It was 5:45 AM when the whistle of the Kaufmann Textilfabrik sounded, warning its workers that fifteen minutes remained until their shift began. The bright light of a summer morning was already streaming in through the thin curtains of the Heubers’ tenement flat. Each of the neighborhood’s many whistles had its own familiar sound, and it was to this one, that Walter had trained himself to wake.
He rose from his narrow bed, moving quietly so as not to disturb his younger brother Erich, sleeping on the other bed against the opposite wall. Erich shifted uneasily and pulled the sheet over his head to block out the light.
With practiced quiet Walter dressed, poured water from the pitcher into the washstand, and shaved. He spread the thick coverlet over his bed, then arranged against the wall the overstuffed cushions which, to his mother’s eye, made the beds look more like couches and less like “a working man’s flat.”
The two brothers slept in the apartment’s main room. Their mother, only returned a few hours before from her night shift of cleaning, slept in the windowless bedroom, isolated from noise and light.
In the kitchen Walter cut himself a thick piece of bread and spread it generously with butter. He took his plate to the table by the window, and drawing back the curtain sat looking out into the street as he ate. Pedestrians and people on bicycles were flowing back and forth three stories below in a gradually increasing stream as the morning advanced. A street car whirred by, the contacts crackling against the wires above. The street view made the Heubers’ one of the better flats -- lacking the sight and scent of rubbish that rose from the courtyards on hot days.
Ten minutes after six. Walter stacked his empty plate to be washed and went to give Erich a shake.
“Time to get up for school. I’m leaving now.” Erich obediently struggled into a sitting position and sat rubbing his eyes.
Walter took his cap and thin summer jacket from their peg by the door and let himself out, locking the flat behind him. It was dim in the passage and stairway. The air had a stale, flat smell -- dust, mold, and the lingering odor of cabbage soup dominating other old cooking smells. The stairs were dangerously steep, although there was a certain safety in the fact the stairwell was so narrow that every six steps there was a small landing and a sharp turn. If someone fell, as tenants trying to go up or down the badly lit stairs at night while the worse for drink often did, chances were good that he would land in a heap at the next landing rather than plunging a full floor or two. Walter thundered down them with practiced ease and burst forth into the bright, cool morning of the street.
Paul Ehrlichmann was already waiting for him, lounging back against the wall and reading a copy of the Workers’ Daily News.
“What’s the news?” Walter asked. “There must be something to make you buy your own copy instead of waiting to get a look at one in the coffee house this afternoon.”
“Someone’s shot an Austrian archduke,” said Paul, holding out the headline which said in huge letters: Blood in Sarajevo!
Walter shrugged. “Isn’t there always some kind of trouble down in the Balkans?”
“Of course they’re trouble. All oppressed people are trouble. We’re trouble ourselves,” Paul replied, with a tone of pride in his voice..
“Come on,” said Walter, starting down the sidewalk. “Call it oppression, but one kind of trouble don’t want to have is being late for work.”
Paul folded his paper and followed after him, but he was not done yet. “What business does the Austrian emperor have ruling over Serbs and Bosnians? No wonder they are fighting to be rid of Hapsburg rule. Join all the German speaking peoples together in a single state -- a democratic state -- and let the Slavs worry about their own problems.”
The press of people was heavy on the sidewalk, but no one seemed to mind Paul’s loud political commentary.
“I thought you said that in the future there will be a workers state with no nationalities,” Walter said. “Why does it matter if there are Germans or Serbs in it?” Politics seemed to provide Paul with the same excitement which Erich drew from the adventure serials that he collected and read incessantly in the evenings. In both cases, Walter enjoyed listening to them since their passion was so clearly in it, but he found it hard to keep the details straight or to understand how they found it so absorbing.
“It’s a matter of development.” Paul was gesturing with the newspaper as he walked and spoke. Walter could easily imagine him with the same gestures, addressing a union crowd from a wooden platform. “We can’t have a workers state without industrialization. Capitalist greed pushes workers to organize, and only then can we move towards socialism. Advanced nations like Germany and France have reached that point. Austria may not be as modern as we are, but a united German state could become a socialist state. Instead they spend their energy forcing empire on Bosnians and Serbians and Croats. Who knows when peoples like that will be ready for socialism.”
“I’ll be more prepared to believe in the workers’ state over beer tonight,” said Walter. “Right now I simply want to avoid being late. Come on.”
