Working with the working woman



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Therefore, being curious, we decided to work in factories. In addition to wanting to feel a bona-fide part of a cross section of the world before only viewed second or third hand through books, there was the desire better to understand the industrial end of things by trying a turn at what some eight million or so other women are doing. "Women's place is the home." All right--that side of life we know first hand. But more and more women are not staying home, either from choice or from necessity. Reading about it is better than nothing. Being an active part of it all is better still. It is one thing to lounge on an overstuffed davenport and read about the injurious effect on women of long hours of standing. It is another to be doing the standing.

Yet another reason for giving up some months to factory work, besides the adventure of it, besides the desire to see other angles of life for oneself, to experience first hand the industrial end of it. So much of the technic of the world to-day we take as a matter of course. Clothes appear ready to put on our backs. As far as we know or care, angels left them on the hangers behind the mirrored sliding doors. Food is set on our tables ready to eat. It might as well have been created that way, for all our concern. The thousands of operations that go into an article before the consumer buys it--no, there is no reason why use and want should make us callous and indifferent to the hows and wherefores. Never was there such an age. Let's poke behind the scenes a bit.

So, factories it was to be. Not as a stranger snooping in to "investigate." As a factory girl working at her job--with all that, we determined to peek out of the corner of our eyes, and keep both ears to the wind, lest we miss anything from start to finish. Artificial, of course. Under the circumstances, since we were born how and as we were, and this had happened and that, we were not an honest Eyetalian living in a back bedroom on West Forty-fourth Street near the river.

We did what we could to feel the part. Every lady in the land knows the psychology of dress--though not always expressed by her in those terms. She feels the way she looks, not the other way round. So then, we purchased large green earrings, a large bar pin of platinum and brilliants ($1.79), a goldy box of powder (two shades), a lip stick. During the summer we faded a green tam-o'shanter so that it would not look too new. For a year we had been saving a blue-serge dress (original cost $19) from the rag bag for the purpose. We wore a pair of old spats which just missed being mates as to shade, and a button off one. Silk stockings--oh yes, silk--but very darned. A blue sweater, an orange scarf, and last, but not least--

If you had been brought up in a fairly small city by female relatives who were one and all school-teachers, who had watched over your vocabulary (unsuccessfully) as they hung over your morals; if you had been taught, not in so many words, but insidiously, that breaking the Ten Commandments (any one or the entire ten), split infinitives, and chewing gum, were one in the sight of God, or the devil--then you could realize the complete metamorphosis when, in addition to the earrings and the bar pin, the green tam and the lip stick, you stepped up to the Subway newsstand and boldly demanded a package of--chewing gum. And then and there got out a stick and chewed it, and chewed it on the Subway and chewed it on the streets of New York. Some people have to go to a masquerade ball to feel themselves some one else for a change. Others, if they have been brought up by school-teachers, can get the same effect with five cents' worth of chewing gum.

After all, one of the most attractive features about being "well brought up" is the fun of sloughing off. The fun of sloughing off a lot at once! Had it ever been known ahead of time the fascination of doing forbidden things, just that first factory morning would have been worth the whole venture. To read the morning paper over other people's shoulders--not furtively, but with a bold and open eye. To stare at anything which caught one's attention. (Bah! all that is missed in New York because it has been so ground into the bone that it is impolite to stare!) And to talk to any one, male or female, who looked or acted as if he or she wanted to talk to you. Only even a short experience has taught that that abandon leads to more trouble than it is worth. What a pity mere sociability need suffer so much repression! We hate to make that concession to our upbringers.

When the time for beginning factory work came there appeared but one advertisement among "Help Wanted--Female" which did not call for "experience." There might have to be so much lying, direct and indirect, to do. Better not start off by claiming experience when there was absolutely none--except, indeed, had we answered advertisements for cooks only, or baby tenders, or maids of all work. One large candy factory bid for "girls and women, good wages to start, experience not necessary," and in a part of town which could be reached without starting out the night before. At 7.15 of a Monday morning we were off, with a feeling something akin to stage fright. Once we heard a hobo tell of the first time he ever tried to get on a freight train in the dark of night when it was moving. But we chewed our gum very boldly.

