Working with the working woman



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"You married?" she asks. No. "Well don' you do it," says the fat and mussy Espaniole, as the girls called her. "I marry man--five years, all right. One morning I say, 'I go to church--you go too?' He say 'No, I stay home.' I go church. I come home. I fin' him got young girl there. I say, 'You clear out my house, you your young girl!' Out he go, she go. 'Bout one year 'go he say he come back. I say no you don'. He beg me, beg me come home. I say no, no, no. He write me letter, letter, letter. I say no, no, no. Bymby I say alright, you come live my house don't you touch me, hear? Don' you touch me. He live one room, I live one room. He no touch me. Two weeks 'go he die. Take all my money, put him in cemetery. I have buy me black waist, black skirt. I got no money more. I want move from that house--no want live that house no more--give me bad dreams. I got no money move. Got son thirteen. He t'ink me fool have man around like that. I no care. See he sen's letter, letter, letter. Now I got no money. I have work." The bell rings. We shiver ourselves into the ice box.

No Tessie across the table. Instead a strange, unkempt female who sticks it out half an hour, announces she has the chills in her feet, and departs. Her place is taken by a slightly less disheveled young woman who claims she'd packed candy before where they had seats and she thought she'd go back. They paid two dollars less a week, but it was worth two dollars to sit down. How she packs! The sloppiest work I ever saw. It outrages my soul. The thrill of new pride I have when Ida gets through swearing at her and turns to me.

"Keep your eye on this girl, will ya? Gee! she packs like a fright!" And to the newcomer: "You watch that girl across the table" (me, she means--me!) "and do the way she does."

No first section I ever got in economics gave me such joy.

But, ah! the first feeling of industrial bitterness creeps in. Here is a girl getting fourteen dollars a week. Tessie was promised fourteen dollars a week. I packed faster, better, than either of them for thirteen dollars. I would have fourteen dollars, too, or know the reason why. Ida fussed and scolded over the new girls all day. The sweetness of her entire neglect of me!

By that noon my feet hardly hurt at all. I sit in a quiet corner to eat rye-bread sandwiches brought from home, gambling on whom I will draw for luncheon company. Six colored girls sit down at my table. A good part of the time they spend growling on the subject of overtime. I am too new to know what it is all about.

The lunch room is a bare, whitewashed, huge affair, with uplifting advice on the walls here and there. "Any fool can take a chance; it takes brains to be careful," and such like. One got me all upset: "America is courteous to its women. Gentlemen will, therefore, please remove their hats in this room." That Vandyke beard in the Subway!

By 4.30 again I think my feet will be the death of me. That last hour and a half! Louie, the general errand boy of our packing room, brushes by our table with some trays and knocks about six of my carefully packed boxes on the floor. "You Louie!" I holler, and I long to have acquired the facility to call lightly after him, as anyone else would have done, "Say, you go to hell!" Instead, mustering all the reserve force I can, the best showing I am able to make is, "You Louie! Go off and die!" I almost hold my own--468 boxes of "assorteds" do I pack. And again the anguishing stand in the Subway. I hate men--hate them. I just hope every one of them gets greeted by a nagging wife when he arrives home. Hope she nags all evening.... If enough of those wives really did do enough nagging, would the men thereupon stay downtown for dinner and make room in the Subway for folk who had been standing, except for one hour, from 7.15 A.M.? At last I see a silver lining to the dark cloud of marital unfelicity....

* * * * *

Lillian of the bright-pink boudoir cap engaged me in conversation this morning. Lillian is around the Indian summer of life--as to years, but not atmosphere. Lillian has seen better days. Makes sure you know it. Never did a lick of work in her life. At that she makes a noise with her upper lip the way a body does in southern Oregon when he uses a toothpick after a large meal. "No, sir, never did a lick." Lillian says "did" and not "done." Practically no encouragement is needed for Lillian to continue. "After my husband died I blew in all the money he left me in two years. Since then I have been packing chocolates." How long ago was that?

"Five years."

"My Gawd," I say, and it comes natural-like. "What did you do with your feet for five years?"

"Oh, you get used to it," says Lillian. "For months I cried every night. Don't any more. But I lie down while I'm warmin' up my supper, and then I go to bed soon as its et."

