I ran a dirty and dangerous business in a dirty and dangerous part of New York City: Red Hook, Brooklyn.
In 1990, Life magazine named Red Hook one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States, citing, in part, the neighborhood’s claim to fame as “the crack cocaine Capital of America.”
I worked there for eleven years operating Hogs: mammoth, garbage-truck sized chopping machines. The Hogs had massive throats and we fed them with lumps, blob, drools and moon rocks, which are suitcase-sized-and-larger chunks of hard, melted plastic. Blobs are hacked into one-quarter-inch chips to form grind that can be used to make other plastic parts. That’s what we sold: grind.
The Hogs were vicious machines, so we sunk them into the concrete floor where they could do the least damage when they went wild. Some of the lumps had stringers on them, long ribbons of flexible plastic attached to the moon-rocks like trailing comet tails, that could wrap around a man’s leg and yank him into the Hog’s throat, grinding him into chopped meat in seconds flat. It happens in our industry – it’s not just folklore. As a matter of fact, Hog # 1, in our own factory, was bought “used” at auction at a tremendously reduced rate because it had become a killer whale in its former owner’s bankrupt business.
A more routine, but potentially equally dangerous, part of feeding the Hog was if a wrench or large metal bolt was melted into one of the lumps and tossed undetected into the throat by an operator. This was not uncommon, and when metal scraps hit the razor-sharp blades of the Hog’s spinning chopper they would explode like a hand grenade and the machine would cough up the rejected foreign material, projectile vomit hot shrapnel that ricocheted off the sturdy old foundry’s brick walls at bullet speeds. The operator, of course, was in the greatest danger, but no one in the factory was safe from these sudden blasts. Men got hit and hurt.
Hog operators usually did not last long on the job. Most became terrified of the beast and quit. Often they never returned from lunch to even collect their pay. I guess they felt lucky to be out of there and in one piece. Some got injured and others just couldn’t stand the noise and tedium or the physical strain of lifting the heavy, unwieldy lumps all day, or all night, long. It was back-breaking labor. Others got fired for being drunk or using drugs to make it through. Some were just too sluggish to keep up with the voracious appetites of the Hogs.
My office was an unpainted plywood shed that we built in one day, running an extension cord in for a light bulb, electric heater, and fan. I cut a square for a viewport and screwed a clouded and scratched piece of clear Plexiglas we had scrounged to act as a window of sorts. Glass was not an option, as it was not shrapnel proof. The old Red Hook factory itself used to be a cast iron radiator manufacturing plant and foundry, built in the late 1800s. It had a saw-tooth roof, allowing daylight to filter through the sooty air inside the Hog Farm. There was no heat when it got cold and damp. It was Draconian.
One day I was sitting in my box when I was able to distinguish a knock on the plywood wall above the rumble of the Hogs’ blades and the drone of their three enormous and potent 150 horsepower GE eclectic motors. We had three monsters running when all things were working.
A hard-looking Hispanic man in his mid-twenties poked his head around the door. “Are you the boss?” he asked.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“I’m looking for work. Any openings?”
“We’re not hiring but leave your name and number on that pad over there. You never know in this place.”
He looked dejected. “All right,” he said.
“Wait! Can you work nights?”
He skidded to a halt.
“Sure Mister, anything.”
“What about tonight? Some guy called in sick before. I just remembered.”
“Anytime, any day. I need the work.”
“What’s your name?”
“José, see you tonight at 6 sharp. You look strong.”
I waited around to see if José would show. He was actually 15 minutes early. That was unusual and a good sign. I took him over to Hog #2 and introduced him to the day-shift guy. I went over the safety rules and showed him where the kill switch was. In case the Hog grabbed him, he could hit the bulging red eye-like knob, hopefully, in time to shut the beast down before the unthinkable happened. I gave him a hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toe boots, heavy gloves, and ear plugs, made sure he had no loose clothing on, and told him to remove any chains or jewelry. I instructed the day guy to get him started and stay with him for two hours to make sure he could handle it.