One of the phases of finding a job often criticized by those who would add somewhat of dignity to labor is the system of hiring. Like a lot of other things, perhaps, you don't mind the present system if you get by. Here was this enormous good-looking factory. On one side of the front steps, reaching all the way up into the main entrance hall, stood a line of men waiting for jobs; on the other side, though not near so long a line, the girls. The regular employees file by. At last, about eight o'clock, the first man is beckoned. Just behind the corner of a glassed-in telephone booth, but in full view of all, he is questioned by an employee in a white duck suit. Man after man is sent on out, to the growing discouragement, no doubt, of those remaining in line. At last, around a little corner in the stairs, the first girl is summoned. The line moves up. A queer-looking man with pop eyes asks a few questions. The girl goes on upstairs. I am fourth in line--a steam heater next and the actions of my insides make the temperature seem 120 at least. My turn.

"How much experience you've had?"

"None."


"What you work in last?"

"Didn't work in a factory--been doin' housework--takin' care of kids."

"Well, I start you packing. You get thirteen dollars this week, fourteen dollars next--you understand?"

He writes something on a little card and I go upstairs with it. There I am asked my name, age (just did away with ten years while I was at it). Married or single? Goodness! hadn't thought of that. In the end a lie there would make less conversation. Single. Nationality--Eyetalian? No, American. It all has to be written on a card. At that point my eye lights on a sign which reads: "Hours for girls 8 A.M.-6 P.M. Saturdays 8-12." Whew! My number is 1075. The time clock works so. My key hangs on this hook; then after I ring up, it hangs here. (That was an entrancing detail I had not anticipated--made me wish we had to ring up at noon as well as morning and night.) Locker key 222. A man takes me in the elevator to the third floor and there hands me over to Ida. The locker works thus and so. Didn't I have no apron? No--but to-morrow I'd bring it, and a cap. Sure.

Three piles of boxes and trucks and barrels and Ida opens a great door like a safe, and there we are in the packing room--from the steam heater downstairs to the North Pole. Cold? Nothing ever was so cold. Ten long zinc-topped tables, a girl or two on each side. At the right, windows which let in no air and little light, nor could you see out at all. On the left, shelves piled high with wooden boxes. Mostly all a body can think of is how cold, cold, cold it is. Something happens to chocolates otherwise.

That first day it is half-pound boxes. My side of the table holds some sixty at a time. First the date gets stamped on the bottom, then partitions are fitted in. "Here's your sample. Under the table you'll find the candies, or else ask Fannie, there. You take the paper cups so, in your left hand, give them a snap so, lick your fingers now and then, slip a cup off, stick the candy in with your right hand." And Ida is off.

The saints curse the next person who delicately picks a chocolate from its curled casing and thinks it grew that way--came born in that paper cup. May he or she choke on it! Can I ever again buy chocolates otherwise than loose in a paper bag? You push and shove--not a cup budges from its friends and relatives. Perhaps your fingers need more licking. Perhaps the cups need more "snapping." In the end you hold a handful of messed-up crumpled erstwhile cup-shaped paper containers, the first one pried off looking more like a puppy-chewed mat by the time it is loose and a chocolate planted on its middle. By then, needless to remark, the bloom is off the chocolate. It has the look of being clutched in a warm hand during an entire circus parade. Whereat you glance about furtively and quickly eat it. It is nice the room is cold; already you fairly perspire. One mussed piece of naked brown paper in a corner of a box.

The table ahead, fingers flying like mad over the boxes, works Annie. It is plain she will have sixty boxes done before I have one. Just then a new girl from the line of that morning is put on the other side of my table. She is very cold. She fares worse with brown paper cups than I. Finally she puts down the patient piece of chocolate candy and takes both hands to the job of separating one cup from the others. She places what is left of the chocolate in the middle of what is left of the paper, looks at me, and better than any ouija board I know what is going on in her head. I smile at her, she smiles back, and she eats that first chocolate. Tessie and I are friends for life.

