One of my first jobs was working in a phonograph needle factory. And, no, this is NOT a piece of flash fiction set in the distant past. Before you get too far ahead of yourself in guessing my age, I was a “kid.” I worked with a couple of other “kids” on a part-time basis and we worked alongside a group of full-timers, all women, called respectfully, “the ladies.”
These were not highly skilled, specialized jobs. I think I worked fifteen hours a week, for five bucks an hour doing a menial, low-tech assembly line type of job involving little pieces of plastic, glue and a machine scientifically called “the squeezer.” The Ladies performed only slightly more sophisticated processes full-time, for eight hours, five days a week. When school was out we kids could work eight hour days, too. Thankfully we had a cap on our weekly hours because it was mind-numbing work. The glue would stick to my fingers creating weird bumps and the fumes would sometimes give me headaches. One of the ladies also did pink-collar admin work for the factory owner, a guy who bore a striking resemblance to Pop-Eye, except instead of a pipe he bobbled a burning cigarette between his lips. Clearly OSHA wasn’t very interested in monitoring suburban phonograph needle factories, because the place was one spark and a bucket away from an arson investigation.
I got the phonograph needle factory job from networking (before that was even considered a thing). My good friend worked there and she recommended me. It was a pretty easy job, it was local, and it gave us something to talk about other than school. We were sixteen years old and marking time until our futures arrived. Or rather, until we left town to meet up with Future at college. And we were accomplished, eager eavesdroppers. We knew when the Ladies dropped their voices low that they were gossiping about the owner. However, there were three main topics of general conversation:
- Food, or more specifically what was for lunch and what were you planning to make for dinner that night.
- Death, or more specifically what recently deceased bodies looked like. Sometimes there was a spiritual component to the conversation: was there a hell? Was promiscuity punishable by damnation? There was one Lady who calmly maintained her existentialism and this seemed to upset one of her co-workers who was sure this position would send her straight to Hell. After these vigorous debates the Ladies would break and all eat lunch together.
- And the most provocative topic was sex. The most vocal and continuing debate was over the sexiness of Elvis Presley, Chad Everett (star of the TV drama, Medical Center, 1969 – 1976 ) and Richard Chamberlain (Golden Globe winner for Best Actor, 1962, as Dr. Kildare. Also outed as gay in 1989.) Again, television medicine did little to answer their questions about death, but it led to some serious romantic fantasy. The Ladies did not censor themselves. I took their openness as recognition of my own womanly maturity — mostly fantasy itself.
These women were earthy realists. Of the five, only one was married. The others were divorced. Two had children, and clearly the single women were self- supporting. The Factory Ladies were very nurturing, proud and protective of us kids. We kids treated them with respect and found out more about their lives — how different they were from ours and how hard they were. Even though they didn’t expect that their work lives were going to change very much, they knew that we were on the edge of a transition we were still too dumb to comprehend. Maybe they remembered themselves, fresh at their own thresholds, wondering what they would have done differently? Or maybe they were just cheering us on.
The bulk of my spending scratch and college funding had been raised from some cushy and steady babysitting gigs ~ a stroke of financial good fortune brought on by a deficient teen social life. All of the women I met growing up were either mothers or teachers. I didn’t know any lawyers or doctors who were women, and most of my friends’ moms worked at part time jobs during school hours, if they worked outside the home at all. I did get a subscription to Ms. Magazine as a Christmas gift from the progressive family I babysat for, and my parents insisted on personal independence for me and my sister, but I had little frame of reference about my career options. Although I watched TV, went to movies and read books I just never internalized that I could make a living creating any of those things. And I venture to add that neither did my parents. But working alongside these women gave me some insight to the meaning of work, of camaraderie and how to navigate a difference of opinion, that respect is due to all types of work. They may have asked us to refer to them as “ladies,” but they were working women. To this day I cringe (and then say something. I aim for humorous, yet pointed) when I hear anybody say in any work-related context, “Have the girls do it.” Or, “I’ll assign it to my girl.” I’ve heard both men and women refer to their associates this way, and in the recent past.