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Among the more fantastic nobodies hanging from my family tree are a pair of heavy-drinking lighthouse keepers, a sleepy morphine addict, a grave robber, a rumrunner, a streetwalker, a numbers maker, a dean of a sham college and a police informant. A few of these relatives are still living, a few lived long lives, a few died young by misadventure or of self-neglect. Those are sad biographies ending with "done me wrong."
My grandpa Roy was the bookmaker for the Detroit Race Course, which no longer stands. Like everything else, it has been replaced by a shopping mall, I think. They say Grandpa was a math genius. Maybe, but he never struck me as one. He was a sharp dresser with a thin pencil-trim mustache, a sophisticated and sociable man, but a math genius? I can't say. He did make a lot of money in his time, but when the president of the Teamsters and the underboss of the Bufalino family were your dinner pals, you didn't really have to be that good with the numbers.
Grandma insists that Grandpa was not a gangster but the most decent and honorable man she had ever met. I believe her, but I wonder why she kept the photos of Grandpa and Jimmy Hoffa at the bottom of the trunk, above the one of Grandpa and a strange woman laughing it up in a fishing cottage somewhere far away. I am working from memory here, since relations of mine stole that trunk and most of the rest of my grandma's things and sold them away to strangers.
But this is not a memoir. There are too many of those. I give you some family background as a way of credentialing myself, to show you that everybody's got a history, that most everybody comes from nowhere and that in every family there is a cousin no one wants to admit to. This book is about such people: New Yorkers almost exclusively, working people most definitely.
The dandies I know say I write about dives and losers, but they are wrong. I write about the people who live in neighborhoods, crowded apartments and dreary ranch houses. These are the people who shovel their own snow and have fat aunties who wear stretch pants with stains on the ass. This is not a book about the people who have doormen but a book about doormen. It is about the laborer, the dreamer, the hustler, the immigrant-whether he is a writer from Michigan or a waiter from Michoacān. I suppose in all of this I'm trying to find myself and justify him, to you.
When the cocktail set tells me they enjoy the cast of losers, I never mind them. I smile and drink their liquor. They don't know work.
The elders in my family told me our stories. The better stuff has come more recently, pried out with the crowbar of old age. Nobody likes to admit he cheated his way to the middle. As far as I know, our stories of half-breeds, half-asses, half-truths, crawdaddies from the Louisiana swamps and kicking birds from the Great Lakes have never been written down or chronicled except for that newspaper photograph of Grandpa and Jimmy Hoffa standing on the picket line in front of the track two generations ago.
That picture, that one piece of acknowledgment and notoriety, is lost to my family. The stranger who bought the trunk has no idea that the thin man standing next Hoffa was known along Woodward Avenue as the Duke.
That American nobody is somebody to me. He's the guy who taught me about horses. You will not find recollections of him in these pages, but he is here. Pete the Gambler and I spent hours at the Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park, Queens, talking about my grandpa, about his handicapping system and his philosophy on horses. That philosophy: Stay away from the track. But it doesn't work that way and so there you have it.
The nice thing about being a reporter is that you can show a gravedigger your press card and ask him: "You mind if I watch?" He lets you watch for a while. He will let you try his shovel until your hands start to blister and your back starts to ache. You hand him back his shovel and you watch some more and it dawns upon you to ask, "Doesn't that hurt your hands and back?" Usually, people try to make their lives sound better than they are. But that falls away after a while, and the longer you hang around, the less they realize you're around and eventually you get at it.
Reporters like to tell themselves that they are doing something socially and culturally important and that in the best of circumstances they are doing some good-righting wrongs, exposing crooks and such. That's what they tell each other over free drinks at the awards ceremonies, anyway.
The truth is, we reporters are window peepers, suck-ups, people too ugly for the movies. That's what normal people say. That's the bad part. The good part is the job beats manual labor.
The stories in this book appeared in The New York Times at around the turn of the century. Chronologically, they end with September 11 and its aftermath. I wrote some stories about Squad 1, a firehouse in Brooklyn that lost half its men. Rereading them now, these stories seem salty and cold to me, like watering eyes in the wintertime. There was so much more to be said, but I could not say it, because life in those moments was hard enough. I hope the stories at least seem limber, that something good can be gotten from them by somebody.
