Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Work Clothes by Barbara Carle

Barbara Carle has appeared several times at the Friendswood Public Library as a featured poet and essayist, and also as a program host. She will be hosting our Essay Reading program on Wednesday, October 17 at 7:00pm. Featured essayists include Adriana Babiak Vazquez, Luis Vazquez, Katherine Sanger, and Oscar Peña.

Barbara Carle is a member of the Gulf Coast Poets, the Poetry Society of Texas, the Bay Area Writers League, the Spectrum Center Writers’ Guild and Women in the Visual and Literary Arts. Barbara is the mother of four and grandmother of six. She resides in Friendswood, Texas with her husband, Ed.

Work Clothes

by Barbara Carle


I attended St. Joseph’s Commercial High School in downtown Brooklyn.  It was a private school; fairly hard to get into; one that required passing an entrance exam and charged a high tuition.  My Dad was an ironworker and grabbed every hour of overtime he could, just to send me there.  Most of the girls at school were rich but a few were lower income like me. 

My parents were very modern for their day.  They would say “We know you intend to get married and raise a family, but, you never know what can happen.  If your husband should die or you get a divorce; you may have to support yourself and your kids.  There may come a time when you will need to go to work and a secretary is a good job.”  I guess World War II had left its mark on them.  They had seen how hard life was for women left without a spouse.  I wish they had been modern enough to let me go to college but, for people in our economic level, that was never considered an option.     

One afternoon just before dismissal time, Sister Mary Frances told me I was wanted in the principal’s office.  My heart almost stopped.  I had never been sent to her office and I couldn’t imagine what I had done wrong.  After all, I was Catholic, so I must have done something wrong.

Knees knocking and with sweaty palms, I arrived at her office.   Sister Superior was a tall, imposing figure with posture akin to a steel rod.  She was sitting behind her desk, totally encased in flowing black robes with a splash of white across her forehead, flanked by the school’s security guard.  Our high school was in a business district, surrounded by office buildings and large department stores; so even in the 1950’s; we had off-duty police officers stationed at the entrance each morning and afternoon.

 “Barbara” Sister said “there is a man waiting outside who says he’s your father.  Officer Reilly will walk you out of school today and, if he’s not your father, do not go with him.”  Of course, I meekly responded “Yes sister” while at the same time wondering why I would go with someone who wasn’t my father.

My next reaction was I got angry.  As we walked out of the school, I just knew they were suspicious of my Dad because of his work clothes.  If he was a lawyer or a doctor, in a suit and a tie, I reasoned, they wouldn’t be doing this.  I was so afraid they had hurt my Dad’s feelings.  I wasn’t worried he’d get mad.  My Dad was an easy going, mild mannered man but when I saw him standing there in his ratty old work clothes wearing, his old Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, I just wanted to cry.  Didn’t the school realize how hard my Dad worked to send me there?  How could they embarrass him like this?

I ran up to my Dad and gave him a kiss.  When I turned to glare at Officer Reilly I was surprised to see him extend his hand.  As he and my Dad shook hands, Officer Reilly said “Sorry about this, sir.  We have to be careful.”  My Dad flashed his great smile and said “No problem.  I’m just glad to see you’re taking such good care of my girl.”  They stood and chatted about which buildings my Dad had worked on and what precinct Officer Reilly was assigned to.  As we left my Dad turned and called “Thanks again”, a first- class guy, my Dad.

Years later when I was working on Wall Street, I’d occasionally come downstairs to find my Dad, with two or three of his friends, waiting to take me to lunch.  They always said the same thing.  “Hey Barbara, want to go to lunch with a few disreputable looking guys.”  I always answered the same way “Sure, I live with a disreputable looking guy.”  We’d all laugh and head out for lunch. 

They were a motley looking crew, their work clothes torn and dirty.  I always thought they were big, burly men until that first summer when I realized it was the layers of clothing they wore that made them look so large, layers to be peeled away as they warmed up.  In spite of their clothes, they were always clean shaven.  In the summer they usually wore baseball caps; hoods in the winter but whenever they picked me up, they had washed up and combed their hair.

The first time we went to lunch, I expected to eat at one of the many street pushcarts that line the streets of New York but I was wrong.  They walked right into the best restaurant in the area.  We were always seated right away and received excellent service.  We’d all sit, eating lunch; me in my suit and high heels, surrounded by these scruffy looking construction workers, having the time of my life.  That area in Manhattan was what my Dad use to call “the suit district”.  All around us well dressed lawyers, judges and financial people sat eating lunch and occasionally glancing our way.   

One night, my Dad asked “Do you ever wonder why we get such good service in those fancy restaurants we take you to?”   

“Well I’ve noticed they take pretty good care of you guys.” 

“It’s because when they see a bunch of construction workers, they know two things - we eat a lot and we are big tippers.” He laughed.

Ironworkers are a proud breed.  It’s dangerous work on the high structural steel.  My Dad said most skyscrapers in New York have a small plaque somewhere in the basement, in memory of the ironworkers who died on that job.  He showed me the pier on the Verrazano Bridge that commemorates the eight ironworkers killed during its construction.  

The Ironworkers’ union was a closed union when my Dad starting working construction after WWII.  Traditionally you had to be born into the group.  My Dad started out as a laborer but thanks to hard work and his great personality, he became friendly with several ironworkers.  A few of them offered to sponsor him and he was thrilled when he got accepted. 

I remember the day he came home, all excited about flashing his new union card.  We all went out to dinner to celebrate, a rare treat for us.  I realize now the new job meant more money and better job security.    

I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much about my Dad.  He was a secure person who was proud of what he did.  He loved his job and would always point out the skyscrapers he worked on. He taught me that as long as you are happy and know who you are; what people think or say can’t hurt you.  I only hope I have been able to live up to his example. Like I said, my Dad was a first-class guy.


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