Working Class on Wall St.: Requiem for the Payday Patriots
May 21, 1970
It seems we have under-rated Richard Nixon. Not only does he play the dummy admirably, but in the last week, he has shown a flair for ventriloquism by finding a voice for his silent majority. But it’s a shame that it was the working men who were wooden-headed or hard-hatted enough to climb upon his knee.
At first glance it seems incongruous that the working class would gravitate toward Nixon. His style is not theirs. Wallace, yes. A face in the crowd, a small lonesome road that runs through dirt farmers’ country and pauses in the early morning hours at truck stops. But Nixon’s odyssey isn’t even on a working man’s map. The class debater, benchwarmer for the football team at good old Whittier College, a man who sees Knott’s Berry as America’s happy farm, the master of the cheap shot (or a “shy rap artist” to use a laborer’s term), a whiner in defeat, and a paranoiac by profession.
Then why the recent alliance between Nixon and the workers? lt is a wedding of his pomposity and, sadly, their circumstances. The key word is “majority.”
If you came out of a working-class family, you always wanted to belong. Only aristocratic politicians long for “humble beginnings.” Anyone who was born there doesn’t want to go home again.
It isn’t that this class has suffered the abject poverty of blacks that either deadens or ignites the soul. The working class always has lived financially, ethnically, and culturally from hand to mouth. There was sufficient, but not enough. Were you Irish or Irish-American? Italian or Italian-American? You’ve come a long way, baby, from a “harp” or a “wop,” but would you ever be honest-to-God American in your breast or in your brain?
The schools were as half-assed as everything else. You knew your catechism, could read all the books that didn’t mean anything, and had learned the one fundamental lesson. When you graduated, the odds were eight to five you would work for a smart Jew. Or perhaps a Protestant, if any of them except Henry Cabot Lodge could be identified.
So you wanted in. An identity, but more a non-identity to blend in with those who moved around without disturbance. Not the top. You knew better than that. “Just a small piece of change,” as Brando said in “On the Waterfront,” but surely a small piece of the pieces you’d never had. ”To be liked, well liked,” as Willy Loman said. “The majority,” as Nixon says. Or a “regular guy,” the canonization members of the working class themselves devoutly wish.
But one thought there was a limit on the dues they would pay to belong. It seems wreaking havoc at a memorial for four dead kids is a stiff tariff to pay for such limp company as Nixon and Agnew, though in retrospect it had been coming for a long time.
The kids are scattering that “small piece of change” by demanding that blacks and Puerto Ricans receive equal employment in restricted unions. Worse, they are sacrilegious to such “regular” relics as the draft, the American Legion, and dying for someone else’s notion of their country. So the stomping, the skull-cracking with tools, the five on one beatings (whatever happened to the saloon society ethic of one on one?) were only a matter of time. And, of course, some of McLuhan’s Marauders (“I’m pissing on the flag up here, CBS”) and those purveyors of love who oink-oink behind their dailies have helped speed up the action, get the cameras rolling, and put out the lights in many peaceful demonstrations.
So now the more zealous workers, along with their exotic opposites, pose, parade, and pontificate for posterity nightly at 6. It’s a shame David Merrick doesn’t move in and take the stripe-and-star-struck on the right and the bombs-bursting-in-air-segments of the left and move them up to New Haven for the summer to get the kinks out of their act.
But the workers would have struck without provocation anyway. Their street smarts told them they finally had the credentials for the All-America Club that nobody else on the scene possessed — muscle and the nastiness to use it. It came as no surprise that the most rampant brutality happened on a Friday — payday, which means early boozing and 90-proof patriotism. And the Wall Street workers cheered them on, showering them with capitalism’s sperm, ticker tape.
The working class finally had made it — grimy John Glenns and Tom Seavers, not only being accepted but adored by those they viewed as their betters. In a fine article in the New York Post, Tim Lee quoted the feeling of one of the ironworkers: “… I was Jesus Christ walking among them, and people in the crowd shouted, ‘God bless you,’ and patted me on the back. That was the proudest day of my life.” The need and subservience in that quote stuck with me.
I knew these men when they were better than that. Over the years I’ve admired their penchant for tough work and their strong sense of family, and on many bleak nights I’ve been warmed by their humor. Moreover, I have been the recipient of their kindness time and again. The working-class community has that generous quality of the early settlers’ barn-raisings. One helped his neighbor paint his new apartment or move his furniture. The stores had an intimacy and standards that the plastic Prussian supermarkets never can achieve. Then there are the moments of happiness and sadness. The men gathered around a formica table in the kitchen drinking a round to the new-born and the women in the living room offering condolences for the dead. It seems odd that these robust people (both in body and spirit) seek the approval of a bunch of white-collar lackeys.