The press was heavy on the sidewalk, and even pushing and dodging his way through the crowd he was not satisfied with their speed. After a few blocks he stepped off the curb into the street. A bicycle swerved to avoid hitting him, the rider swearing, but there were few cars and no carts in this part of the city at that hour, and despite the speeding bicycles and occasional clanging street cars there was significantly more space.
“If there was a just wage, we could afford bicycles,” Paul observed, as another rider sped past, yelling at them to get out of the way. “It’s a disgrace that we work at the cycle works but can’t afford to ride one.”
“I was thinking that I might get a raise in September when I’ve been there two years,” Walter said. “And if I do, I’ll sign up to have a mark held back from my pay every week until I can get a Model 12.”
“All workers at a bicycle factory should be able to afford a bicycle. You shouldn’t have to wait two years and hope for a raise. And don’t count on Meyer giving you one unless he has to. If we were all union that would be a beginning.”
Walter did not respond.
It was true enough that Herr Meyer was slow to offer raises. A month before, however, Walter had made a suggestion for improving the jig which held the bicycle frames during assembly and welding. His foreman had led him up to Herr Meyer’s office, a second floor room with a window that looked out over the open assembly floor below. Pride and nervousness striving within him, Walter had explained how his jig design would make assembly faster. With his oversized workman’s pencil he had drawn out on Meyer’s letter paper how the jig would adjust and rotate at each stage of the bicycle frame’s assembly. The pencil lines looked clumsy on the thick, cream-colored paper, and Walter realized with acute embarrassment that his hands were not entirely clean and were leaving faint smudges on the paper.
Herr Meyer had sat nodding quietly during the explanation. He was a heavyset man, balding with only a short-cropped fringe of hair wrapping from ear to ear across the back of his head, and a bristly grey mustache. His dark suit was very clean, his white shirt spotless. Walter had found it difficult to imagine him riding a bicycle, much less building one, yet at the end of the explanation he had asked only one question.
“Here,” his finger indicated one of Walter’s drawings. “How would you hold the rear stays and the welder at the same time?”
As the two men’s eyes had met, there was a moment of recognition: whatever divisions of class and wealth existed between them, this was another man who understood machines and the intense satisfaction of at last finding a resolution to a problem which had nagged and worried at the back of the mind for days or weeks.
“That’s what this clamp is for,” Walter explained, and gesturing and drawing by turns illustrated how the stays would be added to the frame.
At last Meyer had nodded, stacked the sheets of drawings neatly, and put them into his desk.
“How long have you been with us, Heuber?”
“Two years in September. I started just after completing my two years of conscription.”
“A soldier? Very good. You’re not one of these union men, are you?”
“And not from Berlin either, judging by your accent.”
“No, sir. I grew up in East Prussia. My mother and I needed work, and after traveling a bit while in the army I thought Berlin would give us more opportunity than Danzig or Konigsburg.”
“Well, well. You’ll go far, Heuber. You’ll go far. I will look into this suggestion of yours. And there may be a little something that I can do for you in September. Perhaps sooner. Thank you.”
He took a pipe from his desk drawer and leaned back in his chair filling it. Walter and the foreman began to leave. Then Meyer looked up. “Do you ride a bicycle, Heuber?”
“I don’t own one, sir.”
Walter hesitated. “It’s a matter of money, sir. My father is no longer with us and I have a mother and younger brother to take care of.”
Herr Meyer nodded slightly, then shrugged. “My advice to you is to find a way. It will help you.”
Two weeks later the jigs had all been replaced with new ones similar to Walter’s design, and although he was afraid to mention it -- both for fear that Paul would think he was mixing with the bosses and lest he somehow break some bargain with his own luck by speaking of it -- Walter remained convinced that some sort of raise or promotion would soon be forthcoming.
The Meyer Cycle Works was one of the smaller factories on the street: a two-story brick building surrounded by iron gates. Behind it, though not attached, stood Herr Meyer’s house, facing on the next street over. Meyer could surely have lived in a more prestigious neighborhood, and his wife and daughters would have been the happier for it, but he remained where he could stand at his dining room window and watch the workers hurrying in so as to be at their stations before seven o’clock. There he stood, watching, as Paul and Walter, among many others, hurried in at the gate and across the cobbled yard to the factory doors.
