Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913.
Vivas to those who have fail'd! And to those whose war-vessels
sank in the sea! And to those themselves who sank in the sea! And to all
generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes! And the
numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known! --Walt
1. The Red Flag
The newspapers said the strikers would hoist the red flag of anarchy
over the silk mills of Paterson. At the strike meeting, a dyers'
helper from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor, lifted up his
hand and said here is the red flag:
brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties and scarves, the skin
and fingernails boiled away for six dollars a week in the dye house.
He sat down without another word, sank back into the fumes, name and
face rubbed off by oblivion's thumb like a Roman coin from the
earth of his birthplace dug up after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear.
II. The River Floods the Avenue
He was the other Valentino, not the romantic sheik and bullfighter of
silent movie palaces who died too young, but the Valentino standing on
his stoop to watch detectives hired by the company bully strikebreakers
onto a trolley, and a chorus of strikers bellowing the banned word scab.
He was not a striker or a scab, but the bullet fired to scatter the
crowd pulled the cork in the wine barrel of Valentino's back. His
body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.
Two white-veiled horses pulled the carriage to the cemetery. Twenty
thousand strikers walked behind the hearse, flooding the avenue like the
river that lit up the mills, surging around the tombstones. Blood for
cried Tresca: at his signal, thousands of hands dropped red carnations
and ribbons into the grave, till the coffin evaporated in a red sea.
III. The Insects in the Soup
Reed was a Harvard man. He wrote for the New York magazines. Big Bill,
the organizer, fixed his one good eye on Reed and told him of the
strike. He stood on a tenement porch across from the mill to escape the
rain and listen to the weavers. The bluecoats told him to move on. The
Harvard man asked for a name to go with the number on the badge, and the
cops tried to unscrew his arms from their sockets. When the judge asked
his business, Reed said: Poet.
The judge said: Twenty days in the county jail.
Reed was a Harvard man. He taught the strikers Harvard songs, the tunes
to sing with rebel words at the gates of the mill. The strikers taught
him how to spot the insects in the soup, speaking in tongues the gospel
of One Big Union and the eight-hour day, cramming the jail till the
weary jailers had to unlock the doors. Reed would write: There's
war in Paterson.
After it was over, he rode with Pancho Villa.
IV. The Little Agitator
The cops on horseback charged into the picket line. The weavers raised
their hands across their faces, hands that knew the loom as their
fathers' hands knew the loom, and the billy clubs broke their
fingers. Hannah was seventeen, the captain of the picket line, the Joan
of Arc of the Silk Strike. The prosecutor called her a little agitator.
said the judge; if she picketed again he would ship her to the State
Home for Girls in Trenton.
Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased a
strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word for shame.
Back in court, she hissed at the judge's sentence of another
striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing. She sang all the
way to jail. After the strike came the blacklist, the counter at her
husband's candy store, the words for shame.
V. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
Strikers without shoes lose strikes. Twenty years after the weavers and
dyers' helpers returned hollow-eyed to the loom and the steam,
Mazziotti led the other silk mill workers marching down the avenue in
Paterson, singing the old union songs for five cents more an hour. Once
again the nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups. Mazziotti pressed
both hands to his head, squeezing red ribbons from his scalp. There
would be no buffalo nickel for an hour's work at the mill, for the
silk of bow ties and scarves. Skull remembered wood.
The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too: the Sons
of Italy, the Workmen's Circle, Local 152, Industrial Workers of
the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl speaking in
tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day. Mazziotti's
son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet. Vivas to those who have
failed: for they become the river.