To categorize Bruce would require one to compare him to the most well dressed executive and community stalwart or to the bowery boy who had a distinct love for clothes and an unquenchable thirst for demon rum.
Bruce was an accomplished mechanic in the painting trade. He also was a connoisseur of suits, overcoats, and expensive ties and shirts… Both white overalls and brogans were discarded daily for fine suits and ties often encased in a cashmere overcoat.
Bruce had been married, and I think he had a child or children in Tennessee. Bruce was born with a hair lip and cleft pallet. His lavish dress was never as evident as was his handicap. The following stories are intended to only relay actual happenings, not to cast fun or criticism of his worth or handicap.
Bruce lived with his Mother and thus did not find excessive time for work.. Bruce may be on the job for weeks and not show up again for a longer time. Many times no one knew where Bruce was.
I recall one such time Bruce disappeared from the job at the old Birmingham Post office painting project. He showed up for his old job several weeks later with a huge black area on the rear of his neck. You could have put two of him in his overalls. It was discovered he had gone to Houston, Texas and no one knew what had happened to him during his hiatus. This wasn’t that unusual to persons who knew Bruce. I will explain.
Bruce having an opportunity for a visit to The Post Office Café with his buddies was to say “let’s drink one”,which could be translated, till one (a.m.).
On such an occasion we would have found Bruce with his buddies Marvin and Hot Shot (their story to follow) and other fellow painters sipping a few at the café. Bruce’s mother often sewed pockets in Bruce’s ties and hid some emergency money in this pocket should he get stranded while inebriated. When Bruce got sauced up to the point of passing out, someone who was up to mom’s tie trick would take out their pocketknife and cut off the bottom of the tie and steal his extra money. To their knowledge Bruce didn’t know what happened other than his money was missing.
It was not uncommon for painters during work slumps in Birmingham to get a clearance card from the Local Business Agent and go to Fort Lauderdale or Tampa and clear in the union there and paint houses until times got better in Birmingham. It seems that Marvin and Hot Shot decided to do this very thing.
After they received the clearance card that night, they immediately left for Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. They had proceeded to Alabaster, Alabama and had a terrible wreck which killed both of the friends.. One detail that they would never know was that Bruce had been asleep in the bed of the truck. Fortunately Bruce received only minor scrapes and bruises. The friends were in a joint visitation at John-Rideouts Funeral Home. Both Caskets were in the same room. Bruce entered in his cashmere coat and approached the two supine friends. It is reported that he said, in his nasal voice, “Hot Shot I always loved you like a brother. ”He approached Marvin’s coffin and said to Marvin, “Marvin you SOB you won’t rob me again.” He exited the room.
Bruce was impulsive in all his actions. He was sent by my partner to the Chicago area to touch up bolts on a new steel structure for American Bridge. We received a call two days later from the Superintendent asking where the painter was. It became apparent that Bruce never showed. My partner got in his car and headed for Chicago, as he had advanced Bruce five hundred dollars for expenses. As he could not find Bruce, he called the union hall in Birmingham and asked if they had heard from Bruce. The Business Agent said, “he’s in the back playing cards.” Fit to be tied my partner drove straight through to Birmingham and headed for the union hall. He confronted Bruce and demanded his five hundred dollars. Bruce replied., “Well, I tell you Cecil, It took most of it for the plane ticket home and I guess I just blowed the rest.”
Bruce had purchased one of the early foreign cars, I think it was a small Datsun. On the way into Birmingham from Tennessee the auto had quit north of Birmingham. Bruce thumbed to down town and proceeded to the union hall. One of the players inquired saying, “ Bruce, where is that new car ?” “ it’s up on the side if the road in Gardendale.” replied Bruce. “ If you want it, go get it.” He did, end of story.
I recall another story of Bruce and his relationship with the Painting trade. Bruce was, as usual, at the painter’s hall playing card and imbibing as was the policy when not working.
The sixties was a turbulent time. The painter’s hall was on fifth avenue North one block away and directly across the park from the site of turning the police dogs on the demonstrating blacks by Bull Conner’s men.
The supply of refreshments were dwindling and Bruce volunteered to go across the park to the whisky store and purchase more. As previously reported, Bruce had love for nice clothes, which he had on at the time. They other participants begged Bruce to not make the foray. Bruce is reported to have said, “awe they know me.” Bruce made the short trip and returned shortly with the liquor but was in only his underwear. No shoes, no overcoat, no suit and tie, totally exposed. But according to another brother painter, “everybody has got to be somewhere”.
Profound! Rest on Bruce. You saw much of it. I observed. You were there. Peace.
Regardless his habits and antics, Bruce was a keeper.
Adios Bruce. Let’s drink one.