The Summer I Got My Union Card

The old Greyhound terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets in downtown L.A..
The old terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets.

WHEN I WENT to work unloading buses at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Los Angeles, there were a few guys from the average white Christian suburbs outside the city who didn’t like me. I overheard one of them muttering to one of his buddies, “I hate guys like that.” What kind of guy was I? A verbal guy, a knowledgeable guy, a witty guy, an urbanite. (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and leave out “Jewish.”) A guy who they could see was out of place unloading buses at Greyhound. The foreman was one of them, a real redneck named Pete who loved playing the cock of the walk. Once when we were all sitting on the low railings at the unloading docks waiting for the next bus, he told us about a fight where he’d taken a tire iron to somebody’s leg and left it dangling unhinged from the knee. He described this with a toothy, ghastly grin, and his boys listened with dutiful admiration. One night Pete brought his date into the hangar where we worked, a vast, high-ceilinged, noisy, greasy, exhaust-fumed expanse, not a terribly romantic place to bring a date, but these Middle American jackasses came through for the boss. “Hey, Pete, how’re you doing, looking sharp, man …” and he just grinned and let his date presumably be impressed. He was a mean bantam rooster, and I was not his kind. Once I was five minutes late getting back from lunch break, which was standard for the unloaders, and I’m sitting on a bench in the terminal and I hear over the PA system, “Larry Derfner, report to door 11 immediately,” and it sounded like an emergency, so I hurried in, and Pete, waiting at the door, says to me, accusingly, “You’re supposed to be back at 8:30, where you been?” California cracker asshole.

This was in the early ‘70s, I was 22, and it was the first real job I’d ever had. Since pre-adolescence I’d worked at my father’s liquor store, which didn’t count, and later at a hot dog stand and briefly at a delicatessen, but those jobs were more or less for minimum wage so they didn’t count, either. Greyhound paid good money, it was a union job and not just any union, but the legendary International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union: “On the Waterfront,” strikers fighting cops, 1930s working-man socialists and communists, my idea of heaven. My ideal self. (That I couldn’t stand the actual white working-class guys right next to me didn’t disturb the image.) My father had been a communist in the 1920s and 1930s, gotten thrown in jail for it in Palestine and Poland, I’d come of age in the 1960s reading Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, but meanwhile my father had made good money at his liquor store in the black ghetto, moved us out to comfortable middle-class West L.A., and so I grew up not as a working-class kid, but as a cushioned kid, which I despised and regretted like nothing else. I’d hated college and dropped out the year before, decided I wanted to be an actor, but I was still working at my father’s liquor store – much longer than I’d ever thought I would. A close friend with a socioeconomic and psychological profile very similar to mine told me they were hiring at Greyhound, and we both got on, temporarily at first. Once he said to me how he and the other workers “sit around bullshittin’ when it’s slow,” with a smile that betrayed his glee at playing the role of the stereotypical working man – while getting paid like a real one – and likewise escaping his middle-class, educated, cushioned self. I didn’t smile back at him, though. This was something we were not supposed to mention.

The work was mindless, but that was fine – I was using my body pretty much to the maximum, tossing suitcases and heavy boxes around for eight or 12 hours a day. At worst, my lungs would burn a little at the end of a shift from breathing exhaust (on top of smoking a pack or so of cigarettes). After that first two-week Christmas trial period, I hired on for the following summer. Pete was gone, the other few white shitheads were gone, and I got along very well with everyone. I felt completely at ease. We all worked hard, except for one Mexican self-described “intellectual,” whom everyone held in contempt, including the two other Mexican unloaders, who worked like maniacs. Until then I’d always worked behind a counter or stocked shelves, using neither my mind nor my body. The shifts at Greyhound left me feeling spent, and feeling good about myself. Plus, the money was great. Also, I’d gotten the job on my own, and kept it. My father was impressed.  I’d always hated working at the liquor store and didn’t try to hide it. “This time it’s different,” he said to me.

