The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swing Shift, San Francisco


Different cities, different rhythms.  Working swing shift in San Francisco was very different, indeed.

I was still operating a computer.  The job was still:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
Instead of brain waves I was now processing credit card charges.  In those days there were no telephone transactions, so every purchase arrived in the form of a flimsy credit slip that had to be read and sorted by an IBM 1419 sorting machine.  If I remember correctly, the 1419 converted each charge into a punchcard which we would then feed into a card reader which in turn would go through the IBM 360 computer to end up on magnetic tape.  

Larry at the 360

If a punchcard jammed in the reader, the first question we asked was "Is it data or is it money?"  If the card was data, we'd throw it out.  Usually data meant some new person applying for a credit card.  Who needs 'em?  If it was money (that is, somebody's credit card charge), we'd retrieve every little piece of the card and send it back to the reconciliation desk. 

When I saw how many things could go wrong, I opened up a MasterCharge account for myself.  Sure enough, a couple of items that I bought never appeared on my bills.  Another punchcard had been mangled beyond recognition.

We were blue collar labor doing blue collar chores: feeding punchcards, changing paper in the printers, unloading massive printouts, dismounting and mounting tapes, swapping those heavy disks that looked like a stack of phonograph records.  My fellow workers were like a Central Casting cross-section of San Francisco:

Bernie was an Irish alcoholic.  With dimpled cheeks, white hair and fuming breath, he could recite thousands of limericks.  Soon he was fired.

Charles looked like a cute clean-cut white boy.  He had a big dong (so he said).  Charles acted in porn films which apparently didn't pay well but had other benefits.  A dark-haired man, he underwent electrolysis to have all his facial hair removed.  He'd show up with Band-Aids on his cheeks and neck and chin.  With a silly grin Charles would operate the 1419 sorter for 8 hours, stoned, while describing strange sexual encounters.  He was fired.

Bill drove a VW microbus with GROOOVE painted on the side.  With ponytail and mustache Bill was an articulate college dropout whose parents were psychoanalysts in Manhattan.  He'd offer a joint to anybody (off hours) but never smoked himself while everyone around him got wasted.  Bill was a magnet for straight women.  He had a flexible sense of time.  The day he was fired, he raised a huge stink until finally they allowed him to return to the computer room, under guard, so he could repay the $20 he'd borrowed from me.  "I don't want you to think I'd rip you off," he said, and then the guards escorted him out of the building.

Sho, the angry Black Panther, would occasionally punch the metal side of the 360 with his fist talking about how "the man owes me" this or "the man owes me" that.  He wasn't fired.  Nobody dared.

Kate was Chinese-American and at first seemed as normal as noodles.  She had lovely long black hair, a quick smile, and never took a single day off.  Her job was to manage the "library" — a vast vault of computer tape — which she guarded with obsessive/compulsive zeal.  If we brought back one of her tapes with a "data check" — meaning the computer couldn't read some part of it — she'd become angry.  She took it as a personal affront.  Data checks, incidentally, were a nightly occurrence.

Roger, the mama's-boy shift manager — the only suit on the shift — had a crush on Kate the neurotic tape librarian but never asked her out.

Bob was a dignified bespectacled Chinese-American who wasn't too bright but was dependable and hard-working, which is really all you need.  Computer operation is basically factory work.  Software programmers are the brains (and highly paid); operators are the brawn (and paid accordingly).

Then there was Sigrid, a gorgeous Scandinavian woman who always wore a shiny silver crucifix around her neck.  Tight-lipped, scowling Sigrid had the social skills of an insect — and, it was rumored, the sexual habits.  She was known as the Praying Mantis. 

And then there were a couple of normal guys: Larry and Steve.  And me.  I was pretty normal — that is, by swing shift standards. 

Larry wore cashmere sweaters, had a gentle voice, gentle manners, and drove a big bad car with big fat tires. 

Steve Chambers

Steve had a weird sort of psychodrama father-son antagonistic relationship with Roger, the supervisor, though Roger was only slightly older. 

Most operators were non-collegiate and upwardly mobile.  They got into computer operation as a smart career move and, I hope, stayed on to rich success.  It was a great time to enter the field.

For a Christmas bonus, each employee received two jars of Smuckers jelly.  Nobody could accuse MasterCharge of largess. 

Working swing shift, my lunch break was at 8 p.m.  The computer center was at the edge of North Beach near Fisherman's Wharf.  Most nights I'd dash up to Columbus and Broadway where Carol Doda and all the topless ladies danced while barkers barked on the sidewalks: "Naked college coeds!  Yes!  They're totally naked!"  From the doorway the barkers held back the curtain for a flash view.  The show might be fun for men in groups.  Alone, it would make you more alone.

Columbus and Broadway

I'd grab a cappuccino at Cafe Trieste or browse in Discovery Books for used copies or next door at City Lights Book Store for new ones.  Once I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was churlish (but I was nobody).  Maybe he was having a bad night.   Another time I stumbled upon Alan Ginsberg, who exuded a surprising generosity mixed with self-obsession.  I met Richard Brautigan, who was playful.  Most electrifying, I met Neal Cassady and of course couldn't get a word in edgewise.  He had charisma.  When Neal was in a room, everyone else faded.

Haight Street in those days was a death zone.  I stayed away.

At midnight I'd drive home.  One night I narrowly missed a head-on collision with a screaming Porsche.  Another car wasn't so lucky.  Six people died.

Clement Street, home sweet home.

Returning to our flat in the Richmond District, I'd walk the dog while foghorns blatted and moaned, then have a glass of wine with my amazing wife.  We'd sleep until noon.  Afternoons, we'd take the dog to the beach down by Playland and the Cliff House.  One time on that beach we came upon Janis Joplin doing cartwheels in the wet sand next to the surf.  Then she dashed to a van waiting in the parking lot saying she had a gig in L.A.  Two months later she was dead.

There were a couple of intriguing cults forming in San Francisco at the time, and we felt drawn toward each of them at least to check them out.  Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was wonderful, but before we could become attached, the entire group departed on a cross-country bus caravan.  Having just finished a cross-country adventure of our own, we wanted to settle down for a while right where we were.

Across town, an attractive church was forming with a charismatic leader by the name of Jim Jones.  The vibes were a little weird there, and we decided it wasn't for us.

At 4 p.m. I'd go to work, a simple ten-minute drive.  Like a tide the job would draw me in, then send me back. 

The days had rhythm like a song.  The melody was San Francisco; the harmony was North Beach; the tempo was full tilt boogie.  That was swing shift.

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