search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

Return to Part I of “San Francisco Faces West,” by John Dos Passos.
“I don’t know whether he’s a member of the Communist Party or not and I don’t care, but he certainly believes in their philosophy and he put up a wonderful fight for it. He convinced a lot of people around this town, but he didn’t convince the longshoremen. They are no more communists than rabbits. The longshoreman around here is a special kind of a critter. He’s a Scandinavian mostly. He’s independent as hell. He tends to be a middle-aged man with not too much brains or ambition or he wouldn’t have stayed a longshoreman. Or else he’s just too ornery to do other kinds of work. Or else he likes the life. He’d been getting a raw deal all around the lot and he was sore and Bridges came along and showed him how to get his pork chops. Now he’s got a pretty good system worked out to spread the work, he’s got all the work he wants to do, he’s getting good pay, and you can talk to him from hell to Christmas about the second front and how this is a people’s war and all that and he won’t bat an eyelash. He’s sitting pretty. He’s got plenty to eat and plenty to spend for whiskey and plenty of work to do tomorrow and he’s sitting pretty.

“Hell, I can’t exactly blame him. I can understand that point of view. But it breaks your heart to see one of these same kind of guys—he gets something in him that’s more than pork chops—splitting himself in two to do a job unloading material on some godforsaken atoll...”

He got to his feet. “Well, I’ve got to run along. Did you ever notice,” he added, grinning, “that it’s a hell of a lot easier to talk about things than to get them done? Don’t get the idea that we aren’t going to speed up the loading of ships around here. It can be done and it’s going to be done.”

The next morning I was in the office of the committee the government put in to get the various elements along the waterfront working together. A serious-faced grizzled man was drawing a curve for me on the back of an envelope. “It’s been a long pull,” he said, “but in the last few months there’s been a steady improvement.” He tapped the place with his pencil where the ascending curve left the paper. “As far as the longshoremen are concerned our business has been to get the slowdown out of their heads. It took the union a long time to drive it in. You remember ‘The Yanks aren’t coming.’ When it came to driving it out again the comrades were helpless. It was at their request we took over supervision of the hiring halls.”

He had introduced me to a stocky Irishman with crisp dark hair and dark-blue eyes who acted as trouble shooter for the government along the waterfront.

His broad shoulders and big thick-fingered hands had the look of having done some mighty heavy work in their day. His hands were white and smooth now. He had been an organizer in the union in the knock-down-and-drag-out days of the fight for organization. Now he was organizing for Washington. He was headed down to the wharves. I asked if I could go with him.

We walked down Market Street together. “One thing,” he was saying, “is it’s hard to get the boys to believe the work’s goin’ to last. They been on the bricks so much in the old days they can’t help tryin’ to spread the work out so it’ll last. They can’t get it into their heads that now there’s plenty work for many years to come.”

“Do you think there is?”

“Sure. This Pacific business ain’t begun yet.”

The hiring hall was a little like a small-town railroad station. It was noon and most of the gangs were out. Only a few big shaggy men in work clothes belted tight at the waist were looking up at the bulletin board where jobs were announced. Beside it there was the ticket window where they handed out the work slips. On the other side was a larger board full of numbered holes with small plugs in them. Every man had a number, and by the position of his plug the men in charge of the hiring hall could tell where he was working and what gang he was on. “If a man don’t turn up we ring him on the phone to see what’s the matter. If we can’t get him that way we send somebody after him to see what’s what. If he’s off fishin’ or on a drunk or somepin’ we want to know the reason why.”

“It looks simple enough.”

“Wasn’t so simple till we got it worked out.”

He led me up a stairway at the back. “I’ll show you where they make out the pay checks.” At a door at the head of the stairs a sharp-faced man with his big work gloves tucked in the back pocket of his overalls was knocking and knocking.

“What’s the trouble?” my guide asked him.

“Been off sick. I want to know about my compensation.”

“This ain’t the place. That’s way across town.” He told him an address, waited until the man had shambled off down the stairs, and then gave the door a couple of sharp rattatats with his knuckles.

When the door opened he showed his big white teeth in a grin. “You have to know the combination to git in here,” he whispered to me, “or else the boys would have them driven crazy... I thought I’d spare yez the trouble. I sent him off to chase himself,” he announced in a loud roar as we stepped into the room.

I was introduced to several elderly men who sat stooped over ledgers in the gray light that came in through tall old fashioned windows. My guide explained: “The men are paid through the union. If there’s any dispute about time or overtime we have the figures right here. Since we had this system goin’ we’ve had very little trouble. I think everybody’s pretty well satisfied all around.”

“Well,” he said, as he ushered me out again, “you wanted to see some longshoremen. Suppose we step around to a couple bars. Some of ‘em’ll be tricklin’ in for a bit of a drink. This is the hour they knock off for dinner.”

There was an air of well-being at the long bar that stretched from the window into the dim interior of the building. Along it stood a row of big men bulging out of their work clothes. Big profiles stood out in the slanting light, chins thrust out, Adam’s apples, hooked noses, jutting cheekbones, brawling mouths, snaggle-teeth under mustaches tobacco-stained to the color of shredded wheat. Along the line tiny whiskey glasses winked and bobbed, each lightly held between a grimy thumb and forefinger. Cusswords shot out of the corners of mouths, filthy phrases were wiped off casually on knotted backs of hands. Here and there a fighting epithet was slung down the line, to be picked up and tossed languidly back with a smile, the way a ballplayer warming up might catch a lightly curved ball and pass it back not too hard. Newcomers whammed friends on the back; men turned round and leaned way back on their heels to shout welcoming abuse at an old acquaintance. Ponderous banter was heaved back and forth, and then suddenly stopped when somebody got interested in an anecdote or a serious conversation. There was no tension. These were tough heavy-fisted men who had been around and they weren’t worrying.

