Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hoffa’s first Teamster joke

I told Jimmy Hoffa his first Teamster joke. He didn’t like it.

Okay, it wasn’t James R. Hoffa, the fabled, mobbed-up, union boss who went MIA in 1975. It was his son, James P., current head of the union who despite that middle initial is still known as Jimmy Junior.

It was May of 1995; James P. was running for the Teamster presidency against incumbent Ron Carey in an election set for June the following year. On assignment for Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, I met the aspiring union leader at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Outside, it was a clear spring day. Inside, three of the half-dozen bulky guys in Hoffa’s suite were smoking cigars. Breathing was a challenge.

Hoffa was talking forcefully about the 15-year (now 40-year) decline in working people’s incomes. I don’t remember exactly how, but for some reason the subject of Teamster jokes came up.

“What’s a Teamster joke?” Hoffa asked. He wasn’t smiling.

Teamster jokes may have been a New York City phenomenon. I don’t know for sure. But I first heard them among the production people who worked in the city’s film industry. Wherever the actors went on location, so did the trucks that brought the cameras, lighting, and sound equipment. Those trucks usually arrived very early in the morning, parked at the curb all day, and left late. For all the hours in between Teamster drivers had nothing to do. Fairly or not, they were famous for eating and sleeping behind the wheel.

“Oh, they’re just jokes that some production people tell,” I said, trying to back away from the subject.

“Tell me one,” Hoffa said.

Uh oh.

I tried to remember a relatively mild one, even if it was lame. One second, then two ticked away as I thought. But for all the trying, only one Teamster joke surfaced. There were at least a dozen making the rounds at the time, yet I could only think of one. Please no, I thought to myself, not that one.

Hoffa was looking at me with steely blue eyes.

“Okay,” I said. “How do you know when a Teamster is dead?”

“I don’t know,” Hoffa responded. “How?”

There was no choice but to deliver the line.

“The doughnut falls out of his mouth.”

Silence.

Then Hoffa launched into a rather loud diatribe from which I learned, among other things, that Michael Eisner, then the head of Disney, made $100 million in one year while Disney warehouse workers were earning $7 an hour.

The interview was over.

(Just for the record, Hoffa lost to Carey the following year, but won a special election in 1998 and three more since. The next election is set for the Teamster convention in Las Vegas in 2016.)