Working with the working woman

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Next sat Louisa, an Italian girl who stuttered, and I had to stop my press to hear her. She stopped hers to talk. She should worry. It's the worst job she ever saw, and for thirteen dollars a week why should she work? She talked to me, kicked a few times, got a drink, kicked, talked, stood up and stretched, kicked, talked, got another drink. She is married, has a baby a year old, another coming in three months. She will stay her week out, then she goes, you bet. Her husband was getting fifty dollars a week in a tailor job--no work now for t-t-t-two months. He does a little now and then in the b-b-barber business. Oh, but life was high while the going was good! She leaned way over and told me in a hushed, inspired tone, to leave me awestruck, "When we was m-m-married we t-t-took a h-h-h-honeymoon!" I gasped and wanted details. To West Virginia they'd gone for a month. The fare alone, each way, had come to ten dollars apiece, and then they did no work for that month, but lived in a little hotel. Her husband was crazy of her, and she was of him now, but not when she was married. He's very good to her. After dinner every single night they go to a show.

"Every night?"

"Sure, every night, and Sundays two times."

It all sounded truly glowing.

"You married?"


"Well, don' you do it. Wish I wasn't married. Oh gee! Wish I wasn't married. I'm crazy of my husband, but I wish I wasn't married. See--once you married--pisht!--there you are--stay that way."

I agreed I was in no hurry about matrimony.

"Hurry? Na, no hurry; that's right. The h-h-hurrier you are the b-b-b-badder off you get!"

The next morning the Italian girl was late. The forelady gave her locker to some one else. Such a row! Louisa said: "I got mad, I did. I told her to go to hell. That's only w-w-w-way anybody gets anything in this world--get mad and say you go to h-h-hell. Betcha."

A little later the forelady, when the Italian was on one of her trips after a drink, leaned over and gave me her side of the story. She is such a very nice person, our forelady--quiet, attractive, neat as a pin. Her sister addresses boxes and does clerical work of one sort or another. Two subdued old maids they are; never worked any place but right on our third floor. "Ain't like what it used to be," she told me. "In the old days girls used to work here till they got married. We used to have parties here and, say! they was nice girls in them days. Look at 'em now! Such riffraff! New ones comin' in all the time, new ones worse each time. Riffraff, that's what they are. It sure looks nice to see a girl like you." (What good were the earrings doing?) "We'll make it just as nice here for you as we can." (Oh, how guilty I began to feel!)

She looked around to see if the Italian was about.

"Now you take this Eyetalian girl next to you. Gee! she's some fright. Oughtta heard her this morning. 'Spected me to keep her locker for her when she was late. How'd I know she was comin' back? I gave it to another girl. She comes tearin' at me. 'What the hell you think you're doin'?' she says to me. Now I ain't used to such talk, and I was for puttin' my hat and coat on right then and there and walkin' out. I must say I gotta stand all sorts of things in my job. It's awful what I gotta put up with. I never says nothin' to her. But any girl's a fool 'l talk to a person that way. Shows she's got nothin' up here [knocking her head] or she sure'd know better than get the forelady down on her like that. Gee! I was mad!"

Louisa returned and Miss Hibber moved on. "Some fright, that forelady," remarked Louisa. That night Louisa departed for good.

The second day I kicked over six thousand times. It seemed a lot when you think of the hard stool. It was a toss between which was the worse, the stool or the air. This afternoon, I was sure it must be 3.30. I looked back at the clock--1.10. It had seemed like two hours of work and it was forty minutes. No ventilation whatever in that whole room--not a crack of air. Wonder if there ever was any since the place was built decades ago. Once Louisa and I became desperate and got Tony to open a window. The forelady had a fit; so did Tillie. Both claimed they'd caught cold.

Tony is the Louis of the brassworks. He is young and very lame--one leg considerably shorter than the other. It makes me miserable to see him packing heavy boxes about. He told me he must get another job or quit. Finally they did put him at a small machine press. So many maimed and halt and decrepit as they employed about the works! Numbers of the workers were past-telling old, several were very lame, one errand boy had a fearfully deformed face, one was cross-eyed. I remarked to Minnie that the boss of the works must have a mighty good heart. Minnie has been working twenty-three years and has had the bloom of admiration for her fellow-beings somewhat worn off in that time. "Hm!" grunted Minnie. "He gets 'em cheaper that way, I guess."

