Wildcat

Doug Donagal drove his forklift off the high dock at the Bottle & Can at 9:43 PM Thursday May 20, 1982. He died instantly. Three hours later, the union announced the first wildcat strike in the company’s history. It never should have happened.

The first thing you have to understand is that contract negotiations were heating up. The company planned to introduce more mechanization and that meant fewer jobs and the union was fighting it like John Henry and the steam drill. We all figured a strike was inevitable later that summer, but Doug Donagal changed everything.

I didn’t know Dougie all that well. He mostly kept to himself, did his job. Outside of work the only interaction we had was when he asked me to look at an old accordion he was thinking of buying for his kid. It turned out the thing was a tank, barely playable. I made a few calls and found him a pretty good student model. It was an old box, but it was in tune, the waxes were solid, the bellows hardly leaked, and it was pretty responsive. The best thing was I got it for him at half the price of the junker he was looking at. Now, I have to tell you there was a bit of a downside to that story. His ex was all pissed off because Dougie bought the kid an accordion. Said it was too noisy, too this, too that, she didn’t have time to take him for lessons, and so on. She wanted him to take it back, but he wanted his son to play accordion. I respected him for that.

Have you ever worked in a place that was close to a strike? I can tell you there was a serious lot of tension in the air all spring at the Bottle & Can. The union and the company were trading propaganda back and forth, the usual crap. I was pretty sure neither side was being up front with us. Then on the Monday of that week – on the midnight shift – a conveyor collapsed, stopping production for hours. By some kind of miracle nobody was hurt. Management investigated and told the union they suspected sabotage. Jerzy was indignant and accused The Boss of shoddy safety practices. Every time I saw Jerzy, he was red-faced and shouting. It was getting ugly.

I’d taken break on my own that night, trying to work out some arrangements for the band, and I got back to my station on the line a couple minutes early. That’s how I know it happened at 9:43. The sound of the forklift surprised me because the drivers never, ever came back early from break. I looked up and there was Dougie on the fork, running full speed toward the docks. He was waving his ball cap with one hand, steering with the other.

It all happened in a blink of an eye. When Dougie didn’t slow down I realized he was going to drive right off the dock, and that’s just what he did. There was chaos after the crash. Everyone running to the docks. Several of us tried to move the machine but it was too heavy. The ambulance was on its way but would be of no help to Dougie Donagal.

Walt Martin – he was the blow-hard plant manager – showed up and started barking orders. I tried to tell him Dougie did it deliberately but he brushed me off, didn’t have time for me. Listen, he said, we’re going to do a thorough investigation. We’ll talk to all the witnesses. Fine. I saw Jerzy and tried to get his attention.

Listen Lazy, we can talk later. We gotta get some mechanics in to look at this fork. Looks like the brakes failed.

Fine, fine, fine. We were being herded away from the scene by the security people. I left the plant and walked over to Ruby’s, leaving the whole mess for people who didn’t see a damned thing to sort out.

By the time Jerzy walked into the bar, I was half in the bag. He went right over to Ruby and said something to her, and she stopped what she was doing and shut off the music.

OK listen up everybody. We’re on strike as of now. We have evidence the company missed two preventive maintenance checks on Dougie’s forklift. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be alive right now. Picket schedules will be posted on the union hotline. Everybody is expected to get out there and picket. There will be no strike pay unless you log your hours on the line. That’s it.

He waved at Ruby, turned around and walked out of the bar.

Hey Lazy.

Hi Stash.

You seen Sabina?

No, she hasn’t been here. Maybe she’s down at the union hall.

Yeah, I wish she’d back away from all that union stuff.

You mean Jerzy?

I guess that’s exactly what I mean.

Hey you know Dougie drove off that dock on purpose?

What?

I shit you not. He was waving his hat and I swear to God he was smiling. He looked like goddamned Slim Pickens riding the bomb to Hell in Dr. Strangelove.

Well, fuck. You told Walt Martin that?

I tried to. He wasn’t interested in hearing about what happened. Same with Jerzy. They’re too caught up in this strike crap, they don’t want to know what happened. This poor guy killed himself and both sides are using it to make hay. Bastards.

Hey you figure out those arrangements we talked about?

Oh yeah, no problem. Ready to go for next rehearsal.

Thanks Lazy. You want another?

One more, Staashu. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

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Lazy Allen’s Top 10

When I gave up making my living as a traveling musician – or maybe I should say when it gave up on me – the whole thing came to a full stop. No more gigs, no studio work, nothing. I even found other teachers for the last of my die-hard students. I never expected to ever again play in front of an audience, though I often day-dreamed about doing just that.

