Still On the Waterfront

Long plagued by Johnny Friendlys, dockworkers fight to take back a mob-infested union

When federal prosecutors filed an earlier civil racketeering case in Manhattan Federal Court in 1990, they cited Bowers as an associate of the old Westies gang and alleged that he had sought to have a crew of Westies assassins murder a union rival (a plot that was never carried out, nor criminally charged).

Tommy Hanley remembers all those characters. He was born on a Greenwich Village block alongside other longshoremen's families, and his father worked on Pier 45 at the foot of Christopher Street. His dad disappeared in 1939, when Hanley was still an infant. Although he's never had proof, Hanley believes his old man was done in by a murderous waterfront thug named John "Cockeye" Dunn, who ruled the Lower Manhattan wharves until he went to the electric chair in 1949 for killing a stevedore whose job he coveted.

The new longshoremen: Left to right, Manny Ferreras, Virgil Maldonado, and Tony Perlstein
photo: Nicholas Burnham
The new longshoremen: Left to right, Manny Ferreras, Virgil Maldonado, and Tony Perlstein

"I know my dad was a gambler, but he was also a rebel and he never took shit from anyone," said Hanley. "My mother was called up in the middle of the night and told not to raise any questions."

When Hanley was four years old, his mother moved to Hoboken, where the family lived in a walk-up tenement on Hudson Street, a block from the piers. He was a mischief-minded teenager of 14 when the film company shooting On the Waterfront set up on his block in 1953. They chose his building's roof as the site for the pigeon coop that Terry Malloy, Brando's brooding, semi-punch-drunk character, tended. Hanley went upstairs to see what was going on.

"I was curious. I wanted to know what they were doing. And they said they were going to make a movie there, and they hired me to feed the pigeons. I think they thought I was gonna steal something."

Hanley kept hanging around, and a few days later a sympathetic longshoreman who was helping director Elia Kazan cast the picture told him to go into Manhattan and try out for a role. "I went over to the Actors Studio on 52nd Street and met Kazan and [screenwriter Budd] Schulberg. They gave me like a test. They goaded my temper by saying they heard my father got killed because he was a squealer. They got me all riled up. I started fighting with them and throwing chairs. They thought it was great. And I thought, 'These people are crazy.' But I got the job. That was what Kazan wanted."

The pay was a small fortune to the Hanley family: He received $250 a week at a time when his mother owed eight months' back rent�at $14 a month�for their flat. "We were destitute then. Periodically, we would have our gas and electric shut off."

Hanley was cast, appropriately, as Tommy, a rooftop urchin who worships Brando's Malloy, until the ex-fighter breaks the neighborhood code by testifying against the crooked Johnny Friendly and his crew. In the movie, Hanley throws a dead pigeon at a disconsolate Brando, famously shouting, "A pigeon for a pigeon."

Hanley said Brando was kind to him. "He was also very gracious to my mom. He sent us to see an agent. It didn't really come to anything, but he did that."

His role still generates occasional notice (including a recent New Yorker story), but the film itself meant little to Hanley when he was a teenager. "I didn't know what it was about. I didn't think about it."

Three years later, Hanley decided to go to work on the piers himself. Part of his motivation, he said, was to keep himself away from pals who were getting involved in serious robberies around the rail yards. Since he was still 17, he obtained forged papers saying he was 18. On the docks, he recalled, "there were a lot of hard characters. They used to break my balls. Like, 'Hey kid, whadda ya think you're a fuckin' actor? You're not in Hollywood now.' I had my share of shit with people down there. After I hit a couple of guys with something, though, they stayed away."

There were other lessons as well. "You learn all the vices on the waterfront," he said. "The first couple of days I worked on the docks, I went into a bar across the street. The bartender gave me a drink and introduced me to the guy who ran the numbers and the loan shark."

Hanley said that when the gang that controlled the Hoboken local tried to put the arm on him for a piece of his pay, he shook them off. "I never kicked back. I was asked to buy some tickets for different things when I first came over there. I said right away, 'I don't buy tickets, I don't go to dinners.' And they never bothered me."

Aiding his take-no-bullshit reputation was a little matter involving a pipe and a dispute between Hanley and an overbearing hiring agent who gave him a hard time. "Well, I hit the guy, and it wasn't well received. I almost got killed for it."

The matter was eventually worked out, and Hanley went on to make his living among the waterfront pirates without bending to their wills. For years he was consigned to what was then the toughest job in the pre-container days of break-bulk cargo, down in the hold of the ship wrestling loads with his hook. "I did a good job, I worked my way out," he said.

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