The next morning, I grabbed a coffee off the roach-coach and walked under the loading doors. I could immediately sense by the sounds and smell of the factory if all three Hogs were running or not. It sounded good so maybe I could finish my coffee in my box for a change. Before I swung the makeshift door open that I had rigged up with a spring closer I looked over to my shoulder to see if the new guy José had lasted through the night. There he was, stripped down to his sleeveless A-shirt; muscles bulging under dirty, grimy, sweaty skin, and working like a mechanical bull. I raised a brow as the plank slammed shut behind me.
Maybe we got one who will stick around for a while, I hoped.
As it turned out, José stuck around for several months. He was the best operator ever. Hog #2 had finally met its match in this sinewy and quiet young man. It was metal machine against flesh and bone machine; night after night they called it a draw.
I gave José a raise, told him he was doing a fine job, put him on the day shift and moved him up to Hog #1, the most powerful and hazardous lump-eating monster in the place.
He thanked me and seemed pleased.
“José, do you have any friends who will work like you?”
“Friends? Yeah, I’ve got lots of friends.”
“Well if they need work and they are like you, send them over. Okay? ”
“Sure thing boss.” And with that he disappeared for the night, walking across the old weed-covered railroad siding and then up the alley and down the street lined with old blackened brick factories to wherever he went when he left the job.
The next day José was standing in front of my box with a guy whose muscles were bulging tight and easily twice the size of Jose’s. They were dressed in the same baggy jeans, work boots and skintight white A-shirts; some sort of uniform. His head was shaved and his skin had a healthy deep chestnut brown sheen. He had some deep, raised scars on his arms.
“Good Morning, José. Who’s this?”
“This is Willie, my friend. You said to bring in friends who wanted to work.”
“That I did. Okay, Willie. Nice to meet you. You’re hired. José will set you up with safety gear and show you the ropes.”
“José start him on the baby, Hog #3. All right?”
“Sure thing boss.”
“Thank you Sir. I appreciate the opportunity,” Willie said with a wide smile and an outstretched hand. We shook. His grip was like a bear claw and he ominously held me seconds longer than a normal shake between men. I tilted forward a bit to absorb his strength.
This guy is super strong, I thought.
“No problem, just listen to José, he’s sort of like the boss out there. Be careful and watch out for metal and stringers. José will explain. “
José and his friends were remarkably polite compared to most of the workers that come and go. I was curious about them but had learned not to ask personal questions about the outside lives of the men who were willing to work in a Hog Farm environment. I felt fortunate just to have a full shift of sober, reliable and incredibly tough men to work all the machines for the first time ever.
For the next two weeks a pattern developed. As I arrived each morning, José was already there, waiting for me with a new friend, another quiet man, polite, strong and eager to work. I hired them all without question.
Without any official ceremony José became sort of like the plant manager. I was able to get business done in the plywood office while José was out on the factory floor with the Hogs, filling in, training guys, breaking up fights, and other dirty jobs. Things in Hog-Land had never been better. I stayed on the phone buying lumps to feed the Hogs, and José took care of the farm. It was a beautiful thing: the hum and howl of all three Hogs running non-stop 24/7 under Jose’s watchful eye, alongside the Atlas power of his discreet, hard-working but mysterious buddies, was beginning to sound more and more like the cha-ching of a cash register instead of the big pulsing headache that it used to be for me.
God bless José and his friends. That’s all I could say. This is the way to run a business!
I used the newly created time in my work day to bring in some authentic carpenters and build a proper little office for me, and a desk for José to sit at so that he could fill me in on production matters from time to time.
José was characteristically quiet at his office work, but one day as I passed his desk he put his pen down from filling out time-sheets. He spoke up apprehensively and caught me off guard.
“Hey boss can I talk to you?”
“Sure José, anytime. What’s on your mind?”
“Boss you’ve been a good guy to me and all my friends and we all like working here and these jobs are helping us all out a lot.”
“Yes Jose, I’m very happy too and I’ve been meaning to thank you … .”
“Boss I gotta tell you. I mean I need to let you know. I mean it’s bothering me….”
“Say it, Man! What’s eating you?”
“Okay boss, well you know Willie out there, the first guy I brought in?”
“Of course I do. Yeah, Willie is great. What’s up with him? Is he quitting or something?”
“Shit man, I don’t know how to say this but he isn’t who you think he is. None of us are. That’s what I’m trying to say but I can’t. Damn!”
“José, try to calm down. Who am I supposed to think you all are? Let’s start with that.”
