Working with the working woman



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Perhaps one reason why the brassworks employed so many crooked and decrepit was as an efficiency measure. The few males who were whole caused so many flutterings among the female hands that it seriously interfered with production. Rosie's real cause for turning Frank down was that she was after Good Lookin'. Good Lookin' would not have been so good lookin' out along the avenue, but in the setting of our third floor he was an Adonis. Rosie worked a power press. I would miss the clank of her machine. There she would be up in the corner of the floor where Good Lookin' worked. Good Lookin' would go for a drink. Rosie would get thirsty that identical moment. They would carry on an animated conversation, to be rudely broken into by a sight of the boss meandering up their way. Rosie would make a dash for her machine, Good Lookin' would saunter over to his.

* * * * *

From the start I had pestered the boss to be allowed on a power press, for two reasons: one just because I wanted to--the same reason why a small boy wants to work at machinery; secondly, I wanted to be able to pose at the next job as an experienced power-press worker and sooner or later get a high-power machine. One day the boss was watching me at the foot press. "Y'know, m'girl, I think you really got intelligence, blessed if I don't. I'm goin' to push you right ahead. I'll make a machinist out of you yet, see if I don't. You stay right on here and you'll be making big money yet." (Minnie--eleven years in her last job--fourteen dollars a week now.) Anyway, one morning he came up--and that morning foot presses of every description had lost all fascination for me--and he said, "You still want a power press?"

"Bet your life I do!"

And he gave me a power press deserted that morning by one of the boys. Life looked worth living again. All I had to do to work miracles was press ever so lightly a pedal. The main point was to get my foot off it as quick as I got it on, or there was trouble. I wasn't to get my fingers here or there, or "I'd never play the piano in this life." If the belt flew off I wasn't to grab it, or I'd land up at the ceiling. For the rest, I merely clamped a round piece on the top of a nail-like narrow straight piece--the part that turned the lamp wick up and down. Hundreds and thousands of them I made. The monotony did not wear on me there; it was mixed with no physical exertion. I could have stayed on at the brassworks the rest of my life--perhaps.

One night I was waiting at a cold, windy corner on Fifth Avenue for a bus. None came. A green Packard limousine whirled by. The chauffeur waved and pointed up the Avenue. In a flash I thought, now if I really were a factory girl I'd surely jump at a chance to ride in that green Packard. Up half a block I ran, and climbed in the front seat, as was expected of me. He was a very nice chauffeur. His mistress, "the old lady," was at a party and he was killing time till 11.30. Would I like to ride till then? No, I wanted to get home--had to be up too early for joy riding. Why so early? The factory. And before I realized it there I sat, the factory girl. Immediately he asked me to dinner any night I said. Now I really thought it would be worth doing; no one else I knew had been out to dine with a chauffeur. Where would he take me? What would he talk about? But my nerve failed me. No, I didn't think I'd go. I fussed about for some excuse. I was sort of new in New York--out West, it was different. There you could pick up with anybody, go any place. "Good Gawd! girl," said the chauffeur, earnestly, "don't try that in New York; you'll get in awful trouble!" All through Central Park he gave me advice about New York and the pitfalls it contained for a Westerner. He'd be very careful about me if I'd go out with him, any place I said, and he'd get me home early as I said. But I didn't say. I'd have to think it over. He could telephone to me. No, he couldn't. The lady I lived with was very particular. Well, anyhow, stormy days he'd see to it he'd be down by the factory and bring me home. Would I be dressed just the way I was then? Just the way--green tam and all.

The next day while I thumped out lamp parts I tried to screw my courage up to go out with that chauffeur. Finally I decided to put it up to the girls. I meandered back to the wash room. There on the old stairs sat Irish Minnie and Annie, fat and ultradignified. They were discussing who the father of the child really was. I breezed in casually.

"Vamped a chauffeur last night."

"Go-an."

"Sure. He asked me to ride home with him an' I did."

"Got in the machine with him?"

"Sure!"


"You fool! You young fool!"

Goodness! I was unprepared for such comment.

"What did he do to ya?"

