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ON THE WATERFRONT, A VANISHING BREED LAST OF THE GRAIN SCOOPERS

His nickname's "Jim Boy." He scooped grain along with "Bummy," "Brownie Hairs," "Weepers" and "Diapers."

"The other day a girl called me Jim Smith on the phone. I knew it was somebody who don't know me too good," explains veteran grain scooper "Jim Boy" Smith. "Irish love nicknames. If you didn't like it, they kept it up worse."

They're Buffalo's grain scoopers -- today hailed as American heroes with their funny monikers, massive shovels and full-blast camaraderie, emptying vast ships on our waterfront and helping to fill the towering grain elevators.

Once the largest grain port in the nation, Buffalo is now the last port where grain is shoveled by hand.

Because they're the last of their kind, Buffalo's grain scoopers are, through a National Public Radio contributor and a University at Buffalo photographer, receiving much national attention.

When Buffalo was still the gateway from the Midwest to the East Coast, nearly 3,000 of these laborers with hearts and guts of steel worked up to 20 hours a day.

Today there are only about 80 left.

Not everybody is cut out for the work -- then or now.

"Be honest with ya, there're many men who went down there and didn't last one day," says Jim Boy Smith, who lasted four decades. "It reminds me of the coal miners. It gets in your veins. You're either going to be a scooper or not. My son started and he didn't want it. He was a younger breed, understand me. It's survival of the fittest.

"It's hard, dirty and dusty," he adds in a voice as raspy as the grain itself. "You'd use a mask, and sometimes when you'd get done, you'd throw up."

With their colorful subculture and First Ward history, the scoopers' ranks once included a teen-age Jimmy Griffin, who went on to become Buffalo's mayor. Now a presidential candidate, he may be the most famous grain scooper ever.

Griffin quit high school to scoop grain for the railroad, and recalls in an interview that "it was pretty rough work."

"The first couple weeks your arms and back would be sore -- throwing the shovel," says Griffin, who, at 16, belonged to a different union from the scoopers on ships. "You'd have to wear a filter over your mouth because of the grain dust. Sometimes you didn't wear it because it was uncomfortable. You'd wash the dust down with a couple of beers at noontime."

"It felt good," says Jim Boy Smith. "You done a job, and we stuck together, it's hot and tiresome, but you were paid well." It was enough to raise seven children in the First Ward, where he still lives. That money was earned "not by the hour, but by what you call volume. If we'd sit down, just sit on a ladder, we'd lose money."

The scoopers banded together for ship labor when "the Irish immigrants couldn't get work," Smith relates. "They all got together and started the scoopers union, working for very little wages, you know, and passed it down to their families, like I think the Irish do in the old country with their farms.

"Buffalo was queen of the lake, and there was a lot of work."

Narrow Backs

Old-timers from Ireland, who knew starvation, called the young men Narrow Backs "because we were born in this country and they didn't think we were strong enough to do this," remembers Smith.

"Years ago, they had big iron shovels, and they were so proud they wouldn't let you touch 'em. When we went to lighter stuff -- like aluminum -- the old guys didn't like that. They always told us, 'Oh, it'll never work.' But it worked. When I had 20 years on the job they still called me a baby, 'cause some of those old harps stayed till 80 years old."

Their work has been largely replaced in newer mechanized ports, says National Public Radio contributor David Isay, who immortalized Smith in his new work "Holding On" (based on the pieces he did for 5 million NPR listeners). There, Smith recalls his start in the Irish-dominated trade:

"I started scooping grain when most of the Irish were from the old country. I don't know how much you know about the Irish, but they're a little bit clannish, you know. They spoke with a brogue and they'd say, 'Who's your father?' and 'Who gave you your union book?' and 'What county are you from?' They'd go right down the Irish tree. The union books were handed down from family to family, see? If the father was a scooper and he had a son, why, he gave him the union book."

Union books, with stamps to show paid dues, were "considered golden," Smith says. "At one time it was very hard to get in the union."

A few Italians, Germans and Poles did slip in, this second-generation Irish-American explained. "Well, if the scooper had a daughter and she married a Polish, they'd give the book to the son-in-law so there'd be victuals on the table.

"People who come by and see us work say, 'Oh my God, it's so dangerous!' And it is dangerous -- people have gotten hurt. In the old days you'd get hit, but ya didn't report it because you were proud. You might as well not tell it anyway, because they wouldn't give ya any mercy. The boss'd say, 'If you don't want the job, go home.' "

Smith also helped Mark Maio, of the University at Buffalo's ophthalmology department, in the clinical assistant professor's effort to do the definitive study on the grain shovelers.

"As a society, we invest so much in athletic heroes," says visual sociologist Maio, who says he has more respect for the scoopers:

"They work in a gang, and that gang is together for a long time. They rely on one another in this dusty, huge area, moving these shovels that essentially can kill someone. There's this trust that they've built."

He compares their fast work to a ballet, in the ships that, with their huge quantities of sandlike yellow grain, resemble the Sahara. He remains on the lookout for historical pictures or tapes to complete his study.

Maio, who has also made a film on the scoopers, describes the brightly helmeted scoopers' "policy of equal work."

