At 7:30 PM the electric bells rang throughout the Meyer Cycle Works, signalling the end of the day. The flowing order of the factory, each task repeating within its area as the bicycles gradually made their way to completion, shuddered to a stop. The sounds of machinery decreased and that of talking because audible in the new quiet, as workers finished their last task, stepped away from their stations, and began to move towards the workers’ room where they would gather their things and disperse into the streets.
Walter took a little longer than others that night. He took the frame he had been working on from the jig, set everything in its place, and wiped down his machinery and tools with a rag. All afternoon Herr Meyer’s offer, and his argument with his mother over it, had been playing through his mind.
When the foreman position was first offered to him, the future had gone through one of those sudden realignments of which the mind is capable. Prior to walking into the office, his expectations of the future had been some form of the present continuing on for a time and then, at some hazy point in the future, things getting better in some as yet indeterminate way. The offer had given the future distinct form and by the time he was walking down the metal stairs from the office to the factory floor a future of Walter As Foreman already stretched out with clarity before him. Consulting his mother seemed a right and proper thing to do, a deference to authority appropriate to someone now taking on authority himself, but he did not imagine that formality in any way impeding his progress.
He had now had five more hours of work during which to think about his mother’s opposition. He was no less sure of his intent to take the foreman job, but the argument had added an urgency to his desire. The promotion had shifted from being something that would happen to something that he was ready to fight for, and something he would feel a failure if he did not achieve. All afternoon, as he worked, he had formulated arguments -- sometimes actually voicing them in an undertone as he worked -- and as he stepped out of the factory doors and walked across the cobbled yard to the gates, his desire to discuss the promotion, to voice the arguments, to share his feelings, and to examine the situation from every angle, was overpowering.
It seemed strange that for the rest of the world it was an ordinary workday. Food sellers were crying their wares in the street. Three women workers were dashing for a streetcar, their bags of knitting encumbering them as they ran. Paul was on the sidewalk, leaning against the factory yard fence, his cap pulled down against the evening sun. He pushed off as Walter approached him.
“I’m starving. Steiber’s as usual?”
Walter agreed and the two pressed aboard a crowded streetcar. With the familiar crackling buzz of the contacts against the wires overhead, the streetcar gathered speed. The passengers were packed shoulder to shoulder, and at turns were pressed into a sort of unwilling embrace. Still, Walter could wait no longer.
“Herr Meyer called me into his office today,” he said, and launched into a description of the interview. Paul pressed his lips together and did not reply, making him a less than satisfactory target for Walter’s enthusiasm, but he kept his own council until they reached the beer hall which was their destination.
The Steiber chain operated two dozen beer halls scattered through Berlin’s working class perimeter. All shared the family name displayed in large gothic letters painted above the door, the same acceptable but undistinguished straw-colored lager, and the weeknight offer of a free sandwich with each half liter of beer. It was not intended that patrons should stick to this thrifty diet. To reach the cold cut table, the two young men had to pass several other serving tables. The pile of sausages in their chafing pan had each been broiled to a crusty, glistening brown which was exceeded in appeal only by their smell and by the woman standing ready to serve them, who smiled at Walter while displaying a bosom at which he could not resist staring. Whoever had assigned the servers had done his work. The woman who stood behind the cold cuts table was neither so cheerful nor so endowed, and when Paul and Walter showed their freshly drawn mugs of beer and asked for the complimentary sandwiches, her look became more sour as she slapped together the small, open-faced, ham sandwiches to which the purchase had entitled them. They retired to a table where they took turns with the pot of brown mustard, each spreading his sandwich with a thick layer of it before demolishing it in a few quick bites washed down with beer.
“I don’t like it,” Paul said, as he licked the traces of mustard from his fingers. “It’s a bribe. They see you’re good and they want to make sure you’re on the side of the bosses, not the union. Tell Meyer where he can put his foreman’s job.”
Walter’s pride at being offered the promotion was stung again, but he held back from responding for a moment, considering his words. Paul could be quickly worked into a passion on any topic relating to the union, and he wanted at all costs to be persuasive.
“Look here: Someone has to be a foreman. Aren’t we all better off if the foremen are reasonable men, people who know tools and designs, and who will give everyone a fair chance? Everybody suffers when we get someone like Max -- shouting at people all the time and writing up anyone who comes in the slightest bit late from lunch -- or Peter who’s always slipping away from the line to talk to the women and try to pinch some girl’s ass. Wouldn’t you rather see me as foreman instead of someone like them?”
Paul shook his head. “It’s all a trick. Foremen are just another tool for the owners to exploit. Meyer will offer you a few extra marks a week, but the real profits are all still his. Has he even told you how much he’s offering you?”
This stung, but Walter had to shake his head.
“See? It’s a bribe and a cheat. Say Meyer asked you up to his lofty perch and said, ‘I’ll give you five extra marks a week if you’ll promise not to join the union,’ would you accept him?”
“He didn’t ask me that,” Walter replied, beginning to feel heated.
“But say he did. Would you take it?”
