Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Chicago

pirateAbout 5 years ago, when I was still living and working in Europe, I was spending a lot of time working in Zurich. One night I was having trouble sleeping, and I turned on the radio in the hotel room to the BBC. A piece came on about Postville, an isolated small town in northeastern Iowa. In the late 1980s, Postville, like many small Midwestern towns, was having trouble. The local meatpacking plant had closed down a few years before, all the young people were moving away to Chicago and Minneapolis, and in 10 or 15 years, the town would be out of business. Which really upset the locals, many of whose families had been in Postville since its founding in the 1850s.

Then, one day in 1987, an entrepreneur showed up and purchased the plant with the intention of reopening it. The townspeople were delighted. There would be jobs and economic development, and Postville would be saved from extinction.

Except that the entrepreneur was a Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch sect in Brooklyn, and the plant would be a kosher one. Kosher meatpacking plants are not your typical “outsourcing” venture. A large percentage of the work must be done by specially trained, orthodox Jews.

So in moved 30 orthodox rabbis and their (large) families. Still wonderful, thought the locals. This is America, it’s the melting pot. We’ll accept and absorb anyone. And the townspeople, being the welcoming folk that they were, formed a welcoming committee to help the Hasidim adopt to life in rural Iowa. There would be a “buddy system” matching the Hasidic children with local children at the local schools. There would be dances for the older youth. And the Hasidic women would be invited to come help out preparing for the Postville Christmas Bazaar. But first, the townspeople and the Hasidim would get together for a spare rib barbecue picnic! (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry frequently says in his syndicated newspaper column, “I am not making this up.”)

The Hasidim immediately let the locals know that they had no intention of being absorbed.  Their children wouldn’t be going to the local schools; their sons wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s daughters, and their daughters wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s sons; and the Hasidic women wouldn’t be working for the Christmas Bazaar. And not only weren’t they going to eat spare-ribs, they weren’t going to eat anything that they hadn’t prepared themselves. Ever.

The townspeople were, of course, profoundly offended and an epic culture clash ensued. But economic salvation is economic salvation, and both sides determined to make the best of it. The next thing that happened, however, is that meatpacking plants have a lot of low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs that neither the Hasidim nor the locals were willing to do. So in came a large number of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Latin America. And Postville, a town of 1,500 people which had never knowingly seen a Jew or a black in person before (of course they’d seen them on TV and the movies, just not in person), suddenly had a population of 1/3 people of color and culture.

Even though I had not yet started my writing career, I recognized this as a story of great dramatic potential, and I wrote it down in my “Ideas File.” A year and a half after I retired, after I’d completed and had some success with my first two full-length plays, I contacted Stephen Bloom, who had written a book entitled “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” Bloom was the one I’d heard being interviewed on the BBC program. We negotiated and signed a contract for me to purchase the theatrical rights to the book, and I set about writing a play “inspired” by the events in Postville.

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

But in May, 2008, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Postville plant.  The raid uncovered a large number of illegal immigrants, some underage workers, and various other labor infractions. While I had heard rumors about this sort of thing before I started outlining the play, I had decided that the themes for the play would be completely different.

  1. Change is inevitable. It’s not as though the alternative is living eternally in the 1950s and being happy and prosperous forever.
  2. Change hurts, and when people are hurt they often react in inappropriate ways.
  3. The American melting pot model is no longer universally applicable. Not everyone wants or needs to assimilate and disappear into the American “mocha mix.”
  4. Somehow, people will reach a new working arrangement and learn to live together.

I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath – fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, general uproar. But in the 8 months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.

Then, last week, I came up with a way to incorporate the events but not turn the message of my play on its head. Some unhappy locals would have instigated the raid by tipping off the government.  When the raid comes and the plant closes they, along with everyone else, realize that an uncomfortable truce was greatly preferable to extinction.  The plant re-opens, and life goes on at a new level of compromise.

I had a reading of the first half of the play last night, and I think it’s going to work. Wish me luck, and watch out for “Postville,” which I hope to complete in the next 3 or 4 months.

no-way-out1It was early December, 2004. I’d had a stressful week of contract negotiations in Peoria with Caterpillar, but now I was headed home. The flight from Chicago to Denver was three-quarters full when I boarded, but I managed to find a window seat with an open middle between me and the man on the aisle.  I settled in for what I hoped would be a peaceful beginning to the weekend.

At the last instant before they closed the doors, she hurried onto the plane, lugging a wheeled carry-on suitcase, a computer bag, and an oversized purse. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. Wait a minute.  That’s a different curmudgeon story! She surveyed the cabin and took aim at – me! What? Do I have a target on my forehead?

She made her way down the aisle to my row, pausing only to remove several bags and coats from a nearby overhead bin and put her things in. Then, leaving the stewardess to deal with half a dozen irate passengers whose bags were now on the floor, she settled into the middle-seat next to me. I ducked down behind my newspaper.

“Hi, I’m Anne,” she said.

“Uh, I’m Don,” I responded reluctantly.

“It’ll be nice having somebody to talk to for the next couple of hours.”

I pretended to be engrossed in the listing of hog future prices on page 16.

“Look at that headline, she said, reading the side of my paper facing her. “Supreme Disallows Nativity Scene on City Hall Grounds. Those morons!”

I mumbled something about the Constitution and separation of church and state.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “This is a Christian country. It was founded by Christians and nobody should object to us putting up a nativity scene on the grounds of the Town Hall.”

I abandoned any hope of relaxing, and settled in for a fight. “Actually, I object to it. Put your religious displays in your church, and I’ll do the same with my religious displays in mine.”

She glared at me with animosity, I supposed trying to determine how I had managed to hide my horns under my hair. Then, in an attempt to be civil, she tried what she was sure would be common ground for any sane person. “Well, at least the country is on safe grounds for another four years now that we’ve re-elected Bush.”

“I voted for Kerry,” was my response.

“I’m sorry for you,” she replied.

And on it went. It was like the Sartre play, “No Way Out.” Each thing she said made me want to strangle her. And like an idiot, instead of keeping my mouth shut, I argued with her.

Finally, the pilot came on the PA to announced that we were beginning our descent into Denver. By this time, Ann and I had lapsed into a tense silence. I saw her winding up for one final attempt at conversation.

“There’s one thing that we can certainly agree on. It’ll be great when they make it legal to use your cell phone during the flight, won’t it?”

At that point, I completely lost it. “Are you absolutely out of your mind? It’s bad enough we have to listen to people screaming into their cell phones everywhere else in the world. Look around you. We’re prisoners here. There’s absolutely no escape!  But it’d be worth it if it meant I didn’t have to talk to you!”

We sat in silence for the rest of the trip. And no, I didn’t ask for Ann’s phone number so we could keep in touch.