Among the faces along the bar there were some with bleared eyes and boozy mouths and square heads, heavy and battered as the packing cases they handled all day; but here and there a countenance stood out: a ruddy fisherman’s face full of fine creases radiating from the mouth and eyes; or the lean-lipped face of a hunter; or a canny hired farmhand’s face; or one of those faces, clearcut in repose, that stamp on your mind the plain human majesty of a man at ease in the strength of his body and the certainty that what he knows how to do he knows how to do well.

The proprietor kept his own bar, a bit of the green isle of saints if I ever saw one, laying about him at his customers in a brogue so rich you could grow shamrocks on it, storming up and down back of the bar on his toes like a boxer at work with a punching bag, drawing the beer and pouring the whiskey and wiping the time-darkened mahogany off with a rag, and bringing a big pale-knuckled hand down fast on a stack of coins—and all the while ducking mock reproaches and slinging wads of abuse out of his big mouth.

When the barkeep laid eyes on my guide he leaned over toward him. “It’s a cold day, Freddy,” he said in a throaty fatherly whisper. “You’ll have a spot of firstrate Irish on the house, you and your friend, won’t you now?”

We couldn’t very well refuse so we put it down with some pleasure. We ordered up a couple more. “Pat, my friend here’s askin’ me what you think of the New Deal?” my guide asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“Washed up,” said the barkeep, cutting the suds off three glasses of beer. “Goin’ from bad to worse,” his voice rose. “The dirty deal I call it. And the worst of it is these subsidies. Of all the dirty deceitful measures for tyin’ the farmer and the producer and the consumer up in another tangle of government red-tape regulations! We’re regulated off the earth already. And it’s liberty we’re supposed to be fightin’ for.”

“You talk like a Republican. Aren’t your customers mostly Democrats?” I asked.

“The boys was Dimocrats sure when they was hungry and sore, but they are sittin’ pretty now, and the way things are goin’ in Washington with the waste and the chicanery and the taxation and the rationin’ it wouldn’t surprise me if every man jack of ’em voted the Republican ticket.”

He stood with his shoulders spread looking up and down the bar. My guide blinked and made a kind of a face. Men stood listening with their glasses poised. Nobody answered back one way or another. Then the horsing and the kidding started up again. Time for one more drink before going back to work.

V. Town of Hello and Farewell

In the seat next me in the limousine going out to the airport was a little red-headed girl from Memphis. Her husband was a Naval officer. He had just been ordered to Rochester, New York. She’d never been to Rochester, New York. What was it like in Rochester, New York? Did I know whether it was on the lake or not? Wouldn’t it be nice to live on a lake? Golly, she hoped she’d get on the plane. Her place was conditional. She sure had her fingers crossed. If she could get off on that plane she could make Rochester as soon as he did. Wouldn’t that be fun?

In the front seat on one side was a quiet pale-faced Army captain, and on the other the neatly dressed pretty little stewardess who was going out on the outgoing plane. Between them sat a sailor. He was high. He’d got in that morning from the islands beyond the blue bulge of the Pacific. He had eighteen days’ leave. He’d been out in the Theaters for a year. He’d just got over malaria. He was going to get home that next morning before day. “The wife’s waiting for me and I never seen the’s a little baby boy,” he kept saying. He had a pint of whiskey in his blouse that he kept hauling out and offering around. The stewardess said if he drank too much of that she might not be able to let him on the plane. “Sure you will, sister,” said the sailor. “I only got eighteen days.”

The Army captain, who was a stiff sort of fellow, finally was prevailed upon to accept a drink. “Where we was,” said the sailor, “it was fifty dollars a quart.... I only paid fifteen for this from the bellhop at the hotel.”

“You oughtn’t to have done that,” said the stewardess. “That’s too high.”

“Better than fifty dollars a quart. It was after hours and besides there was more of it,” said the sailor. “Considerable more.... Where we was the Japs came down every evening to bomb right along the same groove between the hills like they’d built a railroad track up there. They sure gave us plenty hell. Brother,” he said to the Army captain, “those Japs are good.”

“Oh, we’ll clean ’em up in short order,” said the Army captain gruffly.

“I didn’t say we wouldn’t clean ’em up. I said those Japs were good.”

“Sailor,” said the stewardess, “you’d better put that flask away before you get to the airport. I wouldn’t like not to be able to let you get on the plane.”

“Sure you’ll let me get on the plane.

Sure you will.... I got eighteen days to see the wife and the little baby boy.”

When we reached the airport the young lady at the ticket counter was very sorry. She had long telephone conversations with somebody but she was very sorry. No room on that flight. At least not for us. But nobody cared much when they saw the sailor, his bushy brows drawn together into an expression of portentous dignity, walking out of the gate toward the plane shoulder to shoulder with the poker-faced Army captain. He didn’t drop the bottle. He didn’t fall down. He made it. On a bench in a corner the little red-headed girl from Memphis sat hunched over her suitcase crying because she couldn’t get on this flight.

The incoming passengers were still milling around waiting for their baggage. In the center of a group of old people, young people, small children, a very young round-faced fellow in an ensign’s uniform was hugging first one then the other and saying to each one, “Well, that completes my first trip around the world. I started out toward the west and I’m coming back from the east. That completes my first trip round the world.”

Harper’s Magazine
March 1944

Return to the top of the page.