Friday, January 18, 2008

The Atlas Portland Cement Company

Henry Miller was 17 years old when he graduated from Eastern District high school in 1909. His whole life was ahead of him. Once his summer ended, Henry attended City College in New York, but dropped out after eight weeks due to his disappointment with its teaching methods. [1] This left him with only one option: the tedium of full time employment at a job he would probably hate.

At the end of 1909, Henry found work as a filing clerk for a large cement company. The Atlas Portland Cement Company’s New York office was at 30 Broad Street, in the Manhattan financial district [map]. It was a well-established business with offices throughout the U.S. They had become an industrial authority on the subject of cement, and published several books on the topic, like Concrete Construction: About the Home and On the Farm.

As a clerk, Henry dealt only with paper, never the actual cement. The drudgery of the under-stimulating job quickly drove him to boredom. [2] This disinterest led to enough mistakes that Henry believed his boss thought he was “mentally deficient,” because “an idiot could have filled the job capably.” “The boss who was over me, an irascible Canadian, would fly into a rage over the mistakes I made.” [3].

The logo for the Atlas Portland Cement Co , from a 1916 magazine advertisement.

Henry’s mind was probably elsewhere. It was a period in which he was reading the “heaviest” books during his transit rides to work every morning: “I recall what a pleasure it was, as I made my way to the elevated train at the Brooklyn Bridge … I read standing up, squeezed on all sides by the straphangers like myself. I not only read during these trips on the “El,” I memorized long passages from these too-too-solid tomes” [4]. He also enjoyed finding new issues of the German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus at the newsstand on his way to work [5].

While employed at Atlas Portland, Henry was involved in a complicated relationship with a 30-something widow named Pauline Chouteau. His pay at the cement company was so miserable, he had to give an occasional amateur piano lesson to supplement his income [6]--Pauline entered his life as the friend of a woman whose daughter Henry was giving lessons to. Henry's Atlas Portland wage was only $15-20 a month (plus overtime) [7]. He was terrible at managing his money, and often spent a week’s worth of lunch money on a single night out with his friends in the Xerxes Society. This often meant going without lunches until his next paycheck [7]. Instead of eating, he would distract himself during his lunch hour at the Aquarium, located down at Battery Park, where he would “study marine life” [8]. Sometimes, a co-worker was generous enough to lend Henry a nickel so he could buy himself a candy bar [7].

The New York Aquarium, where Henry would often spend his lunch hours from 1909-1911.

Although Henry was “utterly unlike” most of his co-workers at Atlas Portland Cement [9], he was able to make some friends. One was Ray Wetzler, to whom Henry would confide the details of his relationship with Pauline. Henry admired Ray because he appeared to be the type of athlete that he aspired to be [10]. Not long after starting this job, Henry had begun a “period of rigorous athletic discipline that lasted seven years” [11]. Even on work days, at 5:30 AM he would either bike for miles or jog for up to five miles before returning home [12], getting changed, then exercising his brain muscles with dense books during his ride on the “El” into work.

In Books In My Life, Miller lists other workers (“wonderful fellows”) at Atlas Portland: “Eddie Rink, Jimmy Tierney, Roger Wales, Frank Selinger, Ray Wetzler, Frank McKenna, Mister Blehl (my bete noir), Barney something-or-other (a mere mouse of a man), Navarro, the vice-president, whom we encountered only in going to the lavatory; Taliaferro, the peppery Southerner from Virginia, who would repeat over the phone a dozen times a day, ‘Not Taliaferro—Tolliver!’” (p. 207)

Only as I write this piece do I realize that this Taliaferro appears to be the same Southerner to whom Henry paid his rent check for 91 Remsen Street many years later, and who subsequently and regrettably asked Henry to leave when said check was no longer being produced.

Finally, Miller spends a paragraph on Harold Street, for whom he had vague but pleasant memories of socializing with him at his home in Jamaica, New York (pp. 207-208).


This selection from the 1910 census of Brooklyn shows Henry's occupation as "clerk" for a "cement co."

Henry Miller worked at Atlas Portland Cement (called Everlasting Portland Cement in Books In My Life, p.264) until the end of the summer in 1911 [13]. After a period of being without work, he would eventually have little choice but to work for his father’s tailoring business.

Years later, in the mid-1920s, Henry met up with his cousin Gene after a very long absence. “I suppose you’re still in the cement company,” said Gene. “The cement company!,” writes Miller in Plexus, “I nearly fell off my chair. ‘Why no, Gene,’ I said, ‘I’m a wrier now, didn’t you know that?’” (p.217)

But Henry was only starting out as a writer. As Plexus illustrates, times were still tough for Henry. He found himself scrambling for any kind of work he could get--even considering a return to Atlas Portland. The Frank McKenna who is listed as his Atlas Portland co-worker (mentioned above) also appears in Miller’s hand-written notes for Plexus [14] (although I can’t identify him under any other name in that novel; maybe this scene didn’t make the cut). Meant to be about the 1925-1926 period, the note says, “Begging Frank Mc Kenna (Atlas Cement) for job = same scene later shoeshine.”

Desperate times.

________________

References

[1] "1909-Entered City College of New York and left after two months -- rebelled against educational methods." From autochronology posted at Henry Miller Library website; [2] Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, p. 47;[3] Book Of Friends (I), p. 102. [4] Books In My Life, p. 264. [5] Books In My Life, p. 204. [6] Joey: Book Of Friends, Volume III, p. 55. [7] Book Of Friends (I), p.102. [8] Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hieronymus Bosch, p. 83. [9] Joey: Book Of Friends, Volume III, p.59. [10] ibid, p. 58. [11] Autochronology, from HM Memorial Library. [12] Joey, p. 57. [13] In Books In My Life (p. 207), Miller writes "... the day I left the company—at the age of twenty-one." He turned 21 on December 26, 1912. This claim seems to conflict with assertions made in Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright (p. 28) that Henry had quit his cement job by Sept 1911--when he would have been 19, almost 20 (in December). [14] Henry Miller On Writing, p. 171.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Bradford said...

RC -

Perhaps I'm not remembering this correctly, but wasn't Pauline a friend of a woman whose daughter was taking lessons from Henry? She would sit it, Henry would walk her home and that's how it started.

2:07 pm  
Blogger RC said...

You're absolutely right, Bradford. I've now made this correction in the post. Thanks for flagging it!

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Anonymous Eric L said...

I like the new picture, RC. You look a little...how shall I say...roguish?

I'll have a Paris report for you soon.

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