Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Chicago Tale

Watching some stories on the TV news about police bullying and "questionable behavior", I happened to remember an old incident from my long-ago Chicago days.

I was looking for work, and my old buddy Dave Van Pelt mentioned that the B. and O. Railroad, which he worked for, was looking for a Yard Clerk for Robey Street Yard. Never mind that this was halfway across the sprawling city from where I lived; I wanted that job. For one thing, it paid well and had great benefits -- particularly health. For another, it was a basic and necessary industry; no matter how politics might shift, or pointless wars come up, massive transportation of goods (including food) would always be needed. So, I hopped on the subway and headed down to the south side.

I got off at the station closest to Robey Street, but had no idea how to proceed from there. I went to question the guy at the ticket-booth, but he waved over a cop. Keeping a straight face, I repeated my question. The cop glowered at my headband and peace-symbol pendant, and asked: "Whaddaye wanta go there for? You look like a revolutionary to me." "Well, I am," I replied, "But right now I'm looking for an honest job, one that doesn't depend on the war effort, and I've heard there are some to be had at the railroad." The cop blinked, thought that over, and gave me the instructions: this bus, that street, so many blocks walk. I thanked him politely, got out of there and got on the recommended bus. I didn't know at the time that the cop dutifully reported the whole incident to his boss, who passed it on to the Red Squad.

To make a long story short, I got to Robey Street Yard and signed up, and got the job. My duties consisted of trotting out into the yard with a long form when a train was coming in, watching as the train rolled slowly past me, and marking down on the form the ID numbers and codes ("BX" for "boxcar", "FT" for "flatcar", and so on) for each car. When the caboose rolled up, the chief conductor would hand me the Bills of Lading. I'd take these and the filled-out form back to the yard's Control Tower and hand them to the Trainmaster. The Trainmaster would then look at the bills, see where each car was headed for, and "break" the train by assigning each car to a different siding (the yard had nearly 20 of them) according to where it was going. Then he'd put together the next outgoing train with the proper cars, according to where it was going. He'd give his orders to the Yardmaster through the in-house radio, and the Yardmaster would pass on the orders to the engineers of the two Yard Engines -- small engines that pulled one car at a time. When there were enough cars to make up an outgoing train, I'd take the reassembled form and the proper Bills of Lading out to the engineer of the Road Engine -- the big long-haul engine that could haul a train of 100 cars or more. As soon as a train was complete, off it would go to the main line.

I noticed that the train most quickly made up was the one hauling the enormous grain-hoppers off to General Mills. We got a good 100 grain-hoppers per day through that yard, each of them weighing a good 100 tons when loaded. I later made a song about it.

Anyway, in the time between complete loading of the sidings and the departure of the outgoing train, my job was to walk down the sidings and make sure that all the right cars were there. I also marked any damage or problems I saw with the cars -- which was mostly worn-away ID numbers, which I'd then chalk back in with an enormous piece of chalk. When I wasn't doing any of those tasks, I sat around the control tower usually sketching drawings, which the guys rather liked.

What I found intriguing was the different ways the men reacted to me, since I was the first woman to have a job in the rail-yard since World War Two. The youngest guys assumed "Here comes Women's Lib," and accepted my presence with fairly good grace, since I did my job well. The very oldest guys -- the ones who'd been there since WWII -- assumed "Here's Rosie the Riveter, back again," and likewise accepted my presence without complaint. The only problems I had were with the guys in the middle, who couldn't help hooting and making lewd comments. I dealt with that simply by smiling confidently, rolling up my sleeves to display the noticeable muscles in my arms, and hauling large heavy objects around. It's really funny how fast a macho-man backs off when you show that you could, if you wanted, beat the crap out of him.

Anyway, thanks to the efficiency of the union -- the Railway Brotherhood -- the railroad insisted on giving new-hires a 90-day trial period, after which one became a full-fledged employee and member of the union, which meant that you'd have to really screw up royally to be fired. I had no worries about that, since I did my assigned work quickly and well. The only thing I couldn't do was work the rather clunky computer in the corner, which was never used in daily work anyway. I had to wonder why the thing was there at all, and concluded that the bosses had foisted it on the tower-crew for some bureaucratic reason. The bosses, in their tall office-building at the far, far end of the yard, were always doing crap like that. In the middle of a hard-working day, the Trainmaster often had to stop what he was doing to take a phonecall from the bosses and waste a good quarter-hour dutifully saying "yessir" before he could get back to work again.

