Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pryvett Rawgers and the Tongs & Hammer Dinner

Every third Monday of the month, without fail, a dreary little man stood at the perimeter of the Package Handling Company, International, parking lot handing out a mimeographed bulletin called The Tongs & Hammer. The bulletin proclaimed in the top left-hand corner that it was an international "workers" publication. There was a mix of union and non-unionized workers at PHC. Pryvett Rawgers was among the non-unionized number. Still, he occasionally took The Tongs & Hammer, if only for a sparse laugh he'd enjoy later on while reading it on the toilet.

International? Pryvett thought the first time he accepted the orange-page bulletin -- printed front and back -- from the little man. Probably claims it's "international" cuz he mails a copy to his Unkle Volkov in New Jackoffistan.

Some of the other guys who took it called it The Yawns & Stammer. To Pryvett's eye, there seemed no reason for the little man to print any editions of the T & H beyond the first because every single issue was identical -- one barely-literate screed after another about how "the working man" was being perpetually screwed by the universe at large. An article railing against credit card companies argued that workers' credit card balances had nothing to do with their spending habits. Another rant, riddled with exclamation points, groused about how workers should be given a clothing allowance on top of their wages because they had graduations and funerals and weddings to attend in the course of their lives. It was the chasm-wide leaps in logic that kept Pryvett Rawgers a dedicated reader. That, and he was a sucker for train wrecks.

One morning, as he pulled up to the PHC parking lot, Pryvett saw that the dreary little man's sign was different. The plastic binder sleeve he wore on his chest usually held a printed page announcing The New Tongs & Hammer is Here!!! That morning, it read Tongs & Hammer Dinner Tickets for Sale!!!

Pryvett stopped and rolled down his window. "What's The Tongs & Hammer dinner? I thought you were its entire editorial and administrative staff."

"Oh no," the little man said. "It's an international brotherhood of workers."

"When's the dinner?"

"On the nineteenth." Two weeks hence.

Mulling the idea that there might be more dreary little men similar to this one, and imagining them all gathered in one room for a "dinner", Pryvett Rawgers calculated its train-wreck-ability. The preliminary quotient for awfulness was quite high.

"How much are the tickets?" Pryvett said.

"Twenty-five dollars."

"Jeez, that's pretty steep. Even for a regular reader?"

"Sorry man, but you know how it is. The Man gets us coming and going. Believe me, nobody's getting rich over there."

"I believe you," Pryvett sighed and fished two tens and a five our of his wallet.

* * *

The anticipation, alone, leading up to the T & H dinner was worth the price of the ticket. Over the course of those two weeks, Pryvett often found himself in the PHC warehouse thinking about how many kinds of awful he would witness at the event. Having worked alongside union guys, Pryvett's assessment of unions was that they sank businesses with wage and benefit demands, while protecting bad workers. For instance, there was a Zero Tolerance policy in effect at PHC for any type of stealing or pilferage. A union guy once stole a motorcycle helmet someone had ordered through the mail. He was caught, and as management prepared to bring down its Great Tome of Rules -- bound, Pryvett didn't doubt, in human skin -- upon the back of the union guy's neck, the union, itself, launched its own offensive upon management. The sum total of half a dozen closed-door meetings was that the union guy was suspended for a week, with pay, and suffered no further sanctions. In a face-saving gesture, the following week, management cracked down on lateness among the non-union ranks, writing up and penalizing unprotected minions.

Extrapolating from the pathetic figure cut by the T & H man, Pryvett imagined the dinner involving line-dancing, beer chug-a-lug competitions, and possibly even a wet T-shirt contest. He also bet on there being some unplanned events like fist fights at the bar and in the parking lot, drunken louts groping ex-roller-derby-queen waitresses and at least one visit during the night by a police riot wagon.

* * *

The Tongs & Hammer dinner was held at the American Legion Hall because the union hall had already been booked that night for the Julius Martov Arm Wrestling Classic.

When Pryvett Rawgers arrived at the Legion, he was greeted at the door by a grizzled man with a gray walrus mustachio and a mullet the color of concrete. "Welcome Brother!" he said and sold Pryvett a five dollar door prize ticket.