New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they're lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control of their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won't let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is the most exciting thing there is.
New York is a lot like a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you taste, and this town would tumble to the ground without money. For those who don't have it, there is always the hope of getting it. This book is meant for them.
Work and Other Sins
When I was a cub reporter at the Times, I was talking with an editor about a strike at an auto-parts plant in Flint, Michigan. There was some story in the paper that day about workers who were spending their idle time antique shopping and speeding around the lakes in their powerboats.
"Since when is it bad to have a boat and make good money?" I asked.
The editor, a smart guy with a weak chin, put his palm to his nose and said: "Those people had about this much foresight. They should have seen the writing on the wall and gone to college."
That's what he said.
But if we were all poets, we'd starve on words.
Good-bye to Mr. Hello and Good-bye
Robert E. Mitchell will retire on March 29. He will take his belongings and his doorman's pension and go back home to New Orleans, where he plans to grow old on the front porch with his relations.
No one need apply, as Mr. Mitchell's job was filled just days after he announced his retirement. "That's the way it goes," he said at four one afternoon as he dragged his broom and dustpan around the perimeter of 801 West End Avenue, a prewar building with seventy apartments on the west side of the avenue between Ninety-ninth and One Hundredth streets. "Time moves along and things are forgotten. Including the memories of you," he said. There are, after all, eight thousand doormen in the city.
And maybe the new guy will make the residents of 801 forget that for thirty-three years, Mr. Mitchell was the man who mopped their hallways and shoveled their snow. Or that he was the man who took their children by the scruff of the neck when he saw them doing wrong. Or that he was the man who ran down the wig-wearing mugger who attacked their mother. Or that he was the man who discovered their dead locked away behind the doors.
But it seems unlikely, if the card the six-year-old girl gave him the other day is any indication. I love you.Please don't go, Robert, it read.
Nearly every block in New York has its mayor. Some acquire the title through milk-crate endurance, passing away the hours in the same spot on the same corner, becoming such a fixture and spectacle that people just start calling out, "Hey, Mayor." But others earn it by giving of themselves.
"He was my second father after my father moved away," said Beck Lee, forty, who grew into a man in apartment lB. The neighborhood was tough in the sixties and seventies, Mr. Lee said. Schoolchildren were robbed so often that their fathers gave them broken watches and expired bus passes to give the muggers. But the children developed their own method of self-defense. They learned to stall, pat their pockets and wait for Mr. Mitchell to catch sight of the larceny from his perch near the building's column.
In the seventies, there was a parade of fathers who packed their bags and walked out through the marble foyer for the last time. Mr. Mitchell was there to help them with their bags. And he was there to help the women put a fresh coat of paint on their apartments and move their furniture around. He was there to teach their kids the curveball. He was, Mr. Lee said, a surrogate man of the house.
Mr. Mitchell cut a handsome figure in his gray uniform with white piping. He wore a colorful sweater, a threadbare tie and smooth hair the color of the uniform. At sixty-five, he is thin and stands erect. When the neighborhood started changing in the eighties and the silk-stocking crowd moved in, they asked him to wear a hat. He refused. He has never worn a hat on the job and is proud of it. They do that on the East Side. He's a West Side doorman.
"I opened this door so much they'd run out of numbers if they attempted to calculate it," he said, standing in the cold foyer in thin shoes and no coat. "I'm going to miss this building. It's been my whole life for half my life."
September 28, 1967, was the beginning of that life. That's when the unemployment office sent him to the building's superintendent. "The super told me, 'If you like it, you've got the job for life,'" he said. "I been here ever since."
The true gentleman never insinuates himself into other people's business, Mr. Mitchell said. He keeps to his own, never talks about things unless asked and never talks about people in the building, period.
"Which doesn't mean I don't know what's going on," he said. "I know just about everything that goes on around here. If I didn't, I wouldn't be a good doorman."
Maybe the people of 801 West End Avenue will forget him, he said. But he'll be thinking of them on his porch down in Louisiana.