“I’m not answering some damned what-if. Meyer didn’t offer me money to stay out of your union. He offered me a job as a foreman because I know my work.”
“All right.” Paul spread his hands out, calling for calm. “I’m sorry. Here, if you’ll buy two more beers I’ll get us each one of those sausages. Is that fair?”
Walter nodded and they dispersed for a moment. Stepping away made him instantly calmer, though he regretted that Paul had reserved to himself the task of going to the sausage girl. He returned with two brimming mugs and another pair of free sandwiches and set them next to the sausages Paul had bought. For a moment the food occupied them quite happily.
“Buy me a drink, will you, boys?” One of the beer hall girls stood beside the table. She looked to be no more than sixteen, but trying hard to look older in a way that did not yet fit well with her. Already she had the flush of several drinks.
Walter knew that for men with their limited means, taking up her offer would at most mean ten or fifteen minutes flirting in return for another round or two of beer -- including the half size but full price mugs the beer hall girls drank -- but he couldn’t help looking her up and down before replying.
“We’re just having a quick dinner,” Paul said, waving her on. “That is a perfect example,” he went on, after she had moved to the next table. “If the beer hall were run by its workers, if it were managed as a cooperative on rational and orderly principles, would young girls be made to go around asking men to buy them drinks?”
Walter shrugged. “I wish I could make a living by drinking beer.”
Paul was not to be put off. “She probably thinks that she’s better off than the honest woman who broils the sausages. If she smiles and winks enough at men who’ve already had too much to drink, and lets the richer ones feel her up a bit, she probably makes better money too. But she’s not doing any real work. She exploits the customers and for her trouble the owners give her a fraction of the money she’s earned them. When the whole rotten system comes down she’ll have nothing. It’s the same with a foreman: He doesn’t do any real work. He exploits the workers on behalf of the owners and gets some scraps from their table. But there’s no need for him any more than there is for the owners.”
“Sure there’s a need for him. It takes at least a month for a man to become a good framer, and during that time who is it who teaches him how to do his job and makes sure his mistakes don’t result in a shoddily made bicycle? The foreman.”
“None of which is work that an ordinary senior worker couldn’t do if the factory wasn’t artificially divided into workers and management. In a proper cooperative factory, the workers who knew their work the best would still teach those who were new. But they would all be working to the same ends instead of working against each other. Tell him ‘No’, Walter. Don’t let Meyer turn you into an enemy of the other working men.”
Walter was staring at a nearly empty mug of beer. “I should be getting home,” he said, draining the last of it. He knew that there was no outlasting Paul when he was in this sort of mood, and he enjoyed his company too much to want to fight with him, but each argument made him more resentful. Surely, if Paul’s own abilities lay in understanding the actual work better than other men, if he could teach others his job and find ways to improve the process and the tools, if his strength was anything other than the ability to form a bigger group of workers with the same resentments, then he would understand the value and allure of that word: management. The promise of money and respect due entirely to his expertise.
“Why don’t you come back to the flat?” Paul asked, cutting through Walter’s thoughts. “Berta will make us some coffee, and she can tell you about the workers’ outings she’s organizing.”
The Ehrlichmanns’ tenement was a few blocks from Walter’s own and the flat itself was similar, though the furnishings were a more seedy and random collection. The brother and sister had come to Berlin with nothing but their suitcases. There were no threadbare pieces from the long remembered home in East Prussia here but rather the leavings of others who had moved on and what could be purchased third or fourth hand. Rather than lace-edged muslin, the curtains that kept out the evening’s gathering dark were quite obviously an old bedsheet -- patched, cut and hemmed.
Berta greeted Walter and her brother at the door, giving Walter a firm handshake. As she brought the spirit burner, coffee pot, grinder and three mis-matched mugs to the table she told them about the doings in the emery factory in which she worked. A girl had been fired that day for becoming pregnant.
“She put on all sorts of airs when the shift boss took her off the line and bought her jewelry. He’s a married man, though, and when one of his girls gets pregnant it’s out she goes and his eye starts roving again.”
Walter half-listened as he watched her make the coffee. Her movements were rapid and business-like; in no sense were they performed to catch his eye. Yet his eye was caught and he devoted more attention to the way her shoulders tensed as she worked the grinder and the strand of hair that fell along the side of her face than he did to her description of the injustices at the emery factory. Berta was friendly enough on the occasions when they met, but never more than friendly. Even so, her intensity, and her wide, often smiling mouth, were attractive to him, and he made an effort to see her whenever practical.
He realized that Paul was watching him and looked away. The two had never discussed Walter’s attraction to Berta, but Walter was sure his friend must have noticed it and did now know what view he took of it.
“It’s like I was telling you before,” Paul said. “The management isn’t primarily there to provide organization, it’s there to exercise power. If management’s main concern was that the factory run efficiently, would they keep a philandering shift boss in charge of all those women? No, then they’d choose a woman, someone who actually knew the work. What they want is someone who will keep the workers in their place. And if that means losing a woman to the streets every few months, they believe there are more where she came from, and they don’t care.”
