THE GAS STATION on 100th street is a Clark station. Clark only sells premium gas. But then Dave Rysky always went first class. It is located in a working class Catholic area where Polish fathers like Dave's wake up at six for the day shift in the steel mills, only to swing 3-11 next week and nights the week after; still swinging after twenty-five years on the job. Dave doesn't see his father much. It's a mostly Polish and Eastern European neighborhood of second and third generation, with a few Irish and Italians and a Mexican contingent bordering to the north. The surnames are Polish; names like Rysky and Czarobski and Rybicki and Dombrowski; Poles who say da and dere for the and there because there is no th sound in the Polish language of their forefathers.
They live in the shadow of the steel mills; U.S. Steel and Republic Steel and Wisconsin Steel on 106th street and Inland Steel and Youngstown Steel and Tool. More steel is made in Chicago than in any other city in the country, and that's something to be proud of. At night the sky turns red when the mills fire up and the whole South-East side of Chicago glows red for a few minutes. If the atomic Armageddon ever comes, South-East siders will think that it is just another big fire-up. The yellow street sign dimly reads 100th street through the caked slag dust pollution and snow falls gently tinged with red from the mills. It is winter vacation, and I am going to see an old friend.
Dave's neighborhood sprouted Wallace signs in 1968; the man with his greased hair looked like a steel worker, tough and uncompromising. They still grease down here; both the fathers and sons; flat-tops with fenders, massive Presley waves, or just a straight comb back. They drag race; '65 Chevies and second-hand Firebirds instead of the old '57 Chevy. They take pills and smoke a little dope and a few drop acid; but most of all they drink. They drink in bars or in alleys; beer after beer; shaking it hard to get a better lift. They wear Italian cut shoes and gaudy shirts and tight pants and they play basketball in Converse All-Stars with purple shoe-laces; an acquired habit from the blacks to the north. Downtown Chicago is virtually an unknown quantity; they buy at Lester's and Gasmans and the supermarts and the small delis.
Dave Rysky went to Our Lady Gate of Heaven, an ancient Catholic grammar school with nuns who beat wrong-doers and sinners and then Chicago Vocational School; CVS where Chicago Bear linebacker Dick Butkus went; a 5,000 pupil vocational school with print shops, auto shops, welding shops. Dave took auto shop, always wanted to, ever since I first met him in June of 1966.
We caddied together at a lake front country club to the north, both eager for money, we carried doubles, two golf bags simultaneously, 54 holes a day, all summer and spring and fall week-ends for 3 years. I worked for an incomprehensible college education somewhere in the future and a pair of black levis and a new pink shirt; and Dave worked because mother made him; they were building a new garage in the back of the $21,000 one-story home and she wanted the money and if it rained and Dave didn't bring home enough she beat him until his lips cracked. And now I was going to see him at the Clark station on 100th street and I went to Harvard and he pumped gas and it was all so absurd because he was caddy of the year twice and I was just a not-so-close runner-up. We called him melonhead then or just plain 'melon' because his older brother who was in the state funny farm at Vandalia had an outsized head and the name was passed on.
We became friends because we both came to the golf-course early; 5:30 in the morning to get the early jobs and jump on the other caddies. I forced myself to work five days a week: Dave worked six and got more points and a plaque at the caddy banquet at the end of the year. We caddied a lot together laughing on the tee when the golfers weren't looking, stealing golf balls from behind the screen on six, making faces at the old rich women on Ladies Day, wondering what size tip we would get, and joking with the Rock: Rocco Stiliciano, the middle-aged caddiemaster who loved us both and who we loved.
When the well-meaning businessmen who drove in from the suburbs to golf asked us if we wanted to go to college we said yes, but Dave privately confided that he didn't really want to. And Jerry Kruskowski who lived down Dave's block and went to St. Francis in the shadow of the expressway laughed and said that he didn't either. Maybe they would go into the army together Dave said, and laughed. Jerry's brother was in Nam and high school was a bore; geometry boring and math and no one cared anyway, not their parents or the teachers or anyone and they cut a lot and came to work and Dave's mother was glad because you don't get paid for going to school and Dave had to pay room and board even though he was only 15 years old. And so he worked all summer and when it got too cold to caddy he worked in Grocerland until 10:30 at night; no time for homework and the next day back to school and on and on just like his father picked up steel in the crane at Republic day after day for a quarter century for $5.13 an hour, $5.31 nights and a gold watch and thank you after another quarter century.
And I went to a city high school, more academic and not vocational, not too god but my father went to college and so I would. And I brought historical novels to read in the early hours at the gold course before the golfers went our while Dave read comic books and Playboy. I took SAT's and got decent grades and played some football and did all the right things and got into Harvard and went. And Dave pumps gas on 100th street and when I asked the gas station owner where Dave was he said that Dave quit the gas station; that we works for U.S. Steel now like he knew in his gut he would when he was eight years old. And he'll get drafted and go to Nam and maybe die or come home and go back to the mills and marry a secretary and watch TV and bowl and he knows more about what a lie social mobility is than do many college professors.
I could go on: America has failed Dave Rysky and the white working class just like it has failed the black ghetto residents to the north that Dave and his friends profess to hate so much. America educates and manipulates some people for college and others for steel mills and does not care to give everyone an equal chance. And middle and upper class liberals at Harvard and Stanford and NYU and all over call the Dave Ryskys bigots and Wallaceites and ethnics and racist fools. I could go on about how wrong anti-blue collar racism is and how in its elitism, arrogance and pathetic lack of any kind of understanding it is no different than the anti-black racism of an illiterate, backwater Southern sheriff. I could go on about how it is important to reach an understanding of the emptiness, and how hate all-too-often gives a perverted sense of meaning to the life of a steel-worker.
I could go on about how Dave lost the best years of his life to the golf course and the grocery store and the gas station and now the mills. How every little pleasure means so much to him, like a one-day trip to the Indiana dunes, how he is so much more a man than most summer special seminar and camp-attending college students probably every will be; and has been since he was fourteen years old. I could go on, but I feel clawing desparation. Because now I go to Harvard and Dave works for U.S. Steel and we are irrevocably apart and I can't really call him and for a while the class structure broke down and we touched and we were two kids telling dirty stories and swearing together and working and laughing on the green fairways but now we are broken and what will become of us?