IT'S ALL CHAOS
© 1996 by Hugh Aaron
"Dear, dear Julian,
You will find Allan Ackerman, the bearer of this note, intelligent, trustworthy and hard working, the sort of young man who would be of immeasurable value to you in your thriving enterprise. Having just returned from the war, he's had his fill of horror and man's inhumanity. You know how impossible it all is, dear, even without war. Now he wants to build a future for himself in a secure and challenging organization. Poor searching boy. I know you'll give him your utmost consideration.
Love to Carol and a double portion to you,
Julian Martin Brodsky tossed the letter on his vast, bare mahogany desk, whose top resembled an airport runway. He tilted back in his soft-cushioned, black velvet, high backed executive chair.
"What are you good at Mr. Ackerman?" he asked, making a tent of his hands. He wore a white shirt with gold cuff links; his shaven face was powdered, pocked and pasty.
"A lot of things," I replied, seated stiffly across the runway. Behind him was a large factory window that looked across the Illinois Central tracks to the busy highway beyond that bordered a length of Chicago along Lake Michigan.
"That's not what I asked," he said gruffly, raising his bushy eyebrows and staring into me with watery eyes. "How much do you know about business?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid," I said meekly.
"Good. You have no preconceived notions. Then I take it you're prepared to start at the bottom?"
"I think so, sir."
"You think so? Either you are or you aren't. Which is it?"
"Just so long as I have an opportunity to advance," I said, shifting awkwardly in my chair.
"The goddam trouble with your generation is you expect to start at the top. You think in a year you'll be ready to move into my job. Ain't that right? Do you have any idea what it took to get to where I am? Hell, you don't have the vaguest notion. Of course you don't."
He rose and walked to a bar along the wall behind me. I could hear the ice cubes clink as he poured himself a glass of scotch on the rocks even though it was only ten in the morning.
"Well, whaddya say? How'd you like to sit where I am?"
I studied the thick beige wall-to-wall carpet at my feet searching the pile for the safe answer. The office was quiet save for the dull background rumbling of machines on the floor above.
"Someday, Mr. Brodsky, I think I'd like that."
After quaffing his drink as if it were no stronger than Chicago's chlorinated water, he poured another.
"Then be my guest," he said crinkling his face into a smile and extending both arms out from his sides, palms up. "We'll find out how good a judge of character Bessie is, won't we? OK, seven tomorrow morning, report to fifth floor. You'll start as a stock boy."
Bessie was the kind hearted, wacky wife of the director of the boys camp where, only a few months after my discharge from the army, I was a counselor during the summer of 1946. She and an older fellow counselor, Kirk, who was a social studies instructor at the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, took a special interest in my then uncertain future. I returned from the war in a quandary and bitter over three "wasted" years. I felt "old". Should I enroll in college or immediately take up a career.
"I feel in a hurry," I had told Kirk. "I've got to get started at something - stand on my own feet. I'm almost twenty-two, just when most kids are graduating college."
"Look, I'm twenty years older than you," Kirk said, in his firm, measured way. "From where I stand two or three years one way or the other don't matter. Sure, many of your classmates may be kids, but because of your maturity and experience you're bound to get more out of your studies. You'll be a model for them."
Kirk's advice notwithstanding, I had my fill of discipline in the Army and college seemed to be only more of the same. Bessie's advice had impressed me: "Dear boy, taste the bitterness and sweetness of life first before deciding on a direction. Few of us end up doing what we studied for in college. Life is a constant muddle, don't you know. It's all chaos."
The stock room occupied an entire factory floor, a maze of shelves brimming with an endless variety of lampshades in all shapes, sizes and materials - from paper to silk. Jerry, a vigorous, tall, rod shaped man in his thirties was in charge. He screamed orders and rushed from one place to another as if attached to a rubber band.
"Who says you're a stock boy? JB? What does he know? You're an order picker, see. Stocking the shelves is only a minor part of your job. Homing pigeon, that's you - after you know where things are you'll go after 'em without even thinking. See that stack of shades there. Learn where each item belongs. Don't waste time. Go to it."
In a few weeks I became top man in the department. I organized my itinerary through the rows in advance and never backtracked.
"You're a fuckin' homing pigeon all right," my boss said after giving me a raise. "I'll scream if they take you away from me."
I knew that Mr. Brodsky had other plans for me. After three months he made me the manager of the silk lampshade division on the fourth floor, which produced five thousand of the company's daily total of thirty-five thousand lampshades.
"Now don't let this go to your head," Mr. Brodsky cautioned. "This is just a trial to see how well you handle responsibility. I'm appointing you against Jim's advice; he doesn't think you're ready. Says you're still a kid - which you are but…Well, just don't let me down."
He sauntered to the bar and poured a scotch on the rocks. It was only eleven in the morning.
Jerry had no use for Big Jim, the plant superintendent and number two man after Mr. Brodsky. "He's all for himself, bad for everybody else," he warned. Big Jim's hulking body was shaped like a watermelon with a small cantaloupe for a head perched on top. When puzzled, he had the habit of squinting his tiny bird like eyes into the distance.
The silk lampshade department manufactured the Rolls Royce's of the entire line. The department, taking up half a factory floor, was a bright and colorful. Eighty women worked there. They cut the fabric from patterns on vast tables, stitched it together on a battery of sewing machines, fitted it onto steel frames, applied the trimming and finally wrapped the completed shade with strips of shiny cellophane.
The women were proud of their classy department. They hummed the popular songs that blared from the plantwide PA system. The women were supervised by two competent foreladies, Helga, a sour old timer, and Jan, a young, dark, green eyed beauty with high cheekbones and a rousing figure. Since neither had a family, their work was the most important thing in their lives. I was lucky to have them.
September 1947 was a heady time to be in Chicago, especially on the South Side around the University where I lived. There was a freshness and excitement everywhere. It emanated from the trees that lined the streets. Gusting breezes, still tinged with the warmth of summer, tore at the leaves that had begun to turn yellow and brown. Streams of students making their way to class, their arms laden with books, jammed the sidewalks.
Kirk found me a room with the Kilbourn family on 57th Street near Kimbark. Mrs. Kilbourn was delicate, in her mid fifties. Mr. Kilbourn, a tall, slender man, smiled but rarely spoke. Kirk, himself, lived in an airy old-fashioned apartment nearby on 59th. The building was an elegant, imposing three story Victorian era affair.
Filled to the brim with low apartment buildings yet quiet and peaceful most of the time, the neighborhood was an island of affluence and primness extending from 57th Street to the Midway north and south and to Cottage Grove and the Lake east and west. Beyond them Chicago roiled and pounded. Well to the north, off Michigan Ave, was the lampshade factory.
"Dear boy," Bessie Lightman had said, "there's too little time for formalities and pretense. I am what you see. Just call me Bessie." Though some counselors took her for a "screwball", Kirk, the camp's tennis counselor for six years, said she was "really all heart."
I wrote Bess Lightman: "Dear Bessie, I want to thank you for recommending me to Mr. Brodsky. In less than three months, I've been made manager of a small division in the factory. Despite his bluntness, I like him. But I do have a few reservations. He tends to drink too much. I suspect he has some personal problems. Should I be concerned about these matters? I know you'll level with me."
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