The Michelangelo of the Hard Sell
Tony Razzano is a used-car salesman on the Gold Coast of Long Island. He is moving high-end, hey-notice-me cars, even in these spooked economic times, because, he says, he understands a basic concept of Long Island life: "You are what you drive."
He is one of eight salesmen at Champion Motor Group, a dealership that specializes in the "slightly used" Jaguar, Porsche and Rolls-Royce. The car market caved after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Car sales rebounded to record levels in October, due in large part to interest-free financing deals.
"The big companies are giving their cars away below cost," Mr. Razzano said. "You won't see me giving away the store. I need to make money to make dreams happen."
He sold sixteen luxury cars, including a $300,000 Bentley, between September 11 and the beginning of November. He accounts for 25 percent of sales off the lot. To prove this, he pulled a stack of sales receipts from a drawer and tossed them on his mahogany desk while continuing to speak to a customer on the other end of the line.
"Look. Two and two are four. If you want it to be five, God bless you," he told a man named Richie, who worried that he could not manage the finances on a '98 Bentley, at 6.8 percent interest, which translated into a monthly payment of $3,657 and a lump sum of $160,000 due at the end of five years. "Whatever you want. Just come see me. You know I love you, Richie."
Tony Razzano bleeds ego. He hung up the telephone, smiled and recited the well-worn psalm of the showroom: "I could sell ice to an Eskimo."
The products sell themselves, Mr. Razzano said, but these days he helps the Mr. Joneses and Mr. Smiths of the world make their decisions with a devilish pitch.
Terrorists and anthrax, he reminds them. "Why would you wait for tomorrow to get what you want today, when tomorrow may never come?" he asks. "Do what the president asks of you. Go out there and spend and be a patriot."
Tony Razzano is forty-nine and engaged to a twenty-eight-year-old blonde. His hair is swept back and gray around the temples, his dress is impeccable and his jewelry, silver. He tans twice a week, is short of stature, and his presence is announced by the metal taps inlaid into the soles of his shoes. Tickety-tap, tickety-tap, tickety-tap.
He is the type of man who cannot tell you the make of his shoes but will tell you that they cost seven hundred dollars. He drives what he calls a young man's car, a black Mercedes coupe with black tinted windows, and has a cell phone glued to his ear. The conversation is usually not about automobiles but about how to pay for one.
And there lies the foundation of Mr. Razzano's livelihood, which he says is around a quarter million dollars per annum-creative financing. There are three ways to get a car, he says: the conventional loan, balloon financing and the lease.
The conventional loan, according to Mr. Razzano, is preferred by Solid Joe America, a hardworking man who wants to make payments on his car and who after five years wants to own it. "He's got a wife and kids and wants to own something by the end of the deal," he said.
Then there is balloon financing. This is for men-rarely women-who want to look like big shots but in reality don't have the money to be big shots. (He compares them to "a fancy home without furniture.") For them, balloon financing is a way to buy a car with little money down and to stack the big payment three years down the line. The car is usually sold before the big payment comes due, a new car is purchased, and the process begins anew. It is akin to rolling over credit card debt.
"A guy like that I own cradle to grave," Mr. Razzano said. When he makes that kind of sale, he calls it "taking him down."
The other road to car keys, the lease, is recommended for the man who has bad credit or a short attention span. Banks are getting out of the leasing business in this tattered economy, since a bank cannot recoup its losses on a repossessed car sold at auction. But Champion Motor Group has an arrangement with the banks that allows for lease swapping. Luxury cars hold their value better than run-of-the-mill Chevrolets. So, instead of the auction yard, the cars go back to the Champion showroom, where they are resold. The dealership keeps its customers interested, and paying, by letting them swap one car for another.
So while other salesmen starve, Mr. Razzano eats. "Men with good credit, they're an easy sell," he said. What he specializes in is the man with poor credit and rich tastes. A car costs the same for everyone; it's the payments that differ.
"For instance, the reverend wants a Rolls," he explains with a true-life story. "I say, 'Reverend, you can't have the new Rolls, but you can have a slightly older one. Who's going to know the difference? Pass the basket around and pray to the Lord, because your credit smells worse than roadkill and you're going to need to come up with an extra five grand.'"