"Nothin'. An' he wants me to go to dinner with him. What'll I say?"

Both pondered. "Sure," said Minnie, "I b'lieve in a girl gettin' all that's comin' to her, but all I want to tell ya is, chauffeurs are a bad lot--the worst, I tell ya."

"You said it!" nodded fat Annie, as if years of harrowing experience lay behind her. "He was all right to ya the first time so as to lure you out the next."

"But," says Minnie, "if ya go to dinner with him, don't you go near his machine. Steer clear of machines. Eat all ya can off him, but don't do no ridin'."

"You said it!" again Annie backed her up. Annie was a regular sack slinger. She could have hurled two men off Brooklyn Bridge with one hand. "If you was as big an' strong as me you c'u'd take 'most any chance. I'd like to see a guy try to pull anythin' on me." I'd like to see him, too.

"Some day"--Minnie wanted to drive her advice home by concrete illustration--"some day a chauffeur'll hold a handkerchief under your nose with somethin' on it. When ya come to, goodness knows where you'll be."

I began to feel a little as if I'd posed as too innocent.

"You see, out West--" I began.

"My Gawd!"--Minnie waved a hand scornfully--"don't be tryin' to tell me all men are angels out West."

Just then Miss Hibber poked her head in and we suddenly took ourselves out.

"You go easy, now," Minnie whispered after me.

I lacked the nerve, anyhow, and they put on the finishing touches. A bricklayer would not have been so bad. How did I know the chauffeur was not working for a friend of mine? That, later on, would make it more embarrassing for him than me. I should think he would want to wring my neck.

It was about time to find a new job, anyhow. But leaving the brassworks is like stopping a novel in the middle. What about Rosie and good looking Bella and her brother she was trying to rescue from the grip of the poolroom? Mame--Mame and her kaleidoscope romances, insults, and adventures? I just hate walking off and leaving it all. And the boss and Miss Hibber so nice to me about everything.

Before a week is gone Minnie will be telling in an awed voice that she knows what happened. She told me not to go out with that chauffeur. I went, anyhow, and they found my mangled body in the gutter in Yonkers.

III


195 Irons "Family"

How long, I wonder, does one study or work at anything before one feels justified in generalizing?

I have been re-reading of late some of the writings of some of the women who at one time or another essayed to experience first hand the life of the working girl. They have a bit dismayed me. Is it exactly fair, what they do? They thought, because they changed their names and wore cheap clothes, that, presto! they were as workers and could pass on to an uninformed reading public the trials of the worker. (Incidentally they were all trials.) I had read in the past those heartrending books and articles and found it ever difficult to hold back the tears. Sometimes they were written by an immigrant, a bona-fide worker. The tragedy of such a life in this business-ridden land of ours tore one's soul.

An educated, cultured individual, used to a life of ease, or easier, if she had wished to make it that, would find the life of the factory worker well-nigh unbearable. An emotional girl longing for the higher things of life would find factory life galling beyond words. It is to be regretted that there are not more educated and cultured people--that more folk do not long for the higher things of life--that factory work is not galling to everybody. But the fact seems to be, if we dare generalize, that there are a very great many persons in this world who are neither educated nor "cultured" nor filled with spiritual longings. The observation might be made that all such are not confined to the working classes; that the country at large, from Fifth Avenue, New York, to Main Street, Gopher Prairie, to Market Street, San Francisco, is considerably made up of folk who are not educated or "cultured" or of necessity filled with unsatiable longings of the soul.

It is partly due to the fact that only recently--as geologic time is reckoned--we were swinging in trees, yearning probably for little else than a nut to crack, a mate, a shelter of sorts, something of ape company, and now and then a chance for a bit of a scrap. It is partly due to the fact that for the great majority of people, the life they live from the cradle up is not the sort that matures them with a growing ambition or opportunity to experience the "finer" things of life. One point of view would allow that the reason we have so few educated, cultured, and aspiring people is due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances to do with heredity and environment. They would be cultured and spiritual if only....

