Ernie, 23, is a musician disguised as a milkman. He's an aspiring percussionist who makes his living in a drive-through dairy. By his own admission, the chores are elementary and tedious: stocking, waiting on customers, giving directions to freeway off-ramp strays, and sitting around, waiting. He spends much of his time at work high on beer, and all of his time at home wishing he had more hours to practice his music. Right now he is making less than $90 a week. If he had stuck with his last job he'd be making nearly $200 a week. But as far as Ernie's concerned, that last job ranks at the bottom of a list that includes three years of dishwashing and table-busing, four months of swamping for a thrift agency, three weeks of truck driving for a paint store, and four on-and-off years of college.
In six months Ernie made more money as a welder for NASSCO than in all his previous occupations combined. It's a job he'd rather forget. (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, Harbor Drive at 28th Street, employs 6000 people. Last year the company built seven vessels, including five huge tankers capable of carrying 90,000 tons of cargo.) Asa Logan Heights lifer, people still finger Ernie as a fool for passing up a salary that approximates three monthly welfare checks. When he got the job he was told by family and friends that he was "on his way." When he quit they told him where — down. He says he doesn't care; his success was accidental but his failure was deliberate.
"People have such a naive view of blue-collar jobs like welding. They think just because you're making almost six bucks an hour that you have to be happy. If you're not, they laugh. Working at National Steel was really discouraging, both to my health and my sense of dignity, however little that means. After a month there I wanted to quit, but how could I? I'd moved out of my parents' house, was living with my girlfriend, spending my money on candy, and trying to forget how much I hated what I was doing. But I just couldn't hack it. I should have quit when I first wanted to, but these people who believe so much in work, in the work ethic, they don't understand if you say it's degrading. They say you're spoiled, they say go out there and work till you kick the bucket; be a man! What they're saying is give me a model I can point to and say, 'look, look at his paycheck, look at his family, look at his ulcers, look at what he's made himself.' Shit!
"I don't think there's anything noble out of making something like welding a career; it's a have-to-thing. Once you're making the dough, and especially if you have a family, hell, you ain't gonna crave for something less. But the truth is, anyone who wants to know what it's like to be a slave should test National Steel. I say that to people, tell 'em exactly how bad it was, and they just think I'm a pussy. After all, that's what life is about, ain't it?
"But what I say about slavery is more like seduced slavery. When I first go the chance to get into a training program at South Bay Trade I thought it would be great. I never could conceive of that much bread, baby. And when I started at the school I thought, damn, this ain't shit. I am a man! But training school is nothing like NASSCO. In fact, looking back, it seems easy, even if I didn't think so at the time, really. Sure they pressured us to do good work, but the conditions were a lot different; there was plenty of ventilation, and the work wasn't half as hard as at National Steel. Everything at school was conventional welding. They'd show you how to do it, give you all the needed equipment, and test you as with any school. But when you got to NASSCO it was chaos. In the first place, the basic rule is: the first 30 days are death-or-life row. They expect you to make mistakes, obviously, but if you do, you're out. The foreman rides your ass continually. You're given jobs a veteran should expect. Welding overhead immediately, stuck in the inner bottoms, sparks covering your body. I was never briefed on that at school. Dangers you expect, do-or-die games you don't and shouldn't. I'm sure people who've been working there a long time would tell me I don't know how to play the game by the rules, but I don't care. No human being should have to face those kinds of hazards.
"Ventilation is the most unending problem. Okay, you got four dudes in a tank the size of a small room with one funky-ass blower. You stick your tape hose into this vacuum and that's supposed to keep you breathing good. But there's always too much smoke. Besides, you're always paranoid that somebody's gonna steal your blower. One time I had set up my blower and this Tijuanero puto took off my hose and ran off with it while I was going to the bathroom. They're pretty chicken shit down there. But it's hard to blame 'em. I mean the place just ain't safe; safety was what you made it. The scaffolds, for instance, were tightropes. I was on a scaffold once and the thing tipped, I almost fell, and if I did I woulda snuffed it. I seen this dude fall 80 feet below the main deck.
"Also, you have to work in the rain. A welder working in the rain is like trying to play an electric guitar in a bathtub. Well, if it's raining and you shock yourself, your brains would boil in your damn head. Bu they don't give a shit. They don't need you. They got a high turnover, they got a lotta kiss butts, illegal aliens, green-carders. It's like a bracero program. You aren't really protected. The unions don't care and their spirits' catching 'cause not many dudes seem to really care either. They just don't wanna lose their jobs.