Walter shrugged. “Why don’t the girls stay away from him. You must all know he’s trouble.”
“Your problem,” Paul said, “is that you have no sense of solidarity. You should be supporting other workers, not blaming them. Tell him about your weekend plan, Berta.”
“I’m organizing a series of weekend hiking trips,” Berta said, leaning forward, her elbows on the table, animation showing in her face now. “We’ll take the train out on Saturday after work, walk through the country, and find a farmer who will let us camp in his barn overnight. Clean country recreation -- not just handing over more of money to some business owner in return for alcohol and a roof overhead. A chance for real community, away from the hurry and dirt of the city. I’ve told Paul to invite anyone from the bicycle works who is interested in organizing, and I’m going to bring as many of the women from the emery factory as I can.”
“Well?” asked Paul. “Clean country air. A chance to understand what the union is about? A campfire and singing? Will you come?”
The image of himself as a foreman was one which had occupied a fixed place in Walter’s mind all afternoon, and as a future its allure remained. However, whatever skepticism he might have over the idea of worker-run factories, the idea of hiking through the countryside with Berta and perhaps some other girls from the emery factory had an immediate appeal. And it was not as if he were promising not to accept the position.
“Yes, I’d like that very much,” he said.
The coffee pot had begun to bubble and steam. Berta poured a cup and handed it to him with a smile of approval.
Next morning Walter was called into Herr Meyer’s office shortly after his shift began. Meyer stood next to the most misbegotten tangle of bicycle parts that Walter had ever seen. The wheels overlapped, the chain and wheel stuck out to one side, the seat stood above all else like a unicycle, the handlebars were twisted and canted down at an impossible angle. The factory owner was visibly brimming over with excitement, but although he patted the seat of the strangely deformed bicycle he did not say anything about it.
“So,” he said, giving the bicycle seat another slight caress. “Did you think about it? Did you talk to your mother? Will you accept the foreman job?”
In the privacy of his mind, Walter could not help reviewing the tepid responses he had actually received to his news from his mother and from Paul. He drew himself up a little straighter in response to Herr Meyer’s question and said, “I have, sir. And I would be honored to accept the position.”
Meyer’s smile was immediate, broad and genuine. “Good! Good! I’m glad to have you. And you…” His hand reflexively went to the bicycle seat again. “You are going to enjoy this. Come and have a look,” he said, waving Walter over to the strange contraption. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Walter came closer, looked at it more closely, shook his head, and confessed that he had not. “What is it?”
“It is a military folding bicycle. Watch.” With a few quick motions the tangle became a bicycle. The two handlebars swung up and latched into place with a snap. Then the whole front half of the frame pivoted, snapped into place, and a completely ordinary bicycle stood before them. Meyer gave a laugh that was very like a crow. “You see? Is that not the most ingenious thing? Here, you try it.”
He guided Walter through folding up the bicycle again. A spring loaded pin lifted to unlock the main hinge, set right in the middle of the top tube. With it unlatched, this and the matching hinge in the downtube swung open easily, allowing the front half of the frame to turn back on itself, aligning the two wheels. Now he felt them Walter could see that rather than the usual inflatable tires these had solid, textured rubber tires.
“Solid to avoid punctures?” Walter asked.
Another spring loaded pin pulled back and the two handlebars unlatched and folded down.
“The straps,” Herr Meyer said, lifting the bicycle by them, “allow the bicycle trooper to carry the bicycle on his back if necessary.”
He swung a leather strap over each shoulder, shifted it slightly for comfort, and then stood, turning first to one side and then the other to show off the neatness with which the bicycle could be carried.
“I can hardly get over the ingenuity. It’s an Austrian design. The Austro-Hungarians have fitted out all their bicycle troops with them. Our army has agreed to try the design as well and I have the order to provide the test vehicles. Two thousand of them. The engineer is working on designs for the new line now.” Meyer took the straps from his shoulders and set the bicycle back on the floor. “Go ahead. Have a look at it. I’d take it out for a ride, but I don’t want it seen on the street. A cousin on the General Staff helped get the order for me. I don’t want word getting out to any larger factories. This is our ticket, my boy. I have the test order, and if they scale up and order tens of thousands more all that business will come to us because we’ll already have the line built.”
Walter was absorbed, unfolding and re-folding the frame. Meyer watched him with the appreciation of a fellow enthusiast.
“The new line won’t be ready for six weeks, but I want you to start doing your foreman’s duties now,” Meyer said. “Everything is to be highest quality on these machines. I want you to learn all the procedures on the line, and when the time comes you’ll help pick the best men and train them.” Meyer sat down behind his desk.
“Thank you!” Reluctantly, Walter unfolded the bicycle one last time, stood it up on its stand, and prepared to go. He hesitated, afraid to ask yet unwilling to leave without doing so. “Is there to be any change to my pay?”
Meyer nodded casually, the detail thought of but not deemed urgent enough to have been mentioned before. “Your pay will increase by ten Marks beginning next week. Oh, and Walter.”
“I expect you to buy a bicycle. There’s no other way.”
“I will, sir.”
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