January 4, 2013

Looking back at the search for 'firsts'


Two jobs later, I went to work as assistant production manager for children’s books at Harper & Row, Publishers. Immediately, I noticed that the only other African-American employees ran the elevators, cleaned the building and worked on maintenance.

Unfortunately, like with so many other service jobs in America, they were part of the vast horde of invisible workers, and many employees acted as if they weren’t there. I made it a point to remember their names and to offer a friendly greeting to each of them.

Occasionally, people would say things in their presence as if they really were invisible. If it was something about me that was overheard, I usually got the message the next day. I had my own private intelligence service.

Those were the days when Rosa Parks was too tired to change her seat on a public bus and young students refused to leave lunch counter seats in the South, whether or not they were served or beaten.

Daily headlines announced the beginning of the end for segregation. On morning elevator rides, I was bombarded with questions as if I was personally running the civil-rights movement. “Did you hear what that King person said yesterday?” “What do you think of this Malcolm X fellow?” “How do you feel about a Civil Rights Bill?”

How the hell did they think I felt? I would bite my tongue, say something diplomatic and share a sideways glance with the elevator operator, who was glad that they didn’t ask him such questions.

One day, as I arrived to work, there was a picket line outside of the building. The elevator operators, cleaning folks and maintenance workers — almost all African-Americans — were on strike. I stood on the other side of 33rd street, conflicted. On one hand, I was part of management, but on the other, I was a serious union supporter and had never crossed a picket line before.

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