Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 16, 2012

My pig snout sandwich days

Filed under: food,Pekar,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

I don’t know how many of you are aware that Doug Henwood began blogging a while back at http://lbo-news.com/. Bookmark it if you know what is good for you.

A post on April 13 (http://lbo-news.com/2012/04/13/the-nation-moves-money-again/) skewered the Nation Magazine in Doug’s inimitably informed and witty fashion:

Forgive me if I’m looking obsessed, but someone has to do it. The Nation was out with an email blast this morning touting its branded affinity VISA card issued by UMB Bank in Kansas City. The magazine’s associate publisher, Peggy Randall, helpfully identifies UMB as “a small, regional bank recommended by the Move Your Money project, a project we  support,” and therefore in accordance with the goals of the Occupy movement.

So who is UMB Bank, really? It’s yet another iteration of the classic Money Mover’s institution: flush with more money than it can invest locally, it loads up on securities. (Parenthetically, why should a magazine based in New York encourage doing business with a bank 1,200 miles away on localist grounds?) According to its latest annual report, 46% of UMB’s money is invested in securities, and another 6% is on deposit with other banks—which comes to over half. They don’t provide details on the securities, but they’re almost certainly a mix of Treasury bonds, mortgage bonds, and corporate bonds—utterly conventional financial market stuff. Just 37% is out in loans—and 0.8% in small-business loans, beloved of the small bank fanclub. They are big regional players in mutual funds, wealth management, and private banking, all moderately to seriously upscale stuff. And, like the big guys, they’re looking to make more money out of fees, rather than traditional deposit-taking and loan-making.

Although Doug was looking for a somewhat different answer to the question “So who is UMB Bank, really?”, I can offer these additional insights. When I was working at this bank in November 1978, I turned in my resignation from the SWP. By day I was a computer programmer but in the evenings I was studying milling machine and lathe at a local high school. That was to prepare me for a job in industry as an entry-level machinist. As this snapshot from my memoir–done in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar and that is due to be published by Random House sometime in the 22nd century–would indicate, this was not the kind of training that came easy:

(That’s me to the right, with beard and eyeglasses.)

By some miracle I graduated from the classes with a certificate and was urged to apply at Bendix by my milling machine instructor who developed a liking for me. He understood that despite my not having any kind of industrial job in the past, I was able to learn how to grind a piece of steel to a thousandth inch tolerance. Unfortunately, I would never get past a security clearance at Bendix since the plant’s main business was building casings for nuclear weapons.

In late November, the branch organizer—a typical hack who had bet my best friend in the branch $10 that I would never be able to get a job in industry—gave a plenum report that clarified what kinds of jobs comrades should get as part of the “turn to industry”. It went something like this:

Comrades, we are about to make a turn within the turn. In the past too many comrades have been taking skilled jobs like machinists or welders. This does not put us in contact with the most oppressed layers of the working class. So from now on the priority is on jobs in garment, meatpacking and other unskilled arenas.

After going to night school for 3 months, this was not the news I wanted to hear. I turned to my friend and said, “I feel like I am in the back seat of a car going down the interstate at 80 miles an hour and there’s nobody in the driver’s seat.” I resigned a couple of days later.

As should be obvious from the picture above, the memoir covers my Chaplinesque attempts to save my soul by getting a job in industry, but Doug’s reference to United Missouri Bank (UMB) persuaded me to say a few words about this job since it was like all my programming jobs—something to remember.

United Missouri Bank is in downtown Kansas City, a warren of nondescript office buildings and parking garages. Once upon a time it was a thriving section of town with department stores and nightclubs that could be reached by streetcar, the most common mode of transportation. I have vivid memories of taking the streetcar to downtown Kansas City with my mom when she was staying at her mother’s house on Linwood Avenue, about 30 blocks to the north, during a trial separation from my cold and laconic father. Even as a 5 year old, I could tell that Kansas City was a rocking place.

My job at UMB entailed working on the software for the bank’s NCR ATM machines. I was a kind of assistant to a 300 pound farmer’s boy named Danny who reminded me a lot of Baby Huey. He used to come to work on Saturday in bib overalls and hump the machines for laughs.

About a month after going to work for UMB, our boss asked me to make a change to the software that I screwed up. The net result was that when someone was issued a new card, the machine would reject it under the impression that it was expired. I wrote “greater than” some date in my program rather than “less than”. I was lucky I didn’t get fired since the people whose cards failed to work probably were skeptical of electronic banking to begin with.

I actually have fond memories of the people I worked with who generally were as disgruntled with management as any place I have ever been. The new department manager was someone who had been recently promoted from their ranks and was acting like a real shithook. They loved cracking jokes about him in the cafeteria at lunch.

My favorite guy there was K.O. Barnes, who looked kind of like a bulldog as his name would indicate. K.O. stood for Kenneth Orville but his nickname was “Smitty”, as I recall. In an attempt to raise some funds when I was in K.C., I sold my newish Datsun to my best friend and bought a 12 year old Impala sedan from K.O. that had belonged to his dad, a gas station owner. It was what they called a “mechanic’s special”. I wish I had held on to it. It would probably be worth $50,000 today.