The other viewpoint argues that the only reason we have as many cultured and spiritual people as we have is due to a fortunate--"lucky"--combination of circumstances to do with heredity and environment. These more advanced folk would be far fewer in number if it had not happened that....

It is mostly the "educated and cultured" persons who write the more serious books we read and who tell us what they and the rest of the world think and feel and do--or ought to do. The rest of the world never read what they ought to think and feel and do, and go blithely--or otherwise--on their way thinking and feeling and doing--what they please, or as circumstances force them.

After all, the world is a very subjective thing, and what makes life worth living to one person is not necessarily what makes it worth living to another. Certain fundamental things everybody is apt to want: enough to eat (but what a gamut that "enough" can run!); a mate (the range and variety of mates who do seem amply to satisfy one another!); a shelter to retire to nights (what a bore if we all had to live complacently on the Avenue!); children to love and fuss over--but one child does some parents and ten children do others, and some mothers go into a decline if everything is not sterilized twice a day and everybody clean behind the ears, and other mothers get just as much satisfaction out of their young when there is only one toothbrush, if that, for everybody (we are writing from the mother's viewpoint and not the welfare of the offspring); some possessions of one's own, but not all stocks and bonds and a box of jewels in the bank, or a library, or an automobile, or even a house and lot, before peace reigns.

Everyone likes to mingle with his kind now and then; to some it is subjectively necessary to hire a caterer, to others peanuts suffice. Everyone likes to wonder and ponder and express opinions--a prize fight is sufficient material for some; others prefer metaphysics. Everyone likes to play. Some need box seats at the Midnight Frolic, others a set of second-hand tools, and yet others a game of craps in the kitchen.

No one likes to be hungry, to be weary, to be sick, to be worried over the future, to be lonely, to have his feelings hurt, to lose those near and dear to him, to have too little independence, to get licked in a scrap of any kind, to have no one at all who loves him, to have nothing at all to do. The people of the so-called working class are more apt to be hungry, weary, and sick than the "educated and cultured" and well-to-do. Otherwise there is no one to say--because there is no way it can be found out--that their lives by and large are not so rich, subjectively speaking, as those with one hundred thousand dollars a year, or with Ph. D. degrees.

Most folk in the world are not riotously happy, not because they are poor, or "workers," but because the combination making for riotous happiness--shall we say health, love, enough to do of what one longs to do--is not often found in one individual. The condition of the bedding, of the clothing; the pictures on the wall; the smells in the kitchen--and beyond; the food on the table--have so much, and no more, to do with it. Whether one sorts soiled clothes in a laundry, or reclines on a chaise-longue with thirty-eight small hand-embroidered and belaced pillows and a pink satin covering, or sits in a library and fusses over Adam Smith, no one of the three is in a position to pass judgment on the satisfaction or lack of satisfaction of the other two.

All of which is something of an impatient retort to those who look at the world through their own eyes and by no means a justification of the status quo. And to introduce the statement--which a month ago would have seemed to me incredible--that I have seen and heard as much contentment in a laundry as I have in the drawing-room of a Fifth Avenue mansion or a college sorority house--as much and no more. Which is not arguing that no improvements need ever be made in laundries.

* * * * *

There was one place I was not going to work, and that was a laundry! I had been through laundries, I had read about laundries, and it was too much to ask anyone--if it was not absolutely necessary--to work in a laundry. And yet when the time came, I hated to leave the laundry. I entered the laundry as a martyr. I left with the nickname, honestly come by without a Christian effort, of "Sunbeam." But, oh! I have a large disgust upon me that it takes such untold effort every working day, all over the "civilized," world to keep people "civilized." The labor, and labor, and labor of first getting cloth woven and buttons and thread manufactured and patterns cut and garments made up, and fitted, or not, and then to keep those garments clean! We talk with such superiority of the fact that we wear clothes and heathen savages get along with beads and rushes. For just that some six hundred and fifty thousand people work six days a week doing laundry work alone--not to mention mother at the home washboard--or electric machine. We must be clean, of course, or we would not be civilized, but I do not see why we need be so fearfully sot up about it.