The office workers and clerks who had any spirit quit the Street when their Republican masters told them to remove their FDR button or lose their jobs. The ones who remained now tell you how democratic their company is, because on their annual outing “the old man himself joined the softball game. Singled to right in the fifth, and when it was over sat right down with us and drank canned beer. The old so-and-so is a regular joe at heart.” Meanwhile, the regular joe’s wife was bitching at him for acting so common, until he told her to stop being a cunt, because all such bullshit counts a lot to these boobs when he has to negotiate salary.
And, of course, there is the new breed on the Street — with his first snap-brim hat, his attache case, and his tightly wound umbrella, trying like hell to forget his father cleaned out the holds of ships or emptied trash cans to put him through a course in business administration, so now he can walk into the Bull and Bear on Friday nights and order a Beefeaters up, instead of a beer or a rye and ginger. So he roots for the ghosts of his violent past to keep his new-found world secure. And who knows? If he gets lucky, he just might meet someone like Julie on “Dating Game.”
Then, too, there is the workers’ much-needed image of macho. I suppose the thinking goes Tough on the Job, Dynamite in the Sack. So the word most frequently heard during the demonstrations (excepting USA) was faggot — Lindsay was one; the protesters had no fear of being drafted, because they all were faggots; and bystanders who made peace signs also were included. The specter of homosexuality seems to haunt many of these men. It seems ludicrous and illogical to make these charges of a generation that probably has been with more women in 15 years than mine and the workers’ has seen in 30.
The phenomenon of growing up in the ’50s was that when someone asked you how many times you had scored that week he was talking about masturbation, not fornication. Old men ought to admit their envy. As a class, we rubbed our groins up against more bars and shuffleboards than we ever did against women. And when you saw the hard-hats carrying a scantily dressed Miss Liberty on their shoulders, you knew she was the Flying None of their movement.
But the real sadness is that the working class has allowed their unions to rob them of their pride and manhood in their work. Like the socialist sob sisters of the telephone company, they have opted for “security” (a guarantee of pensions, medical care and 37 toasters and waffle irons when they become engaged), and the integrity of their work be damned. The only evil they’ve ever seen in automation is the loss of jobs, not the demeaning of their life blood-work.
As a class, they have reneged on their standard of acceptance — achievement in a decent job. When the blacks and Puerto Ricans took the same route out of oblivion they did (as laborers and civil servants) they still were looked on as “spades and spicks.” A class cannot discard the foundation of their lives without madness resulting.
But the most tragic placard in sight at these demonstrations was one proclaiming “God Bless the Establishment.” It’s pathetic to think that the workers really believe they’re a part of the power structure — the same structure that indiscriminately uses their sons as cannon fodder in a war they don’t really understand, a war that has driven up the unemployment rate among their own to the highest level in a decade. The same beloved establishment that rapes the quality of their daily lives by channeling their tax dollars into Terry and the Pirates adventures, building highways they’ll never use, and granting tax exemptions to fat cats who sneer at them. Whatever happened to their built-in shit detectors that told them the only way to win the Congressional Medal was to come home in a box. Last week, Nixon handed out a dozen at a White House ceremony as if they were crackerjack prizes to add some glitter to this gory war. To be shilled by the powerful is expected, but to join them in the dupe is disgusting.
These men weren’t raised to hit boys and girls in the street and to spit on grown women who disagree with them. At their best, they are as generous a group as I have ever met. Easy terms like “neanderthal” or “fascist” should be left to the granite-tongued Maoists. Johnson and Nixon have sent their sons and relatives off to die, and it’s hard for any man to admit his issue died for a crock of shit. But it’s harder still when the message comes from draft-deferred college students who, in the workers’ minds, have it made. But understanding their exploitation goes only so far. They still are men with singular minds and souls who consciously are selling both for acceptance to a dismal dream of “respectability.”
Hamlet’s tragedy was “to be or not to be.” A choice of the cosmos — all or nothing at all. Most agree Willy Loman’s odyssey was less profound, since he conspired with forces that were destroying him. But was it less profound? Hamlet was; Loman populated that neuter terrain of the never-beens and the could-have-beens.
So the working class, like the country in which they labor, have to be relegated to an unfulfilled potential. Not quite failing, but also not adventurous enough to attempt real fulfillment. Their souls and the soul of their country reside neither in heaven nor in hell.
So the silent majority’s tragedy will come full circle. In the end no one weeps for the citizens of limbo.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 12, 2020