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Built in Detroit
A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster
By Bob Morris
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Bob Morris
All rights reserved.
He Broke His Father's Heart
Dad never spent a lot of time reminiscing about his early life, but stories were told about his life in Pittsburgh, and my older brother, Greg, and I listened with great intensity. More often than not, these stories were told as we were driving with him someplace, usually to or from one of his meetings or events on a Saturday or Sunday. He told us of his caddying experiences and how his love of golf evolved. He enjoyed high school at Oliver High in Pittsburgh. From him, we learned that his high school was located across the street from a cemetery, and he often recited their favorite football cheer: "Kick 'em in the wishbone; kick 'em in the jaw; throw them in the tombstone—rah, rah, rah."
THE JOURNEY BEGAN ONE COLD April morning in 1935 at a truck stop just north of Pittsburgh. Morris left home at 5:00 a.m., and it took some time for the spring chill to work its way out of his thin body. He had no way of knowing then that this journey would lead him to a life that he could never have fathomed that April morning. He and seven other guys were heading for Detroit. From there, they were going head to Chicago, St. Louis, and Denver, finally ending up in California. They planned to be gone at least a year, or at least that's what Morris told everyone.
Most of the guys hitched a ride to Detroit, where they would meet at a location known as Grand Circus Park. One fellow had a small black Ford coupe; two of the fellows crammed suitcases and material for their work into that car. Everyone else had to find his own ride. It was an adventure, to be sure. But it was more than that. These were Depression kids. Life was hard. To help with household expenses, Morris gave almost every penny he made to his stepmother. Even so, he felt he was not giving enough to the household—that he was a weight on the family and it was time to move on.
* * *
Morris Katz and his family lived on the north side of Pittsburgh, a working-class multiethnic melting pot known as Woods Run. Their house was a three-story building, with a shoe repair shop in the storefront portion of the structure, a kitchen and living area right behind the shop, and his parents' bedroom behind that. His father, Louis, rented out the second floor, and the boys stayed on the third floor. The boys were Harry, born in 1908 in the old country; Morris, born in New York City in 1915, and Saul, also born in New York, in 1916. Another brother and sister, a set of twins, were born later, but they died as small children, perhaps a result of the great flu epidemic of 1918–19.
Morris enjoyed being a kid growing up on McClure Street. He fondly told stories of playing ball, sneaking into the local movie theater, and being protected by his older and extremely tough brother Harry. Tragedy struck when Morris's mother died when he was ten years old. The boy was very close to this strong woman, both in body and spirit, and she had encouraged Morris to learn and read every book in the nearby library. Among her last words to him was a plea to stay in school and get an education.
His father was a good provider. A Jew from Poland, Louis Katz left his homeland in 1913 to avoid conscription and seek a better life. A shoemaker by profession, he ran a successful shoe repair store. To be successful, Louis knew that he had to move his trade and family into diverse non-Jewish neighborhoods that needed his services. Woods Run was full of Poles, Italians, a few Irish, and many eastern European working people who could afford to use his shoe repair services and occasionally buy a pair of new shoes. This strategy worked well until the Depression hit; then life became hard.
After several years of trying to raise Morris and his brothers, Harry and Saul, as a single parent, Louis took a new wife, Freda. She was young and new to the United States. She had lived through Russian pogroms and escaped anti-Semitic persecution when she came to America.
Freda was extremely young when she married Louis and was not prepared to be a mother of three wild and willful young boys. Decades later, she talked about how ignorant she had been in trying to cope with her new stepsons and a new country. She knew she made mistakes as a mother and a wife, but she did the best that she could. Morris, in particular, had a difficult time adjusting to his new stepmother. The family soon grew when Freda gave birth to her only child, Jacob.
By 1930, everyone in Woods Run seemed to be feeling the Depression. The three older boys helped the family survive economically. Every spring, summer, and fall, Morris caddied at the Shannopin Country Club, not far from Woods Run. At the golf club, he learned about life, businesspeople, and golf. He made good money, almost all of which went to his stepmother.
Kids were often expected to drop out of school by sixteen and help provide for the family. Louis's oldest son, Harry, dropped out, so Freda expected the same from Morris and Saul. Morris watched in dismay as his younger brother, Saul, left Oliver High School and enrolled in a trade school in his junior year. Morris knew his brother loved Oliver High. Saul was president of his class and involved with sports. Although he enjoyed his time at school, he did the "right" thing by the family. Morris displayed what would be a lifelong stubborn streak and stayed at Oliver.
