Friday, February 26, 2010

The Hiring Club

Although a scene like this was unlikely on the old waterfront (for that matter, it does not even appear anywhere within Ferguson Findley's 1951 book), dockworkers knew very real dangers--both from physical hazards of the job, where slingloads weighed as much as 4000 pounds--and from the racketeers who had infiltrated their longshore union and demanded daily tribute. The violence and dangers at the edges of the longshoremen's experience were rendered as implausible melodrama in books like Waterfront, which, after the scandals raised in the Kefauver hearings, was made into The Mob (with a young Ernie Borgnine as a union thug).

"In New York," the cop-narrator of Waterfront correctly explains, "longshoremen report to certain piers twice a day, once at five minutes to eight and then, if they didn't get a job the first time, at five minutes to one. That's what's known as the 'shape-up.' It has been called a vicious system. Maybe five hundred men report for a job that needs no more than a hundred. Who gets picked? If the waterfront is full of racketeers, and if the hiring foreman is in with them, then the longshoremen who work are all too often the ones who kick back part of their pay."

This photograph, of a morning "shape-up" (this one held at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers), comes from Charles Barnes' classic 1915 study, The Longshoremen (Russell Sage Foundation). The "shape" of course was made infamous by later investigators such as the Sun''s Mike Johnson, who called the ritual an "archaic and degrading hoax" that kept the men under-employed and powerless. But Barnes (observing the waterfront, where "Picturesqueness and magnitude unite in the handling of cargoes") was the first to record and present the daily spectacle in depth: Who were these men? Where did they come from and how dangerous were the jobs they competed for day after day? By the mid-fifties, decades after the shape was shelved by more enlightened ports like Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, New York finally abandoned the practice. It finally succumbed, despite the longtime collusion of ILA President Joseph P. Ryan and the New York Shipping Association on its behalf, under the weight of wildcat strikes by the rank-and-file membership, crime commission reports, and a crusading Hollywood movie whose hero turns against the racketeers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Man Who Beat the Code

As a zealous and sincere young assistant D.A. in the Manhattan homicide bureau, Bill Keating challenged the idea that prosecuting waterfront murders was hopeless (witnesses were either mute or otherwise uncooperative, leading to mistrials). Keating quickly found that “The orderly, efficient dossier from which the storybook detective gets so much information is practically unknown in real life,” so he began to “compile facts about the enemy” for himself. In January 1947, when a hiring boss named Andy Hintz was shot on his West Village stairwell as he left for work, Keating got his chance to try a waterfront murder case. Instead of depending on the unlikely bravery of witnesses, the break came when the victim survived his attack long enough to be convinced to give a deathbed testimony against the racketeer Johnny “Cockeye” Dunn and his accomplices. After Hintz died and Keating won a dramatic jury conviction against Dunn for murder, he expected such waterfront prosecutions to become more routine. But caution returned to the D.A.’s office, forcing Keating to leak details about dock crimes to the Sun’s Mike Johnson, who was soon off and running with a 24-part series that scandalized the country in 1948. As Johnson says in his foreword to Keating’s book, “Without boat rockers the world would be a very different place and a terrible one.”

Keating's book is mainly a first-rate account of the education of a young boat rocker and the story of his triumphant dispatching of Dunn and company to Sing Sing’s death row. Keating ultimately left the D.A.’s office to work for a private organization, the New York Anti-Crime Committee. When his group exposed a secret police raid on an illegal wiretap ring, Keating went to jail rather than reveal his source. Written with the horseracing author Richard Carter, his is by far the best contemporary account of the criminal waterfront, in or out of print. “I find it far more exciting than any fictional detective thriller I have read,” wrote Mike Johnson, who had read a fair number, “because it deals in reality.”

The Man Who Rocked the Boat became the source for the film Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which features a pretty fair reenactment of the Andy Hintz killing and of the trial of a racketeer played by a malevolent young Walter Matthau.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

They Covered the Waterfront

The ad for the Sun's great crime series, 1948

“At its best,” wrote Mike Johnson’s friend on the Sun, Robert Wilder, during the war, “ship news reporting was something of an anachronism, but it flourished, expanding into daily features in the New York press for the same reason that Hollywood film magazines clutter the bureau drawers of housemaids.”

It was news of the liners and their glamorous passengers that sold the maritime columns. As Wilder described his work routine, “[O]n almost any morning, a little knot of men gathered at seven o’clock on the Coast Guard pier of South Ferry, waiting for the cutter which took them to their jobs down the bay where incoming ships dropped anchor off the Quarantine Station of Rosebank, Staten Island.” There the corps of reporters and photographers would climb aboard the “transatlantic expresses,” the Mauretania, the Bremen, the Ile de France, and wait in lush press rooms for first crack at disembarking celebrities. But the waterfront reporter’s daily experience had at least as much to do with lesser known characters of the docks, the bargemen, cargo handlers, canal folk or tugboat pilots whose lives and pronouncements were often more interesting. Between boardings, Robert Wilder sharpened his writer’s chops profiling the members of the East River Chowder Club, ‘Battery Bill’ the Whitehall Boatman, or a canal veteran called Pookey, who’d once seen a snorting, cow-headed sea serpent swim the East River.

