creative non-fiction

Factory Ladies

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.

Women work.






Working It: The Internship Has Sailed

All work has value, but I’ve noticed over the last two weeks a lot of chatter about it.

1.  Discussion about raising the national minimum wage to $9.00/hour, which we can argue will both help some people and hurt some people.  But then, if a person is working over forty hours a week, shouldn’t he be able to cross over the poverty line?  How many more hours can a human being physically work to get and stay out of poverty?

2. There is also the up and down conversation about internships.  Are they, or should they be, paid work?  Or are they creating a type of under-class?  I’ve worked for a Fortune 500 apparel company who didn’t pay interns because the “prestige” of working there was enough to get the intern a paying gig in the industry down the line.  The reality was only “girls”  (because all the interns I ever knew there were female) with financial support from family (or a trust fund) were able to intern.    For the most part, these were crummy, tedious, dirty jobs that the divas in PR/Marketing/Design would hand down the pecking order until they landed in the intern’s lap.   So we had a type of “pink collar ghetto” amidst the glamor of the Fashion Industry.  On the flip side, I worked for another Fortune 500 company that created a very structured internship program placing students in departments where the team was required to give them “real” work, not send them to make copies or get coffee.  This company also paid a salary for the summer.  One summer we had such a fantastic intern! She was so good that we hired her before she graduated the following year.  Which was somewhat ironic, because the next summer we had the WORST intern.  Clearly he was a “scrub,” as we later found out he was the son of the CEO’s pal who needed some supervision over the summer while his own CEO parents were traveling.  Nice-enough boy, but his “work” was a burden to the team — if he bothered to show up to work at all.   All I kept thinking was how this kid was taking a paid job from somebody who really needed one, and that helicopter parents exist on every level.  We certainly felt like babysitters, and laughed every time he came back from breakfast of lunch with the CEO.   Seems only interns ever broke bread in the C-suite.

3.  And now we have talk of “serial internships” in some fields that have replaced what were formerly called entry-level jobs.  Their new hiring catch phrase is 22-22-22 (“Hire a 22 year-old who will work 22 hours a day for $22K”). What we are doing is creating a serf class of worker who is young, inexperienced, and so saddled with debt that they devalue themselves by competing in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.  Aren’t these young workers supposed to be paying into Social Security to support all us aging Baby Boomers?  Don’t we need them to earn enough to do that and grow to be part of the thriving middle class?

4.  Now let’s throw two more professions into the mix:  law and veterinary medicine.  Both of these fields requires years of study and accreditation, and both professions are dealing with a glut of new graduates with poor job prospects. One interesting proposal comes from John Farmer, Dean of Rutgers School of Law, Newark.  He proposes newly graduated lawyers complete residencies similar to the programs newly minted doctors follow.  In addition to providing work and experience, the focus of the lawyers’ work would be to provide representation to a currently undeserved population:  the middle class, ironically.  (The argument is that the indigent may qualify for free representation.)  The link to his piece published in the New York Times here:

The veterinarians have a much deeper problem.   Although Americans are spending more discretionary income on their pets, the number of pets are shrinking.  In addition, starting salaries for new vets have dropped even as the cost of their education has risen.  Flash forward even a few years and consider an older vet hoping to sell a practice and retire.  The pool of viable practice buyers won’t be robust enough to take on the investment.   Not a good position for either the young or retiring doctor.

My parents and their parents were big believers in education as the stepping stone to a fulfilling life, a life engaged in valuable work ~ certainly valuable enough to be paid a sustainable wage.  They respected those who used their hands to physically labor and admired those who used their minds to heal or help those in need.  They pushed their children to go as far as they could and to lead by good example.   That sentiment seems positively quaint now.  But one that still rings as good principle.  We stand on their shoulders and should reach back and help the next generation along.   We can’t leave them indentured, embittered and withered — not if we want them to care for us in our old age.