hile at a writing conference this past spring here in Denver, I visited the SUNY (State University of New York) Press
table and learned one of its newest titles was subtitled “A Song of the Salt City.” The Salt City (Syracuse, New York) is where I grew up and attended college, so I was pleased to learn Joe Amato, author of ONCE AN ENGINEER,
would be available later in the conference to sign books. It’s always great to talk with someone from back home.
Turned out Joe’s also a Syracuse University alum…who attended engineering school at SU in the ’70s with one of my brothers. Small world!
Also turned out I grew up very near the part of town Joe used to call home. While reading a book that references street names and neighborhoods one knows well is a lot of fun, ONCE AN ENGINEER stretches far beyond the confines of memoir and provides much more than warm and fuzzy reminders. The relationships that alternately confounded and complemented Joe’s growth through an impoverished childhood and into a tricky start to adulthood reveal layers of painful truths I never would’ve guessed were experienced by someone growing up so close to my home. Such truths are still experienced by many, most of whom will never document what those in economically struggling blue-collar cities across the country have long endured. This fact alone makes ONCE AN ENGINEER an incredibly timely and important testament.
Joe’s dad is described as a troubled single parent who “just wants to work with wood.” And while he works as a furniture refinisher and is indeed often an artist when he’s allowed to do what he does so well, the senior Joe’s refusal to cow-tow to authority coupled with his “hot-head” Italian temper leads to layoffs and worse for himself and his two boys. Yet: “Things could always be worse,” his son writes. “Deep down inside we all know this.”
While Joe and his brother try to overcome the rotten hand they’ve been dealt, class distinctions and prejudices make it clear the future’s not going to be easy, despite their best efforts. As delivery boys they’re treated kindly or with contempt, depending on the part of town they’re in. In early jobs, Joe’s paid minimum wage (a little over $2 an hour back then) for potentially crippling manual labor that turns out to be comparable to work done a mile away by workers who enjoy union-managed schedules, perks, and much fatter paychecks. In Syracuse, as in most blue-collar towns, who you know can make all the difference in the world for you and yours, and the unions run the show.
Joe’s extended family consists of first-generation immigrants who speak little English and infuse conversations with unique takes on their adopted language. This exposure serves Joe well when he studies at SU with graduate students and other teachers from outside the U.S. “Some of the students object to the inflected English of international instructors. But…I grew up around Italian-French-German inflections, what we call broken
English—to me, that is the way of all worlds.”
Joe’s experiences “up on the hill” at the university are his “first real contact with privileged white folks.” As he notes in one self-directed discussion, “It takes you some time to adjust, to find ways to ‘fit in’—and you won’t even know you’re doing it. You don’t ‘look Italian,’ and what others will identify as the ethnic in you is comprised of a collection of pronouns…twisted around a few verbs, adverbs, a few food groups, a few gestures, maybe even a few superstitions. As you age, you’ll tend to recognize yourself as a function of such discriminations, not least because you’ll notice the looks you’ll get when you pack a lunch of figs and olives and cheese and Italian bread. It’s in your blood, the food, literally. And the words? How does one live up to such things?”
But tough times, tough lives—tough obstacles, even—are never without beauty. Ask anyone who’s grown up during a tough time, like the oil crisis-riddled late ’70s. In 20 years ask the kids growing up today with parents who can’t find work, missing homes and friends and neighborhoods they were forced to leave behind.
Despite his dad’s temper and drinking and inability to rise above the hand he’s
been dealt, Joe writes:“A furniture finisher works with materials that rub off on him. And part of him, his very tissue, rubs off on these materials. This is his stock-in-trade. He works cognitively, as in all work, and his cognitive work must process the interaction of his senses with the stuff of three dimensions. Eyes and hands are his instruments, sight and touch the qualities he judges.
“My father deals…in the reparation of appearances, a beauty only and profoundly skin deep. And to the extent that each wood item is porous, like tissue, and singular—like each of us, like any item,
so defined—it breathes his finishing touches, even as it resists his every effort.
“He works through his body…to produce a crafted beauty…[and] it is this same crafted beauty that will help to kill him.”
It occurred to me while writing this post on Labor Day 2010 that ONCE AN ENGINEER is not only “A Song of the Salt City,” it’s a tribute to the workers of all types who’ve made cities across the U.S. great at one time or another. Maybe someday Syracuse will thrive once again. If it does, you can bet its success will have been built upon the backs of the people who make every last inch of it work.
Meanwhile in cities across the country, when honest workers keep working—whether in stores or farms or factories or classrooms or offices—we all benefit. Thanks for the reminders, Joe. Each and every one.