Morris also loved high school. He stood five feet seven inches but seemed taller due to his huge head of wavy black hair. His high school yearbook was full of details about a life he rarely talked about as an adult. Out of 105 graduating seniors, he was one of 18 who graduated with honors. With his ability, he should have gone to college, but in his family's economic position, that simply was not an option. He took practical classes such as accounting and shorthand. He was the only boy in his shorthand class. His teacher told him that if he became a male secretary, he could learn to run a business from the inside and eventually be the man who ran the company. He participated in all kinds of school activities. He was active on the Oliver High newspaper staff, a member of the yearbook staff, president of the reading club, and chair of the class ring committee. He acted in his senior play, ran some track, and even started a boys' cooking club. Morris, the Oliver yearbook stated, wanted to be a successful manager and eventually own a large business.
Morris graduated from high school in 1934 and could not find work. The accounting and shorthand classes seemed worthless. After several months, he saw an ad in the newspaper that read, "Wanted, earn good money working for Hoyt Products." He took the streetcar to the Hoyt offices in the Commonwealth Annex of downtown Pittsburgh. A man explained it all to him. A simple job, it relied on salesmanship through door-to-door sales. He signed up. Morris and a crew of young men began meeting and heading out to local towns, usually company towns, in Western Pennsylvania. They'd knock on a door and a tired housewife, often a Polish immigrant, would answer. Morris said he and his friends were representing Hoyt and selling everything for the home, from hair tonic and shoelaces to cleaning fluid and other household things from a list of over two hundred items. As the woman was about to shut the door, Morris quickly learned to say, "I'm working at this temporarily, and I'm getting points. If I get enough points, I'll be able to have a scholarship to go to school." Or sometimes as that door was closing, he said, "I must get three hundred orders, and then I will get a steady job." Either line often worked, although the steady job line seemed more effective. Either way, the housewives listened and doors often opened a little wider. Morris enjoyed this job, as he loved meeting new people.
The young man learned to understand his customers. He had many Polish immigrants on his various routs through Charlevoix, Aliquippa, Ambridge, and many other towns. He also found that Hoyt was often the only competition to the company store, the only place in town where people could shop. Thus Hoyt provided competitive if not better prices for their wares. He learned to say his opening lines in Polish to help keep that door open. He also learned that the doors closed faster when he used his own name, his Jewish name. He found that when he used a name like Ken Morris, instead of Morris Katz, sales increased. With a new name, he brought more money home.
Morris also saw the workers, the men who dragged themselves home after their shifts. They'd often be filthy from their work in a mine or factory, and their wives would have a hot tub of water sitting on the kitchen floor, ready for a bath so the workers could clean up before dinner. From time to time, he heard talk about a strike. Sometimes he overheard someone whispering the name John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers. Sometimes the housewives quietly said, "No, I can't buy today; we have to save every penny if there's a strike." When there was talk of a strike, Morris never pressured his customers.
After about a year of this, one of the guys said that they did not have to stay in Pittsburgh. They could do this anywhere and in any large city. They needed to find a local wholesaler or distributor. From that conversation, the boys hatched a plan together and decided to see the United States. Again, the plan was to start in Detroit, known as the "City of Champions" since the Detroit Tigers had just won the World Series, the Detroit Lions had won their football championship, and the Red Wings had won hockey's Stanley Cup. Detroit was also the home of Joe Louis. It was, of course, the home of the automobile industry as well. Detroit was a city of opportunity—it was in the west.
Morris told his dad about the plan. Louis thought his son was nuts. He had heard about boys and young men roaming the country. He did not want his son to be one of those bums. While Morris didn't bring a lot of money home, he was helping the family, Louis told him. His father forbade Morris from making the trip. Morris did not say anything. But he thought, Well, goddamn it, I have a right to go. So on that April morning, he found one of his buddies, and hooked up with a trucker headed for Detroit. It wasn't hard; the driver wanted the company. He left without telling anyone in his family.
He and his buddy were squished into the cab of the truck, and after a full April day of that, he looked out at the road between Toledo and Detroit. They could see the tall buildings of Detroit coming into view on the horizon. Pittsburg was history. So too was the name Morris Katz. From now on, he would be Ken Morris ... and the best salesman possible.
* * *
The boys successfully met up at Grand Circus Park. What a place! Detroit seemed three times the size of Pittsburgh. Within this park and along Woodward Avenue were newsstands, movie theaters, and men giving political speeches on soapboxes. This seemed to be where all the action was. The soapboxers were great. All kinds of people were standing on their boxes and talking about the problems of the world. These men sold communism, socialism, Marxism, or their own political solution to address the problems of the world. In most cases, small crowds gathered to listen. What the hell—they were men out of work and had nothing else to do. Ken enjoyed the buzz these men and their audiences created, and he was to spent much of his free time listening to these characters.
