Morel “Mo” Pagano – 1929 – 2016
That was the title of Mo’s regular feature of a column in Inferno, the newspaper I published for seven years. Mo never missed a deadline. That column became a book. After the demise of the newspaper, Mo still had the writing bug. He went on to wrote two more books. He was working on a fourth. Up until the end he never ceased painting and writing.
As promised, here is one of his unpublished stories in its slightly edited (spelling, punctuation and grammar only) glory.
We were members of bricklayers local #7, Camden N.J. I write “we” because there were seven from my family in that local at the same time, three generations: my father, two uncles, me, my brother, a cousin and my nephew. Had another cousin that lived in Vineland and belonged to that local, number 40. Our local’s jurisdiction was Camden, Gloucester, Salem and part of Atlantic Counties.
I became a member in November, 1951.The large majority of the membership were Irish-American from Gloucester City N.J. and were in control. They had enough votes to elect their chosen Business Agent. Members voted every two years. When I joined the union, Earl Richards was the Agent for more than 16 years. I thought he was fair and knew how to deal with both workers and contractors, but a large group of Italian-Americans, mostly of the immigrant generation thought that he favored his Irish friends and slighted them.
It was a good thing at the time to have an Irish Business Agent because most of the union contractors were Irish, J.B. Kelly, McShain, McCloskey and others. It probably helped communications.
The immigrants had a cause, but a major problem was language; it was difficult for Italians to learn and even if they did it was always with a strong accent. Italian vowels are always pronounced in the same way.
The sounds of the vowels are:
a as in await
e as in every
i as in igloo
o as in open
u as in duet.
In the English they have many different sounds. This may be a reason they had a hard time getting into a union. Written test were given, they were hard tests, even the members already in the union could not pass them and most Italians although skilled mechanics had little education could not even read, some could only write their name. These same tests were given later to keep Negro’s out of the union. One of the ways for Italians to become union members was to do as my father did; find a town or city that had a local in a nearby state that had a dominate Italian population, join that local and then transfer. The International card was good in all the United States and Canada. Some bricklayers traveled and went to the states where there was work.
The immigrant bricklayers were usually very skilled and did good work, but in Italy they were not only bricklayers but stonemasons, plasterers, tile setters and concrete finishers. While hard workers, they were not trained for the mass fast production of the U.S.A. Here the trades were separate, our local was only bricklayers and stonemasons, plasterers , cement finishers and tile setters had their own locals. Some adjusted but some still did excellent work but slow. I was on a job when one of these men was hired his work was near perfect, at the end of the day he was laid off; the foreman said: “I hired a bricklayer not an artist“. In contrast the best bricklayer I ever worked with, maybe the best in our local was of this generation, Giacomo Cichetti. “Jack“, born in Calabria, came to the United States as a young man and spoke English without an accent, he was quality and quantity. The saying was; “He has a level in his eyes and a plumb rule in his hands”. No one did more or better work.
On election night the older Italian bricklayers before the meeting would meet at a nearby house and discuss how to get an Italian-American member into some office. My uncle Tom got voted in as secretary, but he took the “O” from the end of his name and became a active Mason, so was of no value to the cause. Anyway he later became a contractor and hired mostly other Masons,
Then later they discovered a very bright and popular young member and with a block vote he became secretary. He was an excellent secretary and a popular member.
After W.W.11, there were trade schools for Veterans with the G.I. Bill, one was bricklaying. Many after completing the course joined the union. As a result the majority of our local became Italian- Americans and we voted the choice of the older Italians as business-agent and he was good, protected and fought for the workers but was a gambling addict and took some money from our union to bet on horses. He got caught. Was banished from his job, had to pay all the money back and could never hold a union office again. He became a foreman with a local contractor. He was smart enough to groom a pro-te`ge` Joseph DiRenzo, the best agent we ever had, fair, honest and a fighter for worker’s rights. He remained in office until his death in 2008.
Joe had some foresight to the future, so sometimes he made a deal where we took something in our benefits instead of a pay raise. Some members complained; the best example I remember was a shop man for J.B.Kelly. He got up at one meeting and in a loud voice shouted; “I DON’T NEED A GODDAMN UNION TO TAKE CARE OF MY MONEY, PUT IT IN MY PAYCHECK”. When he died, he was without any money. The union insurance paid for his burial.