The elevator man is no relation to the one at the candy factory. He is red faced and grinning, most of his teeth are gone, and he always wears a derby hat over one eye. One morning I was late. He jerked his head and thumb toward the elevator. "Come on, I'll give ya a lift up!" and when we reached our floor, though it was the men's side, "Third Avenue stop!" he called out cheerily, and grinned at the world. He had been there for years. The boss on our floor had been there for years--forty-three, to be exact. Miss Hibber would not tell how many years she had worked there, nor would Tillie. Tillie said she was born there.

If it were only the human element that counted, everyone would stay at the brassworks forever. I feel like a snake in the grass, walking off "on them" when they all were so nice. Nor was it for a moment the "dearie" kind of niceness that made you feel it was orders from above. From our floor boss down, they were people who were born to treat a body square. All the handicaps against them--the work itself, the surroundings, the low pay--had so long been part of their lives, these "higher ups" seemed insensible to the fact that such things were handicaps.

To-day was sunny and the factory not so dark--in fact, part of the time we worked with no electric lights. The crisp early morning air those four blocks from the Subway to the factory--it sent the spring fever through the blood. In the gutter of that dirty East Side street a dirty East Side man was burning garbage. The smoke curled up lazily. The sun just peeping up over the hospital at the end of the street made slanting shafts through the smoke. As I passed by it suddenly was no longer the East Side of New York City....

Now the Four Way Lodge is open, Now the hunting winds are loose, Now the smokes of spring go up to clear the brain....

Breakfast in a caƱon by the side of a stream--the odor of pines.... The little bobbing doors went to behind me and there I stood in floor three, the stale gas and metal smell ... the whirs of the belts ... the jarring of the presses....

Next to me this glorious morning sat a snip of a little thing all in black--so pretty she was, so very pretty. I heard the boss tell her it's not the sort of work she's been used to, she'll find it hard. Is she sure she wants to try it? And in the course of the morning I heard the story of Mame's life.

Mame's husband died three weeks ago. They had been married one month and two days--after waiting three years. Shall I write a story of Mame on the sob-sister order to bring the tears to your eyes? It could easily be done. But not honestly. Little Mame--how could her foot ever reach the press? And when she walked off after a drink, I saw that she was quite lame. A widow only three weeks. She'd never worked before, but there was no money. She lived all alone, wandered out for her meals--no mother, no father, no sisters or brothers. She cried every night. Her husband had been a traveling salesman--sometimes he made eighty-five dollars a week. They had a six-room apartment and a servant! She'd met him at a dance hall. A girl she was with had dared her to wink at him. Sure she'd do anything anybody dared her to. He came over and asked her what she was after, anyhow. That night he left the girl he'd taken to the dance hall to pilot her own way back to home and mother, and he saw Mame to her room. He was swell and tall. She showed me his picture in a locket around her neck. Meanwhile Mame kicked the foot press about twice every five minutes.

Why had they waited so long to get married? Because of the war. He was afraid he'd be killed and would leave her a widow. "He asked me to promise never to get married again if he did marry me and died. But,"--she leaned over my way--"that only meant if he died during the war, ain't that so? Lookit how long the war was over before he died."

He was awful good to her after they got married. He took her to a show every night--jes swell; and she had given him a swell funeral--you bet she did. The coffin had cost eighty-five dollars--white with real silver handles; and the floral piece she bought--"Gee! What's your name?... Connie, you oughtta seen that floral piece!" and Mame laid off work altogether to use her hands the better. It was shaped so, and in the middle was a clock made out of flowers, with the hands at the very minute and hour he'd died. (He passed away of a headache--very sudden.) Then below, in clay, were two clasped hands--his and hers. "Gee! Connie, you never seen nothin' so swell. Everybody seen it said so."

Once he bought her a white evening dress, low neck, fish-tail train, pearls all over the front--cost him one whole week's salary, eighty-five dollars! She had diamond earrings and jewels worth at least one thousand dollars. She had lovely clothes. Couldn't she just put a black band around the arms and go on wearing them? She took a look at my earrings. Gee! they were swell. She had some green ones herself. Next morning she appeared in her widow's weeds with bright-green earrings at least a quarter of an inch longer than mine.