Five years!

"Goin' to vote?" asks Lillian.

"Sure."


"I'm not," allows Lillian. "To my notions all that votin' business is nothing for a lady to get mixed up in. No, sir." Lillian makes that noise with her upper lip again. Lillian's lips are very red, her eyebrows very black. I'll not do anything, though, with my eyebrows. Says Lillian: "No, siree, not for a lady. I got a good bet up on the election. Yes, sir!--fifty dollars on Harding."

And five years of going to bed every night after supper.

Tessie is back. I do love Tessie, and I know Tessie loves me. She had not gone hunting for another job, as I thought. Her husband had had his elbow broken with an electric machine of some sort where he works on milk cans. The morning before she had taken him to the hospital. That made her ten minutes late to the factory. The little pop-eyed man told her, "You go on home!" and off she went. "But he tell me that once more I no come back again," said Tessie, her cheeks very red.

I begin to get the "class feeling"--to understand a lot of things I wanted to know first hand. In the first place, there is no thought ever, and I don't see in that factory how there can be, for the boss and his interests. Who is he? Where is he? The nearest one comes to him is the pop-eyed man at the door. Once in a while Ida hollers "For Gawd's sake, girls, work faster!" Now that doesn't inspire to increased production for long. There stands Tessie across the table from me--peasant Tessie from near München, with her sweet face and white turned-up cap. She packs as fast as she can, but her hands are clumsy and she can't seem to get the difference between chocolates very well. It is enough to drive a seer crazy. They change the positions on the shelves every so often; the dipping-machine tenders cut capers and mark the same kind of chocolates differently to-day from yesterday. By three in the afternoon you're too sick of chocolates to do any more investigating by sampling. Even Ida herself has sometimes to poke a candy in the bottom--if it feels one way it's "marsh"; another, it's peach; another, it's coconut. But my feeling is not educated and I poke, and then end by having to bite, and then, just as I discover it is peach, after all, some one has run off with the last box and Ida has to be found and a substitute declared.

Tessie gives up in despair and hurls herself on me. So then Tessie is nearest to me in the whole factory, and Tessie is slow. The faster I pack the more it shows up Tessie's slowness. If Ida scolded Tessie it would break my heart. The thought of the man who owns that factory, and his orders and his profits and his obligations, never enter my or any other packer's head. I will not pack so many boxes that Tessie gets left too far behind.

Then a strange thing happens. All of a sudden I get more interested in packing chocolates than anything else on earth. A little knack or twist comes to me--my fingers fly (for me). I forget Tessie. I forget the time. I forget my feet. How many boxes can I pack to-day? That is all I can think of. I don't want to hear the noon bell. I can't wait to get back after lunch. I fly out after the big boxes to pack the little boxes in. In my haste and ignorance I bring back covers by mistake and pack dozens of little boxes in covers. It must all be done over again. Six hundred boxes I pack this day. I've not stopped for breath. I'm not a bit tired when 6 o'clock comes round. I ask Ida when she will put me on piecework--it seems the great ambition of my life is to feel I am on piecework. "When you can pack about two thousand boxes a day," says Ida. Two thousand! I was panting and proud over six hundred! "Never mind," says Ida, "you're makin' out fine." Oh, the thrill of those words! I asked her to show me again about separating the paper cups. I didn't have it just right, I was sure. "My Gawd!" sighed Ida, "what ambition!" Yes, but the ambition did not last more than a few days at that pitch.

Tessie wanted to tell me something about her Mann to-day so badly, but could not find the English words. Her joy when I said, "Tell me in German"! How came I to speak German? I'd spent three years in Germany with an American family, taking care of the children. Honest for once.

"That was luck for you," says Tessie.

"That was sure luck for me," says I--honest again.

Wherever Lena works there floats conversation for a radius of three tables. The subject matter is ever the same--"dopes." "Is he big?... Gee! I say!... More like a sister to him.... He never sees the letters." "Lena" (from Ida), "shut up and get to work!" ... "I picked him up Sunday.... Where's them waxing papers?... Third she vamped in two days.... Sure treats a girl swell.... Them ain't pineapples...." "Lee-na! get to work or I'll knock the hell out a ya!" And pretty Lena giggles on: "He says.... She says to him.... Sure my father says if he comes 'round again...."

