The light changed and Dad let out the clutch. The old Dodge lurched forward down Twelfth Street. "See can you spot Mister Black," he said. I scanned the sidewalks, on this warm summer morning full of black men standing idly or sitting in doorways.
"There he is," said Dad, and stopped at the curb. A tall, rangy man with ebony skin and a mop of white steel wool for hair shuffled forward. "Want to work today, Blackie?" Dad called.
"What you got?" he replied, sticking his head through the window on my side.
"Furnace," Dad said. "Out North, Evanston. Not too big."
He opened the door, and I scooted over to the middle, careful not to put my left leg under the gear shift lever. There was scarcely room for three on the seat; the heat of Mr. Black's body baked through my thin trousers where they touched his leg. He smelled of sweat, tobacco and whiskey; before heading for the suburbs, Dad stopped at a liquor store and bought a pint bottle of Four Roses in a paper bag. Mr. Black unscrewed the top, took a single gulp, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stashed the bottle among the tools under the seat. Then he broke out a little tin, and put a pinch of tobacco between cheek and gum.
Like most in Chicago, the Southside apartment building where we lived was heated by coal. Two or three times a year, an enormous dump truck tilted its load down a chute to the basement, where the janitor shoveled it into bins. Coal dust littered the alley and sidewalks for days afterward, and in fall and winter the city was washed by windblown soot. In winter I was often awakened on a Sunday morning by Mom pounding on the radiator pipe, hoping to awaken the janitor; sleeping off payday night, he had allowed the furnace to go out.
A few years after the war, when petroleum was plentiful and cheap, the affluent began switching from bulky, messy, coal furnaces that required constant stoking, to trim, neatly self-contained oil burners managed by electric thermostats. Getting rid of the old furnaces became my father's weekend business. I was his helper.
Our trips to the suburbs were expeditions to terra incognita, a land of quiet, shady streets with split-level homes flanked by grassy lawns and bedded flowers that was nothing like the tired brick tenement where we lived. Inside these homes were airy rooms with carpeted floors, picture-laden walls, strange and beautiful objects on shelves, tables, and display cases, and enormous kitchens gleaming with modern appliances. It was a world that I had glimpsed in year-old magazines that Dad brought home, a world that I never dared to hope that I might share.
The guts of a coal furnace are two cast-iron shells, one inside the other, with inner and outer ribs for strength. Between the shells is a gap, less than an inch, where circulating water is heated before being piped to radiators and faucets. The furnace was either swathed in asbestos or insulated with concrete or brick.
In the low-ceilinged basement of a spacious Evanston home, Dad knocked the furnace door off its hinges, then hoisted me inside. It was pitch black and stifling; the only ventilation was the small door where he stood with a flashlight. Sweat gushed from every pore, stinging my eyes. I stumbled on a bed of cinders and half-burned coal, shifting my feet until I could balance myself to swing the short-handled, five-pound hammer. Dad shined the beam on one of the ribs, and I banged away. Every blow dislodged soot. After a few minutes my arms grew weary and my ears rang. Eventually, metal fatigue occurred; the rib cracked. Then it was on to the next. When every rib was cracked, Dad hauled me out, panting with exhaustion, half deafened, drenched in sweat, covered with soot, utterly spent.
"Stand back," said Dad. Side by side, he and Mr. Black swung long-handled, nine-pound sledges over their heads, alternating strokes and rhythmically beating the concrete until it cracked. A few licks with a crow bar exposed the iron beneath. I sat against the wall, luxuriating in the coolness of the concrete against my back and legs. Furiously they hammered the metal; in half an hour, the furnace was a mound of broken concrete, asbestos, cinders, ash, and shards of iron. Mr. Black wiped his brow, took a long pull from his whiskey. Dad and I sipped water from his old Scout canteen.
Dad charged the homeowner $25 to haul away the old furnace; most of that went for dump fees, gasoline, lunch and Mr. Black's whiskey and wages. Profit was in iron, a ton or so that brought a cent a pound at the scrap yard. Culling it from the debris of insulation, then loading both on the truck, was the hardest part of the job.
As the men began hauling out the scrap, I wandered into the back yard, hoping for a breeze. The lady of the house smiled at me though the kitchen window. She brought cold lemonade and a sandwich on a paper plate. Afterward I asked for the toilet, and was led to a room off the garage.
When I returned, Dad and Blackie were eating beneath a backyard tree. Dad asked where the bathroom was; I showed him. After another hour's toil, the truck sagged under tons of rubble at the rear and bushels of iron up front. Weary but proud of myself, I climbed into the front seat, a ten-year-old man among men.
Half a mile up the road Dad stopped at a gas station, where Blackie borrowed the restroom key. "Why didn't you go at the house, Mr. Black?" I asked when he returned. He looked over my head, at my father.
"People in them fine houses and such, they don't want nobody my color using their toilets," he said.
I turned that over as we headed for the dump. Finally I put my arm next to his. "But my skin is as black as yours," I said. "And they let me use their toilet."
"Mine don't wash off," returned Blackie, and finished his whiskey. That's when I noticed the scar, a thick button of bright pink, inside his mouth near the center of his lower lip. Dad had a scar just like it, almost in the same place.
"How did you get your scar, Mister Black?" I asked. He shook his head. "Daddy got his when a man hit him with a gun and robbed his taxicab," I said.
"Something like that," Blackie said. "Only it was a bottle. And I got nothing worth stealing."
When we got home I was so sooty that Mom made Dad rinse me off outside. I stood in the alley behind our building while he hooked up a borrowed hose. Neighborhood urchins drifted in to watch.
"It's a little blackie!" called one. "Ain't you in the wrong neighborhood?"
"Mine washes off," I said, and Dad backhanded me across the face.
"Don't your ever think that because your skin is white that you're any better than Mr. Black," he bellowed, and the shame that I felt when next I met Mr. Black stained my conscience like the warm blood that had trickled from my nose.
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.