And when the reverend does, Mr. Razzano sends him away in his Rolls-Royce with a bottle of good wine and not one but two Cuban cigars. The reverend is happy, and, as Mr. Razzano says, he owns him for life.
"I understand how badly somebody wants to be Somebody," he said while sitting in his office decorated with roses, good liquor, a humidor and a photo of himself and his blonde on the beach. "I'll help this kind of person. And if he doesn't make the payments, I'll take his car, his ego, and still make a profit."
Mr. Razzano does not promise things he cannot do. He tries to avoid a lease where a man cannot make the payments. "Every one of my applications is a Michelangelo," he said. "I work the bank over as hard as I work the customer. That's what makes me so good."
A man is shaped by his circumstances, and Mr. Razzano is no different. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who sold groceries to the robber barons of the Gold Coast. His father did some time at the grocery store and died young. When Tony Razzano speaks of him, he gets misty-eyed. "He was an artist, a man who loved life." Mr. Razzano calls his eighty-two-year-old mother at least twice a day.
He was born lame, clubfooted, and eventually had his ears surgically removed and reattached because they stuck out so unnaturally. He grew up in nearby Westbury, attended morticians' college and began working at his uncle's Pontiac dealership on the side. He found he was good at the vocation, and his life became sales.
"I understand that a guy wants to be something else," Mr. Razzano said. "I'm a good person deep down inside. I try to love people, treat them good, you know? Like I'd want to be treated. Black, Italian, Catholic, Jew-it doesn't matter."
Except for the know-it-all. Mr. Razzano hangs up on this type. But before he does, he works him over a little.
"He calls and says, 'Beat $659,'" Mr. Razzano explained. "I can't beat $659. I say, go buy it. I call him the get-a-life guy. He spends his whole day calling twelve dealerships. Three guys have told him the same quote within ten dollars. I don't have time for that. 'Why you coming out to Long Island?' I ask him. 'Either you're bored or you're lying or you're a loser.'"
Mother's Day? Florists Love and Love It Not.
There is a type of man who will walk into a flower shop and say he's in trouble. He's done something wrong or forgotten someone, and he needs a special flower to make it right.
At this time of year, this type of man will ask for a mixed bouquet. He does not care what goes into the arrangement as long as it's cheap. After the man's mother receives the bouquet, she calls the florist to complain in a shrill voice that she absolutely hates lilies. Lilies remind her of death. "My son spent a lot of money on me," she says. But she feels cheapened by the lilies.
The truth is that the son has spent the bare minimum. And after hanging up with the woman, the florist knows why the son sent her the cheap bouquet.
Few people ever consider that the florist is a mother, too, a widow who is not likely to get flowers on the second Sunday of May.
Mary Tryforos, sixty, has spent the last thirty-three Mother's Days standing on her feet in her little shop, Tryforos & Pernice Florist in Bronxville, New York, making the day happen for other women.
"You work so hard over the holidays that sometimes you want to cry," she said. "That gets forgotten. It's a tough holiday. You're physically broke."
It is a crucial time of year for Mrs. Tryforos and the twenty-five thousand other flower-shop owners across the country. She put in fifteen-hour days last week, since the business for this holiday accounts for 15 percent of her yearly receipts. A good Mother's Day gets you through the dog days of summer. A bad holiday can get you on this year's bankruptcy list with the other sixty-three hundred flower shops. "You have to remember that nobody buys flowers on Father's Day," she said.
"Working on Mother's Day, it sort of takes the fun out of it," Mrs. Tryforos said as the front doorbell sounded, the telephone rang and the deliveryman shouted for directions. There are thorns in the roses, the smell and dust of pollen and floral foam, the swollen joints from being on your feet all day. People suffer so that others may enjoy flowers.
Then there is the psychology of the flower business, the human nature of it. Not only will some men-and most times they are men-ask for the cheap bouquet; they will ask the florist to write out the card for them. They will recite something like: "Dear Mother, From your son, John Smith."
