My friend Al appeared bedraggled as he entered Sophie’s Forge Café at 7:30 on the Tuesday morning in late July for our usual breakfast of the Old Forgers. It was already hot on a day that promised to be stifling, and Al’s usual smile was nowhere to be seen.
“What’s wrong, Al? Did Evelyn kick you outa the house?” Billy Simpson, one of the half a dozen of us who join this breakfast circle regularly, asked, referring to Al’s wife of more than 50 years.
“Too damn hot,” he said grumpily, his knobby knees protruding from his shorts as he sat down.
“Too cheap to turn on the AC, buddy?” chided Billy.
“You know we got no air in that joint,” Al said. It was true; the house was over a century old and had old-fashioned hot water radiator heat and conversion to AC would have been an astronomical expense.
“It’s funny,” chimed in Felix, the lawyer in our bunch of Old Forgers, an informal group of retirees who gathered every Tuesday morning at Sophie’s, located across the street from the old forge plant where most of us spent our working lives. There were a few non-forgers, like Felix, and we let them in; we’re pretty democratic, you see.
“What’s funny, Felix,” I asked.
“We all lived the first half of our lives without any air conditioning, and now we can’t live without it,” he explained. ‘I remember when Sophie’s place had no air, just a bunch of fans. We all survived.”
“And we never had AC in the forge,” I added. “They still don’t in shop areas, where the real work goes on. Just in the offices. What a crock?”
“Never thought about it that way,” Billy said. “We did the real work. And even the supervisors, in their shacks inside the plant, were air conditioned.”
“I used to freeze in summer when I’d go from the shop into the old Jankowski’s office with a grievance. He kept it so cold in there, I’d shiver.” Al said. Al was for many years the steward in the Department 22, where the large forge was located, and he had an ongoing – but working – relationship with the Department’s supervisor, Martin Jankowski.
“But you warmed the place up quickly, I know, Al,” Billy said. “You always had some hot words for old ‘Janko.’ God, he’d get so hot under the collar with you.”
“Awww, he wasn’t so bad,” Al said. “We actually got along pretty good. He could be tough, but he was always trying to be fair and, most of all, he was good to his word.”
“I think he was mainly interested in making sure the work got done and that we did it with quality,” I said, remembering how it was to meet with Jankowski when I took over for Al as steward after Al was elected president of our local.
“Oh Sophie, we didn’t see you standing there,” Al said suddenly, as we all looked up to see Sophie ready to take our order, as if she had any doubt what the orders would be.
“All you old forgers were too busy talking about the good old days to pay any attention to me,” Sophie said, her voice taking on a false note of impatience. “Now if pretty Patti was standing here, you’d sure notice her.”
“Ah, Sophie,” Billy said, reaching over to pat the café owner’s ample hips. She brushed his hand away sharply.
“But I’ll tell you guys one thing,” Sophie said. “I remember those days of working here without AC. I don’t want to do that again. You boys didn’t know it then, but you all got more salt in your eggs from my sweat that dropped into them while serving you.”
“Always said your eggs were the tastiest in town, Sophie,” Billy said. “And we all thought you laid them. Now the truth comes out.”
We all laughed. We Old Forgers could be crude sometimes, and maybe just a bit sexist. My wife would have given me one of here chilling looks if she heard me laughing at this.
“OK, you’re all getting your usual orders,” Sophie said, turning on the heels of her shoes and returning to the kitchen.
Soon, we returned to our conversation about relations in the shop with old Janko.
“It all changed when those Brit investors took over the company,” I said. “Janko got really difficult to work with. He couldn’t settle anything. Everything had to be moved to arbitration. And he was unhappy about it, too. He retired soon after.”
“I know,” Al added. By then, he was president of the union, and every bargaining session became a series of near impasses. “All the new owners wanted was to boost the bottom line and their next quarter earnings report. Quality be damned. Safety be damned. Fairness be damned. The they brought in those union-busting lawyers from Chicago.”
“But they saved the company,” Billy said. He had ended up in management at the company. I think he was brain-washed by their propaganda.
“They raped the company, and the people that worked there and this community,” Al said. “They left but a shell here.”
“Yeah things seem better now that local guys have bought back the forge plant,” I said.
“I hear things are better in the shop now,” Al said. “And the new owners are providing extra break time in all this heat.”
“Yeah, but they even build a modern office building, with a big lawn and gardens and everything,” Billy said.
“But they didn’t put air conditioning in the forge shop,” I said.
“That’ll never happen,” Al said. He was right, of course. It would be impractical for such a work area to be cooled down in summer, but you’d think they’d at least try.
“Just like you’ll never AC that old house of yours, Al,” Billy said.
“Don’t remind me,” he said. “It’s impractical to AC my joint, just like the forge shop. Guess I’ll have to fix the window air conditioner in our bedroom, or get a new one.”
Al laughed, and I realized these few minutes among the Old Forgers had brightened his day. – Ken Germanson