K.O. had returned to Kansas City from Cincinnati, a city that he found lacking. He once put it to me this way in his Missouri drawl, “Louis, in Cincinnati they roll up the sidewalks at 10pm. There ain’t nothin’ happening there.”

As was the case when I worked for a bank in Houston when I was in the SWP, my workmates viewed me as a kind of “exotic”. After all, how many people moved from New York to Houston or Kansas City? If I hadn’t been a member of the SWP and assigned to go to these places, I would have stayed in New York where I was destined to be like a minor character in a Woody Allen movie. I should add that the only reason I chose Kansas City is that I was born there. When given a choice between my birthplace and Morgantown, West Virginia where I would be expected to get a job as coalminer, Kansas City was number one by far. I figured that if my political life was coming to an end, as I anticipated it would, why not let it end in my birthplace?

One day my workmates, including K.O. and Danny, decided to play a kind of practical joke on me. They organized an excursion to Agnos’s Sandwich Stand about 10 blocks from UMB where I would be able to buy a local treat. They assumed that a New Yorker would be appalled by what it turned out to be: pig snout sandwich.

It looked exactly what it sounds like, a pig’s nose between two buns. Since I had pretty much the same attitude toward food that contestants on “Fear Factor” have, I wolfed it down much to the surprise of my workmates. I don’t know if they have the analogy of “good old boy” in Missouri but that was what I became that day in their eyes.

They did not know that part of the motivation in going to Agnos was its connection to Charlie Parker, arguably Kansas City’s most famous denizen. In “Bird Lives”, Ross Russell writes:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.

Agnos sandwich stand at the Reno Club in 1940

13 Comments »

  1. Pig Snout LOL I know it’s off topic but that reminds me of Governor Christie of New Jersey.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 16, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

  2. The whole time I was in the SWP…Louis basically arrived the day I left KC…never had a pig snout sandwich. The main recruiting tool used by the branch in KCMO was was to take would be transferee to Arthur Bryants or Gates B-B-Q. Hell, it was so good that we almost got Hugo Blanco to resign from the Peruvian Section of the FI and move to KC he liked it so much.

    It is very, very hard for me to believe that KCMO had a ‘thriving downtown’. It was the *slowest* city I’ve ever lived in. People would drive *under the speed limit* and when I once crossed the street against a red light, I had two strangers *grab my arms* to prevent from doing so. It was a Friday, downtown KC and there *no cars on the street!!*. Egads! I had died and gone to mid-west mayonnaise hell.

    I remember discussing this with the folks at the Foolkiller Threatre troop I would hang with now and again. A motley crew of IWW railroad workers, anarchists and ex- and current hippies who had great shows and, punk rock concerts. They said that because of the droll, boring lifestyle of KC it made the counter-cultrure *thrive*. Cool, I thought. But still boring, at least in the long run. But they all reminded me “There is always b-b-que”. Which was true, and, too my knowledge, still is.

    KCMO, actually the surrounding area which includes Kansas City, KS, Rosedale, KS (home to first generation Irish-American revolutionary James P. Cannon) and the areas north and east of KCMO, has a true food culture centered on B-B-Q and historically based on the massive stock yards and convergence of many train-lines (3rd largest rail center in the US at one time). When I lived there it *seemed* like B-B-Q was on every block. There was certainly more B-B-Q than fast food joints. Every one had their favorite, usually depending on what cut of meat: ribs (beef OR pork), Beef (meaning brisket) or burnt ends (meaning the smaller tip of the brisket cut off and chopped like pulled pork mixed with a black strap molasses and black pepper sauce). It was sort of like Chinese in NYC or Thai in SF. It had to generally be really good or they wouldn’t stay in business.

    While my own experience in the SWP in KC and, living in KC was the most boring lonely period of my life, I know that if ever I’m exiled there by the Forces of the Class Enemy, and assuming they don’t mess with me much, there will “Always be BBQ”.

    Comment by tialsedov — April 16, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

  3. I should have mentioned that tonight at 10pm, EST, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” will be about barbecue joints in K.C.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 16, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  4. Ever tried balut?

    Comment by godoggo — April 17, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

  5. That snout very appetizing.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — April 18, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  6. You mean that’s a real snout and not some shaped edible material?

    Comment by Pandora — April 18, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

  7. Well, it looks like what I ate back in 1978.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 18, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

  8. Is “local bak” in the top caption of the screenshot (graphic) supposed to be “local bank” ?

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — April 19, 2012 @ 4:21 am

  9. It occurs to me that there’s somebody from Kansas City who appeared with his band in Blazing Saddles and made a few of albums with Sinatra. I’m going to say he’s probably more famous than Bird.

    Comment by godoggo — April 19, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  10. LOL this is probably what Governor Christie eats on a regular basis. She says it’s not kosher, rock the casbah LOL LOL LOL.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 19, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  11. Nothing worse than a MAJORLY obese Republican like Governor Fatso of New Jersey. The old fat back pig snout he is. OK I’ll shut up now LOL.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 19, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  12. […] should explain that the panel referred to in her email appears here. Apparently like many of the three and a half million other people who have visited my blog, Ms. […]

    Pingback by An exchange with Harvey Pekar’s widow « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 12, 2012 @ 2:59 pm


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