Expressway: Lessons from a Long Island sweatshop
'No bag," I repeated to the bored teenage cashier behind the drugstore counter. He gave a deep sigh and took my vitamin D out of the bag.
"Look," I said in a cheerful tone, "it's already in a bottle and a box."
I tried empathy: "I hope your next job is better than this one."
Sensing an ally, he leaned forward and whispered, "They make us listen to country music in here."
I agreed it made for difficult, if not hazardous, working conditions. But this is where I wanted to shake him and ask, "Do you want to hear about a sweatshop where I worked in 1972?"
Of course, I did not tell him my story, but it's true -- and I am thankful every day for the experience.
I was 18, three months pregnant and had my own rented room in Huntington Station with no TV or phone. My portable radio and library card kept me well entertained. I would ride my bike to the Huntington train station, park it, and then take a bus to my job on New York Avenue in Huntington village. I worked at a laundry in an old crumbling building with uneven floors, leaks, rumors of rats, and no air conditioning or fans.
My 5-foot-6 height qualified me to work a shirt press, which required reaching upward to pull down a handle. Tomasa, another young woman, and I pressed a total of 600 or more shirts a day. If we hit that mark, we were paid 3 cents a shirt.
This was backbreaking and dangerous work. You could get severe burns or lose fingers on the shirt press if you were careless. In hot weather we got five minutes added to our five-minute afternoon break. Thank you Amalgamated Laundry Workers!
The pace was stressful. The only time we stopped our feverish pursuit of 600 was one time when Tomasa lost an earring. All the girls came over to help us find it, which we did, gracias a Dios.
I learned Spanish to keep up with the banter and teasing of my co-workers. I did not want to feel left out.
We were paid weekly, but once a month, money was deducted for union dues and insurance, and I got only $30 for a week's work. Even though I was pregnant, I had no idea about health care or sick time because no one took time to explain the benefits to workers.
This low-paying job taught me to discern wants from needs, and I learned to spend only for needs.
"That's not a dime," I would think, "it's a phone call." Or, "That's not a quarter, it's a bus ride."
In my first trimester, exhaustion was a problem. One day, after almost fainting into a bin of shirts, I flopped to the floor. Louie, the big boss man, leaned over me. I thought he was going to help me up and get me a drink. Instead, he just growled, "This is a job, not a convenience."
I left early and crashed on a cot in back of the nearby Kropotkin Records music store. I learned that day not to expect sympathy, but to be grateful when it came along.
I had that job only six months. Eventually, I went back to school and became a registered nurse, which I am today. I think of those days often, especially of the kindness of the laundry girls who gave me a baby shower on the loading dock during a 10-minute break. Every job since has seemed easier, and I gratefully hold the lessons of those hard times with me always.
Reader Ann Rita Darcy lives in Huntington Station.