Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Memories of Yemen: A Brooklyn Tale

SANA, Yemen (AP) December 28, 2011— Strikes spread through Yemen on Wednesday as workers demanded reforms and the dismissal of managers over accusations of corruption linked to the country’s departing president.

The strikes are following a pattern. Workers lock the gates to an institution and then storm the offices of their supervisors, demanding new bosses who are not seen as tainted by connections to the old government. So far, the chain of events has played out in 18 state agencies.

From the New York Times

 In 1963, I was working at a small job shop on the banks of the scenic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, by the Smith and 9th stop on the G train. The standing joke among the workers was that we had dumped so much scrap out the window that ships could barely pass through the canal.

It was my first exposure to Brooklyn and Brooklynese. I was milling a piece of steel and one of the men came over and said, “Put some erl on the soiface so it will come out poifect the foist time.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Later we went to lunch at the café on the corner and he advised me to try the “meatballs and pissghetti.”

Once on the second shift a UPS delivery man came up to me and asked if I was the foreman. I pointed to a tall black man nearby. Hmm, I thought—one “white” man in the room and he assumes I’m the foreman. I also remember two young black men from, as I recall, South Carolina, who came up to me one day and asked if I was from the south. Omigod, I thought, had I said something wrong (with the images in my mind of jeering crowds of whites attacking civil rights demonstrators). No, I answered, why do you ask? Well, they replied, you seem so friendly, we thought you must be from the south. It was a challenge to my northern stereotyped notion of white southerners.

There was a strike at the Kentile plant up the street, and some of us went over to observe and maybe help out. The company was bringing in strikebreakers and the strikers were blocking the gates. There were cops on horses, and one of them chased me. It was a fearsome experience—the horse was so big and I was so small. One of the strikers threw a handful of glass marbles—the kind kids used to play with—on the street, and it caused one of the horses to fall and dump its rider. I felt sorry for the horse.

The workforce at our plant was drawn from all over the world, but two Yemenis stand out in my memory. I remember once talking with them about what we might do if our place ever went on strike, and one of them put the thumb and middle finger of his right hand together and shook the whole hand (a gesture I was to see later among Cubans). I took it to mean we would kick ass.

That was almost a half-century ago—but ever since I have held a warm place in my heart for Yemenis. May you have success in your struggle, my class brothers!

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