Part of the legacy of the old plant next to the Small Boat Harbor will be gone soon and another aspect of that legacy will likely disappear as well. Long before the plant was Freezer Queen, it was Merchant’s Refrigerating.
The guy who ran the place was Iggy Banko. He was my uncle, a pretty good baseball player at South Park High in the Warren Spahn days, and an accomplished B-17 pilot in the Adolf Hitler days.
I got to work there as a longshoreman after I turned 18 and again after I walked away from a basketball scholarship to save money to attend St. Bonaventure. I attended four colleges but I never learned nearly as much in school as I did on the truck docks and rails of Merchant’s.
The work was hard – “bull work” the men who worked there called it – but the pay was great. We unloaded boxcars and trucks, hefting everything from 100-pound sacks of flour to sides of beef.
I was young and in shape and the work wasn’t nearly as troublesome for me as is should have been for the old hands at Merchant’s. When I say “old,” I mean old. The regulars at the plant had at least 40 years, but it was for me to try to keep pace with them.
There was a big man named Brooks who taught me how to work a boxcar, how to load a pallet, how not to strain myself lifting flour bags from the floor. He was a Muslim, spoke little and chewed tobacco constantly. He, like almost all the bull gang at Merchant’s, was a black man and serious about his work.
When we loaded a pallet and it had to be stored, it fell to Tampa Forton to wheel his forklift into the car and take it out. Tampa was the Richard Petty of forklift operators. He was fast and accurate and liked to demonstrate his patented “double clutching” routine on his lift.
Another interesting guy on the gang was Jughead Luber. Jug got his name from his fondness for the bottle. When everyone else got paid on Thursday, Jug got his check on Friday just to make sure he’d show up. He came to Buffalo from the coal mines in Pennsylvania. He was small but wiry and had a massive scar on the side of his face he said accrued from a “misunderstanding” he had with another miner.
The only problem I had working alongside him was on Mondays, when the smell of alcohol in his sweat was enough to make me drunk.
When it came time to work with cargo that needed refrigeration, the main duties fell to a man I only knew as “Neckbone.” He was disfigured by a permanently bent neck, most likely from spending 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year in the freezers. He was a kindly man who loved to laugh and if he was in pain, he never showed it.
The honcho of our troupe was Jim Poole, the union steward and a giant of a man. He played football alongside Tom “Tippy” Day at North Carolina A&T, and when I worked at Merchant’s, Jim looked like he could still play. While I would later be exposed to a different kind of labor-management style in Buffalo City Hall, the relationship between Jim and my uncle was one of respect and cordiality.
The building will be gone soon, replaced with something modern and attractive and worthwhile. But I’ll never forget the strong, hard-working men who taught me the dignity of work.