June 1999
s m u g
Gershom Bazerman

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"The End of the Line"

All I knew was that three days ago, a friend of mine clued me into a job opportunity. I arrived at ten in the morning, passing first through a broad swath of industrial Oakland. I hadn't thought the address would be so close to the marina, and exited at the wrong stop. I walked two miles before deciding that I'd rather take a bus. Running parallel to the Bay, the street divided warehouses, loading docks, cranes, plants on one side -- names and purposes unclear -- from houses that stretched out over what must have once been a flood plain. Now it was spilled with single story die cast roofs that tumbled in dirt muted stucco pastels.

I walked, and it might have meant more had either side been mine. Properly, there were four elements that intersected about the road, because there was the ocean brooding beyond the docks, and the sky cast above in the same darkened grey, with perhaps fewer whitecaps, and serving nothing but my taste for scenic flourish. It was four mechanisms then, view chopped by occasional billboards, which from all sides propelled the eventual bus toward Jack London Square.

I hadn't expected to go so far, because we all know that if anywhere in the city, it is those five or so blocks, with their marina and downtown hotels and pedestrian mall -- all that was yuppie in Oakland. No, not yuppie. White. The shock was all the greater to find the line. Walking blocks without seeing it, in a single moment it appeared to be everywhere. First the cops, then the news crew, and then the line everywhere Stretching on both sides of me, but not tight or impenetrable or imposing ... just there. People behind people behind people in front of people -- black Oakland had reclaimed the marina. Of course they hadn't. They were just there for the job.

Clear that we didn't belong as a unit in that part of town, I watched the line down the block, and saw it cease. I said to myself, "oh, that's not too long," and then I saw that it did not cease, but turned right into the mall, and snaked around back to the next block, and again, and again. I walked and they were still not a sea, or a wall, but all there discrete. Everyone had stories, or rather told stories, I mean, what else do you do in line?

I started hearing the stories when I found the end of the line. The man there said this was his third time in this line. In this line? What was the deal? No longer at the end of the line (I was now behind him, and ten others were behind me. Not seeming to move, but oh! how it grew.) he was stocky, but not fat or short. The man in front of me answered my questions pleasantly. He did not tell me the deal. That came from the man with the bullhorn, who walked by and spoke. Those waiting would run up to him and ask him questions, the same ones each time. He would move on, and eventually he too reached the end of the line. He told me, and I repeat this now to you.

The Deal

To work you must have a social security card and a driver's license. You show them to the office and they give you a post card. You fill out the card and mail it in. If you are lucky (they have 300 jobs, and there are now a thousand in this line) then you will get a reply and then you are hired. You are not hired by an employer. You are hired by a union named the ILWU and you are a casual. A casual works maybe seven days a week, maybe two days a week. Maybe none. When they want you, you are notified, and then you go to the place that they tell you to. You move things from ships, and then you get paid.

After hearing The Deal, I understand the man's in front of me's story. He was not one of the lucky ones. But The Deal was also a story, and I hear other stories too. As soon as the man with the bullhorn spoke, people came to him and asked several variations of the same question. "What do I do? What do I do if I do not have my social security card? If I do not have my license?." " You say to go to the social security administration, but where is it?" He didn't know where it was. Like I said, it wasn't the Real Deal. Only a story. People all around me left. Of those that stayed, and there were enough so that the line moved only slightly, another told me that there had been a line there all night.

The people running the line are efficient, taking the line quickly because they only check for the cards and issue the cards; by the end of the day, the line is gone. If it is not, it is closed and processed. The people running the line understand what it is to be fair. Still people in line understand what it is like to be poor, and camped the night. One man worked at the TOSCO oil plant -- now shut down for safety. He explained the work paid well, but it was not a longterm prospect. Longshore was.

That was all part of the Real Completely True Deal, which was not the same as the Deal the bullhorn had announced. I caught no more than a glimpse of the Real Deal that day, from overheard fragments. I heard that today everything is intermodal meaning there are containers all the same size and they are not moved by people, but by cranes, which I had seen earlier. All the cranes are run by A-men but the A-men do not solely run cranes. They are the highest paid. There are the B-men who are not the same, and then there are casuals which is what I might be. The ILWU runs hiring, but it really doesn't because the employer may hire you away and then you're a steady-man with a guaranteed gig. The A-men oppose training the B-men and the casuals, and there is no longer a larger unity. The real deal is that twenty dollars an hour is nothing when there are machines instead of work. In the real deal a thousand of us still wait. In the real deal, the man two more people in front of me had worked every machining plant in town, and now he just wanted to be a casual. There are as many casuals as A-men. These are the ranks referenced in "the rank and file."

There was talk of social security cards, because so many had gone to get them. The administration was full, and a special queue formed there too, where you took numbers. A quantity of people had banded together in common need, overrunning the city. I stayed in the line and slowly traversed four city blocks with it. Listening and watching pleasure boats skimming through the bay that would not return with cargo. People in the queue would compare experiences and wait. At the front they saw my credentials and gave me my postcard. The next day, I would send it in, registered US mail.


in the junk drawer

feature car
ac/dc gun
compulsion vise
posedown cheese
and such
and such
blab fan

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