As I launch into yet another marginally-interesting anecdote from my past, I must admit I was reminded of it by one of those famous calls for content. The one that caught my eye was about a summer vacation experience. Upon closer examination, I saw it was restricted to a trip. The summer experience I had in mind was about a job, where the only trips I took were to various streets and intersections within the city of Canton, Ohio.
During that summer, I worked for the City of Canton in their Traffic Sign and Paint Department. Our job was to paint crosswalks, stop-bars and prohibitions against the crime of parking your car. The title character, Handsome Harry, was the foreman of the crew I worked on.
Right off the bat, let me note that Harry was not a bad boss. He may have been borderline crazy, but, still, not all that bad. Whether he gave himself that nickname or his cronies did, he was an older guy, just a few years short of retirement. Unlike a number of crew chiefs laboring on behalf of the Stark County seat, Harry was not a slave-driver. Add to that, he had a good sense of humor and the ability of a natural storyteller, if you did not mind your story being laced with obscenities throughout.
Let me not sound like the prude I clearly am not. All of us used profanity, and in great abundance. Our conversations were not quite up to the level I would later find in the army, but mighty close to it. That said, there was one bit of Harry’s profanity that got on my nerves.
As I said, Harry was not particularly rough on his crew, all of whom, like me, were students trying to make some money over the summer. It also happened, even though the city’s workforce was integrated, we were an all-white boy crew. For all his relaxed stewardship, Harry would sometimes get smitten with the idea he was not doing enough for the city to justify his exorbitant wage, which may have reached the stratospheric heights of between five and six thousand a year.
During those rare spells, he would suddenly become very animated, and, whatever we were doing at whatever pace, would exhort us with, “Come on, you can be replaced by a n***er!” This was offensive on two levels. Let me be honest, the most offensive part of the remark was the notion that I could lose my $2.00-an-hour sinecure. Don’t laugh. For a snot-nosed punk, doing unskilled labor in the early 1960s, that was an excellent wage. It certainly beat cutting lawns and waxing cars, which I had occupied myself with the two previous summers in pursuit of what was, even then, chump change.
It was offensive for the other reason too, even if not so threatening to my welfare. The thing is, Harry was not really a racist. He just thought that was a comical way to taunt the young punks on his crew. While I had long since reached the age where I was perfectly willing to reject much of what my parents taught me, I still agreed with their instruction that the N-word was a bad word.
One morning, we arrived at our assigned destination, determined to slather yellow paint on a curb as a warning to motorists enamored with the foolish notion of leaving their cars. It turned out that, before we could break out the paint, we had to do some prep work. The curb, for several feet, was cluttered with what one local Ohio politician had recently characterized as “derbis.”
“Here,” Harry said, as he thrust a rickety shovel into my hands, “get this s**t cleaned up.”
The shovel he gave me was on the point of being packed off to the Old Shovels’ Home. The chief sign of its advanced age was that the blade was barely attached to the handle. I started in as carefully as I could, so as not to ruin the tool entirely. Unfortunately, Harry did not see it that way. For all he could tell, I was just going too damn slow.
“Give me that,” he snarled as he yanked the shovel from my hand. He vigorously plunged it into the litter and pulled up just a handle. The blade to the shovel lay among the “derbis.”
“Harry,” I politely suggested, “maybe you should tell that shovel it can be replaced by a spade.”
He gave me a glare that was half, “Who do you think you are?” and half, “Jeez, I walked right into that one!” After that, though, none of us heard any more about the type of person we could be replaced by.