Mrs. Abzug & the Hardhats: Reason Had Nothing To Do With It
May 21, 1970
The construction workers sat in front of the new building at 160 Water Street morosely regarding either the grayness of the day or of their souls.
A hand-lettered mimeographed sheet pasted to a hoarding nearby read: “Construction Workers. The peace movement is not your enemy. The war is your enemy. Let’s talk about it. Bella Abzug, Democratic Candidate for Congress, 19th C. D.”
Presently a mustard-colored Cougar drove up and disgorged Mrs. Abzug and a few supporters. Mrs. Abzug, fetching in French blue raincoat, rainhat, and stockings, wearing a large button — “Hello, I’m Bella Abzug” — squared her shoulders and strode with Churchillian firmness over to the loungers and said, “Hello, I’ve come to talk to you fellas about the war.”
The construction workers were civil and strange. One of them made a strangulated noise that might have been either derision or surprise.
Mrs. Abzug delivered a short appeal suggesting that 63 cents on the tax dollar was going to support the war, that the war was hurting the economy, and that there were fewer houses to build because of the war.
The construction guys went on munching their sandwiches. But a guy in a sweatshirt looked up with the light of intellectual revelation in his eyes. “Nobody wants war,” said he, “of course not.”
One of Mrs. Abzug ‘s aides, a young girl shivering in a summer dress, broke in to defend the peace marchers. “At least they didn’t kill anyone. They were peaceful,” she said hotly.
“Ahhhh, they’re all peaceful,” said sweatshirt with large contempt.
Mrs. Abzug, in an attempt to keep dialogue up, walked around asking, “What do you think about it all?” A few of the workers giggled nervously, others examined the tops of their Dunhams.
Mrs. Abzug gazed around looking for takers. “Our tax dollars go for missiles and bombs,” she continued bravely.
“And to the moon,” the sweatshirt guy said brightly. “We went to the moon once,” he added, as if recalling some long ago but cherished exploit.
“War is needed to reduce population,” observed an unsuspected Malthusian.
Mrs. Abzug was a trifle shocked. “You don’t believe that.”
The social thinker looked stubborn. “Sometimes it just works out that way.”
“C’mon,” persisted the candidate. “I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to kill me, do you?”
The construction guy finally allowed as he didn’t — but it seemed to some that he took a distressingly long time to come up with the right answer, which just might have been disallowed if there were a 24-second rule in ethics.
Mrs. Abzug said, “You should join together to tell Washington to stop this nonsense and bring that money back home. You should invite me down to your next meeting. I’d love to come.”
The construction men did not actually blanch, but tended too shuffle. Who could blame them? The persuasive clout of the Jewish mother must by measured in the low megaton range. Besides, Mrs. Abzug was trying to reason with them, and anyone who has dealt with decal-flag patriots knows that reason has nothing to do with it. Perplexity, guilt, not a little envy, and a dull, inarticulate rage at the strange way the world turns in modern times have a great deal to do with the sudden outbursts of violence from the lower-middle-classes (the nomination of Procaccino for mayor was a sort of aesthetic violence).
“This war is taking from the middle-class,” one of the construction guys agreed. “The $40,000-a-year guys can deduct their subway fare.”
Mrs. Abzug continued to try to keep the dialogue running. One of her aides had assembled a group of workers at one corner of the building. As the candidate went over to speak with them, the construction superintendent ordered them back onto the job. “It’s for your own protection,” he explained, “there could be trouble.”
That this was a palpable load of shit was suggested by the presence of a couple of blacks in the group. The silent contempt the black construction men feel for their union brothers on this spring binge was been widely reported. It was unlikely that they intended to lend a hand at the stomping of a bunch of peaceniks. Furthermore, the group looked interested, not angry, and the modest reluctance of the supervisor to give his name to reporters after such a benevolent and public-spirited act was suspicious-making.
A couple of the men tried to slide over and were ordered back on the job. Finally one broke away despite repeated commands to return. He was, he claims, against the war, but was incensed by the students who ripped the American flag off a building. He loved his country and his flag. A lot of these men, he said, pointing to the group filtering back to work, gave their lives for the flag.
From where the reporters were standing the workers looked hearty enough, but one could understand the rage. Mrs. Abzug argued that being for peace was not being against the flag, but as usual the dialogue ended with both sides unconvinced.
When the workers were back on the job Mrs. Abzug left. Her car slid up Wall Street between triple police barriers and the most cavalry seen in these parts since Washington thrust at Long Island. In this troubled spring, reason seemed to be something of a late bloomer, but you had to admire the lady for trying.
“This happens to be my district and I feel it’s important to highlight certain questions. I think a lot more people should do this sort of thing.”
The lady said she would be back.