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The Shape-Up -Vignette

Joe Dougherty pulled his coat tighter against the chill morning air. His ears burned from the icy wind that swirled across Elliott Bay. Blowing into cupped hands to relieve the painful  numbness in his fingers he peered anxiously through the locked gate at the head of Pier 2. Beyond it, just visible in the darkness rose the hull of a large cargo ship. 

He reached into his pocket for a lucky and then turned to his partner." You'd think some of these guys' stay home on a day like this, wouldn't you Snapper?" He waved one arm at the crowd gathering in the street around them and searched for a match with the other. "There's at least. a hundred of and more coming," he added, looking over his shoulder. "Not even a fleet of ships could put everybody here to work!"

Snapper found a book of matches in his overalls and reached up to light Joe's cigarette.

"Why don't we try Smith Cove instead?" he suggested, examining the crowd for the first time. Some of the men, like himself were dockworkers by trade. But most were younger war veterans and unemployed men. Many had arrived hours earlier to get a place at the head of the throng.

"Smith's a long way to walk?" Joe shook his Head. 

"Shape-up might be over by the time we got there. Aren't there any ships closer' in?" 

"We could hop a streetcar. There's bound to be less guys out there." I dunno." Joe glanced towards the dock apron. "There's four hatches on that boat--they'll need at least eighty men?

Joe and Snapper weren't the only ones discussing their chances of being hired. Clusters of men huddled over newspapers, scanning the trade section with keen interest for new ship arrivals. 

The sound of sleet as it began to hit the pavement drowned their voices and the dampened crowd moved closer together as they waited for the hiring boss to appear Joe recognized a couple of regulars from one of the Pier 2 company gangs as they filed past him towards the front of the crowd. They would be hired before anyone else.

"C'mon Snapper, let's go. We don't have a chance here'

"Whaddya mean? You were just saying how big that ship was

"Yeah. But with the company gangs and this crowd we might as well be two pennies in a slot machine."

"Damn it ---why don't we get into one of those company gangs? We'd never have to worry about getting hired'

"The day I have to sell my soul for the privilege of working is the day I retire!"

Just then the hiring boss, an ex-seaman by the name of Skiff Hanson stepped from behind the warehouse door and conversation ceased. He had an easy, confident step as he started towards the pier gate. His thumbs were shoved in to the thick leather belt that strained to keep his formidable paunch in place. 

Two large brushes of yellow whiskers spread out from beneath his nose like the handlebars of a bicycle and a faint orange glow marked the butt of his stogie between them. Some of the regulars had watched Hanson make his walk across the pier every morning for years. 

Still they waited nervously. Would he remember their loyalty to the company? Or would he give some newcomer the job today? They studied his gait as if to glean the answer.

"All right boys, shape up!''

As the gate swung wide the men shuffled into a horseshoe around Hanson. I his small gray eves slowly surveyed the men in front

"Damn!" Joe swore under his breath . "We shoulda gone to Smith? "Why?" Joe nodded to a knot of men in front. All had just placed tooth picks in the corners of their mouths "Why d'ya think they're all standing together" Joe demanded." They all went to the same restaurant for breakfast?''

''Don't, clown me, Snapper. I smell a payoff." Sure enough, Hanson pointed to the men with toothpicks." You there --- Number One hatch: deck, dock and hold!"

"Hey Skiff, what gives? Were the Number One gang." It was one of the regulars. Hanson's eyes fastened on him and then narrowed to line slits. "What did you say, Jackson?" His voice was menacing. The man looked from side to side. 

But his partners stared straight ahead as if they didn't know him. Jackson's anger turned to confusion and finally silence before Hanson's glare." Don't ever come here looking for work again, Jackson."

Without a pause, Hanson resumed  dispatch. Calling out the company gangs first, he then filled in with extra men. When all of the jobs were assigned roughly half the crowd still remained.

"That's it boys! But stick around. There's another ship due in late tonight."

"What does Hanson think we are, stooges? There's no ship in here tonight Snapper muttered..

"He just wants to be sure somebody's here when they start dropping like flies" Joe snorted. "His gang bosses don't give breaks. Come on, let's beat it over to Smith."

"Right," Snapper agreed as the crowd hurriedly disbanded ''Before everybody else does!"

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