We walked silently through a giant warehouse at the Detroit Free Press printing plant that housed hundreds of giant spools of newspaper. Each spool weighed about 2,000 pounds and would eventually be placed on the presses to become the next days newspaper.
I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Central Michigan University, and my summer job was being a heavy cleaner at the Free Press. Our job was to mop up thick ink in offices, the lunch room and eventually the floors inside the presses.
We filled our mops with 20 pounds of red industrial soap and water and scrubbed the place down. I lost 15 pounds the first summer. But there was one problem. I worked too fast and needed to slow down. This is why the entire afternoon shift marched me through this giant room past the 2,000 pound spools of paper.
Finally we came to a clearing where a mattress lay along with copies of the newspaper and dirty magazines. A nice breeze hit the clearing because of a cut out that led to the Detroit River.
The men told me to come chill here for 15-20 minutes during my shift. I was 19 years old and taught by my family that hard work pays off. My aunt knew I wanted to be a sports writer at the Free Press and I needed to show that I worked hard no matter the job. Maybe somebody up top would notice.
“Work like you are trying to be inducted in the janitor hall of fame,” she told me.
David, our soft-spoken shift leader with dark curly hair, did not attend the meeting. He wanted to make his men happy but he also wanted to show management he could be a good leader and get good production out of his crew.
He wanted to work in the Ivory Tower, which everybody at the printing plant, called the downtown editorial offices on West Lafayette Street. David wanted to work there because the job paid the same and was less taxing on the body. I wanted to work at the Ivory Tower as a sports writer.
David was a father of two who lived with his wife and two boys on the west side. He showed me how to sling the mops without throwing out my back and I followed his every move my first week on the job. I learned from the best. I also liked David because he didn’t laugh when I told the crew I was going to work in sports at the Freep one day.
Nobody goes from heavy cleaner to sports writer. David believed I would complete my journey and looked forward to seeing me at the Ivory Tower some day.
The heavy cleaners’ antagonist were the pressmen who produced the paper. They’d deliberately step in an area we just cleaned and talked down to us. We were told to keep our eyes down and do not engage with them.
The pressmen had “chapel meetings” where they bitched about their jobs and discussed ways to make things easier for them. During one meeting someone complained about there being no white people on the cleaning crew. The pressmen were 99 percent white and we we 100 percent black.
One of the pressmen addressed the issue.
“If we are going to bring some white boys in here they are going to be pressmen,” he told the group. “They are not going to work with the niggers cleaning up this place.”
Word got back to us and the entire crew became angry and wanted to confront this dude. Once again we were told to let it slide.
I did not.
“I am not a nigger,” I told the guy. “And neither are the people I work with.”
First the dude denied using the term, then later said it might have slipped out once or twice and that he is not racist.
Then he stopped talking, gave me the once over and said: “I know who you are. You are the janitor who thinks he’s better than everybody because he thinks he is going to be a sports writer.”
Then he chuckled.
“I don’t think I’m better than anybody,” I said. “I just know you are not better than me and the other guys on my crew. And one day you are going to be printing my words, wanting to know what I have to say.”
We bickered for a few more minutes and he reached out to shake my hand. I accepted the hand shake.
But before we left I said: “The name is Terry Foster. Remember that name. You will be printing it some day.”
Word spread quickly about our confrontation. Now I had to face David who I swore to that I would not say anything to the pressman. He was angry but appreciative that I stuck up for everybody.
I just did not want to hurt his chances for promotion to the Ivory Tower.
A few years later I got that job at the Free Press and walked in for my assignments for the week. I stood by the lobby elevators when I noticed a guy with dark curly hair holding a cup of coffee.
David made it to the Ivory Tower and I was thrilled for the man.Find Terry Foster Podcast here: