"You got it, Craig, attababy, we love ya, no contest, oh, geez, are you beautiful, hey, guy!" yelled the warehouse manager of Bob's Transport.
Washington pushes paper around all day and slouches toward quitting time, but Baltimore, like Chicago, is a city of big shoulders, where men unload great ships and get grimy on hot slabs of asphalt and then stop in juke joints on the way home for a National Bo. Not everyone in this old historic port is a blue-collar worker, but 10,000 forklift drivers toil and curse the bread and wait for the light here. A working city with a workingman's dreams.
On Saturday, 53 forklift operators, the cream of their class (whose number included a woman with soft speech and lacquered nails), competed in something called "Liftoff '83." The contest didn't have anything to do with rockets, it had to do with wooden skids and nifty little trucks with hydraulic lifts. It had to do with fast-forward gears and hand-eye coordination and the estimable ability to back perilous loads into tight spaces.
And do it against a clock, of course. For this was a forklift rodeo, the city's second annual, and the urban cowboys of Independent Can and Maryland Cup and Baltimore Tin Plate were each trying to bring home a trophy for the company, for themselves, for a city in renaissance. You could have made a movie of it with John Travolta, not Robert Redford.
The day had the hot, baking flavor of an Indy 500. Only this Indy nation was microsized and the speeds were less than rubber-laying. They held it down at Pier 6, where pennants yapped in the breeze and untold Bud cans got squashed against the pavement. In the distance you could see the Bromo-Seltzer tower and Harborplace and SCARLET SEEDS painted on a hulking warehouse.
"Hey Number 37, don't go 'way, we might have a dropout," yelled a man with "McCall Industrial Lift Trucks" stitched on a yellow patch on his shirt. He was a judge, and he had a little green felt flag in his hand, just like they do at Indy. It was 1:30 now, and drivers and their cheering squads had been here since 9 a.m, milling, drinking, passing time.
Driver No. 37 had a blue muscle shirt rolled past his shoulders. He shook hands grimly with his opponent, then hopped onto his idling steed. It was a lime-green Clark forklift. His opponent drove an Allis-Chalmers, a venerable American model. An A-C is cream-colored and has a spiffy little orange stripe on it. The two drivers tore through the course, sliding their forks expertly under pallets and barrels, going in and out of simulated boxcars and warehouses and slalom routes, then red-lining it for the finish.
Maybe 100 people vaguely watched.
No. 37's name was Rick Miller, and he ended up getting disqualified. "Tipped my wheels," he said afterward. In a warehouse, tipping your wheels is a flagrant safety violation.
In real life, that is Monday-to-Friday life, with its 5 o'clock dreams and airless spaces, Rick Miller drives for Bob's Transport in Columbia. He works in a warehouse with 15-foot aisles. Sometimes he has less than six feet in which to turn around. It's a good job, he said, an honest one. You work at it, it'll give you something back--like pride. "Wait till next year. I'll get that 500 bucks prize money yet," Miller said without malice, sipping a Coke.
First prize was $500; second was $200. But more than dough was at stake here.
Four other drivers from Bob's Transport had entered the contest, including Craig Ostendorf. His was the second-best time turned in thus far: 3:43. Ostendorf is an angular, laconic fellow; he wore cutoffs and a Daytona Beach T-shirt and seemed to be taking the tension in stride.
Bill Horton, the warehouse manager, hadn't come to drive, just wave his arms and shout from the sidelines. He helped pick his firm's drivers for the contest. "I put out the best we had," he said.
The contest was the brainchild of Dennis Zembala, director of Baltimore's Museum of Industry, which bills itself as a "Working Museum for a Working City" and is in an old cannery on the other side of the harbor. "The guys like it. The prize money helps stimulate the competitive juices. It's good publicity. I think it carries over into their work," said Zembala, who was doubling Saturday as the event's public-address announcer. "People make a living, and I think they need to be recognized."
You could look up at the leader board and see the contestants' names and times. These were workingmen's names, or maybe they just sounded that way to an out-of-towner: Judison Savage (5:04); Anthony Buccinni (7:16); Reginald Alexander Smith (4:54).
You could also see this name: Susan Eyet. She had turned in a quite respectable 4:28. Eyet drives a forklift for the Army, at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Her whole family had come to cheer her on--husband Jerry, daughters Jennifer and Gretchen. Even her mother and stepfather came.
"Yeah, we had some cheers for Mom," said 10-year-old Gretchen. "But I don't think I'll do them for you."
"Where are all the gutsy women?" asked Eyet after she had run. She said it softly, not accusingly. Her nails were an attractive and unchipped reddish-pink, and against her demurely stained gray T-shirt were two gold chains with dangling charms. She had her perforated ball cap off, holding it upside down. Inside the hat were her Marlboros and tube lighter and blue bandana.
A ladylike arm came up to wipe sweat from her forehead. Another driver walked by and clapped her lightly on the back. "Good run," he said with the kind of gruding admiration of an A.J. Foyt to a Janet Guthrie.
"To tell you the truth, I thought there would be a lot more women entered," she said. "Are they afraid? Actually, I was afraid. I could hardly sleep last night. I tell you, I was so nervous when I got on that thing, my knees were trembling. I could hardly hold the clutch in. But I did it."
Eyet's husband stood next to her and seemed very proud. He works at Aberdeen, too, in preventive maintenance. "I told her to go ahead," he said. "We saw the posters advertising the contest. Well, she works in a man's world, doesn't she? Why shouldn't she have entered?"
Was she striking a blow for women's rights?
"I'm not what you'd call a hard-core libber," she said. "I did it for myself. And my family."
Daughter Gretchen reached over and hugged her mom. Then the mom grinned and slung her arm around her own mom. "Even Lucy here didn't mind. You know what she told me? She said she'd have been out there driving, too, if they'd let her."
"Yeah," Sue's mom said. "First grandmother in the business. Ha."
"Actually," said Sue, "my time was 3:58. But they added 30 seconds for penalties."
"What did you do, Mom?" asked daughter Jennifer.
"Well, I bumped into something coming out of one of my turns. And I guess I didn't stack the water drums square."
The finals were in progress. The crowd had waxed and waned all day (the sponsors were hoping for as many as 1,000), though now the numbers were down to a faithful few. There were six finalists, and it seemed to be ending in a Titanic battle of the gears between Craig Ostendorf of Bob's Warehouse and Ray Behner of Independent Can. Behner was last year's champ. He wears a white glove on his left hand--an artist with a steering wheel.
"Raise 'em up, raise 'em up!" screamed somebody, as the two drivers plowed through the course with exquisite concentration.
"You got it, Dorf," shouted the partisans of Bob's Warehouse. But it was too late. Ray Behner had done it again. He had finished in 3:17. Ostendorf came in third at 3:25.
"We might not make any money," said museum director Zembala. "We made good will."