Issue 13, Summer 1956
Nobody had much respect for The Labor Leader. Even Finkel and Kramm, its owners, the two sour brothers-in-law who’d dreamed it up in the first place and who somehow managed to make a profit on it year after year—even they could take little pride in the thing. At least, that’s what I used to suspect from the way they’d hump grudgingly around the office, shivering the bile-green partitions with their thumps and shouts, grabbing and tearing at galley-proofs, breaking pencil-points, dropping wet cigar butts on the floor and slamming telephones contemptuously into their cradles. The Labor Leader was all either of them would ever have for a life’s work, and they seemed to hate it.
You couldn’t blame them: the thing was a monster. In format it was a fat bi-weekly tabloid, badly printed, that spilled easily out of your hands and was very hard to put together again in the right order; in policy it called itself “An Independent Newspaper Pledged to the Spirit of the Trade Union Movement,” but its real pitch was to be a kind of trade-journal for union officials, who subscribed to it out of union funds and who must surely have been inclined to tolerate, rather than to want or need, whatever thin sustenance it gave them. The Leader’s coverage of national events “from the labor angle” was certain to be stale, likely to be muddled, and often opaque with typographical errors; most of its dense columns were filled with flattering reports on the doings of the unions whose leaders were on the subscription list, often to the exclusion of much bigger news about those whose leaders weren’t. And every issue carried scores of simple-minded ads urging “Harmony” in the names of various small industrial firms that Finkel and Kramm had been able to beg or browbeat into buying space—a compromise that would almost certainly have hobbled a real labor paper but that didn’t, typically enough, seem to cramp the Leader’s style at all.
There was a fast turnover on the editorial staff. Whenever somebody quit, the Leader would advertise in the help-wanted section of the Times, offering a “moderate salary commensurate with experience.” This always brought a good crowd to the sidewalk outside the Leader office, a gritty storefront on the lower fringe of the garment district, and Kramm, who was the editor (Finkel was the publisher) would keep them all waiting for half an hour before he picked up a sheaf of application forms, shot his cuffs, and gravely opened the door—I think he enjoyed this occasional chance to play the man of affairs.
“All right, take your time,” he’d say as they jostled inside and pressed against the wooden rail that shielded the inner offices. “Take your time, gentlemen.” Then he would raise a hand and say: “May I have your attention, please?” And he’d begin to explain the job. Half the applicants would go away when he got to the part about the salary structure, and most of those who remained offered little competition to anyone who was sober, clean and able to construct an English sentence.
That’s the way we’d all been hired, the six or eight of us who frowned under the Leader’s sickly fluorescent lights that winter, and most of us made no secret of our desire for better things. I went to work there a couple of weeks after losing my job on one of the metropolitan dailies, and stayed only until I was rescued the next spring by the big picture magazine that still employs me. The others had other explanations, which, like me, they spent a great deal of time discussing: it was a great place for shrill and redundant hard-luck stories.
But Leon Sobel joined the staff about a month after I did, and from the moment Kramm led him into the editorial room we all knew he was going to be different. He stood among the messy desks with the look of a man surveying new fields to conquer, and when Kramm introduced him around (forgetting half our names) he made a theatrically solemn business out of shaking hands. He was about thirty-five, older than most of us: a very small, tense man with black hair that seemed to explode from his skull and a humorless thin-lipped face that was blotched with the scars of acne. His eyebrows were always in motion when he talked, and his eyes, not so much piercing as anxious to pierce, never left the eyes of his listener.
The first thing I learned about him was that he’d never held an office job before: he had been a sheet-metal worker all his adult life. What’s more, he hadn’t come to the Leader out of need, like the rest of us, but, as he put it, out of principle. To do so, in fact, he had given up a factory job paying nearly twice the money.
“Wat’sa matter, don’tcha believe me?” he asked after telling me this.
“Well, it’s not that,” I said, “It’s just that I—”
“Maybe you think I’m crazy,” he said, and screwed up his face into a canny smile.
I tried to protest, but he wouldn’t have it. “Listen, don’t worry, McCabe. I’m called crazy a lotta times already. It don’t bother me. My wife says, ‘Leon, you gotta expect it.’ She says, ‘People never understand a man who wants something more outa life than just money.’ And she’s right! She’s right!”
“No,” I said. “Wait a second, I—”
“People think you gotta be one of two things: either you’re a shark, or you gotta lay back and let the sharks eatcha alive—this is the world. Me, I’m the kinda guy’s gotta go out and wrestle with the sharks. Why? I dunno why. This is crazy? Okay.”
“Wait a second,” I said. And I tried to explain that I had nothing whatever against his striking a blow for social justice, if that was what he had in mind: it was just that I thought The Labor Leader was about the least likely place in the world for him to do it.