A new Monday morning came along, and I waited from 7.40 to 9.15 in a six-by-nine entry room, with some twenty-five men and women, to answer the advertisement:

GIRLS, OVER 18

with public school education, to learn machine ironing, marking, and assorting linens; no experience necessary; splendid opportunity for right parties; steady positions; hours 8 to 5.30; half day Saturday.

What the idea was of advertising for superior education never became clear. No one was asked how far she had progressed intellectually. I venture to say the majority of girls there had had no more than the rudiments of the three r's. It looked well in print. One of the girls from the brassworks stood first in line. She had tried two jobs since I saw her last. She did not try the laundry at all.

I was third in line. The manager himself interviewed us inside, since the "Welfare Worker" was ill. What experience had I? I was experienced in both foot and power presses. He phoned to the "family" floor--two vacancies. I was signed up as press ironer, family. I wouldn't find it so hard as the brassworks--in fact, it really wasn't hard at all. He would start me in at fourteen dollars a week, since I was experienced, instead of the usual twelve. At the end of two weeks, if I wasn't earning more than fourteen dollars--it was a piecework system, with fourteen dollars as a minimum--I'd have to go, and make room for some one who could earn more than fourteen dollars.

I wonder if the Welfare Worker would have made the same speech. That manager was a fraud. On our floor, at least, no one had ever been known to earn more than her weekly minimum. He was a smart fraud. Only I asked too many questions upstairs, he would have had me working like a slave to hold my job.

By the time clock, where I was told to wait, stood the woman just ahead of me in the line. She was the first really bitter soul I had run across in factory work. Her husband had been let out of his job, along with all workers in his plant, without notice. After January 1st they might reopen, but at 1914 wages. There was one child in the family. The father had hunted everywhere for work. For one week the mother had searched. She had tried a shoe polish factory; they put her on gluing labels. The smell of the glue made her terribly sick to her stomach--for three days she was forced to stay in bed. Three times she had tried this laundry. Each day, after keeping her waiting in line an hour or so, they had told her to come back the next day. At last she had gotten as far as the time clock. I saw her several times in the evening line after that; she was doing "pretty well"--"shaking" on the third floor. Her arms nearly dropped off by evening, but she sure was glad of the thirteen dollars a week. Her husband had found nothing.

The third to join our time-clock ranks was a Porto-Rican. She could speak no English at all. They put her at scrubbing floors for twelve dollars a week. About 4 that afternoon she appeared on our floor, all agitated. She needed a Spanish girl there to tell the boss she was leaving. She was one exercised piece of temper when it finally penetrated just what her job was.

"Family" occupied two-thirds of the sixth and top floor--the other third was the "lunch room." Five flights to walk up every morning. But at least there was the lunch room without a step up at noon. And it was worth climbing five flights to have Miss Cross for a forelady. Sooner or later I must run into a disagreeable forelady, for the experience. To hear folks talk, plenty of that kind exist. Miss Cross was glad I was to be on her floor. She told the manager and me she'd noticed me that morning in line and just thought I'd made a good press ironer. Was I Eyetalian?

She gave me the second press from the door, right in front of a window, and a window open at the top. That was joy for me, but let no one think the average factory girl consciously pines for fresh air. Miss Cross ironed the lowers of a pair of pajamas to show me how it was done, then the coat part. While she was instructing me in such intricacies, she was deftly finding out all she could about my past, present, and future--married or single, age, religion, and so on. And I watched, fascinated, crumpled pajama legs, with one mighty press of the foot, appear as perfect and flawless as on the Christmas morning they were first removed from the holly-decorated box.

"Now you do it."

