The Chrysler Building was a beast of brick and steel, a structure which had recently become the tallest building in not just New York, but the entire world. And it wasn't even finished. Manhattan seemed to have become obsessed with constructing these monsters. The world's five tallest buildings now existed there and there were plans for more yet. Anyone would have been forgiven for expecting it to be the easiest place in the world to find work.
Despite the early hour, Sol was encouraged to see there were no other men waiting, though he suspected they'd be along soon enough. He huddled against the wall of the construction site to escape the wind's bite and placed his case by his feet only then realising that he could no longer feel his toes. He promised himself that if today went well, he would get himself some new shoes.
After a short wait, he heard someone approaching and saw a skinny man heading his way. He was nearly half a foot shorter than Sol but his clothes looked a good deal cleaner.
"Damn, I thought I'd be the first in line," the man said as he arrived. "You been here long?"
Sol shook his head and cleared his throat. He didn't have the energy for conversation. "No."
"What's your trade?"
"I'm a carpenter. Carpenters go back five generations in my family. This time last year I was working non-stop. You wanna know how long it's been since I had a job?"
"Eight weeks," the man continued. "And that was low pay, too. Damn near used up all my savings. Promised my wife and kid we'd have a turkey for Christmas. If I don't get a job soon, I might have to steal one. You got a family?"
Sol shook his head.
"There ain't nothing gets you out of bed this time of the morning like seeing your wife and kid go hungry. Sometimes I think if I didn't have them, I wouldn't have the strength to get up at all. My name's Joe, by the way." He extended his hand to Sol who shook it.
"That's a funny looking toolbox you got there, Sol. Looks like a suitcase."
"Yeah, I guess it does."
Sol was saved any further conversation when another couple of men arrived, and Joe quickly took up discussion with them. They were brothers as it turned out—both electricians, both with their own tales of misfortune, neither uncommon. Sol listened to the mundane chatter for what felt like hours, all the time watching the sun's faint glow as it bled colour into the grey sky.
More men arrived increasingly frequently over the next hour, and by the time the sun had fully risen, the queue had grown to over fifty bodies long. There were roofers, stonecutters, plasterers, ironworkers, window-fitters, marble setters, painters... and more than a few labourers. When Sol looked to see the faces of his competition, he realised he was the only black man there.
Some time around eight-o'clock, a large group of construction workers arrived wearing overalls and carrying tools—but these men didn't stop to join the queue. They strolled right past those waiting as though they weren't even there and proceeded to the building site's entrance where the boss unlocked the gate and let his crew inside. Once they were through, he turned and faced the long line of men as if he'd only just noticed them.
"I need a general labourer," he said. "It'll be a long day with lots of heavy lifting, so you need to be fit and healthy. If that's you, raise your hand."
Sol's hand immediately went up, as did every other hand in the line. Sol had the advantage, however, being that he was at the very front, so he straightened up, took off his hat and looked the man in the eyes. The boss looked right at him for a good long moment, then extended an arm and pointed, not at him, but at the man beside him.
"You there, what's your name?"
"Joseph Nomak, sir."
Sol looked to his right and saw Joe's hand was half-raised.
"You union?" the boss asked.
"Alright. Come with me." With that, Joe followed the construction boss into the building site where the gate promptly closed and the two men disappeared from view.
For a minute, Sol did nothing but stare at the gate as though he was considering punching a hole through it. Instead, he calmly put his hat back on, picked up his case and walked away.
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* Next chapter this weekend * Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a si...