Nat was a short man, heavy around the middle. He always had a cigarette hanging from his lips and there always seemed to be a long ash that could never shake it self loose. You could always catch Nat on the corner of 35th & 7th avenue before eight in the morning. This was where garment cutters, pattern makers and other factory workers met before they started their work day. They would exchange war stories about their jobs, place bets with bookies and schmooze. Weather permitting, this went on throughout the work week. In bad weather it went underground to the Horn & Hardarts’ cafeteria below Macy’s.
Nat was a connector, the mayor of 7th avenue. He had the inside word on what fabric cutters and pattern making jobs were available. How he knew this and how it came to him was a mystery to me. I would watch men walk up to him, shake his hand then lean in close and they would have a brief conversation. Nat would stick his hand in his pocket and fish around through slips of paper and finding the right match, he would hand it to the person and then the man was gone. Then there would be some male maneuvering, some posturing and repositioning, and then another man would approach. This same ritual would be repeated. It was a like watching the documentary March of the Penguins.
One morning when I went to see Nat, there was a line to see him. It was like waiting to receive holy communion. When it was my turn, I leaned in and told him Louie sent me. He nodded, fished around in his pocket and pulled out some papers and handed one to me and said “go see Big Frank up the street”. In the building occupied by Big Frank, the elevators, like most in Manhattan, opened up right into the factory. When the elevator door opened, there sat Big Frank in front of the cutting tables dwarfing an old wooden desk. I told him Nat sent me and he put me to work with one of the head fabric cutters. Later that morning the fabric cutter and I had just finished laying up plies of cotton tubular fabric that were stacked up really high on the cutting table. A blueprint paper was laid on top of the fabric. This schematic of the graded pattern pieces is used as a cutting guide. On each edge of this paper, the front, back and sleeve and other pieces are folded on the half to accommodate the tubular fold. The fabric cutter is supposed to cut around this piece and not cut off the tubular fold. The head cutter went to lunch and asked me to get the cutting machine ready for him. I did this and decided I needed a little practice to advance my apprenticeship. Without any knowledge of what I was doing, I proceeded to cut off all of the tubular fold.
The head cutter came back from lunch and took one look and noticed all the tubular fold had been cut away. He stood there staring at what he could not undo. A fabric cutters crime scene lay before him. Something had gone terribly wrong. The apprentice cutter had ruined about 500 tubular tops! He shouted. “Oh no, Frank the f**kin kid has ruined the order for Macy’s!”. I can still hear it today as if it’s coming from the next room. There was a long moment of silence. Then Big Frank’s frame filled the doorway. His look cut deep and I knew that there was no explaining my way out of this. As I said before, the elevator opened up into the factory loft. I couldn’t just go over and push the button and stand there and wait for it. I was standing near an emergency exit door that looked like it hadn’t been opened since the civil war.
I caught one last look at Big Frank, he didn’t look good and he was bearing down on me. I pushed and kicked open the door to the emergency exit and leaped down landings over homeless people that were sleeping in the halls. I could hear Big Frank yell down the stairs “ If I ever see you on this street again…*@#*#!…” and his voice faded as I fled out of the building. After that day, I decided to work in Brooklyn for awhile and stay out of Manhattan.