FIRST DAY OF WORK
I arrived in America on Thursday and the following Monday I already had to be at work. The thought of having a job and a pay was very exciting. It made me feel as though I had some authority as well. I had worked a bit at sewing, embroidering and knitting. I did it for the family and other relatives, but I never received a penny. Working and getting paid for it was like a dream. My imagination would run wild at the thought of all the wonderful things I could do with that money. I had visions of beautiful dresses, beautiful shoes and bags. At that age, these things were important. And that wasn’t all: I could also help support the family that had remained in Italy. I would have been able to buy gifts for my sisters that had remained back in our town, for my mother and for my beloved grandmother. Thinking of this would fill me with joy and a strong sense of responsibility. That sense of responsibility that had accompanied me since the departure.
But my imagination, my dreams, pushed me even further, beyond the immediate and into a world that was still far away. I would ask myself: “What if it would be possible to also save some money for my future”; I would clasp my hands together and turn my eyes upwards.
Then I would immediately chase this thought away and I would feel guilty to have dared so much. I already had so much in front of me, a huge rugged mountain to scale and for now, that was enough. But the thought of building myself a future did not go away, it remained in my mind.
I pushed it far into the back of my mind, promising myself that I wouldn’t forget it.
Sunday night, I carefully prepared myself for my first day at work. I picked out a pretty dress, I ironed it well and I shined my shoes. I went to bed earlier than usual. The following day I had to wake up early, it was a very important day.
Monday morning, my aunt gave me a paper bag with something inside. She told me that it was my “lunch”, or my midday meal for the day. I didn’t say anything, but I asked myself whether this meant that I wasn’t going to be returning home for lunch and this worried me quite a bit. Since my uncle was on vacation, he took me with his car to the place where I had to start work at 8:00. I was apprehensive, as I didn’t know what to expect and the unknown scared me somewhat. On the way, we bumped into other women and girls from our town that were walking together towards the same workplace. My uncle offered to give them a ride. Everyone mashed themselves into the car, one person on top of another. The dress that I had so carefully ironed was getting wrinkled.
In any case, seeing my old friends made me feel better. They assured me that working conditions were good in the bag factory and my relative, head of the department, treated them well. Assured by their presence and by what they said, my mood and my fear of the unknown was lifted a bit. At the entrance to the factory, Mario, my relative, came up to greet us. He said “hi!” to me and told me he had been waiting for me. He told my uncle he could go and I followed Mario inside. We walked into an enormous room, almost cavernous and somewhat dusty. It was full of sewing machines, large, heavy SINGER machines. The female workers were bent over their work and pedaled the sewing machines with a great deal of strength and speed. I noticed that they never raised their heads and were totally concentrated on their work. The machines made a deafening noise. I followed Mario into the office; I had to fill out the work certificate. Since I didn’t understand English, he took care of everything. I had the impression that he had done this many times. I only had to sign. He explained what my job would be; I didn’t understand anything, but I nodded my head. Mario accompanied me to another huge room next to the one I had just seen.
In the room there were other people, all women, bent over a long table full of pieces of bags to be put together for the women who worked the machines. This table was called the assembly line. The women would put together each part of the bag: the handles, the lining, the zipper, the small hook that attached the handle to the bag. They did everything except sew the various parts of the bag. From there, a worker would take the material and distribute it to the women who worked the machines. Neither the women in the assembly line nor the women who worked the machines had to move from their spots. They entrusted me to a girl that I didn’t know. She would teach me the job I had to perform. She showed me some small metal hooks. She explained that I had to insert them in the handles of the bags. The hooks were steel wires bent in two. After they were inserted in the handle, I had to open them and bend them so that they would hold up the bag’s handle. I looked at her, I looked at the steel wires and I implored all the Saints to let me disappear forever. The girl noticed my discomfort and she offered some words of encouragement. She showed me how to do it and, since I hadn’t disappeared, I got to work. The hooks were sharp and would prick my hands. Bending them into an S shape required a lot of patience and finger strength. I noticed that other women performing other jobs were keeping an eye on me. I continued on, but it wasn’t easy. After a while of working, my fingers were all scratched up and they hurt. I looked imploringly at the girl who was helping me. She looked at me and shook her head; I couldn’t stop, I had to continue. So I continued…
Suddenly, I heard a sharp and deafening noise. I looked around, confused. Everything had stopped. The workers, men and women, were leaving their spots and heading quickly towards the dining hall. It was the coffee break, a coffee “intermission” of sorts. Many had coffee-filled thermoses and cookies; others would get them from the vending machines. I dug around in the bag that my aunt had given me that morning and I found a sandwich and an apple. I ate the apple, and left the sandwich for lunch. At noon, the same scene would repeat itself. The deafening noise of the whistle announced the lunch break, the break for lunch. Again, everything stopped and the workers, each with his or her bag, made their way either towards the dining hall or outside. I followed my friends outside. I sat with them on the benches outside to eat lunch together. My sandwich was made with two slices of American bread, a slice of ham and a slice of cheese. I turned it around a few times in my hands. It didn’t look appealing or tasty. In any case, hunger got the better of me and I took a bite. The American bread was soft and easily chewable but had no taste.
I missed my home-made bread, which would come directly out of the oven, crunchy and tasty. After half an hour, the deafening sound called us back to work. And after an unending afternoon, the work day finally ended at 4:30. The week passed and Friday arrived. Friday was the day everyone waited for. First of all, and most importantly, it was the day they paid us and then it was the day that marked the beginning of the week-end: two days
Delia Socci Skidmore