There will be no love to it. John will not even be signed in John's hand-it will be a computer printout. As the florist, you sometimes puzzle over it. What sort of relationship is behind that card? It seems as though the mother and son are almost strangers.
"There is the beauty to it, too," Mrs. Tryforos said the other day in the workroom of her shop. "On Monday, the calls come in. You've made women happy. That's gratifying."
Mary Tryforos raised and fed two children from this flower shop. She sent them through college. The children, Gary, thirty-eight, and Anna, thirty-seven, did not appreciate the business then. When asked to work, they did so grudgingly. It was boring, they said. It was unfair. It seemed to them then that they never had a good Christmas or Easter, because the shop always came first.
They can admit that now, since they got fed up with the corporate world, quit, came home and went to work in the family business.
"I took it for granted," said Anna Kenney, the daughter, as she put together one of those conspicuous bouquets. She used to market diet pills and Kool-Aid. "I never realized that dinner came from here. I tried to avoid working here. Now I even enjoy it sometimes."
Gary Tryforos returned in 1987, when his father, James, fell sick with lung cancer. He quit his big insurance company job and came home to help his mom for a while. He never left.
"My dad didn't want me working here," he said. "Why work seventy hours a week for such a small return? No pension. No benefits. If he were living, there's no way I'd be in this business. But he's not. I guess I've inherited my father's life."
James Tryforos died in 1988. There were many flowers from his family and his friends in the business. His widow still remembers how the coffin was covered in white phalaenopsis orchids.
The Tryforos family has been in the flower business for more than a hundred years. The original shop was in Harlem, on East 125th Street. The current shop is thirty-eight years old and sits in a nice brick building on Pondfield Road in Bronxville, a pleasant village in southern Westchester County where drivers stop and wave to pedestrians.
Mrs. Tryforos plans to work until two p.m. today and then have a barbecue with her grandchildren. "To tell you the truth, I would prefer to dispense with the flowers," she said.
He's No Bob Dole, but He's Still a Celebrity
The manager of Golden Lady, the landmark gentlemen's club in the South Bronx with the fifteen-foot neon marquee of a woman swimming in a martini glass, did not immediately realize there was a celebrity in his midst.
But soon, word percolated down the abandoned recesses of Bruckner Boulevard. "Yo, man, that's Vinnie Viagra." Pito, the manager, asked, "You really Vinnie Viagra?"
"It's true," L. J. Gancer said. "Page sixty-five of the George Clooney, Julia Roberts issue of Esquire."
Mr. Gancer is paid to be the white, average face in magazines and on billboards whose life has been uplifted by the impotence-curing pill. There is also a Latino Vinnie, a black Vinnie and so forth. L.J. is short for Little Jim. "But don't call me that," the poster boy said.
Pito welcomed him warmly. The cover charge was waived for Vinnie Viagra, and his first drink was on the house. It began to dawn on Mr. Gancer that there may be some advantages to this new celebrity, that perhaps there were other rubber carpets waiting to be rolled out upon his arrival.
The interior of Golden Lady had two pool tables, wall-to-wall mirrors, a coin-operated snack machine, a long stage with two brass poles and a number of men sitting around the horseshoe bar. Mr. Gancer is an actor with a face of indeterminable age; he guards his age as a trade secret. His hair is slightly gray and thinning on the crown. He has average-size hands, a long waist and rounded shoulders. He is married with two children.
He ordered Scotch.
For the man who enjoys a drink but wants to remain vital, Mr. Gancer suggested alternating between glasses of liquor and tap water. "New York water, I find, is very refreshing," he said. "It's from the mountain rivers, and it's full of vitamins and minerals."
Mr. Gancer had a few drinks, but never the water, and periodically the dancers came by to introduce themselves. Soon comfortable, Mr. Gancer confided the odd twist of being Vinnie Viagra.
It seems that as a teenager, his first dozen encounters with women ended badly. His superego mocked him in the voice of his father, B.J., Big Jim, castigating him for ruining his life. "I put a lot of mental pressure on myself," he said.
It was the early seventies, and while flipping through his father's Esquire, he saw an article: "The Impotence Boom."