I took the coat part of a pair of pink pajamas, smoothed one arm a bit by hand as I laid it out on the stationary side of the ironing press, shaped somewhat like a large metal sleeve board. With both hands I gripped the wooden bar on the upper part, all metal but the bar. With one foot I put most of my weight on the large pedal. That locked the hot metal part on the padded, heated, lower half with a bang. A press on the release pedal, the top flew up--too jarringly, if you did not keep hold of the bar with one hand. That ironed one side of one sleeve. Turn the other side, press, release. Do the other sleeve on two sides. Do the shoulders all around--about four presses and releases to that. Another to one side of the front--two if it is for a big fat man. One under the arm, two or three to the back, one under the other arm, one or two to the other half of the front, one, two, or three to the collar, depending on the style. About sixteen clanks pressing down, sixteen releases flying up, to one gentleman's pajama coat. I had the hang of it, and was left alone. Then I combined ironing and seeing what was what. If a garment was very damp--and most of them were--the press had to be locked several seconds before being released, to dry it out. During those seconds one's eyes were free to wander.

On my left, next the door, worked a colored girl with shell-rimmed spectacles, very friendly, whose name was Irma. Of Irma later. On my right was the most woebegone-looking soul, an Italian widow, Lucia, in deep mourning--husband dead five weeks, with two daughters to support. She could not speak a word of English, and in this country sixteen years. All this I had from the forelady in between her finding out everything there was to know about me. Bless my soul, if Lucia did not perk up the second the forelady left, edge over, and direct a volume of Italian at me. What won't green earrings do! Old Mrs. Reilly called out, "Ach, the poor soul's found a body to talk to at last!" But, alas! Lucia's hope was short lived. "What!" called Mrs. Reilly, "you ain't Eyetalian? Well, you ought to be, now, because you look it, and because there ought to be somebody here for Lucy to talk to!" Lucia was diseased-looking and unkempt-looking and she ironed very badly. Everyone tried to help her out. They instructed her with a flow of English. When Lucia would but shake her head they used the same flow, only much louder, several at once. Then Lucia would mumble to herself for several minutes over her ironing. At times, late in the afternoon, Miss Cross would grow discouraged.

"Don't you understand that when you iron a shirt you put the sleeves over the puffer first?"

Lucia would shake her head and shrug her shoulders helplessly. Miss Cross would repeat with vehemence. Then one girl would poke Lucia and point to the puffer--"Puffer! puffer!" Another would hold up a shirt and holler "Shirt! shirt!" and Lucia would nod vaguely. The next shirt she did as all the others--puffer last, which mussed the ironed part--until some one stopped her work and did a whole shirt for Lucia correct, from beginning to end.

Next to Lucia stood Fanny, colored. She was a good-hearted, helpful, young married thing, not over-cleanly and not overstrong. That first morning she kept her eye on me and came to my rescue on a new article of apparel every so often. Next to Fanny stood the three puffers for anyone to use--oval-shaped, hot metal forms, for all gathers, whether in sleeves, waists, skirts, or what not. Each girl had a large egg-shaped puffer on her own table as well. Next to the puffers stood the two sewing machines, where Spanish Sarah and colored Hattie darned and mended.

At the side, behind the machines, stood Ida at her press. All the presses were exactly alike. Ida was a joy to my eyes. At first glance she appeared just a colored girl, but Ida was from Trinidad; her skin was like velvet, her accent Spanish. As the room grew hot from the presses and the steam, along about 4, and our feet began to burn and grow weary, I would look at Ida. It was so easy to picture the exact likes of her, not more than a generation or two ago, squatting under a palm tree with a necklace of teeth, a ring through her nose, tropic breezes playing on that velvet skin. (Please, I know naught of Trinidad or its customs and am only guessing.) And here stood Ida, thumping, thumping on the ironing press, nine hours, lacking ten minutes, a day, on the sixth floor of a laundry in Harlem, that we in Manhattan might be more civilized.

Once she told me she had lost fifteen pounds in this country. "How?"

"Ah, child," she said, "it's tha mother sickness. Don't you ever know it? Back home in Trinidad are my mother, my father, my two little boys. Oh, tha sickness to see them! But what is one to do when you marry a poor man? He must come to this country to find work, and then, after a while, I must come, too."

Behind Ida stood two other colored girls, and at the end press a white girl who started the day after I did. She stayed only five days, and left in disgust--told me she'd never seen such hard work. Beyond the last press were the curtain frames and the large, round padded table for ironing fancy table linen by hand. Then began the lunch tables.




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