And Tessie and I; I bend over to hear Tessie's soft, low German as she tells me how good her Mann is to her; how he never, never scolds, no matter if she buys a new hat or what; how he brings home all his pay every week and gives it to her. He is such a good Mann. They are saving all their money. In two years they will go back near München and buy a little farm.

Tessie and her poor Mann, with his broken elbow and his swollen arm all black and blue, couldn't sleep last night. Oh dear! this New York! One man at one corner he talk about Harding, one man other corner he talk about Cox; one man under their window he talk MacSwiney--New York talk, talk, talk!

Looked like rain to-day, but how can a body buy an umbrella appropriate to chocolate packing at thirteen dollars a week when the stores are all closed before work and closed after? I told Lillian my troubles. I asked Lillian if a cheap umbrella could be purchased in the neighborhood.

"Cheap," sniffs Lillian. "I don't know. I got me a nice one--sample though--at Macy's for twelve-fifty." Lillian may take to her bed after supper, but while she is awake she is going to be every inch to the manner born.

By the time I pack the two thousandth box of "assorteds" my soul turns in revolt. "If you give me another 'assorted' to pack," says I to Ida, "I'll lie down here on the floor and die."

"The hell you will," says Ida. But she gets me fancy pound boxes with a top and bottom layer, scarce two candies alike, and Tessie beams on me like a mother with an only child. "That takes the brains!" says Tessie. "Not for me! It gives me the ache in my head to think of it."

Indeed it near gives me the ache in mine. Before the next to the last row is packed the bottom looks completely filled. Where can four fat chocolates in cups find themselves? I push the last row over gently to make room,--three chocolates in the middle rear up and stand on end. Press them gently down and two more on the first row get out of hand. At last the last row is in--only to discover four candies here and there have all sprung their moorings. For each one I press down gently, another some place else acts up. How long can my patience hold out? Firmly, desperately I press that last obstreperous chocolate down in its place. My finger goes squash through the crusty brown, and pink goo oozes up and out. A fresh strawberry heart must be found. "Ain't no more," announces Fannie. Might just as well tell an artist there is only enough paint for one eye on his beautiful portrait. Of course another chocolate can be substituted. But a strawberry heart was what belonged there!

At last the long rows of boxes are packed, wax paper laid over each--to blow off every time Louie goes by. Then come covers with lovely ladies in low-neck dresses on the tops--and the room so cold, anyhow. Why are all the pictures on all the boxes smiling ladies in scanty attire, instead of wrapped to the ears in fur coats so that a body might find comfort in gazing on them in such a temperature?

Ida comes along and peers in one box. "You can consider yourself a fancy packer now--see?" Harding the night of the election felt less joyous than do I at her words.

This night there is a lecture at the New School for Social Research to be attended. If some of those educated foreigners in our room can go to night school, I guess I can keep up my school. They are all foreigners but Lillian and Sadie and I. Sadie is about the same Indian-summer stage as Lillian and uses even better English. Her eyebrows are also unduly black; her face looks a bit as if she had been trying to get the ring out of the flour with her teeth Halloween. Her lips are very red. Sadie has the air of having just missed being a Vanderbilt. Her boudoir cap is lacy. Her smile is conscious kindness to all as inferiors. One wonders, indeed, what brought Sadie to packing chocolates in the autumn of life--a very wrinkly, powdered autumn. So Lillian, Sadie, and I are the representatives of what the nation produces--not what she gets presented with. As for the rest, there are a Hungarian, two Germans, four Italians, two Spaniards, a Swede, an Englishwoman, and numerous colored folk. Louie is an Italian. Fannie (bless her dear heart! I love Fannie) is colored, with freckles. She is Indian summer too--with a heart of gold. Fannie trudges on her feet all day. Years and years she has been there. At noon she sits alone in the lunch room, and after eating puts her head on her arms and, bending over the cold marble-topped table, gets what rest she can. She was operated on not so long ago, and every so often still has to go to the hospital for a day or so. Everything is at sixes and sevens when Fannie is away.