One thing Pryvett hadn't given much thought to was how many people might attend the dinner. The hall was packed; Pryvett was surprised by the number of guests. He saw one man dressed in a tight, tartan suit and bell-bottoms wearing a sash that read The Daily Crush. There were numerous men wearing baseball caps, the fronts of which were decorated with flag pins and union badges.

As he got in line at the bar, Pryvett overheard another grizzled, bearded man with a mullet saying, "They're raffling off the Complete Works of Karl Marx as the door prize? What the hell are they thinking? Reading's worse than work! Why don't they raffle off Linda Lissome's sex tape, or something?"

At the bar the choices were simple: Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap and two kinds of booze -- whiskey with ice or whiskey without ice. Pryvett ordered two draughts.

As he took his beers, he saw a knot of people gathered around an eating contest in progress. The food of choice was pickled, hardboiled eggs. A red, round-faced man whose dress shirt strained at the bottoms across his mammoth mid-section was up against -- and handily beating -- a young skinny guy with thyroid eyes and two guys with mullets. The man whom Pryvett guessed was the contest referee had a red bandanna tied around his head, and wore a T-shirt that read: "Union! Love it or leave it!"

Walking away from the contest area, Pryvett was suddenly, aggressively slapped on the ass, nearly causing him to spill his beers. He turned and found a fat woman in black stretch pants and a "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?" T-shirt, who had unnervingly large hands and a strange, leering grin on her moon face. "Nice ass, guy!" she said. Pryvett hurried away.

As he moved around the room, Pryvett saw different stripes of the "old guard" -- guys in tight, tartan suits with short ties, bald, bowling-ball heads glistening with perspiration, and the bearded-mustachioed-mulleted men, wearing bandannas around their heads, or thighs, or upper arms. They mingled awkwardly with the "young punks;" a gaggle of trout-eyed thugs with tattoos on their necks, leading around dull-eyed dates with pornstar bodies clad in tight Shop-Mart dresses. The old guard ogled them heartily and mightily.

There was no assigned seating -- "Hey man, we've got enough rules at work without people telling us where to sit and when to eat!" Pryvett heard one guy say -- and the dinner was strewn along a buffet table. Pryvett figured out that dinner was served when a mass of humanity gravitated from the bar and converged toward the far corner. He got in line and listened to the conversations around him.

One mulleted man with a frightening scar that ran from over his right eye, into his hairline, was saying to a comrade, ". . . and I told that fucking supervisor 'I killed thirty-two gooks in Vietnam so I could wear long hair, so fuck you!'"

A scuffle broke out near the front of the buffet line. Above the numerous conversations going on, Pryvett heard a voice shout, "I'm the editor of Class Struggle Magazine -- I think I should be served first!"

"Yeah, well I'm assistant office manager of Workplace Press, so fuck you!"

Some moon-faced old guard guys in black Alfred Hitchcock suits broke up the commotion and the buffet line continued to move. But it wasn't long before there were more raised voices. By that time, Pryvett was close enough to the buffet to see the bust of a man carved out of butter. The new flair-up involved a man who tried using some of that butter for a dinner roll.

"Get that knife away from The Master's earlobe, you jackass!" someone shouted.

"Oh right, I see the resemblance now," said the scarred, mulleted man in front of Pryvett. "It's Jimmy Hoffa." The man sniffed derisively. "Wonder how much that cost."

"That man's a saint!" shouted another voice at the front of the line. "Hoffa's the cornerstone of this organization!"

"Yeah -- the cornerstone of Michigan and Trumbull!" someone shouted from behind Pryvett.

The voices joining into the chorus of shouts came from up and down the line: "I'm here to eat, not to kiss the ass of Jimmy Hoffa. He's part of the Pontiac Silverdome!"

"I bet it was the Fords that hit him because he was getting too many benefits for workers!"

From the other side of the hall, there went up a shout, followed by a crash, as the front doors banged in around a crowd of men. Pryvett did a double-take, and watched a mob of mullets and tight, tartan suits, beer bellies, jowls and raised arms. Atop their shoulders they carried in a prize of the enemy; booty; sacrifice; an enemy combatant to be waterboarded. On their shoulders they carried a red Prius.

