Healing Hands Assembly was in an old run-down brick building that looked like a sweat shop might still operate inside. It was maybe four stories high with large drafty windows embedded with chicken wire. Other businesses operated on the different floors of the building. I wondered if they were as dreary, illuminated with fluorescent lights and single light bulbs that dangled from the ceilings with frayed ropes of wire. How had the place not yet had an electrical fire, but there was still time?
My interview for the assembler job consisted of the engineer, who designed the air pumps, handing me a pencil diagram of a pump. The parts were spread out on my worktable. The diagram was numbered in the order of assembly; “See if you can assemble this and I will be back in fifteen minutes,” he said. My two years of college were wasted on this job. First grade was preparation enough. I assembled the pump in 10 minutes. Soon I would be able to assemble them in my sleep.
Our shop occupied the second floor. We took an industrial sized elevator that opened on two sides to get there. The back door opened with a clang and was used for stock and parts delivery and the front for the employees to shuffle off to their stations. We punched timecards when we first got to work in a small room to the left of the elevator. A large bright room greeted us at the “employee’s only” entrance. This room was well lit, modernized, and clean and was the only part of the plant that was. Machines were spaced across its polished floors that made the air mattresses and waterbeds for burn victims in hospitals around world.
Dyes cut and pressed plastic sheets to form the beds and mattresses Their seams were sealed by microwave machines. This feeding, pressing, sealing, and folding were a two-person job. All day the machines hissed like snakes with every new press and seal. These jobs meant standing eight hours a day repeating the repetitive dance of hands, limbs and backs obeying the choreography of the machines. Over time these dances would cause permanent damage to its dancers.
The machines did not have protective shields to protect the mostly young women who worked them from the invisible waves of heat that did not distinguish between human flesh or plastic. Joan Jet, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath ricocheted off the bare walls belting out music and breaking up the monotony of the workday. It likely sped those who worked in this room closer to premature deafness, but choice of music was one small freedom where there were far and few between.
These were horrible jobs that I gladly walked past to my less horrible job sitting at a station assembling air pumps. The workspace was dingy but provided more privacy. I had a wooden table, my own radio and listened to the music I preferred.
To be a full-fledged assembler I needed to learn to make a good solder. My co-worker named, Lavonna would teach me; “You cannot make a cold solder, or the pump won’t work,” she warned.
Lavonna, made rosehip tea that she doused with cream and dollops of honey that sustained her through the day. She said the rosehips warded off colds and flu. She rolled her own cigarettes smoothing them closed with the curl of her tobacco-stained tongue while talking about the evil of communism in between listening to polkas on her tiny radio. She was a sturdy woman with snow white hair rolled like a snail shell secured to the top of her head with bobby pins. She wore bold red aprons that protected her clothes beneath. Gold hoops or studs of small rubies and diamonds adorned her pierced ears. She often wore too many rings set with precious stones on her nimble fingers that I worried would be lost in the reassesses of the air pumps and were.
Premonitions of thieves stealing her jewels while she was at work sewed secret pockets into her clothes to keep safe her jewelry. Two pockets rested above her breasts that had suckled her children and above her heart that had been broken too many times.
Before Lavonna’s family fled from Poland her mother had taught her and three sisters to sew these secret pockets. They would not be penniless when they arrived in America. They would not be hungry on the journey because a great grandmother’s pearls filled pots with chickens, and another’s gold bracelets bought loaves of cheleb (bread).
She often covered her head in colorful scarves to stave off the cold and for religious reasons I knew nothing about. Sometimes she covered her hands too with black fingerless gloves her rings protruding like corns on her toes she complained of. Thick-soled shoes made standing on concrete easier on legs bound with support hose, “To save her blood from murdering her heart,” she would laugh.
Lavonna had been in camps in Poland where she almost starved. They were run by the Russians. She did not have a kind word to say about the Germans either who had murdered much of her family. Both had destroyed her homeland. The few left immigrated to America. Protesters marching in the streets in Buffalo reminded her of those bad times in Poland; “Them in the streets, she admonished “Nothing but spoiled children that know nothing about freedom.”
I told her I was a protester and so was my husband, Patrick and that he had fought in the Viet Nam war and saw firsthand its senseless waste of human life and that it was an illegal war that was not voted on by the U.S. Congress.
“Yes, but he has carried that war back in his fists and now he bruises you with them. I am not blind, Julia. I have seen the marks your make-up does not hide or your long sleeves when it is too hot for them and the veil of sadness you sometimes wear. She studies me with her watery blue eyes nodding her head and then says, “Oh, well you are no like them Julia. You a good girl just a long way from home. You must make your way back there” and offered me a cup of rosehip tea pressing a gold ring to my palm; “For your passage,” she says.
She would not, several months later, join us in our attempt to organize a union led by the stock clerk, Tony with Jesus hair, the voice of a saint and fire of a brimstone minister. She would sip her tea shaking her head and then watch me with regret walk off the job, joining the troublemakers who wanted safety barriers installed for the microwave machines and better pay. We would all be fired and need to appeal for unemployment benefits. It was the 1970’s and companies were taking flight to the south and foreign countries. Healing Hands Assembly would move as well to Central America where labor was cheap and safety measures lax and people were more desperate for jobs than we were. And though I would still wear the purple paint of Patrick’s rage, I would not for long and the factory’s flight stirred my own to find a way home.
Jennifer’s new poetry book, Fruit Box Castles: Poems from a Peach Rancher’s Daughter is available from Finishing Line Press. She is a Pushcart Nominee for Poetry, and a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition. Her short story, Summer of the River Bottom Dragon is featured in PenDust Radio.