From the first Mame clung to me morning and night. Usually mornings she threw her arms around me in the dressing room. "Here's my Connie!" I saw myself forced to labor in the brassworks for life because of Mame's need of me. This need seemed more than spiritual. One day her pocketbook with twelve dollars had been stolen in the Subway. I lent her some cash. Another time she left her money at the factory. I lent her the wherewithal to get home with, etc. One day I was not at work. Somehow the other girls all were down on Mame. I have pondered much on that. When it came to the needed collection Mame found it hard pickings. She got a penny from this girl, another from that one, until she had made up a nickel to get home with. Irish Minnie gave her a sandwich and an apple. The girls all jumped on me: "The way you let that Frenchie work ya! Gee! you believe everything anybody tells ya."

"But," says I, "she's been a widow only three weeks and I'm terrible sorry for her."

"How d'ya know she ever had a husband?" "How d'ya know he's dead?" "How'd ya...."

The skepticism of factory workers appals me. They suspect everybody and everything from the boss down. I believed almost everything about Mame, especially since she paid back all she ever borrowed. No one else in that factory believed a word she said. They couldn't "stand her round."

"How d'ya know she lost her pocketbook?" (Later she advertised and got it back--a doctor's wife found it on the early Subway.)

"Doctor's wife," sniffed Minnie. "Who ever heard of a doctor's wife up at seven o'clock in the mornin'?"

And now I have walked off and left Mame to that assemblage of unbelievers. At least Mame has a tongue of her own she is only too glad of a chance to use. It is meat and drink to Mame to have a man look her way. "Did you see that fella insult me?" and she calls back protective remarks for half a block. Sentiments that usually bring in mention of the entertained youth's mother and sisters, and wind up with allusions to a wife, which if he doesn't possess now, he may some day. Once I stopped with Mame while she and Irene phoned a "fella" of Irene's from a drug-store telephone booth. Such gigglings and goings on, especially since the "fella" was unknown to Mame at the time. Outside in the store a pompous, unromantic man grew more and more impatient for a turn at that booth. When Mame stepped out he remarked casually that he hoped she felt she'd gotten five cents' worth. The dressing down Mame then and there heaped upon that startled gentleman! Who was he to insult her? I grew uneasy and feared a scene, but the pompous party took hasty refuge in the telephone booth and closed the door. Mame was very satisfied with the impression she must have made. "The fresh old guy!"

Another time Mame sought me out in the factory, her eyes blazing. "Connie, I been insulted, horribly insulted, and I don't see how I can stay in this factory! You know that girl Irene? Irene she says to me, 'Mamie, you plannin' to get married again?'

"'I dunno,' I says to her, 'but if I do it'll be to some single fella.'

"'Huh!' Irene says to me, 'You won't get no single fella; you'll have to marry a widower with two or three children.' Think of her insultin' me like that! I could 'a' slapped her right in the face!"

I asked Mame one Saturday what she'd be doing Sunday. She sighed. "I'll be spendin' the day at the cemetery, I expect."

Monday morning I asked Mame about Sunday. She'd been to church in the morning (Mame, like most of the girls at the brassworks, was a Catholic), a show in the afternoon, cabaret for dinner, had danced till 1, and played poker until 4 A.M. "If only my husband was alive," said Mame, "I'd be the happiest girl on earth."

One night Mame's landlady wanted to go out and play poker. She asked Mame to keep her eye and ear out for the safety of the house. Every five minutes Mame thought she heard a burglar or somethin'. "Gee! I hardly slept at all; kep' wakin' up all the time. An' that landlady never got in till six this mornin'!"

"My Gawd!" I exclaimed. "Hope she was lucky after playin' poker that long!"

"She sure was," sighed Mame. "Gee! I jus' wish ya c'u'd see the swell prize she won!--the most beau-teful statue--stands about three feet high--of Our Blessed Lady of the Immaculate Conception."

