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Mar 04 2015

Dispatches From Hellpeckersville – I Made The Shoes

The first job I ever had was at a shoe factory. The first spring that I was able to drive, my uncle–the daytime foreman on the cutting side of the factory–told me to get a few of my friends to get our working papers and come on up to the factory for part-time jobs. That way, we would beat out the college kids coming home for spring break for the summer full-time positions. As I now had a car I wanted to put gas in and insurance to pay, this sounded good to me, so off to the shoe factory I went. That job ruined me.

The factory was small, divided into two sections, cutting–which was both cutting and sewing, and vulcanizing–which was where the sole gets attached to the shoe. No wall between them, a half-walled storage area marked the division. When you first walked in the door there was a vestibule with time clocks and a glass encased bulletin board, then a second set of doors you went through to the main shop. On the main floor to left was vulcanizing, far right was cutting, smack in the middle was where the sewing and trimming happened, that’s where they put me, at a trimming table near the back, behind rows and rows of sewing machines.

I thought the place looked really dirty at first, but then I realized that most of what I was seeing was the dust that came off the shoes as they went through each machine. The women at the trimming table were chatty, and offered up the little tidbit that I probably didn’t want to get comfy there. Trimming was something you did if your sewing machine was down or you were out of work for the night, or just one of the people who worked steady but couldn’t “make rate”. Rate? That sounded interesting, what was rate? They explained to me how the different sewing jobs were done at piece rate, they would bring you a dolly of boxes, maybe 48 pair in each box, and each shoe in that box was priced per piece, so when you were done the box there was a ticket on it with a bunch of smaller tickets to rip off for the job you had done and a place to sign your initials for that job on the big ticket. That’s what you wanted, those tickets added up. Yes, yes indeed, that is what I wanted.

I wasn’t at the trimming table a week before they moved me to bar-tacking, which took no skill at all, put two shoe pieces together at the right spot…then tack. I was really, really good at that. So good that they began to limit how many dollies I could have. The thing about that was, if you ran out of work before your hours were up, you had to go trim, then they averaged your pay, and we hated that, almost all of us there. We busted our asses to make a certain amount, only to have a slow night screw us over. Certain jobs, like the bottom stitch they used to pull the shoe into shape for vulcanizing, got done on every shoe, they didn’t run out of work that often. I never did that job, so I resolved to get good at more than one piece rate job, so I never had to have my pay averaged.

That job may have been the most fun I’ve ever had at work. While I was busy trying to work my way through most of the jobs on the sewing floor, I was also making some of the best friends I thought I’d ever have. Working second shift was a revelation. Once the big bosses left for the day the high jinx began, and our supervisor and floor lady just did not seem to mind so long as we produced quality work. We may have been shooting giant rubber bands across the factory floor at each other, but we were also signing every piece of work, knowing that if it was bad it would come back to bite us. I soon realized I didn’t even have to work a full 40 hours if I didn’t have the piece rate work to sustain it, I could clock out. Of course, they paid a 7% bonus for a full 40 hours on second shift, so you would think most of us would make it, right? Wrong.

I was hired in 1979 at $3.10 an hour, but within weeks I was rarely making less than $4.50 and many, many jobs there let me make well over $5.00 an hour. So, if I ran out of piece rate work that had been making me five an hour for six hours, I clocked out, as did many of us. The company didn’t care, so long as there was “a day’s work” done, plus they didn’t have to pay the bonus. It was hot, full of dust, we joked that we were the dregs of society working at a sweatshop, but we were all having a blast, really. We had money in our pockets and not a care in the world, or so it seemed.

I thought I would work there forever. I left once, but came back, the other job just did not have the…I want to say relaxed atmosphere the shoe factory had. Besides, I was good at that job, at many of the jobs there, from sewing bar tacks and top stitch, to heat seal, to box toe, I learned how to hop from job to job and make rate on damn near anything they sat in front of me. And there was a certain camaraderie there, sure, I’ve felt it at other work places, but not on that level. Never the way I felt it when a ragtag bunch of us shoe workers hung out on the loading dock and sat in our circle together night after night.

We knew something was up the first time we walked into Woolco and saw that the cheap canvas “Kung-Fu” shoes they were selling were not ours. My fiends Kim and Connie and I picked them up and played spot the differences. Nope, not from us…from China. Shit. We made the cheap shoes. We made the fake leather, fake stitched, fake rubber soled cheapies you could get at every discount store. What was this?

We weren’t sure, but we figured between how many times OSHA had been in to hang notices that the company couldn’t cover up quick enough, and the ever growing number of imports in the stores our days were numbered. And they were. In more ways than one. There was something, maybe more than one something in that factory that was making people sick. We heard about the benzene and the toluene, we also heard there was something very wrong in the fake wool that lined our cheap boots, the cheap wool that left it’s dust everywhere. We lost one friend when he was only 22, my childhood streetball friend? His mom, her next door neighbor, both only a couple of doors away from me, all within a few years. More followed.

Looking back, I know we had a lot of cancer in that joint, and when the owner outsourced the fitting side of things to try to save his factory, he kept the vulcanizing, where most of the danger was. The factory still didn’t last, but did the effects of working there? I don’t know. I know we lost Connie to an asthma attack when she was only 46. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what made me so sick, and if something dark is sitting inside me, waiting to bloom. Am I still walking in those cheap fake rubber shoes I took so much joy in making?

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