Wilder was not much longer for the reporter’s life when he published his splendid collection of pieces from his waterfront years, Out of the Blue: The Informal Diary of a Reporter (G.P. Putnam’s, 1943). (He would escape the Sun when Hollywood bought his second novel Flamingo Road, which became a vehicle for Joan Crawford to play a small-town Southern dancer.) His waterfront pieces veer between the well-wrought character studies perfected by his contemporary river men, Joe Mitchell and Meyer Berger, and a harder, more cinematic style: Describing the lack of fresh stories reaching his city room during the pre-dawn hours, he tolls off the enviable ones he’s missed that night, “Long since has a drunken dock walloper staggered up the carpetless steps to a flat on the West Side and kicked the teeth down the throat of his blowsy wife. Hours ago a pasty-faced, feverish-eyed punk walked into an uptown bar and grill and, with his fingers twitching on the butt of a cheap revolver, blasted the life out of three men before they had the chance to get their hands up.” Wilder’s prose sometimes soars into heaving metaphor, but for its author’s appreciation of both the low and the fancy, the sea stories of Battery Bill or the Scotch served neat aboard the Queen Mary, his is my favorite of the waterfront accounts.

Nearly eighty years after it first appeared, the most famous work of dock reportage is still Max Miller’s account of the ship reporter’s life in San Diego, I Cover the Waterfront (Dutton, 1932). Unlike Robert Wilder’s work, it remains in print. Miller begins with a self-deprecating portrait of himself as an old man of 28 who has so far failed to make a novel from the garbage boat skippers, tug pilots, sardine fishermen, and Navy divers he regularly turns into newspaper features in his studio above the tugboat office.

If Miller’s work were in fact a novel, you’d wonder why nothing sinister ever happens on his Western waterfront, where he’s known and liked by all, and the worst threat to his raffish paradise seems to be the discovery of his favorite swimming cove by outsiders. Miller has no explanation for hanging on so long in his scruffy job, still making the same waterfront rounds after six years (“I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.”). But the charms of his work are obvious, whether going along on expeditions to Guadalupe Island to trap new elephant seals for the San Diego zoo or boarding liners from New York to stalk Jack Dempsey or Charlie Chaplin. Of the celebrity part of his job, Miller claims, “They are but shadows to me, shadows which arrive and disappear, shadows which would mean utterly nothing to me except for the aura of publicity given them elsewhere by others.”

Miller’s book of waterfront adventures became a Depression bestseller and inspired impressionable readers such as W.C. Heinz to seek a life in newspapers. Whether or not they’ve ever held a copy in their hands, most people still know the title I Cover the Waterfront and the song that followed (added to the movie version the next year). But when Billie Holliday sings about watching the dark horizon from “the desolate docks,” it isn’t a lament about marine reporting.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Deaths of Peter Panto

Since January 1941, when his body was dug up in a lime pit in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto has died many times in books and movies. Months after he was found dead, he rose again in a violent Broadway drama written by two former crime reporters. ‘Brooklyn USA’ took on the whole waterfront rackets problem, insofar as a stage play can ever pose much of a nuisance to criminals. For 57 performances it portrayed the excruciating ice-picking death of a Panto-like labor crusader named Nick Santo and featured characters with recognizably scummy antecedents in Murder Inc. –the organization widely assumed to have killed Panto. The single survivor of all the story’s prosecutions and deaths was a stand-in for Murder Inc.’s Albert Anastasia, a mob boss called simply ‘Albert’. “The murder of Santo in a wretched barber-shop late at night is about the most harrowing episode in the theatre for years,” wrote the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “Nothing could distinguish racketeering from the popular game of murder and mystery better than this one sketch of demoniac violence.” Anastasia may not have been arrested in the death of Panto, but audiences were assured of ‘Albert’s’ guilt night after night.

The Panto killing reverberated through all later political movements along the docks. The longshore leader Pete Mazzie, a political successor who’d helped dig up his friend Panto with his own hands in early 1941, held his own in the goonish climate that immediately followed, briefly establishing a union hiring hall, for which he was kicked out of the corrupt International Longshoremen’s Association but continued to represent his dockers while working nights for the subway. When Mazzie organized the first formal meetings of Camarda-run locals in almost thirty years, Camarda men, their hats cocked like Hollywood goons, badly beat up the roomful of invited news photographers, union men, and Mazzie himself despite the presence of four hapless cops. The thugs neglected to destroy the film inside the cameras, however, and recovered pictures of the evening later ran in New York newspapers, including one of Mazzie, his head bloodily bandaged, pointing out the man who signaled the attack.