Mame's friendship could become almost embarrassing. One day she announced she wanted me to marry one of her brothers-in-law. "I got two nice ones and we'll go out some Sunday afternoon and you can have your pick. One's a piano tuner; the other's a detective." I thought offhand the piano tuner sounded a bit more domestic. He was swell, Mame said.

Mame didn't think she'd stay long in the brassworks. It was all right--the boss she thought was sort of stuck on her. Did he have a wife? (The boss, at least sixty years old.) Also Charlie was making eyes at her. (Charlie was French; so was Mame. Charlie knew six words of English. Mame three words of French. Charlie was sixteen). No, aside from matrimony, Mame was going to train in Bellevue Hospital and earn sixty dollars a week being a children's nurse. She'd heard if you got on the right side of a doctor it was easy, and already a doctor was interested in getting Mame in.

And I've just walked off and left Mame.

* * * * *

Kicked the foot press 7,149 times by the meter to-day and expected to die of weariness. Thumped, thumped, thumped without stopping. As with candy, I got excited about going on piecework. Asked Miss Hibber what the rates were for my job--four and a half cents for one hundred and fifty. Since I had to kick twice for every cone top finished, that would have meant around one dollar fifteen cents for the day. Vanished the piece-rate enthusiasm. Tillie seemed the only girl on our floor doing piecework. Tillie, who "was born there." She was thin and stoop shouldered, wore spectacles, and did her hair according to the pompadour styles of some twenty years ago. The work ain't so bad. Tillie don't mind it. There's just one thing in the world Tillie wants. What's that? "A man!" Evidently Tillie has made no bones of her desire. The men call back kindly to Tillie as she picks her way up the dark stairs in the morning, "Hello there, sweetheart!" That week had been a pretty good one for Tillie--she'd made sixteen dollars forty-nine cents.

"Ain't much, p'raps, one way, but there's jus' this about it, it's steady. They never lay anybody off here, and there's a lot. You hear these girls 'round here talk about earnin' four, five, six dollars a day. Mebbe they did, but why ain't they gettin' it now? 'Shop closed down,' or, 'They laid us off.' That's it. Add it up over a year and my sixteen forty-nine'll look big as their thirty dollars to forty dollars a week, see if it don't."

Tillie's old, fat, wheezy mother works on our floor--maybe Tillie really was born there.

One day I decided to see what could be done if I went the limit. Suppose I had a sick mother and a lame brother--a lot of factory girls have. I was on a press where you had to kick four separate times on each piece--small lamp cones, shaped, slot already in. My job was to punch four holes for the brackets to hold the chimney. The day before I had kicked over 10,000 times. This morning I gritted my teeth and started in. Between 10 and 11 I had gotten up to 2,000 kicks an hour. Miss Hibber went by and I asked her what piece rates for that machine were. She said six and one-quarter cents for one hundred and fifty. I did not stop then to do any figuring. Told her rather chestily I could kick 2,000 times an hour. "That all? You ought to do much more than that!" Between 11 and 12 I worked as I had never worked. It was humanly impossible to kick that machine oftener than I did. Never did I let my eyes or thoughts wander. When the whistle blew at 12 I had kicked 2,689. For a moment I figured. It takes about an hour in the morning to get on to the swing. From 11 to 12 was always my best output. After lunch was invariably deadly. From 12.30 until 2.30 it seemed impossible to get up high speed. That left at best 2.30 to 4 for anything above average effort. From 4 to 5 it was hard again on account of physical weariness. But say I could average 2,500 an hour during the day. That would have brought me in, four kicks to each cone, around two dollars and a quarter a day. The fact of the matter was that after kicking 8,500 times that morning I gave up the ghost as far as that job went. I ached body and soul. By that time I had been on that one job several days and was sick to death of it. Each cone I picked up to punch those four holes in made something rub along my backbone or in the pit of my stomach or in my head--or in all of them at once. Yet the old woman next me had been at her same job for over a week. The last place she'd worked she'd done the identical thing six months--preferred it to changing around. Most of the girls took that attitude. Up to date that is the most amazing thing I have learned from my factory experiences--the difference between my attitude toward a monotonous job, and the average worker's. In practically every case the girl has actually preferred the monotonous job to one with any variety. The muscles in my legs ached so I could almost have shed tears. The day before I had finished at 5 tired out. That morning I had wakened up tired--the only time in my life. I could hardly kick at all the first half hour. There was a gnawing sort of pain between my shoulders. Suppose I really had been on piecework and had to keep up at that breaking rate, only to begin the next morning still more worn out? My Gawd!