He clipped that story and kept it for a number of years, until he conquered the voice in his head. "Now look at me, how many years later?" he said, swirling his ice cubes. "I'm in the same magazine, but I'm the face for the cure. Life's weird."
A Mohawk Trail to the Skyline
The paychecks come on Thursday. When the walking boss calls quitting time, the ironworkers stuff their tool belts into empty bolt buckets and stash them near the columns.
They cram themselves into the freight elevator, and someone is wearing cologne. They descend to the dressing shacks and change into their street clothes. Some go to the bank and cash their check and put the money in their pocket. Others go directly to the saloon and see the bartender, who takes 5 percent. They line up at the bar, and slowly the backaches and joint pains are dulled by cigarette smoke and beer bubbles. The white men joke about their ex-wives, their alimony checks and their bad habits. The Indian men also drink on Thursday, but never on Friday.
At quitting time Friday, the Mohawks will pile into their Buicks and Fords and drive four hundred miles to Canada to visit their wives and children on the Kahnawake [pronounced ga-nuh-WAH-gay] Reservation, eight miles from Montreal, on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River.
It is the spring of 2001, and there is a construction boom in New York City. All over town you can hear the sounds of pneumatic guns, hammers tolling against steel girders and ice cubes clinking in whiskey glasses. Three skyscrapers have gone up in Times Square in the past two years, and there is enough work scheduled to last three more. Local 40, representing twelve hundred city ironworkers, is at full employment. Nonlocal men like the Mohawks have "boomed out"-chased the work-and landed in town, earning $33.45 an hour plus benefits.
They are the grandsons and great-grandsons of Mohawk ironworkers who helped build the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Waldorf-Astoria, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the RCA Building, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center and all the other major projects in New York that involved heavy steel construction.
The Indians of past generations had a bustling neighborhood of their own in Brooklyn, supported by the construction dollars. But then came the building bust of 1985 to 1995. While the locals were kept employed with bridge-repair work, there were no jobs for ironworkers like the Mohawks, whose union ties were on the Canadian side of the border. So they boomed out to places like Kentucky and Detroit, where power plants were going up and bridges were needed to span water.
They went wherever there was money to be had and hell to be raised. Some went home and retired. When there was absolutely no work anywhere, some trafficked in cigarettes from the United States.
They are back. There are about 250 Mohawks from Kahnawake working in the city. They are working on the Brooklyn courthouse, the Ernst & Young building in Times Square, the 155th Street overpass in the Bronx, Kennedy Airport-wherever new steel is being laid. And in April, work should begin in earnest on the massive AOL Time Warner building in Columbus Circle that will be 2.1 million square feet and have double towers. It will be a monument to this generation of ironworkers, just as Rockefeller Center is to their grandfathers.
At three-thirty Friday afternoon, the Phillips cousins-J.R., thirty-one, and Jeffrey, forty-and Joe Horn walked briskly from the Ernst & Young job site to a nearby parking lot. They climbed into an old Bonneville and rolled out for Kahnawake. The trip would take seven hours, slowed by the snow and a burning Jeep that stopped traffic for two miles. A Mohawk would be smashed by a tractor-trailer that evening, and by sunrise the news of it would pass around the eight-thousand-person village like the measles.
They rolled past the Canadian Pacific Railway Bridge silhouetted in the moonlight. It is a double-humped cantilever bridge built in 1886 that spans the St. Lawrence Seaway and runs through part of the reservation.
It is the bridge that gave the Mohawks their start in ironwork. In exchange for running a railroad through Indian territory, the company hired the Mohawks as laborers, allowing them to tote pails but not to work on the bridge. But when the foremen were not looking, the Indians began climbing all over the span as if they had been born to it. Soon they were working the iron. It took them away from their lives as timber rafters and traveling-circus performers. (The Phillips name, in fact, was purchased in 1885 from a rodeo timekeeper for $2.75 in Philadelphia. Their great-grandfather, Kanadagero, was a Wild West performer. Their grandfather, James Taheratie Phillips, was an ironworker who fell two floors and crippled his knees while working in Detroit.)