"Friday"(3/28/41). Compliments of Bill Mello

Panto’s story also drives Benjamin Appel’s pulp novel The Raw Edge (1958), where Panto appears as Pete Pironi, a Brooklyn docker who pushes back against the racketeers, in fatal defiance of the waterfront code. Some real names appear in the novel, but, Appel notes, “To stress their fictional aspect, I have deliberately used fictional pier numbers.”

Instead of the racketeer Squint Sheridan, there’s Squint Donahue, a gunman who’s moved up as a waterfront mobster on the West Side: “It was a hidden waterfront down in this part of lower Manhattan. Behind an endless wall of corrugated iron, olive green and grey, were the piers and the ships. Out of that iron wall the trucks honked, into that iron wall at the eight o’clock whistle the longshore work-gangs marched, like companies of soldiers, with their iron hooks.”

Over in dark, leafy Brooklyn there’s the coming clash between ‘Joe the Boss’ Dinetti and Pete Pironi, a troublemaking “wop money couldn’t buy.” The controlling Camarda family are instead called the Rosatis, and a version of the fateful meeting between the real Pete Panto and Emil Camarda is dramatized. For anyone who has walked around gentrified Brooklyn today, Pironi’s working-class neighborhood of the late thirties is an old-world departure: “He hurried home to Warren Street, dark between the night-gleaming windows. Faceless phantoms, kids in sneakers, ran in the gutter. On the stoops he saw the soft, whitish, chattering shapes of women, the men sitting separate from the female clucking, the excited ones arguing about Il Duce as they had argued the night before, the quiet ones peacefully smoking their black twisted cigars.”

In its stories and dialogue the book rides along on the testimony given before the New York Crime Commission, as did a shorter crime work by Appel, Dock Walloper, which follows the career of a West Side docker very much like Mike Johnson’s witness from the Bowers’ mob who testified in the Sun, “Joe”.

The Waterfront as War Front

The Normandie burns at its New York pier, 1942
(U.S. Navy)

Seven years before the Sun's Mike Johnson went down to the docks, a reporter named Edmund Scott made some scary discoveries on the West Side that he might well have turned into his own waterfront crime series.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, Scott went over to the West Side piers to play saboteur. His assignment for the newspaper PM was to dress as a docker and test the vulnerability of the port’s wartime defenses. Scott outfitted himself accordingly; it in fact took him longer to break in his new work boots, dungarees, work shirt and cargo hook than it did to get himself into the longshore union and aboard a combatant ship. He next walked along the West Side waterfront to 48th Street and 12th Avenue, “There were 30 or 40 men with longshore hooks, in knots of five or six. I sidled up to one, tapped a short, swarthy chap on the shoulder, and asked him if he could tell me how to get into the union.” The man obliged and pointed up the street to the storefront office of ILA local 824, the so-called “pistol local.” Pretending to be an unemployed laborer from Connecticut, Scott was able to buy a cut-rate union book for $26. The delegate then gave Scott a button, plain white with a picture of an American flag, “Wear this on your cap when you shape.”

The button did its work next morning and he was picked from the crowd at the French Line pier to unload furniture from the Normandie, the second largest ship in the world, recently renamed the S.S. Lafayette for transport work. It now made an especially pregnable point in the port as it was being stripped of its glamorous furniture and special fittings to make a more Spartan troop ship.

For two days, Scott wandered the Normandie’s enormous decks and hallways as a hypothetical enemy agent, “lighting imaginary fires” and “planting imaginary bombs,” his imagination working far harder than his body while he fooled with barrels of excelsior and smoked wherever he liked. In early January 1942, Scott turned in his alarming story, showing how easily anyone could buy into the union and have his run of waterfront cargoes aboard a combatant vessel. But to his editor the completed article seemed shockingly close to being “a blueprint for sabotage.” PM held the piece while reporting Scott’s findings to the Maritime Commission’s chief of Anti-sabotage, who angrily dismissed them.

Then, on February 9th 1942, probably through a worker’s carelessness with an acetylene torch, the Normandie caught fire below decks and burned spectacularly at its pier; PM finally ran the Scott piece next day, as crowds reviewed the ship’s burned hulk, “NORMANDIE COULD HAVE BEEN SABOTAGED.” Although the frightening footage of the Normandie went right into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur (Norman Lloyd smirks with pride as his cab passes the ship’s listing wreckage), the story of the criminal waterfront was largely abandoned during the war.