Ken and some of the boys found a place on Alfred Street, just off Woodward Avenue and only a few blocks from Grand Circus Park. It was a rooming house on a street of great old Victorian homes that had been cut up into flats and rooming houses. The boys soon hooked up with a distributor and began selling their products door-to-door. But things were not as simple as they had seemed in Pittsburgh.
The sales did not develop as the boys had hoped. In Detroit, people had more than just a company store from which to purchase their goods. Selling door-to-door was nice, but customers were not as plentiful. It became tough to pay the weekly rent and the upkeep on the car. Soon the only married man returned home with his car. Then another got homesick. Within a matter of weeks, Ken was by himself. He was too stubborn to return home, for he had told too many friends that he would be gone for a year. He sent a letter to his dad, saying that he was in Detroit and was all right. He told him that he was going to earn his own way for a while, so Louis did not have to worry about feeding him. He did not contact his father again for a long time. He broke his father's heart.
Briggs Slaughterhouse, This Stop!
We knew that Dad had hitchhiked to Detroit, that he and some friends were planning to see the country as door-to-door salesmen. Perhaps it was because we were so young, but he never talked about bad times. Sure, he talked about the problems of finding work. He talked about roaming around the city and listening to the soapboxers. If anything, he gave us the impression that he was in a new city looking for opportunity, in spite of the Depression.
THE SIGN WAS HUGE. ANYONE who walked or drove down Woodward at Alexandrine Street could not miss it:
Over the next few years, Ken had many meals at Tree's Restaurant. He always tried to keep a dime in his pocket, for there were many days that this ten-cent breakfast was his only meal for the day.
He tried to continue his door-to-door effort, but doing it as a one-man company just did not work. His mode of transportation was streetcar, electric bus, or bus, but these transportation options limited him. He needed to get to the more isolated neighborhoods, but the trips were too difficult without an automobile. If he could not get there to sell his goods and, perhaps more importantly, deliver the products he sold, he was not going to be successful. He did meet a few other door-to-door salesmen, but their various companies did not need more salesmen. They were laying off their own employees.
By the beginning of June, desperation was sinking in. He avoided his landlord. Finally, the man confronted Ken one night in June and told him to pay his rent ... or else.
His ten-cent breakfast was becoming too expensive. He was behind on his rent and had no prospects whatsoever of paying July's rent. Ken made a tough decision, a dishonorable decision. He decided to sneak out of the rooming house, but how? He had a fairly large suitcase full of his clothes, shoes, and all the other stuff he had packed for their trip around the county. To make matters worse, it seemed the landlord was always around now that he was behind on his rent. One night when the landlord was away, Ken snuck out. To avoid looking suspicious, he left his suitcase behind, squeezed two shirts and three suits onto his body, and walked out. He never looked back.
Now what was he going to do? He'd heard of a flophouse down near Jefferson Avenue. A homeless facility run by the Mariners' Church, it was called Mariners' Hall. Mariners' Hall was simply a hall with rows of beds laid out in neat rows. It had a large bathroom with a couple of showers. He was a step above being homeless, being a hobo. Occasionally, there were odd jobs, but nothing permanent. Someone, either one of the fellows or the people who ran the place, seemed to know where a day's work could be found. It was a day here and a day there. Some days he went to the plants, but they weren't hiring. It seemed you had to know somebody to get in at the big plants. Ken was discouraged but never thought of quitting. He was not heading back to Pittsburgh.
* * *
Besides looking for work, Ken remembered another experience from his Pittsburgh days. Ken liked to act. He had gained some experience acting in stage plays while in high school. The acting bug bit him hard in those seemingly carefree days. After high school, he had kept an eye open for other acting opportunities. One of his Hoyt sales friends had mentioned that he knew of a Pittsburgh troupe that needed actors. Two former professors from the University of Pittsburgh ran the acting group. A man and a gorgeous woman—either the man's wife or live-in girlfriend; Ken never knew which—ran the acting group. They had gained citywide notoriety because both had been discharged from the University of Pittsburgh for being Communists. That didn't bother Ken, as the two were extremely nice and encouraging people. He just wanted to act in plays. Ken's first production with the group was a play by Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty. Ken was the taxi driver, and the play was about a taxi worker's effort to organize a union. They rehearsed constantly, and Ken loved it. As the taxi driver, Ken's character played a lead role and was the man who bargained against the company (a prophetic role for the future labor leader).
Excerpted from Built in Detroit by Bob Morris. Copyright © 2013 Bob Morris. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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