The Meyer Works did not have a whistle, but a bell rang at seven o’clock, and the foremen walked the floors looking to see who was already working and who was late getting to their places. Walter was at his post, assembling frames. At the core of each bicycle is a diamond of steel tubing, bisected into two halves by the vertical seat tube. The process of building each frame took just over an hour: Cutting sections of tube. Grinding them to the correct shape. Welding the joins. Throughout the jig held the frame in place, rotating as needed but providing at each step the extra hands that Walter did not have.
There was a regularity at once calming and numbing to the process. Cut. Grind. Place. Clamp. Weld. Turn. Cut. Grind.
By mid-morning Walter had completed three frames and was working on his fourth. Kurt, the foreman in charge of the frame assemblers that day approached him.
“Herr Meyer wants to see you in his office.”
Walter took his foot off the grinder’s clutch, disconnecting it from the drive belt which attached to the spinning shaft overhead, and the machine quieted as it wound down. “Now?”
Walter set down the piece of tubing he had been grinding and set off across the factory floor. Though the floor was open, it was divided into many petty fiefdoms, each the domain of a separate team of workers dedicated to a different process. Mudguards and wheel rims were made out of narrow sheets of steel with the help of large curved presses. Chain rings and chain guards and seat blanks were stamped out. Frames were dipped in vats of black enamel. Women with kerchiefs over their hair stitched the leather covers over metal seat blanks and did the tedious work of assembling spoked wheels. Each of these formed its own workday world, unfamiliar to Walter. Now he walked through all of them in succession and up the steel staircase to Herr Meyer’s office, from which the whole bustling river of production and assembly could be seen.
Meyer was standing at that window, looking out over the factory floor and drawing slowly at his pipe, when Walter reached the office door and knocked.
“Heuber. It’s good to see you again. Have a seat.” Meyer closed the office door, shutting out much of the factory noise and waved Walter towards one of two plain wooden chairs facing the desk. Walter sat, then, belatedly thinking of the niceties, removed his worker’s cap and put it in his lap. Meyer seated himself in his own big desk chair, which allowed him to lean back. This he did, gazing at Walter thoughtfully while blowing out little puffs of smoke.
“You’ve had a few weeks now with the new jig. Are you finding it as helpful as you had hoped?”
“Yes, sir. It’s faster and easier.”
“Your framing team is now building two more frames per day on average. You can be very proud of that.”
“Thank you.” Walter was certain that the reason he had been called up to see Herr Meyer, and the reason why he was discussing the improvement to the jig, was that he was about to be offered some reward: a raise, a promotion, a bonus, his own bicycle. Something more than words must be coming and because of his confidence in this he found it all the more difficult to sit still and wait to find out what was in store for him.
Meyer himself seemed to feel no similar urgency. Indeed, his sense of social nicety demanded that he engage the young man before him in conversation for some time before bringing up the purpose of the interview. Conversing with one of the men (or, even worse, one of the women) who made up the many interconnected parts of the creation that was his factory was something that always gave him a slight unease, and he eased that discomfort by following the same pattern of conversation each time.
“You’ve been with us nearly two years now, Heuber. How do you like your work here?”
“I like it very well, sir.”
“And your family. I believe you help take care of your mother and younger brother. How do they like Berlin?”
“Very well. Erich is able to attend a very good school, and Mother gives music lessons.”
“Music? That’s a very refined occupation. I hope that she is proud of your work?”
This was far enough from the case that Walter was unwilling to lie about it. “She is eager to see me do well.”
“Well of course. Isn’t any mother. And you are a very promising young man. I value young men who understand the importance of hard work. You don’t have anything to do with these union agitators, do you Heuber?”
Walter considered for an instant. It was true that he himself was not agitating for a union, but if Meyer did not know about his friendship with Paul already it would certainly be easy for him to find out. “I know that some of the men are very eager to unionize, but I haven’t joined.”
“Good. Good. Well perhaps you are wondering why I have called you here.” With this understatement, Meyer leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “There’s more work coming soon. I can’t tell you about it yet, but I’m going to be hiring more workers and perhaps even expanding the factory. With that expansion I’m going to need more good men as foremen. And I’d like you to be one of them.”
A foreman’s job. That would surely mean more money. And recognition. “Thank you, sir!”
“It’s a big step,” Meyer said. “There would be more responsibility and more hours, and I expect complete loyalty from my foremen. If anyone is causing trouble in my factory, I’d expect you to tell me, and do anything necessary to put a stop to it. It’s a big decision for you. Be sure. Talk to your mother about it and let me know tomorrow morning.”
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