"A rotating system of working is followed so that no gang works twice until all the other gangs in the division have worked once." That policy "of sharing the good times and bad, has added to the unity and strength of the union."

Union organization on Buffalo's waterfront began in the mid-19th century, with scoopers and longshoremen, Maio notes, "all trying to gain some control over their lives."

Now in his eighth year of studying the scoopers, Maio plans to publish a book on these tradesmen. His stunning photographs of the workers will be on display in shows around the country, including at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Fourth-generation scooper

"Nice to see we're getting some attention," comments Buffalo scooper Frederick Brill, president of Local 109, Grain Shovelers Union ILA. "It's a sacrifice. It's dangerous, primitive work. You're somewhat a victim of the elements; we work in any sort of weather."

At 47, a fourth-generation scooper, Brill has been at it for more than a quarter-century, and despite his scars and pulled muscles, he hopes to scoop until he reaches his 60s.

"Scooping is an honest living," says this father of three. "It's as socialistic as a union can possibly be. There's a lot of equality.

"I've got a tradition. I'm not someone who likes to sit at a desk."

They're paid by tonnage, and the work is seasonal. Scoopers won't be back at work until the lake ice thaws. When there is work, they scoop "any time, day or night." So today's scoopers -- whose average age is in the mid-40s -- often work second jobs to supplement their low-five-figure income.

"I'm pretty cynical. I find this country is about making as much money as you can no matter who you step on to get there, and that doesn't exist in scooping," says Brill, who lives in the Elmwood area, away from his ancestors' old stomping grounds at the mouth of the Buffalo River. About one in seven scoopers still live in the "Ward."

Some ships they unload belong to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and they work for Great Lakes Associates.

Today the city's scoopers "use huge steel power shovels which slide on a pulley system to move the grain toward a conveyor belt (called a 'leg') in one corner of the hold, which lifts the grain up into silos," Isay points out. "When the hold is almost empty, the men scoop the last of the grain onto the conveyor belt with hand shovels." When he recorded Smith, this scooper stood on the deck of a grain freighter just arrived from Duluth, Minn. Those ships hold "hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain."

Grain scooper Smith says his wife's maiden name was O'Leary, and her father "gave me my union book, and he was from the old country, too. I'll tell ya, he wouldn't tell me much," Smith laughs. "When I first started, I'd call the boss on the telephone for orders, and the man would tell me, like, 'Go to the Wheeler,' which was a nickname for a certain elevator. So I said to my father-in-law, 'Where's the Wheeler?' And he said, 'Find your own way.' "

And Smith did.

"In the old days, if you were a grain scooper, why, everybody loved ya, 'cause ya spend a good dollar in a tavern. In those days a lot of guys were 'on the book' -- you know what I mean? They'd put you on the book for your money and you'd come in there on payday and pay up. Every payday they'd be waitin' for you. You could get a steak sandwich for a quarter and a shot for a quarter, and the bartender'd say, 'Have the first one on me!' And you'd stay for a while -- you could flop in the back if you wanted -- take a sleep ('course the wives didn't like it much).

"There was many a fight in the taverns," he says quite genially. "Years ago there wasn't much else to do."

St. Lawrence Seaway

Jimmy Griffin recalls that the golden-wheat days, when the scoopers helped to ready the grain for shipment up and down the East Coast, changed forever when the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959:

"We lost our standing as far as the port was concerned. Buffalo was a transit point from the Great Lakes to the East Coast."

Young mayor-to-be Griffin got laid off from his scooping job, which helped him "realize that I had to get an education and go back to school."

When the St. Lawrence Seaway connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, Isay notes, those Midwestern freighters "were now able to bypass the city and sail directly into whatever East Coast port they chose." His Norton-published collection is subtitled "Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes."

The young Peabody Award-winning documentarian's book, done with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship and the photographs of Harvey Wang, also includes pieces on spiritualists from Lily Dale, and the late Buffalo Columbus Day founder Mariano Lucca and wife Clara.

"Buffalo's amazing," Isay comments in an interview.

The grain scoopers' struggle and quiet heroism involves "holding on to something and refusing to give up on it, no matter what the cost, and willing to sacrifice everything for that," the documentarian says.

Scoopers, he says, are "the last of their kind."

Jim Boy Smith "is someone who persisted, and who, when you take the time to listen to him, speaks poetically and poignantly -- and is a wonderful person, one of those people where you step into their world and you just kind of feel alive. This will live on.

"The whole history of Buffalo comes into this, going back to the turn of the century." Buffalo's grain workers may be getting another national scoop when ABC-TV's "PrimeTime Live" does a large "Holding On" segment next month.

Smith recently spent his first season away from the ships, having "a little arthritis," and hanging up his shovel for good. He enjoys spending time with his 14 grandchildren and his wife, Rita, but he admits to missing the big ships. He keeps in touch with his work buddies by sharing an occasional cold beer.

He still can detail the heyday of the scoopers: "How friendly they were, how you could go to their houses and the door was always open. They'd have a beer for you and a cigar, and you could sit down and eat. That was how the grain scooper lived. Looking back, I'm just happy that I was one."

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