Apr 22, 2014

Not Looking Back

When I walked through the kitchen door at 9:30 that morning my father burst out laughing. I was not amused.  My father was standing on the sidewalk outside of the kitchen window with his friend Brock from work when he noticed that I had come home early that day. I secretly had a crush on my father’s friend and I didn’t want him to witness my humiliation.  My toes hurt and I desperately needed to take off my shoes.

“What happened?” Mom asked.  “I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I quit.” I responded in a defeated tone. “You should see what those women look like that work there. They were awful.”

 “You’re not made to work in a factory,” my father said while he and Brock were still laughing outside at my expense. 

I am girlie, even for a girl. My free time was spent reading poetry and romance novels imagining my own Mr. Darcy or John Thornton waltzing up to my door and sweeping me away.  I dreamt of wearing those beautiful costumes from times past and living the genteel life. My head was in the clouds, far from the reality of life.  For as long as I can remember, I always wore skirts and dresses because I wanted to look like a Jane Austen character.  Wearing them made me feel feminine and I did it for religious reasons too.  I could count on one hand the slacks that were included in my wardrobe.

Me at the shoe store with handmade clowns from a customer
I graduated from high school in January of 1978 when I was 17 years old and began working at a small discount shoe store on Broadway called The 350 Shop. The store was owned by Alice Meadows, who was nearly 60 when I came on board.  I was the only full time employee and another girl came in for a couple of hours after school. 

Me at the shoe store
My beginning wage was $2.50 an hour and my take home pay was less than $100.00 a week, but for a teenager I felt rich and this money enabled me to buy clothes and those precious books that I spent endless hours reading.

Alice Meadows and Me 
My contact with the public was nearly non-existent before working at the shoe store and nothing could prepare me for how people really are in life. The clientele ranged from nuns to drag queens, and Disco Harry, a local celebrity, came to the store quit often, even though we only sold women’s shoes. People can be scary, even women.  I watched in horror as hefty females with puffed feet and toes like sausages tried to cram their oversized extremity into shoes that were much too small for them.  Many men and women that came into the store had rough features, were loud or threatening and their manners were brutish, I was terrified of those people.  My parents were country folk and my mother’s outbreaks were mild compared to what I witnessed at the store.  After enduring the public for a few years, I wanted to do something else with my life.  

Ed Meadows (Alice' husband) and me
I began applying at a lot of company’s around town.  My father worked at Fruehauf Corporation on the city’s south side and he liked it very much. Maybe, I would like working at a factory as well, I thought to myself. I was told about a company in New Haven called Bennett’s, which was a clothing factory and I went there to fill out an application.   It was 1983 and I was on vacation from the shoe store for two weeks when someone from the company called me about a position.  I decided to try it out since I didn’t have to give up the shoe store job and I had two weeks to see if I would like working in a factory environment.

It was July and extremely hot. When I woke up at 5 a.m. for work it was already 80 degrees. The expected high for the day was near 100. When I arrived at the factory I was surprised to see that only women worked there. Someone brought me to my station, which was a steam press. A large blower attached to the ceiling was the only cooling and heating element in the building. It was extremely hot inside even though it was early morning. The blower was operating at full blast but didn’t make a difference in the sweltering factory. Sewing machines were scattered all over the floor with a pile of fabric next to each machine.  I was shown how to use the press and noticed that my station had three piles of fabric pieces beside it.  Observing the height of the piles alarmed me.  I was starting a job already behind, which put me in a panic mode.  I had to wear pants with closed toe shoes.  By the time of the first break, I was drenched in sweat.  My clothing clung to my body as if I had stepped out of a pool of water and my perfectly coiffed hair lay flat on my head. Sweat poured down my back and legs which ran like a stream to my socks.  I was miserably hot and sticky.

I looked around the factory as I pressed the fabric.  The women looked hard and unfeminine.  One woman stood out from the rest.  She was probably in her 50’s and looked old to one who is only 23.  Her brown hair was braided and wrapped around her head. I couldn’t tell what era here clothing was from, I think maybe she was an old hippy from the 70’s, at least her outfit was.  She was wearing patterned pants with a smock top.   Then I glanced around at the other women working around me and they were wearing tattered jeans and old worn out tee shirts.  It was then that I had an epiphany of my future and it scared me.  I don’t want to look like those women, I told myself. If I stay here then I will definitely end up resembling them and I am not about to go down that road.

When I came home, I headed straight for the shower.  I put on a blouse and a skirt, my favorite attire and thought about my next move.  My family asked about my first day while we were eating dinner. I mumbled that work was okay. That evening I went to bed early, exhausted from the work and the heat had taken its toll on me. 

The next morning was a repeat of the day before.  The sun was high in the sky and was beating down upon my small place of the earth at the early hour of 5 a.m.  I drove to work, dreading the day.   

Upon arriving at the factory, I went directly to my station.  I tried to prepare myself for working in the immense heat, but I couldn’t do it.  I was miserable.  The sweat began pouring as soon as I started operating the press. My toes were hurting because my shoes were too short.  It didn’t take me long before I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to like working at the factory.  I just couldn’t see myself there.  When the first break came at 9:15, I told my boss that I wanted to go home and will not be coming back. She offered to let me sew together garments at one of the machines.  Then the vision of the woman that I wanted to avoid resembling when I was middle-aged crossed my mind.  I grabbed my lunch and purse then headed towards my car.  When I turned the key in the ignition, I felt a sense of relief, and then I put the car in gear, not ever looking back.