Let’s go. Change back into your street clothes. I’ll wait.’
I did. But when I came out carrying the usher’s uniform over my arm I hadn’t tried on the shirts. I held one up. ‘I can tell that these sleeves are too long,’ I said. ‘They won’t fit.’
Her eyes shone with haughty amusement. ‘We’re not auditioning here, Dante. We do the best we can. You wear the jacket over the shirt, right? Roll the sleeves up if you have to. Remember, I said heavy starch destroys the cotton. No heavy starch.’
‘You saying it twice has created a permanent impression.’
She didn’t like my remark. She made a squinty face that caused a whole section of her brittle wrinkles to roll and fold quickly, then even out. ‘And don’t wear any one shirt more than three shifts maximum. Understand?’
‘Smelling like a dock worker or having a shoddy appearance is grounds at my theater. And don’t be late anymore. Being late after the first time is also grounds.’
‘And not doing what your supervisor tells you is grounds too. Immediate grounds. Your supervisor is Eddy, my nephew.’
‘You’re not my supervisor?’
‘Congregating with other employees and talking to women customers, except to answer questions, is out. You a sissy?’
‘This is a movie house in Greenwich Village, not a discotheque for my employees to hobnob with chippies and the local hippie weirdos. This is a place of business. You smoke?’
‘You smoke on your own time. Smoking downstairs in the alcove outside the bathroom or sneaking in back of the curtains by the inside exit doors and having a cigarette is also grounds. Eddy knows. Smoke on your break only. Smoke outside only. Understand?’
I exhaled heavily. ‘I believe I do.’
‘Don’t be smart. Yes or no is the answer.’
‘So you’re up to speed so far?’
‘Twelve thousand percent.’
She went on. ‘Stay away from the projection booth upstairs. The night man is union. He’s a dope smoker and a drunk but there’s nothing we can do until we catch him. His contract states that he’s entitled to lock the booth door but he’s not fooling me. I won’t tolerate juicers or pot heads.’
‘I mind my own business.’
‘You start tomorrow, Dante. Your work schedule will be four to twelve with Mondays off. Ask for my nephew Eddy, the Assistant Manager. He’ll train you.’
‘What was today?’
‘Today was your interview.’
‘I thought today was my first day. Does that mean I’m not getting paid for today?’
‘Today was not your first day. You’re not working today. Eddy is off. Tomorrow is your first day. Today is Monday. Tomorrow is Tuesday.’
‘I was told by Miss Herrera at Olson’s to report for work today. Monday. Four p.m. I know the days of the week. Yesterday was Sunday, today is Monday.’
‘I just said that you have Mondays off.’
‘So what I was told by Herrera at Olson’s was bunk. No matter that my pay checks come from her.’
I’d pissed Mrs. Lupo off. She began gesturing. Her spiderweb wrinkles flexed and relaxed then tightened again. ‘Hand those here, please,’ she snapped, grabbing at the clothes.
I gave her the uniform, the shirts and the bow tie.
‘I haven’t got time for this,’ she said. Then she dumped the clothes on the dressing-room table in a heap and pulled the cord turning off the light.
‘Look. Okay,’ I said, surprised, squinting in the blackness. ‘I’ll be here tomorrow.’
Mrs. Lupo didn’t answer. The darkness had covered her exit. I turned and caught sight of her making her way up the first few flower-carpeted stairs twenty feet away. ‘Hey, okay,’ I called again. ‘I’ll be here.’
She paused, turned back in my direction: ‘Three p.m. sharp. Tomorrow. Tuesday, Mr. Dante. You don’t work on Monday. Monday is your off day. Take the uniform with you.’
‘Right. I know about Monday.’
Her voice was echoing in the basement like the announcer at Shea Stadium. ‘Report to Eddy. After the first week, if he thinks you’ve got promise he’ll make a recommendation to me. I decide whether to put you on full time. I call the temp company.’ Then she bellowed, ‘Understood?’
‘Okay,’ I yelled back.
Her dark eyes met mine from the staircase. ‘Dante’s an Italian name. You’re Italian?’
‘On my father’s side.’
She assembled a small, pleated, triumphant smile. ‘Go home. Be here tomorrow.’ Then she spun around and I watched as she bounced up the rest of the carpeted stairs. An ancient gymnast in spy shoes.