Bricklaying was hard and competitive work. It started with the low bidder getting the contract, he had to make a profit on workers’ production. The general contractor could make a profit on paper with sub-contractors bidding lower than their bids. All contractors kept skilled hard workers (shop men), most kept bricklayers from different locals so they could use these men as union stewards so not to get one from the hall, sometimes the business agent would not allow it, depended on who it was. But the contractor always hired men from whatever local they had the job. One of their favorite things was if the needed one man call the hall for three, before the day was over two were laid off and they kept the one they liked. The union rule was the bricklayer had to be paid for two hours, often a worker was laid off after only two hours. Smart contractors put their foreman on incentive programs so at Christmas their bonus was based on the profit they made on the job they ran. As a result they found ways to get the most from the workers. One of these was after the corner builder got only a few courses on, put the line gang on the wall so the corner man had to work quickly to stay ahead of the line burners, if the men working the wall did not like the corner man when the corner grew small near the top they would pull the line so hard it would topple down some of the corner, this happened to me only once; another foreman, if he had competitive men, put them on corners same time and let them race.
J.B. Kelly had a road superintendent, “Dutch” Henry; he came on the job about 3 or 3:30 with a pocket full of money. If he saw someone not working they were laid off and paid off with cash on the spot. I saw a laborer, that saw Dutch Henry’s car approaching take a wheelbarrow out of another man’s hands. One of his favorite tricks was to fire one of the best bricklayers in front of the men, then in private as he was leaving tell him he was not laid off but to report to another job site in the morning.
The job of the shop steward was to work like every other bricklayer, but to make sure working conditions were safe and union rules were followed. He also collected union dues from each member at the end of the week; he was given time for this. I was a steward many times, most of the times the problems were easily worked out. There was only one time I stopped a job. The section we were to work on was two scaffolds high loaded with pallets of bricks and full mortar pans. The legs of the scaffolds were leveled off with 4 inch HOLLOW blocks, “No one git up on that scaffold, it’s not safe”
“You son of a bitch, I’ve run jobs for 30 years, I know to build a scaffold”
“Fuck you, Nobody go to work.”
Called the hall, Agent came out, said it was not safe, held the job up for hours until the scaffolding was done properly and safe.
That foreman never hired me again and gave me the worst spots to work on that job.
After all the other building trades had a coffee break, we voted one in, 10 minutes at 10 A.M. The big contractors were 100% union and went by the book, a laborer took your order, coffee only, no pastry, no sandwiches and you drank it in place after 10 minutes a whistle blew, back to work. With most of the smaller contractors that were mostly family and friends, we could go down to coffee truck, order what we wanted, sit on a block and talk for 10 or 15 minutes.
While it was usually less tense with the smaller contractors they were sometimes not reliable, some would hold back on paying pension and welfare funds to leave the money in the bank for the interest. Others kept two sets of books and paid their relatives and friends less than union wages.
One contractor would go back to his Village in Italy, recruit good mason’s, bring them here, pay them way under scale.
I was lucky enough to work for two of the best “family and friends” contractors, Romeo Gelsi inc. and Contarino Brothers Inc., I became “family”. They were both fair and never reneged on union bylaws.
Romeo was a union bricklayer that went into business with a friend and they did house building. He decided to expand and do commercial work, his partner did not agree, they separated. He got a school contract in our local, hired out of the hall and tried to run the job but he overloaded his ass and didn’t know what to do, showed the prints to one of the workers, Jake Zimmer; he read the blueprint with ease, (part of the apprentice program is blueprint reading) Romeo handed him the prints “ Here you are now foreman”. Jake was his foreman and he was a good one. He made a profit on every job.
My first job with them was a small school in Vineland, it was a crew of maybe 6 bricklayers, across the street was a bar, at coffee break a laborer came to me;” What ya want”
“Coffee and a bun “
“I ain’t goin’ to a god dam diner, goin’ to the bar”
“Get me a Bud and a packet of peanuts”
Some days Romeo would come on the job near noon and take us to the bar for lunch.
There were times when he needed work at his home, we would do it, he paid us union wages and we drank and his wife, Vange would cook a super lunch for us; family! He was awarded a big school contract and had to hire more men then the ”family”. As Romeo approached the job a bricklayer said to him “Mr. Gelsi, those men are drinking up there” Romeo said nothing, then went up to Jake; “Find out who that guy is and lay him off”.
Drinking on the job is against union rules this includes lunch time.
Both Romeo and Jake were heavy drinkers but drinking on the job was rare. I worked a job for Mobil; their security went into to the parking lot at lunch time, took every one’s name that had an open beer in their truck or car, took it to the contractor, ALL WERE FIRED.
One last Gelsi story, the superintendent on the Cumberland County College said to Jake “I saw the bricklayer up there drinking beer”
“He is one of my best workers, find out what kind he’s drinking , I’ll get it for the other men maybe they’ll do as much work as he does”.
Contarino brothers, don’t know how many there were, I worked with at least ten. Didn’t know their father but he must have had the world’s greatest sperm because his children were all physically strong and mentally alert.