I was an accordion man, a bellows-shaker, and a good one, but by the early 80s the accordion had lost its shine outside of Polonia down in Buffalo and some of the other dying industrial cities south of the 49th. After a decade working at the Bottle & Can, I convinced myself I was satisfied with warm memories of the old life.

Then one day Staash Dudas traded in his Hammond C3 for a Star Concertina and announced he was starting a polka band. A polka band for God’s sake. Staashu grew up on a steady diet of polka. I know because I was his teacher. And I can remember like it was yesterday the day he put the old music down.  I can’t play that shit anymore is what he told me, and he meant it too, so I was plenty surprised when Staashu suddenly fell in love with the polka all over again.

And just who the fuck do you think is going to listen to this polka band of yours?

Kids.

Kids? It ain’t children’s music.

No, not children. Kids. You know what I mean. Like kids who go to bars. Rockers.

Rockers? You’re out of your mind.

Listen, there’s these guys over in London England…

English guys playing polkas?

No, no, no, no.

Well that’s what you said.

That’s not what I said.

What did you say?

I was trying to say, if you didn’t interrupt me all the time, there’s these guys over in London playing old Irish folk songs except they’re playing them like punk rock.

No shit?

No shit. It’s crazy, man, it’s got this amazing drive. It’s like they’re reinventing it. You see what I’m getting at? I want to reinvent the polka.

That’s how the whole thing started, see. Staashu had heard The Pogues. Now, I was flattered when Staashu asked me to be in the band and all, and you know in my day I was the best bellows-shaker around, but I only said OK because I never thought it was ever going to happen. Next thing you know Staashu was dragging me around to all the punker dive-bars looking for musicians. Hell, I was old enough to be their father. What was I doing there?

Now Staashu, I think he’d been thinking about this band of his for some time, and he had a head full of ideas. First of all, and I didn’t know it yet, he’d been writing tunes, buckets of them, polkas, obereks and waltzes mostly. But that’s not all. Staash didn’t just want to play polka music like it had never been played before, he wanted to play other tunes as if they were polkas.

This is where I need you, Lazy. Find us 10 tunes to cover. See, my idea is that every set has originals, classic polkas, and cover tunes.

Like what kind of tunes?

Monster tunes. Big ones. Tunes with big riffs. Tunes with a groove. Dance tunes. Christ I don’t know, I need you to figure it out.

I can do that, Staashu.

I had a mission and I took it seriously. You should know that I know a lot of tunes. I’ve got one of those crazy memories. I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast today but if I hear a tune I remember it. The lyrics too, everything. So I started listening to old music, new music, punk, new wave, folk songs, polkas, rock ‘n’ roll, zydeco, R&B, everything I could get my hands on. Slowly I put together the list I thought we could work with.

At our first rehearsal we started working out with some old school polka numbers: Who Stole the Kishka, Zosia, Buffalo is a Polka Town, Pierogi Polka, that kind of thing. Staashu had found us a rhythm section – Boom-Boom Johnny on drums and and Ndidi Nigeria on bass – who attacked those polkas like Godzilla crushing Tokyo. And Maggie, oh my God I didn’t recognize Maggie. Mind you, I hadn’t seen her since she was a kid and I was teaching her accordion. Now she had a shock of black hair, a black Ramones tee shirt, running shoes and a Stratocaster. And then there was Staashu, with his concertina, red suspenders, pencil moustache, and slicked back hair. Staash was running his concertina through some kind of Echoplex deal and he had it amped up to the edge. Me, I was shaking the bellows, holding it all together. Man, what an outfit.

We stopped for a beer break and Staash asked me what I’d come up with for covers. I started down the list:

In no particular order…

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll by Ian Dury and The Blockheads
Sweet Little 16 by Chuck Berry
You Used to Call Me by Clifton Chenier
Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Most Likely You Go Your Way by Bob Dylan
I knew the Bride by Nick Lowe
Cadillac Walk by Mink deVille
Last Date by Conway Twitty
Goo Goo Muck by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads

Before I could say Ronnie Cook, Maggie screamed, THE CRAMPS, I love the Cramps. I just laughed. I had heard of psychobilly but had no idea The Cramps covered Goo Goo Muck.

That’s what the doctor ordered, Lazy!

One more, there’s one more.

OK, what is it?

I pulled on my big accordion, a signal to the others to put down their beers and pick up their instruments.

Johnny, give me a big-assed polka beat.

He started the groove and I let him settle into it, before leaning into the vocal mic and starting into the spoken word introduction:

Come on everybody
Clap your hands
Oh, your lookin’ good
I’m gonna sing my song
And it won’t take long
We’re gonna do the Twist
And it goes like this….

Maggie screeched into a power chord. Johnny started an avalanche, and we were off.