After six weeks of training, I was accepted into VISTA and was assigned to Mobilization for Youth, a large social agency based in the Lower East Side of New York. According to their literature, the agency focused on community development, the elimination of poverty, and the prevention and control of juvenile delinquency. Among its programs were: manpower and training services, such as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a remedial education and work program; the New Careers Program that provided both instruction and on the job training; also individual, group, and family services such as counseling and supportive services for juvenile delinquents and mental health. Mobilization for Youth worked in conjunction with city, state, federal agencies as well a private social service agencies.
The training programs focused on the neighborhood’s black and Latino teenagers who had left high school before graduating. Training facilities included an auto shop, sewing and tailoring, construction work, a functioning restaurant that served breakfast and lunch. Each program was assigned a director; most were pursuing advanced degrees in social work and psychology at New York University, Columbia and the New School. The directors interfaced with the program’s instructors as well as the trainees. I was assigned to Scott Michael who oversaw the auto shop training.
Scott suggested that I develop a program for obtaining a learning permit for a driver’s license. To obtain a learner’s permit, one had to pass the standard multiple-choice test for a driver’s license. I had three questions. Once a client had a learner’s permit, who was going to teach him or her how to drive? And do you think Manhattan’s aggressive drivers are conducive to drivers who are sitting behind a steering wheel for the first time? And who in their right mind would attempt to teach a person how to drive on New York’s treacherous streets? My questions were never really answered, but I trudged on.
I went to the Traffic Bureau at City Hall and spoke with five people who had no interest in what I was planning to do. After a short conversation with the fifth person, I was directed to a nice lady who told me that she was the Educational Liaison Director. The nice lady didn’t have a New York accent or attitude and was quite interested in the project that I was putting together. She gave me a stack of instruction booklets for those about to take the examination for a learner’s permit. As the conversation was winding down, I asked her my three questions.
She laughed and said, “Good luck; you’re a young man — don’t even try to teach driving itself in New York.” She seemed to think for a moment, “Maybe there are a few kamikaze pilots who survived the war and are looking for work. She handed me her card, “Please let me know how it goes.”
I went over to the auto shop that was five blocks from Scott’s office at Second Street and Avenue B and explained the course that I was offering. Not surprisingly, the guys had pretty much the same questions that I would never get answered. Out of twenty, two volunteered for my class that would meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday for an hour from 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon. That would take three hours a week and left me thirty-seven to fill.
I had lunch with Scott at the Mobilization restaurant and explained my dilemma. Scott was a proud union member and spent considerable time explaining union history and benefits to the guys in the auto shop. The guys had a profound mistrust of most authority, but they were polite while Scott lectured.
I asked Scott if he had any new projects that I might consider. Instead of answering me, he held up his sandwich and said, “Man, this is the best tuna sandwich I’ve had since I went to college. Mom made hers exactly this way: heavy on the mayo, with celery, lettuce on top, and on Langendorf white bread.”
“That’s the way my mother made them,” I replied and pointed to my glass of milk. “Cold milk really tops it off just right. Ah, back to my question…”
“Are you supportive of unions?” Scott asked.
“Not really,” I said. “For a summer job during college, I had to join one; it was an unpleasant and somewhat expensive experience.”
“Tell me about it.”
“My father got me a job as the junior bartender at the country club’s men’s bar overlooking the eighteenth hole. Around week two, the union representative dropped by; Bill, the head bartender and Jim, the other bartender, disappeared. The rep introduced himself and asked for a Scotch on the rocks. He proceeded to tell me about the union — I forgot its name — while he pounded down the Scotch.”
“When the rep left, Bill reappeared and held up a quart bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and said, ‘This was a full bottle when he walked in here. Ah, you’re on the hook for the half a bottle he drank.’”
“Why don’t I take that bottle and buy you a fresh bottle tomorrow?”
“Steve, I’m giving you a break not charging what the drinks would have brought in.”
“Thanks. Let’s see if I’ve got this right; when the rep walked in, you and Jim disappeared and let me get hosed for what that jerk drank.”
“You college guys are pretty quick,” he said and looked at his watch. “You’re off the clock now. Want a drink of your Scotch?”
“Sure, do you want one?”
He tapped my shoulder, “Sure, why not?”
Scott considered my story and said, “So a half a bottle of Scotch and a juice-head union official formed your thoughts on unions?”
“Well, that was my first-hand experience with a union. Growing up, I learned a lot about the utterly corrupt Teamsters Union that was managed by such luminaries as Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa. Didn’t the Teamsters’ pension fund finance a great deal of the building of Las Vegas?”
“Well, there is some corruption within the union movement, that’s for sure,” Scott said. “But by and large, the movement has been beneficial to the society as a whole. But let’s not get into that. What I’d like you to do is post union notices at all of the Mobilization offices down here. I think there are fifteen offices. You would be doing a lot of walking, but you’d be able to explore the neighborhood while doing so. The history of the Lower East Side is quite rich; most of the immigrants settled down here when they got off the boats. I’ve got several books on the immigrant experience that I’ll lend to you.”
“How long will I be doing that?”
“How about a month or so, by then I’ll have more projects for you,” Scott said. “You know, a few weeks ago, I was on an uptown bus and listening to the languages being spoken: English, Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, and Chinese. One bus, five languages.”
Wandering around and getting to know the Lower East Side and parts of Greenwich Village was exciting, if somewhat dangerous.