The father was married twice so there was one family my age and older, another a few years younger but they were family oriented and loyal. I had a good rapport with all members of this family, even though all had strong individual personalities.
The father had a non- union house building business established and had his children work with him. When he retired, the boys decided to go union and bid on commercial jobs. But they came in to the union with an attitude, being Sicilian they did not trust any organization but with their “smarts” it was lets wait and see. When they got some men from the hall that served three years apprenticeship and could easily read blueprints and knew how to organize a job not to waste moves and time. They hired them as foreman and learned from them when they ran jobs. In a short time they became 100% union and prospered.
With most contractors, one was a “number” but with them if you worked hard and did good work, you were treated with respect and greeted with personal warmth and consideration. They knew who you were and where you lived, if they got a job near you, you were sent there.
They enjoyed me being an artist and in winter, with the cold weather when we only worked only a few days a week, sometimes just hours, they would lay my off so I could collect unemployment.
“Go home and paint, call us when the weather breaks”
I would call them in the spring; “Good go to this job”. Then I would call my agent, he was a friend but scolded me for not calling him first, then would laugh and say “O.K”
They did not always have work for me so often have to work for other contractors and I would quit them when an overtime fire brick, Glass factory job came around.” Money makes the world go ‘round”. But Contarino Brothers Inc. was the best shop; the foreman, laborers, bricklayers, family were friends and like a all good friends we at times had our conflicts. They were always settled with “family respect”.
Bricklaying is different than other building trades, in most, one measures for whatever point they must meet and they cut the material at that measurement but with small units like bricks you have to make the measurements by adding or subtracting on each course. Example; if an inch had to be made up to reach a height and the brick laid up at 2 ½ inches and you had 16 courses, you would lay the brick up at 2 and 9/16ths and in 16 courses the inch would be made up..
One would think bricklaying could be boring, laying these little units, one on top of two, one on top of two. But it is the opposite, there is constant problem solving. All bricks are different, some soak the moisture and the mortar cannot be spread to far ahead, others dry slowly and move even sink with the weight of the brick on top of them. The bricklayer must constantly be conscious of the weather, can’t work the same when it is damp as on hot dry days. I remember a job in winter that the bricks would not absorb and if you built an corner or lead plumb, it would move forward out of plumb. A clever bricklayer decided to build his lead and lean it in. It fell backwards. On that same job, I was building columns I would go six courses , slowly, eyeing every brick, never using my level then moved to the next column, same thing then after a few hours when they set, go back and plumb them. Some the next day.
Another thing that kept the trade interesting was we worked with many different bonds. Bonds is the matter of overlapping for the construction of a wall. They are made up of stretchers, a length wise brick and headers, the brick in width-wise. Some bonds are English bond, Stretcher bond, Flemish bond, American common bond; a really interesting one was Ideal bond sometimes called Rat-Trap bond, it is laid by placing bricks on their sides having a cavity of 4 with alternate course of stretchers and headers. Then there were Paver bonds and patterns, Herring bone, Basket weave, Running bond.
Masonry is a tradition in our family, my Grandfather was a stone mason for the rail road in Italy, he taught my father the trade, my father taught his younger brothers. Uncle Anselmo was a bricklayer and stone-mason, Uncle Gaetano (Tom) was a bricklayer, foreman and contractor and they taught my generation and we taught my nephew Ron.
There was great pride taken in one’s skills with the immigrant generation there was as much respect for a skilled mechanic as there was for a teacher, doctor or lawyer. Bricklayers wore white overalls, my uncle Tom as a foreman went to work with white shirt, white jeans and a black leather bow tie. White being the color of mortar did not show on your clothes, they even oiled their shoes so the mortar wouldn’t stick on them and show, to be a dirty bricklayer was a disgrace. I did this, my agent said “No mortar on your shoes, are you ashamed to show you’re a bricklayer”. My nephew Ron said “I throw mortar on my shoes, it makes the foreman think I’m working hard”
After the 1950’s there were changes, technology and an attitude changed things. Tradition was abandoned. When I learned, everything was done with hand tools, the bricks were solid. In our tool bag we carried 3 chisels – a point, 1 inch, a 2 inch and a 4 inch closure, and a mash hammer to cut the brick. Now they have a saw and even a ruler that has brick courses marked on it.
I was old school, even was taught to put a board, a nail and a string to mark how to cut each brick for an arch to make all the mortar joints the same width. The last arch I built came already cut in a box.
This could be the story of my life, in bricklaying I was taught the traditional, in painting I had an academic training.
Two of my favorite quotes about bricklaying: Mario Contarino,, a college graduate;” It was much easier getting a college degree than being a good bricklayer”, the other is from J.B.Kelly; ”We never laid a non-union brick.”
One on two
One on two
It took all we knew