Then we tackle the second union of chocolate and paper. Such is life. Allah be praised, the second goes a shade less desperately than the first, the third than the second, and in an hour chocolate and paper get together without untoward damage to either. But the room stays feeling warm. Anon a sensation begins to get mixed up with the hectic efforts of fingers. Yes, yes--now it's clear what it is--feet! Is one never to sit down again as long as one lives? Clumsy fingers--feet. Feet--clumsy fingers. Finally you don't give a cent if you never learn to pry those paper cups loose without wrenching your very soul in the effort. If once before you die--just once--you can sit down! Till 12 and then after, 1 till 6. Help!

A bell rings. "All right, girls!" sings Ida down the line. Everyone drops everything, and out into the warm main third floor we go. All the world is feet. Somehow those same feet have to take their possessor out to forage for food. Into a little dirty, crowded grocery and delicatessen store we wedge ourselves, to stand, stand, stand, until at last we face the wielder of a long knife. When in Rome do as the Romans do. "A bologna and a ham sandwich and five cents' worth of pickles." Slabs of rye bread, no butter, large, generous slices of sausage and ham which hang down curtainlike around the bread--twenty-one cents. Feet take me back to the factory lunch room. At last I flop on a chair. Sing songs to chairs; write poems to chairs; paint chairs!

Dear German Tessie, pal of the morning, she who ate more chocolates than I and thus helped to sustain my moral courage--Tessie and I eat bologna sausage sandwiches together and sit. The feet of Tessie are very, very badly off--ach!--but they feel--they feel--jus' fierce--and till six o'clock--"Oh, my Gawd!" says Tessie, in good English.

A gong sounds. Up we go to the ice box packing room. It sends the shivers down our spines. But already there is a feeling of sauntering in like an old hand at the game. What's your business in life? Packing chocolates. The half-pound boxes get finished, wax paper on top, covered, stacked, counted, put on the truck.

"Lena! Start the girl here in on 'assorteds.'"

Pert little Lena sidles up alongside and nudges me in the ribs.

"Say, got a fella?"

I give Lena one look, for which Belasco should pay me a thousand dollars a night. Lena reads it out loud quick as a wink. She snickers, pokes me in the ribs again, and, "What to hell do I think you are, hey?" That's just what I'd meant. "Gee!" says Lena. "Some fool what can't get some kind of a dope!"

"You said it!"

"Say, got more 'n one dope?" asks Lena, hopefully. Meanwhile she sets out, with my aid, row after row of dinky little deep boxes.

"Say now," say I to Lena, "and what would a girl be doin' with jus' one dope?"

"You said it!" says Lena.

At which follows a discussion on dopes, ending by Lena's promising never to vamp my dope if I won't vamp hers.

"Where'd ya work last?" asks Lena.

One thing the first day taught me. If you want to act the part and feel the part, earrings and gum help, but if there is one thing you are more conscious of than all else, it is such proper English as you possess--which compared to Boston is not much, but compared to Lena and Ida and Mary and Louise and Susie and Annie is painfully flawless. Chew hard as ever you can, if you tell Fannie, "There aren't any more plantations," it echoes and re-echoes and shrieks at you from the four sides of Christendom. But holler, "Fannie, there ain't no more plantations!" and it is like the gentle purring of a home cat by comparison. Funny how it is easier to say "My Gawd!" and "Where t' hell's Ida!" than "I 'ain't got none." Any way round, you never do get over being conscious of your grammar. If it is correct, it is lonesome as the first robin. If it is properly awful, there are those school-teacher upbringers. I am just wondering if one might not be dining with the head of the university philosophy department and his academic guests some night and hear one's voice uttering down a suddenly silent table, "She ain't livin' at that address no more." Utterly abashed, one's then natural exclamation on the stillness would be, "My Gawd!" Whereat the hostess would busily engage her end of the table in anguished conversation, giving her husband one look, which, translated into Lena's language, would say, "What t' hell did we ask her for, anyhow?"

