WHAT It's ABOUT : Aided by mentors and spirits, an orphaned young bluesman comes of age in 1970s Chicago.
AUTHOR NOTE: The Black history of Chicago’s West Side is real; this story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. But if you see yourself as a human being in here anywhere, it means this writer has done her job,
1 Double Shift: A Short Revolutionary Blues Story By “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown : Chicago IL March 2020
“Double shift?” Discontent spread over the black, white and brown faces of Midwest Barrel’s painting crew. Foreman Frank Polowski broke the news Friday afternoon at 4:30. Trucks were pulling into the parking lot to pick up finished barrels as the painters were opening their lockers, peeling off aprons and work shirts. They scratched bare arms, wiped eyes and noses watering from the paint fumes. Next Monday through Thursday, they’d have to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
“Big order,” was Polowski’s two-word explanation. Maybe he talked more at home, in Polish.
Catharine, a fiftyish Irish woman who ran the paint mixer, ripped the blue kerchief off her brown hair. “Isn’t that against the law?”
“You pay overtime, no?” asked Carlos, the Mexican who ran the conveyor belt. “I can use more money. My wife will have baby soon.”
Polowski didn’t reply.
Marcus, the dark-skinned young man who stenciled the customers’ company names on the barrels, combed specks of paint out of his bushy Afro and frowned at the foreman. He’d started six months ago, fresh out of high school, and wanted to keep his job. Should he speak?
A lilting female voice popped into his head. It rose above the downshifting of the trucks outside.
Working sunrise to past sundown? the voice said. Son, we left the plantation back in Mississippi. At least I thought we did.
Marcus looked around the room. Apparently no one else heard the voice, which sounded exactly like his dead mother. Arriving in Chicago, she worked in a factory too—a candy factory. Her work paid the bills. She brought home treats—and deadly dust in her lungs. In the weeks of her final illness, he came straight home from school, no time for girlfriends or hanging with the guys. Life was about cooking soup, boiling tea, changing sheets, mopping the floor, bicycling for groceries. And stacking the record player with the old southern blues and gospel songs she loved.
Too weak to rise from her sofa bed, his mother smiled when he unrolled his diploma. She talked about her grandmother, her great grandfather, all her people going back to slavery, even to Africa. She left him with the words, “God gave you a voice. Don’t let our family down.”
Now her spirit hissed in his ear: Say something.
He cleared his throat and faced Polowski: “Couldn’t they just hire more people?”
Polowski stared back poker-faced. “They don’t have money to hire. See you back here Monday morning, eh?” He turned on his heel to leave
Wait’ll you get your paycheck in a week,” sneered Lenny, the skinny brownskin guy whose job was to lift painted barrels from the belt. “The company, they got the money. But they try to get twice the work out of you for the same pay. Not even thinkin’ of overtime.”
“I hope they wouldn’t do that,” Catherine said. Carlos nodded and looked worried.
Marcus pulled a White Sox windbreaker and a pair of shades from his locker and slammed the door. He didn’t want to believe the prediction either. Lenny’s skinny frame and narrow eyes had the look of a weasel.
He had to think positive. Four double-shift days would pay for his whole month’s rent, plus three or four LPs from Big Duke’s record store. A funky new Parliament record, maybe Sly and the Family Stone.
Come Monday morning, Marcus put himself into a rhythm, slapping a stencil onto a barrel and holding it with one hand, squeezing a spray can with his other. Slap, spray. Slap, spray. Change hands when arms get tired. Repeat. Go home at 11 p.m., scarf a peanut butter sandwich, shower and grab some sleep. Hit the paint line again at 7 a.m.
When the four days of double shifts were over and Friday’s single shift ended at 4:30, Marcus discovered a bad mistake as Polowski gave out the paychecks. His check only showed 40 hours’ worth of wages!
He didn’t stop to talk to his coworkers; they might slow him down. Instead he showed the error to Polowski, who raised a knowing eyebrow and sent him to the big boss. A stout white man, Mr. Tryon held Marcus’s paycheck a long way in front of his face and stared at the figures.. He wrinkled up his red-flushed nose as if the check smelled bad. “I can’t see what the problem is here.”
“You didn’t see us? We all be here til 11 o’clock-- all four nights. This check shows 40 hours, but I worked 72.” Marcus held his voice to a factual monotone, but his fingers began drumming the boss’s desk. Tap tap TAP. Tap tap TAP. The rhythm took over his body. Tap tap TAP.
Tryon pushed his chair back, scratched his ear with a pencil and stared past Marcus’s shoulder. “I leave before five every day; didn’t see you. Besides, I don’t know how many barrels you painted. Don’t believe we met our quota last week.”
“Mr. Polowski didn’t say nothing about a quota.”
Tryon hauled his bulk out of the seat. He jammed his Cubs cap onto his head, chunks of white hair sticking out the sides. “Got to go home.” He moved to shoo Marcus out the door.
“What about my paycheck?” Marcus finally withdrew his fingers from the boss’s desktop.
“Come back Monday and we’ll see.” Tryon locked the door to his office and walked out. Each heavy footstep beat a solo rhythm on the concrete floor, echoing above the low hum of paused machines.