So then, that night I take my sleepy way to a lecture on "The Role of the State in Modern Civilization." And it comes over me in the course of the evening, what a satisfactory thing packing chocolates is. The role of the State--some say this, some say that. A careful teacher guards against being dogmatic. When it comes to the past, one interpreter gives this viewpoint, due to certain prejudices; another that viewpoint, due to certain other prejudices. When it comes to the future, no sane soul dare prophesy at all. Thus it is with much which one studies nowadays--we have evolved beyond the era of intellectual surety. What an almighty relief to the soul, then, when one can pack six rows of four chocolates each in a bottom layer, seven rows of four chocolates each in the top, cover them, count them, stack them, pile them in the truck, and away they go. One job done--done now and forever. A definite piece of work put behind you--and no one coming along in six months with documents or discoveries or new theories or practices to upset all your labors. I say it is blessed to pack chocolates when one has been studying labor problems for some years. Every professor ought to have a fling at packing chocolates.

Folks wonder why a girl slaves in a factory when she could be earning good money and a home thrown in doing housework. I think of that as I watch Annie. Imagine Annie poking about by her lonesome, saying, "No, ma'm," "Yes, ma'm," "No, sir," "Yes, sir." "Can I go out for a few moments, Mrs. Jones?" "Oh, all right, ma'm!" Annie, whose talk echoes up and down the room all day. She is Annie to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who pokes his nose in our packing room, but they are Tom, Dick, and Harry to her. It is not being called by your first name that makes the rub. It is being called it when you must forever tack on the Mr. and the Mrs. and the Miss. Annie is in awe of no human being. Annie is the fastest packer in the room and draws the most pay. Annie sasses the entire factory. Annie never stops talking unless she wants to. Which is only now and then when her mother has had a bad spell and Annie gets a bit blue. Little Pauline, an Italian, only a few months in this country, only a few weeks in the factory, works across the table from Annie. Pauline is the next quickest packer in our room. She cannot speak a word of English. Annie gives a sigh audible from one end of the room to the next. "My Gawd!" moans Annie to the entire floor. "If this here Eyetalian don't learn English pretty soon I gotta learn Eyetalian. I can't stand here like a dead one all day with nobody to talk to." Pauline might perhaps be reasoning that, after all, why learn English, since she would never get a silent moment in which to practice any of it.

I very much love little Pauline. All day long her fingers fly; all day long not a word does she speak, only every now and then little Pauline turns around to me and we smile at each other. Once on the street, a block or so from the factory, little Pauline ran up to me, put her arm through mine, and caught my hand. So we walked to work. Neither could say a word to the other. Each just smiled and smiled. For the first time in all my life I really felt the melting pot first hand. To Pauline I was no agent of Americanization, no superior proclaiming the need of bathtubs and clean teeth, no teacher of the "Star-spangled banner" and the Constitution. To Pauline I was a fellow-worker, and she must know, for such things are always known, that I loved her. To myself, I felt suddenly the hostess--the generation-long inhabitant of this land so new and strange to little Pauline. She was my guest here. I would indeed have her care for my country, have her glad she came to my home. That day Pauline turned around and smiled more often than before.

I finally settled down to eating lunch daily between Tessie and Mrs. Lewis, the Englishwoman. We do so laugh at one another's jokes. I know everything that ever happened to Tessie and Mrs. Lewis from the time they were born; all the heartbreaking stories of the first homesick months in this my land, all the jobs they have labored at. Mrs. Lewis has worked "in the mills" ever since she was born, it would seem, first in England, later in Michigan. Tessie and her husband mostly have hired out together in this country for housework, and she likes that better than packing chocolates standing up, she says. Mrs. Lewis is--well, she's Indian summer, too, along with Lillian and Sadie and Fannie, only she makes no bones about it (nor does black Fannie, for that matter). Mrs. Lewis is thin and wrinkled, with a skimpy little dust cap on her head. Her nose is very long and pointed, her teeth very false. Her eyes are always smiling. She loves to laugh. One day we were talking about unemployment.

"Don't you know, it's awful in Europe," volunteers Mrs. Lewis.

"One hundred thousand unemployed in Paris alone--saw it in headlines this morning," I advance.

"Paris?" said Tessie. "Paris? Where's Paris?"

If one could always be so sure of one's facts.

"France."

