SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 3, 2013

Sweatshop

 

The pisser was it was all pointless from the very beginning, and everyone involved knew it. But pointless as it all was, it was something I was expected to do—if I didn’t, see, I would be acting in bad faith. Little did they know that I’d be acting in bad faith anyway.

            There’s this agency, see, that says they’re going to help me find gainful employment given that I’m blind and seem incapable of doing this myself. A few weeks earlier they’d sent me to a factory in Brooklyn with a history of hiring the blind. The man there told me that in fact I was too blind, and on top of it not retarded enough to work there.

            After that the days grew into weeks. I heard nothing more from the agency and began to relax. They’d taken their one shot, it hadn’t worked, and that was that. It was kind of a relief, actually. I’d figure something out myself, and with luck something that wouldn’t involve large and dangerous machinery, or wearing pants.

            But then the email arrived. An opening had come up, so the next morning I was to report back to the same factory that had turned me down earlier for what they called an “assessment.” This involved seeing how well I could operate a sewing machine, and they would use my aptitude there as a gauge to determine how well I might do on larger, more deadly machines. So the joke, as usual, was on me.

            I could have told them quickly and easily what kind of aptitude I had with sewing machines, but there was little choice in the matter. I had to go, and had to illustrate that I’d put in the effort, to do my best and do my duty to god and my country to show them I wasn’t just another freeloader, that I really would try to get the job. So with a heavy sigh and a heavier hangover, I put on my shoes, grabbed the cane, and headed off to the factory on a chilly and overcast Friday morning.

            It was a ninety-minute trip over there involving a couple of transfers and some of the most ill-conceived subway stations in the city. Once above ground in the designated neighborhood I promptly made several wrong turns but still—no thanks to the local citizenry—made it to the factory on time. I went to the fourth floor reception area, gave the angry woman behind the glass my name, and took a seat next to another candidate for the same job.

            His name was Melvin, I would learn later, and if what I’d been led to believe earlier was true and severe retardation really was a leg up in this place, then he had me beat hands down. He also had more animal crackers with him than I did, which I considered an unfair advantage.

            A few minutes later an energetic young man burst into the room, shook my hand vigorously, and led me downstairs for my assessment. Along the way he talked endlessly and quickly—the kind of speech pattern that at one time would have pointed unflinchingly at a bad dose of crystal meth. But at least it made sense. I would be shown how to work a sewing machine—a more complicated and delicate model than the kind they used upstairs—in order to determine how well equipped I was to work at the factory.

            “Good,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”I had no idea what they did “upstairs,” but it sounded ominous.

            The elevator doors opened onto the office set from Orson Welles’ The Trial—an enormous, open room a block long and a block wide with rows of small tables stretching endlessly to the horizon in every direction. Atop each table sat a sewing machine operated by an unhappy developmentally disabled drone. Every machine was humming and thumping, and no one was speaking. I wondered how many hours they were forced to work at a stretch, and how many cents per hour they were paid. He marched me down one of the long aisles as I tried to refrain from cracking jokes about the Shirtwaist factory or Bangladesh. Then he stopped.

            “This is Su-Lin,” he said. “She’ll be giving you the assessment. She’s very good. I’ve got some things to do, but I’ll be back in about twenty-five minutes to pick you up. Just do your best.” Listening to the sad hum of the machines around me, I had to wonder how it had ever come to this. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing there, but there I was. As he left I had the idea that he was thinking pretty much the same thing.

            Su-lin was a small, pleasant Asian woman I suspect had plenty of sweatshop experience before she got to this place. She led me around a few more tables and plopped me down in front of a machine.

            “You never sew before, yes?”

            “Nope.”

            “You ever have job?”

            Oh, Jesus Christ. But I couldn’t take it personally, even though I’d changed my shirt and everything that morning. “Yes. For many years. But not sewing.”

            “That okay—I show you how. Over here on machine, you see green button?”

            “No.”

            “It next to red button.”

            “I don’t see a red button either.”

            She took my hand and rubbed my fingers across a large, square, and presumably green button. “You feel that?”

            “Yes, I just can’t see it.” I was wondering if anyone had explained my situation to her, or merely sent me in cold as a joke.

            “That turn machine on. When it on, it beep, see?”

            “I think I can remember that.”

            “Okay, here now.” She handed me a piece of cloth. “You feel that? That what we call the fabric.”

            I couldn’t take this personally, either, what with her working with the retarded all day. So I played along. “The fabric, you say?”

            “ . . . and this we call folding the fabric, see?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            She took my fingers again and let me feel all the different parts of the sewing machine as she named them. Few of the names seemed to make any logical sense, and I put it down to a minor blip in the translation. I’d just have to remember what word she was using for what once things got rolling, which they soon did.

            She demonstrated twice with two small folded pieces of cloth, then handed me a piece. “Now you try.”

            “Oh . . . okay.” I folded the cloth in half the way she had done it earlier.

            “Good!”

            “Yes, well. Thank you.” I was apparently off to a flying start, clearly having already mastered one very important element of the sewing process. If I wasn’t careful, I’d be sent straight “upstairs” and assigned to a table of my very own. I would never be allowed to leave.

            I never told her, I’ve never told anyone, that ever since I was a kid I’ve been scared to death of sewing machines, convinced the needle would jackhammer through my hand and sew my fingers together. Now wasn’t the time to think about that, though. I had to put in the effort, and besides I’m sure she has to spend much of her day pulling heavy gauge needles out of thumbs and comforting hysterical employees as it is. I placed the cloth down against the whatchamacallit and slid it toward the needle. I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I stepped down on the pedal, the needle started to thump, and I tried to swallow my helpless whimpering. But I’ll tell you, I was not letting my fingers get anywhere near that needle.

            “Here—put you finger here, see? You see this red nail polish here?”

            “No, I sure don’t.”

            I don’t know how long it was altogether—maybe five minutes, maybe seven—before she gave up completely, noting on her form that I was a hopeless case. Whose cruel joke was this anyway, having the blind sew? Who the hell’s gonna buy a shirt with three arms?

            She remained perfectly pleasant throughout, and after giving up on me spent the rest of our time together explaining what it was they did down there, and describing to me what pockets were.

            Then the energetic fellow showed up with Melvin in tow. Yeah, he was a shoo-in, there with his animal crackers.

            “We use these assessments to try and determine what kind of jobs you might be qualified for,” the speed freak said as he led me upstairs. “And what kind it might be best to avoid.”

            “Uh-huh,” I replied. “Anything involving machines that make me scream might be worth reconsidering.”

            He opened the front door to the factory, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and pointed me toward the subway. “Now,” he said, “please drop me an email when you get home, just so I know you got there alive.”

            I was getting the impression that he was getting the impression that maybe I was retarded enough to work there after all. Which has me curious to see what kind of job I’ll be up for next.

 

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