Altogether, 'twas a good job -- despite my having to get up at 5 AM to commute across the city -- and I intended to keep it. Indeed, I might have been there still if it hadn't been for that now-forgotten transit cop.

One day as I was getting off work, wearing my usual gear -- bluejeans, knit shirt, sneakers, thick belt with three or four railrod-flares tucked into it, carrying a paperback book under my arm -- walking down the dirt road from the tower to the main city street, I saw an unmarked car full of men come driving (slowly, as that road required) up toward me. I stepped to one side of the road, into a field of reeds next to the main line, to give them room to pass.

Instead of driving on, the car promptly stopped. All four doors flew open, and four big burly men hopped out -- all of them looking at me. Seeing that as a threat, I took several fast steps deeper into the reeds and pulled one of the flares out of my belt, ripped off the cap and held it close enough to the ignition-button that a single stroke would light the flare. (Now bear in mind that a railroad-flare is like a standard truck-fusee, only bigger: maybe 20 inches long, intended to burn for half an hour, stuffed with red phosphorus -- not something you'd want to be burned with. Everybody who worked outdoors in the yard carried them, in order to mark the spot if we found a flaw in the tracks.) My intention was that, if the four goons came after me, I'd light the flare and use it to set the dry reeds between us on fire.

The four goons clearly understood what that gesture meant, and what a railroad-flare could do, because they all stopped fast. One of them shouted, across the maybe-25-yards distance between us: "We're cops! Show us some ID!" Instead, without shifting my grip, I shouted back: "First show me yours!" After a moment's shuffling, they all pulled out their badges and held them up for me to see. Yep, Chicago cop badges, all right. But why should a bunch of four undercover cops be coming after me? I cautiously moved closer, but held the flare and cap in one hand while I pulled out my wallet with the other. With 10 feet between us, I stopped and held up my wallet with the driver's license showing. They took a couple of cautious steps closer to get a good look. I shifted my grip on the flare, and they stopped where they were.

At that distance, apparently satisfied with my ID, they started asking questions: "What are you doing here?" "Working," I said, as I put my wallet back. "It's my job." They looked at each other, and tried again: "Why did you get a job here?" "Because it's honest and necessary work," said I, and went into my spiel about jobs that didn't support the war effort. "What's that book you've got?" one of them asked. "'Hawaii', by James Michner," I answered, handing it over. They peered at it, looking disappointed. "What work do you do here?" another asked. "I'm a Yard Clerk," I said, "And if you want confirmation of that, talk to the Trainmaster; he's just getting into his car up there." I pointed to where the Trainmaster was indeed getting into his car, and they all headed in that direction. I promptly took off, got down to the street, hopped on my bus and went home.

A few days later, the Trainmaster reluctantly told me that I wouldn't get a permanent job as Yard Clerk. Why? Well, for one thing, I hadn't qualified on the computer. This, I knew, was a cheap excuse -- which is probably what the otherwise-useless computer was kept in the tower for. "What's the real reason?" I dared ask. Well, for another, the Trainmaster explained, the railroad was planning to phase out the job of Yard Clerk, and replace it with a bar-code reader that would record the cars' numbers and information much faster than a human could. Uhuh. And how would a bar-code reader collect the Bills of Lading, much less return them to the Road Engine's driver, or examine cars or rails for damage? I didn't bother to ask; I knew the real reason I was being booted.

So I collected my last pay and went looking for another job. I later learned that the railroads had to keep hiring Yard Clerks anyway, to do all the work that a bar-code reader couldn't.

Needless to add, this incident did not improve my opinion of the Chicago police.


Aya Katz said...

Well, I've had my own share of Chicago police corruption, but nothing as dramatic as that.

What was the song you wrote about the grain hoppers?

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. It's called "The Grain Train", and the chorus goes:

"As I was going up from town
I saw the grain-trains rolling down.
Every day 100 trains,
Every train 100 cars,
Every car 100 tons,
Every ton 100 sacks,
Every sack 10,000 grains,
And that's what cities get from trains."

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

KateGladstone said...

So ... What's your song about the General Mills shipments?

And why didn't you ask — then and there — how the bar-code reader would collect Bills of Lading? I would have! — just out f curiosity to know how they'd answer.

KateGladstone said...

Great song... Write more verses, please?
It's a teaching-song, really ...nor will be, if you write more. I hope one day you'll collect ALL your teaching-songs, including all te songs about things you have learned well yourself over the years, put them all in one album, and title it with a Kipling allusion: "Taught by Time."