Most of the girls kick with the same leg all the time. I tried changing off now and then. With the four-hole machine, using the left leg meant sitting a little to the right side. Also I tried once using my left hand to give the right a rest. Thus the boss observed me.

"Now see here, m'girl, why don't you do things the way you're taught? That ain't the right way!"

He caught me at the wrong moment. I didn't care whether the earth opened up and swallowed me.

"I know the right way of runnin' this machine good as you do," I fairly glared at him. "I'm sick and tired of doin' it the right way, and if I want to do it wrong awhile for a change I guess I can!"

"You ain't goin' to get ahead in this world if you don't do things right, m'girl." And he left me to my fate.

At noon that day the girls got after me. "You're a fool to work the way you do. You never took a drink all this mornin'--jus' sit there kickin', kickin', kickin'. Where d'ya think ya goin' to land? In a coffin, that's where. The boss won't thank ya for killin' yourself on his old foot press, neither. You're jus' a fool, workin' like that." And that's just what I decided. "Lay off now and then." Yes indeed, I was going to lay off now and then.

"I see myself breakin' my neck for thirteen dollars a week," Bella chipped in.

"You said it!" from all the others.

So I kicked over 16,000 times that day and let it go as my final swan song. No more breaking records for me. My head thumped, thumped, thumped all that night. After that I strolled up front for a drink and a gossip or back to a corner of the wash room where two or three were sure to be squatting on some old stairs, fussing over the universe. When the boss was up on the other end of the floor, sometimes I just sat at my machine and did nothing. It hurt something within my soul at first, but my head and hands and legs and feet and neck and general disposition felt considerably better.

Lunch times suited me exactly at the brassworks, making me feel I was getting what I was after. Three of us used to gather around Irish Minnie, put two stools lengthwise on the floor, and squat along the sides. Bella, who'd worked in Detroit for seven dollars a day (her figures), a husky good-looking person; Rosie, the prettiest little sixteen-year-old Italian girl; and I. Such conversations! One day they unearthed Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit and redid their past, present, and probable future. We discussed whether Olive Thomas had really committed suicide or died of an overdose of something. How many nights a week could a girl dance and work next day? Minnie was past her dancing days. She'd been married 'most twenty years and was getting fat and unformed-looking; shuffled about in a pair of old white tennis shoes and a pink boudoir cap. (No one else wore a cap at the brassworks.) Minnie had worked fifteen years at a power press, eleven years at her last job. She was getting the generous stipend of fourteen dollars a week (one dollar more than the rest of us). She had earned as much as twenty-five dollars a week in her old job at the tin can company, piecework. Everybody about the factory told her troubles to Minnie, who immediately told them to everybody else. It made for a certain community interest. One morning Minnie would tell me, as I passed her machine, "Rosie 'n' Frank have had a fight." With that cue it was easy to appear intelligent concerning future developments. Frank was one of the machinists, an Italian. Rosie had let him make certain advances--put his arm around her and all that--but she told us one lunch time, "he'd taken advantage of her," so she just sassed him back now. Bella announced Frank was honeying around her. "Well, watch out," Rosie advised, with the air of Bella's greataunt.

As to dancing, Bella's chum in Detroit used to go to a dance every single night and work all day. Sundays she'd go to a show and a dance. Bella tried it one week and had to lay off three days of the next week before she could get back to work. Lost her twenty-one dollars. No more of that for Bella. Just once in a while was enough for her.

They did not talk about "vamping dopes" at the brassworks. Everyone asked you if you were "keepin' company," and talked of fellas and sweethearts and intended husbands. That was the scale. As before, all the married ones invariably advised against matrimony. Irish Minnie told us one lunch time that it was a bad job, this marrying business. "Of course," she admitted, pulling on a piece of roast pork with her teeth, "my husband ain't what you'd call a bad man." That was as far as Minnie cared to go.

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