Is one to write of factory life as one finds it, or expurgated? I can hear the upbringers cry "expurgated"! Yet the way the girls talked was one of the phases of the life which set the stamp of difference on it all. What an infinitesimal portion of the population write our books! What a small proportion ever read them! How much of the nation's talking is done by the people who never get into print! The proportion who read and write books, especially the female folk, live and die in the belief that it is the worst sort of bad taste, putting it mildly, to use the name of the Creator in vain, or mention hell for any purpose whatsoever. Yet suddenly, overnight, you find yourself in a group who would snap their fingers at such notions. Sweet-faced, curly-headed Annie wants another box of caramels. Elizabeth Witherspoon would call, "Fannie, would you be so kind as to bring me another box of caramels?" Annie, without stopping her work or so much as looking up, raises her voice and calls down the room--and in her heart she is the same exactly as Elizabeth W.--"Fannie, you bum, bring me a box of car'mels or I'll knock the hell clean out o' ya."

According to Elizabeth's notions Fannie should answer her, "One moment, Miss Elizabeth; I'm busy just now." What Fannie (with her soul as pure as drifted snow) does call back to Annie is, "My Gawd! Keep your mouth shut. 'Ain't you got sense enough to see I'm busy!"

Annie could holler a hundred times, and she does, that she'd knock the hell out of Fannie, and God would love her every bit as much as he would love Miss Elizabeth Witherspoon, who has been taught otherwise and never said hell in her life, not even in a dark closet. Fannie and all the other Fannies and Idas and Louisas, say, "My Gawd!" as Miss Elizabeth says "You don't say!" and it is all one to the Heavenly Father. Therefore, gentle reader, it must be all one to you. There is not the slightest shade of disrespect in Annie's or Fannie's hearts as they shower their profanity on creation in general. There is not the slightest shade in mind as I write of them.

So then, back that first day Lena asked, "Where'd ya work last?"

"Didn't work in a factory before."

"'Ain't ya?"

"No, I 'ain't." (Gulp.) "I took care of kids."

"Gee! but they was fresh."

"You said it!"

"Lena!" hollers Ida. "Get ta work and don't talk so much!" Whereat Lena gives me another poke in my cold ribs and departs. And Tessie and I pack "assorteds": four different chocolates in the bottom of each box, four still different ones in the top--about three hundred and fifty boxes on our table. We puff and labor on the top layer and Ida breezes along. "My Gawd! Look at that! Where's your cardboards?"

Tessie and I look woebegone at one another. Cardboards? Cardboards?

Ida glues her Eyetalian eye on Lena down the line. "Lena, you fool, didn't you tell these here girls about cardboards?... My Gawd! My Gawd!" says Ida. Whereat she dives into our belabored boxes and grabs those ached-over chocolates and hurls them in a pile. "Get all them top ones out. Put in cardboards. Put 'em all in again." Tessie and I almost could have wept. By that time it is about 4. We are all feet, feet, FEET. First I try standing on one foot to let the other think I might really, after all, be sitting down. Then I stand on it and give the other a delusion. Then try standing on the sides, the toes, the heels. FEET! "Ach! Mein Gott!" moans Tessie. "To-morrow I go look for a job in a biscuit factory."

"Leave me know if you get a sit-down one."

And in that state--FEET--Ida makes us pack over the whole top layer in three hundred and fifty boxes. Curses on Lena and her "dopes." Or curses on me that I could so suddenly invent such picturesque love affairs that Lena forgot all about cardboards.

About then my locker key falls through a hole in my waist pocket and on to the floor and out of sight. In the end it takes a broom handle poked about diligently under the bottom shelf of our table to make a recovery. Before the key appear chocolates of many shapes and sizes, long reposing in oblivion under the weighty table. The thrifty Spanish woman behind me gathers up all the unsquashed ones and packs them. "Mus' be lots of chocolates under these 'ere tables, eh?" she notes wisely and with knit brows. As if to say that, were she boss, she'd poke with a broom under each and every bottom shelf and fill many a box.

At least my feet get a moment's rest while I am down on my hands and knees among the debris from under the tables.

By five o'clock Tessie thinks she'll throw up her job then and there. "Ach! Ach! My feet!" she moans. I secretly plan to kill the next person who gives me a box of chocolate candy.

Surely it is almost 6.

Five minutes after 5.

