My first job at The Detroit Free Press was as a heavy cleaner at the newspaper’s printing presses on West Jefferson. And I got in hot water because I worked too hard and had a big mouth.
I was young and ambitious. Although my job was to mop ink off the floors of the building I took pride in the job and wanted to do the best I could.
I began my afternoon shift by scrubbing down offices and worked my way to the lunch room. After that we mopped down the floors of the printing presses before the press men came in. It was tough work swinging that mop filled with water and chemicals. I lost 15 pounds that summer.
But here is where I got in trouble. I worked too fast.
We had a crew of eight men and they worked at a certain pace. I’d always finish up my offices before everybody else and waited for them to begin on the cafeteria. My belief is they had to justify to management that their shift was worthy of eight hours of work and eight hours of pay.
So one day, David, the shift supervisor said the other workers wanted to have meeting with me. I meet with the crew and we walked past the printing presses into an out of the way corner hidden by giant reams of paper.
In back was a mattress with dirty magazines. I was told that I needed to come back here and chill for a half an hour midway through my shift. I never did because there were rats back there. But I got the message.
The other guys called the main Free Press building on W. Lafayette the Ivory Tower. Their goal was to work there for easier duty and more pay. I wanted to work there as a sports writer.
I also got in trouble for yelling at a pressman. We were always told to keep our heads down, work hard, and ignore the dirty glances and demeaning words from the pressmen.
I failed that challenge.
One day a pressman scolded our crew, saying we were stupid and that the only thing we could do in life was clean up after him. These were my boys now and I had to stand up for them and stand up for me. I got mad and I broke the cardinal rule of talking back.
“Look mother fucker,” I barked at the startled man. “You see this paper you are printing? I am going to be in it someday and you are going to want to know what I am writing. You are going to want to read what I have to say.”
The dude said I was ignorant and illiterate and would never find my way into a newspaper except as a cleaner or gopher.
I showed him.
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