HERMAN B. AGE 100
I was born in the South Bronx, NYC. When I was 15, in 1930, it was the height of the depression. I read this book by Edward Bellamy called Looking Back. In the early 1900s there was a whole movement around this fellow. I was influenced by him and became a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League. I remember when Roosevelt closed the banks. I went around pasting stickers on the bank doors that said, Closed, will open under Socialism.
The next thing you know, I went to City College, known at the time as the heart of Communism. One day they had a celebration for ROTC, so we organized a demonstration outside. It became first-page news because we had a big street- corner meeting right near the school, and the President of the college comes walking up the hill with one of the Generals who had been at the ROTC celebration. It was a little rainy that day so it is known as the umbrella incident. So the General sees this meeting and goes beserk. He starts whipping his umbrella at the kids. It became a big scandal. There was an interrogation and they expelled 29 or 30 students, including me. So that ended my academic career, fortunately, because I realized I was not the academic type. I didnt go back to school but I remained very active in the Socialist League.
I got a job as a shoe salesman through my cousin. The adult shoes were $3.30 a pair and the childrens shoes went from $2.70 to $3.00. In the meantime there was a strike in Brooklyn in a small manufacturing shop. They wanted someone to work there to find out what was going on. I went allegedly as a scab. But I wanted to do factory work anyway, you know, get next to the proletariat. So they put me on a job as a punch presser. My job was to put a little case on a cylindrical metal thing, press the button, and bang, something would come down and put a design on it. But if you werent careful it could crush your hand to pieces. So they had a safety device that consisted of strings tied onto your hand. Presumably it would pull your hand away in time but it was ridiculous. The crazy part of the story was this. The boss of this factory lived in Brooklyn. And it was just a few blocks away from the headquarters of the Socialist party. So we organized a picket line outside of the bosss home. Here I am working in the factory as a scab and there I was in the picket line. They immediately fired me. I was stupid. They could have beaten the s--- out of me.
I applied for a job as a WPA laborer. The guy tried to talk me out of it because I was clearly intelligent. The first job I got was as a landscaper, planting trees at the base of the Triboro Bridge. Ill never forget my first day on the job. It was late fall, very cold. I was wearing a light shirt and pants. So we were at the waterfront with the cold wind blowing. In order to plant the tree you would dig a hole maybe four or five feet in diameter and four feet down. But you wanted to create enough of a hole so you could get down out of the wind! So it was here that I got a big lesson in Capitalist justice. There was an organization called the Workers Alliance for WPA workers. One of the things I had to do was organize a union on the project. I got a dozen guys together and we organized our own branch of the Alliance. I was appointed as the Shop Steward. Remember we were under the New Deal and had adopted all kinds of laws about collective bargaining. So I am on the job for about 10 minutes when I am pulled into the office and fired. But I knew my rights. So I went down to the central office and there I met some young guy. I tell him my story and he is outraged. He picks up the phone and he says you go back to work. So I was reinstated. I am working on the job for about a half hour and I am called into the office again. I was transferred to Pelham Bay where they were putting in bath houses. I had to lift and carry concrete bags that were 99 pounds each. There is always one guy in the crowd who wants to show everyone how great he is, so one guy wanted to lift two sacks at once. He would proudly take two sacks.
To cut everything short, what happened with me was, I worked in a factory, and realized that no human being could stand this grinding, repetitive, monotonous work. I knew that I needed to become a skilled laborer in a job that would allow me to find work anywhere. I decided to become a machinist and toolmaker. Generally a toolmaker works with solid metal. You work to very precise dimensions to within a thousandth of an inch. I got very good at it. I went to Detroit and got a job as a toolmakerthe demand for skilled workers was great at that time--and started a chapter of the Workers Party which is a left-wing Socialist Trotskyite organization.
When the war came to an end, so did this idea of a Socialist revolution. In 1960 I organized what became a nonprofit organization called the Association for Union Democracy. For the next 40 years that was what I did, although I made a living in other ways. I am still on the Board of Directors. It is still active; I am still involved. I get calls; I give advice. I participate in the meetings by telephone.
Most important to me now is to avoid becoming an invalid who cant
take care of himself. My immediate objective is to live long enough, at
least nine months, so my wife Cheryl will be entitled to my Social Security.
I have a petition in to get her permanent status (she is from Grenada).
It would enable her to get my Social Security income and to get her citizenship.
Interview conducted by New Jersey artist Janet Boltax
for this exhibition.