THE HANGAR AT Greyhound was a man’s world. The only women around were the passengers who got off the buses, and the pretty ones naturally became the objects of our jokes and boasting, strictly among ourselves. (Occasionally we’d flirt with them, but I never saw anyone score.) For the most part, we talked like men do when they’re on a crew doing hard physical work out in the open with no boss sitting on top of them: We all acted like macho men to one degree or another. One night an assistant terminal manager, a black guy named Ed, came over and drew a crowd of us around him as he described what he did after his little daughter got raped by some 13-year-old boy in the neighborhood. “I went over to his house and told his folks that when I find him, I’m gonna kill him. Went home, got my shotgun, got in my car, and I see him walking around. I got out of my car,” he said, and mimed aiming a rifle. “Boom, boom, and that was it for that motherfucker. Killed his ass. Didn’t do a day in jail, either.” I was a little taken aback – the kid was 13 years old, after all. Ed didn’t seem too upset about his little daughter getting raped, either, he was just bragging about how he’d taken revenge. (Now that I think of it, he probably was lying. He didn’t do a day in jail? And he just kind of drops that story on us out of nowhere? Ed got fired later on for stealing, which puts his credibility all the more in doubt.) But I wasn’t going to voice any reservations in that crowd. There was one real intellectual among us, a junior college instructor with a master’s degree – and a daughter – making some extra money on the side. “I would have done the same thing,” he said. “Anybody touches my little girl, I’ll blow him away.” This was how we talked on the job.

Another time we were all sitting around on the railing listening to two black workers engaged in a seemingly mild session of what black people used to call “the dozens” and the Sopranos called “breaking balls.” Some of the spectators were laughing and calling out when one of the jousters got off a good line. I was sitting next to my best friend at work, a 30-year-old black dude named Bill, who was joining in the chorus, egging the two on. I quietly told Bill to cool it, and pointed to the older, thinner one in the ring, and said he was about to go off, and you didn’t want to become one of his targets if and when he did. Bill glanced at me, not understanding, and turned back to the match. In a couple of minutes, the older, thinner guy pulled a knife out of his pocket, opened it up and threatened his opponent. The game was over, everyone dispersed, and Bill said to me with wonder, “How did you know that dude was going to get crazy?” I told him the guy was losing and he knew it, he was getting humiliated in front of a hooting crowd, and that’s a combustible situation. “Larry, man,” said Bill in his high-pitched, uproarious voice, “you are the most streetwise white boy I’ve ever seen,” which to this day remains one of my most cherished compliments.

Bill was a charismatic, silver-tongued, brilliant, funny guy, the center of attention at all times among the crew. He’d studied political science at UCLA, but was also a dedicated hustler of older women with money, and his success was a testament to his personality, because from the waist up he looked like Oliver Hardy. Any woman he wasn’t impressed with, or who was clearly out of his league, was a “fly-drawin’ bitch.” At one point he decided that “Bill” was too common a name, he wanted something with a classier sound, so he told everybody to start calling him Charles. Then he wanted to go for something more exotic, so he announced that from now on his name was Ahmad Ishmael. He didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs; his vice was gluttony. “I like to greaze,” he explained. He worked hard most of the time, sometimes crazily hard; he was 6’3,” strong and athletic despite his upper chubbiness, and when he wanted to, he could pretty much clean out a bus loaded with baggage all by himself in the time it would take three guys. When these fits of productivity seized him, he’d get motivational with me, saying, “Get involved, Larry Derfner, get involved!” He had one additional vice – money, which was emphatically not one of mine, so he tried to set me straight: “You got to start hanging around rich women, Larry, and the way to start hanging around rich women is to stop hanging around poor ones.” Once, in connection with my indifference to wealth, he told me, “You’re just a jack Jew.” My ears pricked up and I asked what he meant. “You’re just playing at it,” he said, grinning, and I had to laugh. One late night after work, we sat in the car and he went into a long monologue about racism in America, about what it had done to black people, and I was transfixed; he was gifted, inspiring. Another time a few of us were sitting in a bus, playing a genuinely friendly, harmless game of the dozens, and Bill told somebody, “Man, you look like you been whupped with a sack of quarters.”