They drove past the iron cross on the western edge of the reservation, erected in honor of the thirty-five Mohawk men who died in the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse. Five Kahnawake family names went down with the bridge: Leaf, Lee, Blue, Bruce and Mitchell.
"It nearly wiped out the village," said Stuart Phillips, a white-haired elder, former ironworker and tribal historian. "But instead of scaring the men away from the work, it attracted them to it."
Ironwork became the stuff that Mohawk men were made of, offering a little excitement and big money. "When the bridge collapsed, the women of the village decreed that all men may not work on the same job, eliminating the possibility that the reservation would be made up solely of widows and orphans," said Mr. Phillips, who is J.R.'s father. More than a thousand men from Kahnawake are ironworkers or are drawing pensions from that work. It has become as much a part of the Mohawk tradition as the longhouse in Brooklyn.
More than seven hundred Indians once lived near the Local 361 Union Hall in Boerum Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood. They brought their wives, their children went to public school, and they attended Roman Catholic Mass. During the summers, after a season of saving money, they piled into their cars and made the twelve-hour trip back home to the reservation.
Then they were gone. Extinct, it seemed. Local mail-drops like the Wigwam Bar closed, and the last Mohawk at 375 State Street, an apartment building where for decades there was a Mohawk name on every buzzer, moved out five years ago. The Indians just packed up and left.
There was the building bust. But before that, the neighborhood went bad with drugs and crime. And in 1967, the last 172 miles of the extension of Interstate 87, also known as the Northway, were completed. The men no longer needed to tear their families away from home. They began to leave them and make what was now a six-hour commute on the weekends.
Instead of brownstones, the Indians nowadays take rooms in boardinghouses or cram themselves into apartments or shabby motels. They are scattered across the metropolitan region, living in places like New Rochelle, New York; Hoboken, New Jersey; and the West Village. About seventy men live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
And on Friday night, as the Phillips cousins pulled into the reservation, the lamps burned bright in the living rooms of the square white homes. The man of the house had arrived, and he had a fistful of American money for the wife and toys in his bag for the kids. These men will tell their children later, maybe over breakfast, the stories from the city, and then tell them that they must work hard in school. But the older boys do not pay attention. It doesn't make sense. They know where they are going: up on the steel.
Some men went to bed when they got home; others went down to the Legionnaires' Hall to drink beer with other ironworkers. A group of women danced in the back of the hall without men. The bar gave twenty-six Canadian dollars for twenty U.S. and everyone in the place knew it was a swindle, but the men wanted to drink and catch up. They complained, like older men do, about the younger generation.
"It took a lot of years and a lot of lives for the Mohawk to develop a reputation as good as it is," said an ironworker known as Bunny Eyes McComber. "The truth is, the white guys-the Irish and the Norwegians-work as good and hard as the Indians. The problem with our younger guys is that they don't understand that. They walk on the job demanding respect because they're Kahnawake, which they do not deserve. This destroys the whole thing, see?"
The hall was filled with portraits of the warriors who served in the Canadian and American armed forces, as the Indians are allowed to cross the border freely. The names are Phillips, McComber, Jacobs, Diabo, and at least half of them are-or were-ironworkers, said Jeff Phillips, himself a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.
On Sunday, he watched movies with his children and then ate a traditional meal of steak and boiled bread, called ka-na-ta-rok. As the evening grew long, his children cried as they do every Sunday. "Daddy, please don't go," they said. And he kissed them and sent them to bed.
He looked through his father's things. His father, Michael, was a movie actor and an ironworker, and he died last year. Mr. Phillips caressed his father's old Bible, wrapped it in plastic and put it away. "He was a very good man," the son said of the father.
At midnight on Sunday, the village lit up with headlamps and the rides arrived and the dogs in the village howled. Mr. Phillips kissed his wife, Wendy, good-bye, and the steelwork took her man away as it will probably take her son.
They drove all night and arrived at the job site just in time to begin the workday. They were bleary-eyed, worn-out and homesick.
--from Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts by Charlie LeDuff, Copyright © 2004 Charlie LeDuff, published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.