Usually José’s eyes are fixed submissively downward when we speak, but for the first time they rose and met mine straight on. I saw the eyes of a fighter.
“Willie killed two guys in a bad drug deal. He shot ‘em both in the face. He’s a convicted murderer, Man! There, now you know.”
“What?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah he killed two drug dealers a long time ago. He was a drug dealer too, in Harlem. He’s been in prison for 20 years. Look at him Boss. Where’d you think he got them muscles?”
I figured the best thing at that moment was to just let José continue. It was obvious that the dam had broken and the flood would not stop with my words. Also I was not sure if I was being threatened. I needed to play it smart until I made sense of this surprise revelation. My head was into dangerous machines, not people. This was a game changer.
“And Damon the white hillbilly dude you put on a forklift when you saw his NASCAR tattoo, he killed a guy during an armed robbery in Atlantic City with a shotgun. He’s a killer, too.”
José went down the line. All of his so called friends were killers who had served long hard time in maximum-security prisons.
Oddly, of all things, I wished I had a hot cup of coffee to hold and sip, something to wrap my hands around and hold near my face. I didn’t trust my own face. Where is the roach-coach when you need one? Maybe the catering truck’s horn would blow.
“We’re all out on parole and stay in a halfway house in Bed-Sty.”
“So this is where you know all your friends from? I get it now.”
“Yeah, my friends, that’s right. You asked me, boss, and we all need jobs as conditions of our parole requirements so this place means a lot to us, but I shoulda told you sooner. I’m really sorry, Man.”
“And you, José?”
“Yeah, me too.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“No boss, I got to. “
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“I grown up in East New York and I was in a gang and did some bad shit, you see, and another gang was looking for me so I was hiding out in an abandoned building. These dudes kept coming to my Mom’s place looking for me, and because of all the threats they were making to my Mom, who had a bad heart, she took a heart attack and died because of them thugs threatening her and stuff, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear … .”
“Yeah. So I came out of hiding and found the punk leader of that gang and I stabbed him in the heart. I killed that boy. I was 18, he was 19. I served 12 years for that, Boss.”
I could see tears begin to well up. Tears of a heavy burden lifted by confession.
Killers surround me.
“José, you didn’t have to tell me this, you know that? Do the other guys know that you are doing this?”
“Boss, we talked it over last night at the halfway house and we decided it was for the best. We was afraid you might find out on your own anyway and this way is better, and we just wanted to be straight with you ’cause you been straight with us and stuff.”
“José we can just forget …”
“Boss if you want to fire us all you don’t have to worry, nobody here is gonna hurt you or nuthin’. I promise you. We would never, ever do nuthin’ ….”
“As far as I’m concerned José, what you told me changes nothing. Everybody just keeps coming to work and we don’t ever need to talk about this again. Okay? Is that understood?”
“No shit boss?”
“No shit José!”
Over the course of the next year, all the men made parole one by one, leaving this dirty and dangerous job and part of the city for other places. And after José went back to East New York, there were no more friends to replace his friends to satiate the incessant appetite of the ravenous Hogs.
I tried replenishing the convicted killers’ jobs with the same-old run-of-the-mill and unreliable workers I had become so accustomed to scraping off the bottom of the city’s desperate-for-any-job populace. Same as all the years past, they worked for a few days and then started calling in sick or showing up drunk. They didn’t pay attention to metal contamination in the lumps the way José and his friends did, and I found myself regularly diving for cover from shrapnel. Once again I was on the front line every single day, and many nights too. I was suddenly tired of the dirt and the danger, both inside the factory and outside, on the streets of Red Hook.
I was never again able to get Hogs #1, #2, and #3 running as efficiently and safely as they did under the careful attention of José and his killers. I made a dream team, and now they were gone. I lost the heart to build a new crew from scratch, and in fact came to the realization that those men were irreplaceable. Their desire for freedom combined with prison discipline had created a rare breed of worker that was tailor-made for my vision of the perfect Hog Farm plastic recycling company. The big Hogs were useless without the right men to control them, so I sold the Hog Farm a few months later, quickly and to the highest bidder at auction. I was glad to be rid of it.
They might have been killers, but they were my killers, and without them the Hog Farm would have killed me before too long.