There was another black guy I was friends with, Claude, who was a couple of years older than me, had a master’s degree in public administration and clearly a big future ahead of him. An evangelist about Jesus Christ and body-building, he was the nicest, squarest, steadiest, hardest-working guy you could find. We used to do Richard Pryor bits together. Yes, I had a special affinity for black people, going back to my childhood, which is another story, and which went together with my hazy notion of what I was doing and who I was becoming by working at Greyhound.

THE BUS TERMINAL was at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, a block from the heart of Skid Row. The passengers waiting on the benches in the harshly-lit, drab lobby and getting off the buses pulling into the hangar were mainly poor people, many of them Mexican. (The main exceptions were the Japanese tourists, with their conspicuously sparkling luggage.) I was the only guy on the crew who spoke enough Spanish to have a conversation with the two Mexican workers (not counting the “intellectual,” whom nobody talked to, and who quit soon enough), which I was proud of and which earned me a few status points. Of the two Mexicans, the insanely hard worker rarely said a word, while the other, merely extremely hard worker limited his conversation with the others to “mucho trabajo.” (Bill naturally started calling him “Mucho Trabajo.”)

We were masters of our domain. Like I said, nobody was watching over us, at least not closely; we could shout, curse, spar and honk with laughter as much and as loud as we wanted. The hangar was so immense that the noise we made echoed. We were free men, hard at work. Unloading buses had a rhythm – when they were pulling in one after another, you couldn’t wait to tear into one and get all the suitcases and boxes onto the carts and into the sorting room, then tear into the next one, then the next. We competed with ourselves to see how fast we could get them unloaded. But that’s when they were streaming in rapidly; when traffic was slow, you’d sort of sink down into the railing, get comfortable and then curse when you heard the sound of another bus coming up the ramp. The greatest day I remember at Greyhound was when the NFL playoffs were on TV, and it was a holiday, which meant there was both very little traffic and time-and-half pay. George, an ordinarily by-the-book assistant terminal manager, came over to the unloading docks and told a couple of us to stay there and mind the store while the rest of us went into the maintenance room to watch the games on a portable TV. At half-time the guys out working would switch with a couple of us in the maintenance room. That day I watched 1½ NFL playoff games and got paid very well for it.

But as free and open as it was unloading buses, there was another job in the hangar that was death: the sorting room. This department was run by Eddie House, a black man of about 60 who’d been working at Greyhound forever and who never talked, only screamed and cursed hoarsely. Actually it was kind of a yowl. Where should I put this package, Eddie? “Put it over there in that Riverside cart, goddamn it,” he’d yowl, storming past you. Nobody took it personally, and everybody, black, white and brown, imitated him behind his back. But Eddie wasn’t the problem in the sorting room, the problem was the work. You stood in one spot in front of a line of conveyor belts coming at you with packages, and you took the packages off one by one and tossed them into the carts standing next to you, one cart for Los Angeles addresses, another for Riverside/San Bernardino, another for Ventura, another for Chicago and so on. You stood there in one place taking packages off belts and throwing them into carts for two hours at a time, with lunch and two breaks per shift. They sent me in there one day and after two hours, I went up to Eddie and told him I couldn’t handle it, I was going crazy, I had to get out of there and go back to unloading. “Then go on, get the motherfuck out of here,” he yowled, and I almost swooned with gratitude.