Mrs. Lewis wheels about in her chair, looks at me sternly over the top of her spectacles, and:

"Do you know, they're telling me that's a pretty fast country, that France."

"You don't say!" I look interested.

"No--no I haven't got the details yet"--she clasped her chin with her hand--"but 'fast' was the word I heard used."

Irene is a large, florid, bleached blonde. She worked at the table behind me about four days. "Y'know"--Irene has a salon air--"y'know, I jus' can't stand steppen on these soft chocolates. Nobody knows how I suffer. It just goes through me like a knife." She spent a good part of each day scraping off the bottoms of her French-heeled shoes with a piece of cardboard. It evidently was too much for her nerves. She is no more.

The sign reads, "Saturdays 8-12." When Saturday came around Ida hollered down the room, "Everybody's gotta work to-day till five." The howl that went up! I supposed "gotta" meant "gotta." But Lena came up to me.

"You gonna work till five? Don't you do it. We had to strike to get a Saturday half holiday. Now they're tellin' us we gotta work till five--pay us for it, o' course. If enough girls'll stay, pretty soon they'll be sayin: 'See? What ud we tell ya? The girls want to work Saturday afternoons'; and they'll have us back regular again." In the end not a girl in our room stayed, and Ida wrung her hands.

Monday next, though, Ida announced, "Everybody's gotta work till seven to-night 'cause ya all went home Saturday afternoon. Three nights a week now you gotta work till seven." To stand from 1 to 7! One girl in the room belonged to some union or other. She called out, "Will they pay time and a half for overtime?" At which everyone broke into laughter. "Gee! Ida, here's a girl wants time and a half!" Tessie, Mrs. Lewis, Sadie, and I refused to work till 7. Ida used threats and argument. "I gotta put down your numbers!" We stood firm--6 o'clock was long enough. "Gee! You don't notice that last hour--goes like a second," argued Ida. We filed out when the 6-o'clock bell rang.

The girls all fuss over the hour off at noon. It takes at best twenty minutes to eat lunch. For the rest of the hour there is no place to go, nothing to do, but sit in the hard chairs at the marble-topped tables in the whitewashed room for half an hour till the bell rings at 12.50, and you can sit on the edge of a truck upstairs for ten minutes longer. They all say they wish to goodness we could have half an hour at noon and get off half an hour earlier at night.

* * * * *

A tragedy the first pay day. I was so excited when that Saturday came round, to see what it would all be like--to get my first pay envelope. About 11.30 two men came in, one carrying a wooden box filled with little envelopes. Girls appear suddenly from every place and crowd around the two men. One calls out a number, the girl takes her envelope and goes off. I keep working away, thinking you are not supposed to step up till your number is called. But, lo! everyone seems paid off and the men departing, whereat I leave my work with beating heart and announce: "You didn't call 1075." But it seems I was supposed to step up and give 1075. I get handed my little envelope. Connie Parker in one corner, 1075 in the other, the date, and $6.81. Six dollars and eighty-one cents, and I had expected fourteen dollars. (I had told Ida at last that I thought I ought to get fourteen dollars, and she thought so, too, and said she'd "speak to the man" about it.) I clutched Ida--"only six dollars and eighty one cents!" "Well, what more do ya want."

"But you said fourteen dollars."

It seems the week goes Thursday to Thursday, instead of Monday to Saturday, so my first pay covered only three days and a deduction for my locker key.

At that moment a little cry just behind me from Louisa. Louisa had been packing with Irene--dark little, frail little Yiddish Louisa; big brawny bleached-blond Irene.

"I've lost my pay envelope!"

Wan little Louisa! She had been talking to Topsy, Fannie's helper. Her envelope had slipped out of her waist, and when she went to pick it up, lo! there was nothing there to pick--fourteen dollars gone! There was excitement for you. Fourteen dollars in Wing 13, Room 3, was equal to fourteen million dollars in Wall Street. Everybody pulled out boxes and searched, got down on hands and knees and poked, and the rest mauled Louisa from head to foot.

"Sure it ain't in your stocking? Well, look again."

"What's this?"--jabbing Louisa's ribs--"this?"

Eight hands going over Louisa's person as if the anguished slip of a girl could not have felt that stiff envelope with fourteen dollars in it herself had it been there. She stood helpless, woebegone.




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