The bell has forgotten to ring. It must be 7.

Quarter after 5.

Now for sure and certain it is midnight.

Half-past 5.

My earrings begin to hurt. You can take off earrings. But FEET--

Tessie says she's eaten too many candies; her stomach does her pain. Her feet aren't so hurting now her magen is so bad. I couldn't eat another chocolate for five dollars, but my stomach refused to feel in any way that takes my mind in the least off my feet.

Eternity has passed on. It must be beyond the Judgment Day itself.

Ten minutes to 6.

When the bell does ring I am beyond feeling any emotion. There is no part of me with which to feel emotion. I am all feet, and feet either do not feel at all or feel all weary unto death. During the summer I had played one match in a tennis tournament 7-5, 5-7, 13-11. I had thought I was ready to drop dead after that. It was mere knitting in the parlor compared to how I felt after standing at that table in that candy factory from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., with a bit of a half-hour's sitting at noon.

Somehow you could manage to endure it all if it were not for the crowning agony of all--standing up on the Subway going home. I am no aggressive feminist, and I am no old-fashioned clinging vine, but I surely do hate, hate, hate every man in that Subway who sits back in comfort (and most of them look as if they had been sitting all day) while I and my feet stand up. When in my utter anguish I find myself swaying with the jerks and twists of the express in front of a person with a Vandyke beard reading The Gospel According to St. John, I long with all the energy left in me (I still have some in my arms) to grab that book out of his hands, fling it in his face, and hiss, "Hypocrite!" at him. I do not believe I ever knew what it was really and honestly to hate a person before. If it had been the Police Gazette I could have borne up under it. But The Gospel According to St. John--my Gawd!

Thus ends my first factory day. It is small comfort to calculate I stepped on more chocolates in those nine hours than I usually eat in a year. To be sure, it was something new on the line of life's experiences. If that man in front of me were only a chocolate with soft insides and I could squash him flat! Yes, there was enough energy in my feet for that. To get my heel square above him and then stamp--ugh! the sinner! He continues reading The Gospel According to St. John, nor so much as looks up to receive my last departing glare as I drag myself off at 116th Street.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, the next morning my feet feel as if they had never been stood on before. What if we do have to stand up in the Subway all the way down? Who minds standing in the Subway? And then stand in the jammed and elbowing cross-town car. Who cares? And how we do walk up those factory steps as if we owned the world! The chestiness of us as we take our key off left-hand hook 1075, ring up under the clock (twenty minutes early we are) and hang up on No. 1075 right; but it seems you are late if you are not ten minutes early. It is the little tricks like that you get wise about.

I saunter over to the elevator with a jam of colored girls--the majority of the girls in that factory were colored. I call out, "Third, please." Oh, glory be! Why were we ever born? That elevator man turns around and pierces me with his eye as though I were the man with the Vandyke beard in the Subway, and he, the elevator man, were I. "Third floor did ya say? And since when does the elevator lift ya to the third floor? If ya want the sixth floor ya can ride. Third floor! My Gawd! Third floor!" And on and on he mutters and up and up I go, all the proud feelings of owning the world stripped from me--exposed before the multitudes as an ignoramus who didn't know any better than to ride in the elevator when she was bound only for the third floor. "Third floor," continues muttering the elevator man. At last there is no one left in the elevator but the muttering man and me. "Well," I falter, chewing weakly on my Black Jack, "What shall I do, then?"

"I'll leave ya off at the third this time, but don't ya try this trick again."

"Again? Goodness! You don't think I'd make this mistake twice, do you?"

"Twice?" he bellows. "Twice? Didn't I have this all out with ya yesterday mornin'?"

"Goodness, no!" I try to assure him, but he is putting me off at third and calling after me: "Don't I know I did tell ya all this yesterday mornin'? And don't ya forget it next time, neither." It must be awful to be that man's wife. But I love him compared to the Vandyke beard in the Subway reading The Gospel According to St. John.

Everybody is squatting about on scant corners and ledges waiting for the eight o'clock bell. I squat next the thrifty Spanish lady, whereat she immediately begins telling me the story of her life.




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