Being master of your domain, though, can lead to what the late Senator J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power.” We saw the words “handle with care” written on packages, often in capital letters, underlined, with multiple exclamation points, sometimes augmented by the word “Please” and even “Of Sentimental Value.” Yeah, well, we didn’t go out of our way to bang those packages up worse than usual when we dragged them out of the belly of the bus and flung them into the carts, but believe me, we did not handle a damn thing with care. Myself, I took a perverse, mildly sadistic pleasure at treating those packages marked with pleas for mercy in exactly the same swinging, swaggering, concussive, rackety, chimpanzee manner as I did every other.

The worst thing I ever did at Greyhound: During Christmas season, people would send small, brandied Christmas cakes with nuts and raisins in them, packed to stay fresh and moist. During a slow stretch, a couple of guys took a pair of Christmas cakes out of the baggage hold of a bus, kicked back and ate them. Those gifts would not be arriving at their destinations for the holiday. I was sitting with the two guys, and they urged me to take one for myself, and I begged off. But when you’re working with men in a rough environment, you don’t feel comfortable when they’re breaking the rules and you’re playing Dudley Do-Right. Also, I love Christmas cake. So I pulled back the edge of a package and took a little piece. Then another, and then fuck it, I ate the whole thing and threw the package away. I have a friend, Catholic born, who loves Christmas and makes an amazing Christmas cake every year; I told him that story and he gave me a look like Karl Malden gives Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” for betraying his conscience and going along with the mob.

I WORKED AT Greyhound for a total of four months – two Christmas vacations and a summer, and in the summer I got my union card. I was thrilled. It gave me a feeling of security, and of solidity; I felt like a man. I wasn’t sure, but I was thinking that maybe I could work at Greyhound until I made it as an actor, or a writer. One day at the unloading docks, somebody mentioned a guy named Horace, and a couple of other guys kind of smiled, and I asked who he was. “You don’t know Horace? Oh, you should meet him, you’ll have a lot to talk about – well, he’ll have a lot to talk about, at least.” “Yeah, when he starts talking …” Horace, they said, was a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the sorting room. I naturally had to meet him, so the next day or so I went up to him, introduced myself and asked why he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. He was older than me, late 30s, and black. He must have seen a glint of mischief in my eye – another unbeliever who wants to come meet the freak – and he gave me a very flat, serious look. Answering my question, he didn’t talk about religion, he talked about life, a person’s life, what he wants to do with it. “Like you,” he said. “I can take one look in your eyes and see that you’re not going to be working here much longer.” Touche, Horace.

What did he see in my eyes? Intelligence, too much for me to be unloading buses for a career. Maybe sensitivity. Maybe innocence. Maybe a basic sense of well-being, a fundamental, unthinking trust that everything will work out for me, that even if I fall, somebody or something will be there to catch me. No, I wouldn’t be working at Greyhound much longer. Later I would lose that innocence, and realize that I really could fall – for good, beyond anybody’s ability to catch me – and I decided to take my intelligence and do something with it. I’d always regretted that my father had worked his way into the middle class, always wished I’d grown up poor so I’d have to struggle like he did, and when I finally did have to struggle – when I reached my late 20s, saw I was nowhere and that ultimately there was no net underneath me – I fled, terrified, from a future in anyplace like the unloading docks at Greyhound.

I have some highly enjoyable memories of my time there. It also showed me something about the world and its people that you don’t see from inside the bosom of the educated middle class. And I love being able to say I once unloaded buses at the Greyhound terminal on Skid Row in downtown L.A. – it impresses the chattering classes. A lot of the times, it even fools me.

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Larry Derfner

I was born in New York in 1951, grew up mainly in Los Angeles, began my career in journalism in 1981, and moved to Israel in 1985. I live in Modi'in with my wife Philippa and sons Alon and Gilad.

6 thoughts on “The Summer I Got My Union Card”

  1. I think something is happening with these autobiographical works. And extra plus (I guess all are) is that your are archiving material for your sons.

    This work is a wonderful release from the generalizations of politics. You describe people, not categories or representative samples–this something easily lost in the writer’s world.

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