Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My Daze at Schrade Cutlery

My days as a bellhop at the Granit Hotel came to a sudden end one day for no good reason. Michael Hopson, one of the three owners of the hotel, would randomly fire younger staff on a whim. I recall an incident where bellhop Matt Harris, blue eyed and blonde, curly haired like myself from Napanoch, was summoned to Hopson's office to deliver an ice cream cone to him. When Matt presented the ice cream to Hopson, he did it with a flourish. Hopson, apparently without any kind of appreciation for the efforts of Matt to entertain, fired him on the spot. Later that same week I was sitting on duty on the stool at the bellhops desk when Hopson passed by. "I thought I fired you," he said. I said, No, I think you mean Matt Harris." He said, "Well, you're fired too."
Since Passover had just ended and it was very slow at the hotel, I didn't really care, so I collected my final paycheck and departed. I had been thinking about leaving anyway so it was no big deal to me, really. The very next day I went to Schrade Cutlery, located then at 30 Canal Street in Ellenville and applied for a job in the knife manufacturing business. I was accepted for a job that same day, after a brief interview. I was quickly led to my new area, given a pair of safety glasses and some gloves and give a short expanation of what I was going to be doing. I still can't believe that after all these years---32, in fact---I can recall almost everyone who worked in my department.
The supervisor was an elderly redneck kind of character named Leo Hansen, from Walden, New York. The assistant supervisor was Frank Ficsor, from Napanoch. Their job, and ours, was to take various blades and springs that were in basically almost the first stage of the process, having just been stamped out from large sheets of metal and heat treated by dipping them in molten lead pots in the department next to ours. My job was basically taking bunches of springs, which are the spine of a pocket knife, and grind them, in groups of ten, by hand, shining up one side of the spring and cutting down the amount of metal on them. Other jobs involved both hand sanding and machine cutting of both springs and blades. There were two women, Christine James and Barbara Waite, who worked all day just putting the blades and springs on pins and flattening the ends to hold them all on as a group. Eddie O'Dell was the porter whose job it was to bring finished boxes of product to the next department in the process. There were guys like Tony Garcia, Al Murdock, Jimmy Bruce, Vernon Stevens, Keith Hymes and a guy named John from Plattsburgh, New York, near where I was born. The work was hard and mostly was what is called "piecework," which meant that you got paid a certain amount for every hundred pieces you did. If a job paid seven dollars per hundred and you did two hundred in an hour then you made fourteen dollars an hour. It was always a battle to keep from making too much money because if you did it consistently you would get a visit from Beverly Buley, who would re-calculate the job and you would end up making less money per hundred. If you did that you risked making the other guys angry because it then meant that if a certain part was re-assessed too low it no longer had any appeal to them and was no longer a viable money maker. Frank Ficsor, even though he was technically management, did a remarkable job of making sure that no one got too out of hand with the money making aspects. It was acceptable to average around fifteen bucks an hour but if you got going too much more above that it would arounse suspicion and prices would go down. Frank Ficsor was a great boss, (he took over as supervisor after Leo retired, shortly after I came on board) in that he would let us get a head start on jobs, and if we did happen to have burned through several hundred pieces in an hour we could go take an extra long break outside, to let things even out a bit. The lead pot guys, mostly black, were usually outside in the sun cooling off from the heat of their department. I mention that they were black only because I am mentioning that on the side of one of their big machines they had a huge sticker that said, "THIS IS WALLACE COUNTRY" in reference to the racist Alabama governor. Funny stuff, funny guys, especially Lou Wright, who once replied to being called a spearchucker, "Hell no, I got me a rifle."
Across from our department was another one run by Bill Pomeroy, from Kerhonkson. His porter there was named Tom, and old Tom had a small and apparently side business going selling knives. To prevent theft the company made it very difficult to get one's hands on finished product. They did offer us a great price on knives but there were always some guys who still wanted to rip off the company and Tom was one of them. He's dead now and the place is out of business so I'm not getting anyone in trouble, but Tom used to sell finished knives by the handfulls to we fellow employees. He would make the rounds with his pushcart, taking orders secretly and by the end of the day you'd have your knife foe a pittance. I remember once Tom got caught by management. He was fired immediately and yet a month later was rehired because he had been there so long and knew his job so well that the company figured that the would just have him back and would keep a better eye on him.
My job was very physical. I began to notice that my fingers were becoming misshapen and hurt all the time. I spent a year and a half at Schrade. It was tough work, honest work, and as I write this all these years later it still is the toughest job Ive ever had. Were it not for the boring repetition and the fact that I was also teaching myself to be a musician as well, and my hands were becoming disfigured, I might have stayed on a little too long. I had had enough though and decided that I needed to move up in the world. I felt like I was wasting my intellect and needed to do something else. I left Schrade at the very end of 1979, after which my friends and I took a trip to Florida. When I returned in mid January, I started my first go-round at college.

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