The men dumped the Prius on its side with a loud crash and the rise of cheering voices. A crowd gathered around the wounded vehicle, kicking its roof and hood. Someone caved in the windshield with a chair. The mob at the buffet table converged on the overturned car. The din of voices was deafening. There was something tribal, feral, not altogether human about the roar of celebration and approval.

If Pryvett had come to observe a train-wreck-of-an-evening, he now got his wish. He had witnessed bar fights in his time, food fights in the bleachers of baseball games, even a catfight among dancers at a stripclub one blessed night. But none of the stag party melees, after-the-game rampages from football and baseball stadiums, or even the messiest of St. Patrick's Day celebrations prepared him for what took place in the center of the hall at that moment.

The beating on the car was reminiscent of the sporadic vandalism and vehemence of the early 1980s when Japanese cars first made their challenge at American automotive superiority -- back when a Honda or Toyota was corralled at the State Fair and people invited to take whacks at it with a sledge hammer for a quarter a blow.

Pryvett's practiced eye and honed ear told him, now, that the violence be perpetrated upon the Prius was intensifying, rather than ebbing as the automobile was reduced to scrap. As a seasoned observer of train-wreck-evenings, Pryvett knew he wouldn't last long if the violence exploded outward into a full-on brawl within the hall. As he watched the fat woman who'd slapped him on the ass, earlier, in the "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?" T-shirt, rush into the mob clobbering the car, Pryvett turned to the buffet table.

The lout who'd buttered his dinner roll from Jimmy Hoffa's lobe had disfigured the bust. The authority of its likeness to The Master was gone.

But what if another Master could be wrought from this margarine? Pryvett thought as he grabbed a cheese knife. In a series of deft, desperate moves, Pryvett formed the bust's chin into a two-pronged Nazarene's beard. He overturned the stainless steel salad bowl on its head and formed a mane of hair with the wilted leaf lettuce. He used more lettuce to make the beard and mustachio more prominent. When his impromptu creation was complete, Pryvett hoisted the platter on which the mulleted butter sculpture sat -- marveling squeamishly that it was much heavier than it appeared -- high over his head and approached the mob.

"Ho!" Pryvett called. "Ho! Hey!"

First, a few people on the periphery of the mob turned, and then more did. They looked at Pryvett and then up at his sculpture. At the sight of it, the violence went out of them. Like a wave in reverse, awed silence swept around the crowd surrounding the pummeled Prius and the blows raining down upon the car ceased. There was a flurry of shushing, and then silence.

Pryvett looked at the crowd before him, all gazing at the sculpture he held above his head. He had no idea what to say, but sensed the violence that had just dissipated could just as easily whip up like a flash flood, once more.

"He of the Original Mullet!" Pryvett said, having no idea from where the words came. "He of the Original Mullet wants you to build cars, not destroy them!"

A murmur passed through the crowd.

"Wherever there are two hands at work," Pryvett continued, "he of the Original Mullet -- Jesus! -- wants you to honor their craft."

Pryvett's arms began to quake under the burden of the butter sculpture. A couple of young thugs left their dazed dates to help him. The sculpture was set down gently upon a table.

Pryvett pointed toward the buffet table. "The hands of workers set this buffet table for you. Partake! Partake!"

The crowd of Prius abusers and onlookers moved in a tidal rush to the buffet table.

Mentally, emotionally and physically spent, Pryvett staggered to the empty bar. He wondered, idly, who owned the Prius; who would have brought it to a Tongs & Hammer dinner.

He was distracted from his thoughts by the approach of the burly bartender, who gave him a gruff nod and a stern, admiring look. "I like the cut of your gib," the bartender said. "How about a drink?"

"Yes," Pryvett said. "But could you make it 'to go'? I don't know how long the butter sculpture is going to hold this brood."

"No problem," the bartender said and handed Pryvett a bottle of whiskey. Pryvett was stunned by the generosity. He looked at the bartender wondering if this was a joke.

The bartender winked. "Take it, it's yours." He nodded at the throng around the buffet table. "They're dues are paying for it." He started wiping the bar counter. "And anyhow, that was my wife's fucking Prius."

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