A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bad Old Days

I've just finished my latest article for the YMCA, all about the Summer Teen Employment Program. The Director, Melany LaRoe, enthused in an interview about what a great opportunity it was for 16-year-olds. For most of them, this would be their first job. The staff was so supportive...so enthusiastic. They'll have a week of orientation, keep journals, discuss their problems in weekly meetings.

That got me to thinking about my first job. My mother sent me to work in a garment factory, to teach me, she said, what happens to people who drop out of school.

Fat chance of that! I've never met anyone, before or since, who liked school as much as I did. But I was excited to have a real job. I can remember begging to work on the tobacco farms, riding on the back of a truck with the Puerto Rican kids. The girls stooped all day, picking fat white worms off the tobacco plants and dropping them in a jar of kerosene.

The garment factory wasn't much better. My mother was one of three foremen there, and cut me no slack. I had the first operation: ticketing.

Bobbie Fashions didn't cut out the fabric. They received giant shipments of all the pieces for each contract they won. Backs...sleeves...facings. Each piece in the huge bundles had to be numbered consecutively before the bundles were untied. A checker at the end of the line made sure all the tickets on each finished garment bore the same number. That ensured that the pieces had remained in order, and that dye lots were not mixed.

In the summer, garment factories make winter clothes. That summer, Bobbie Fashions had contracts mostly with the manufacturer of plus-sized women's coats. The bundles were heavy and unwieldy; the wool was scratchy. The un-airconditioned factory was not called a "sweatshop" for nothing.

I could've run the ticketing machine while seated on a stool, but my mother thought that would make me look too lazy. So I had to stand all day. The wool lint tickled my throat and made me itch. The first day, I coughed and rubbed my face constantly. A kind lady advised me to chew gum, and gave me a pack.

The next morning, my jaw was sore from chewing, and my face was red and raw from scratching. I abandoned the makeup and the white cotton bermuda shorts. I put on my oldest clothes, and slathered my face with Vaseline to shield it from the lint.

A guy named Mitch, the owner's wife, and my mother were the three foremen. The women who did the piecework were mostly immigrants, Italian and Puerto Rican. Many spoke no English. When Mitch or the boss's wife would hand them a defective garment and tell them to redo it, they would look blank and shrug. Somehow, they had no trouble understanding my mother's requests. She treated them with respect, saying she could never do their jobs half so fast or well. And so they treated her with respect.

Bobbie Fashions is long gone, but the building remains. It's in the South End of Springfield, only a few minutes from where I live. It's an office building now, carefully renovated. Air conditioning units protrude from the windows.

Most of the manufacturing jobs are gone from this area, replaced by service industries. Somewhere in China is my successor, bent over a ticketing machine, coughing and rubbing her jaw. I must remember that the next time I put on a winter coat.