Sunday, September 4, 2016

Labor Day/ The story of two working lives

My mom and me a few years back, doing one of the things we did best.
We got 5 cents for picking the bugs off the potatoes, she says. That was if we did it for the neighbors. On our own crops, we did it free. Babysitting all night paid a quarter, she says. Which wasn't so bad, because you could sit in the movies all day for that--and buy candy, too.

My mother’s education only went as far as the 8th grade and then she went to work. She began her first full-time job at the age of fourteen, living with a doctor, his wife, and their newborn. Never leave the mother alone with the baby, she was cautioned. In the middle of one night, my mother awoke to a commotion, and was told that the mother had tried to kill the baby even though the husband had been right there with her. In the morning, the wife was packed off to an asylum, the baby went to live with relatives, and my mother found herself out of a job. 

After that she and her twin sister worked in the cafeteria a Catholic men's college. She remembers putting the cherry just-so in the center of the grapefruit halves for the priests. They were given rooms there on campus, and there were rules. You couldn't stay out late or the door would be locked. They never missed curfew, she says. 

Then they were a waitresses in Dubuque, Iowa at Diamond’s Bar and Grill and at the Triangle CafĂ©. Thank god, they got a free meal, she says. There were no tips in those days. Except from one guy who always tipped a quarter. The waitresses would trip over each other trying to get to him, she says. They walked to and from work since they didn't have a car. Their feet were always killing them.

Somewhere in there, there was a stint at Betty Jane Candies hand dipping chocolates. Eat as much as you want, she says her boss told her. The eating with abandon only lasted a day or two. And she sold cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia at a fancy department store in downtown Dubuque. (Imagine that.) The cigarettes were in a locked cabinet, she said, but still packs would disappear. She wasn't the only one with the keys.

Then she worked in a club across the river in East Dubuque, the seamier of the two sister cities straddling the Mississippi. She worked as a dice girl in the game "twenty-six." Her sister spun the roulette wheel. One night their parents walked in, surprised to see their daughters there. My mom and her sister were just as surprised to see them.

My mom’s twin sister went out to Baltimore first. They had a girlfriend named Janice, whose parents decided to move the whole family east because they could get good paying jobs at the Glenn L. Martin, a company going full throttle in the manufacture of aircraft for World War II. My mom borrowed money from a friend to send Millie out first in the spring of ’43 and then they both worked to save money, and my mom joined her sister in the fall. In 1943 My Aunt Millie started as a riveter, and when my mom went to join her, she worked for Glenn L. Martin as a file clerk.

Then came the jobs that I envy. If I could go back in time and be my mother for a couple of months, this would be it. I'd be a hat check girl at the Chanticleer, or the Band Box, or the Club Charles. I'd live in Baltimore and hear every fabulous band and collect all the autographed headshots of the stars. I'd be the photo girl snapping souvenir pictures, remembering to ask first if the gentleman and his date would like a photo--because you never know, the gorgeous girl on his arm might not be his wife. 

A couple of things happened next. I'm not sure in what order. My mother had a boyfriend, a grocer, who was shot and killed one night when he went back to check on his store. Her sister got married to a guy who didn't especially like her. She went back home.

After my mother returned to Iowa, she worked as a hostess at a bar called The Circle where the bartender introduced her to a snazzy older man with blue eyes so beautiful, you could dive in and never want to come back up. They eloped. 

My father didn't want my mom to work--though she worked in his grocery store for a couple of years until he sold it. She lived in two different little Iowa towns after that. Cooking, baking to satisfy my father's insatiable sweet tooth, canning, filling our back porch with crocks of pickles, sewing our clothes. I'd call that work.

After he died and she was swindled out of his life insurance, she went back to work. She was 51 years old, had an 8th-grade education, and had been out of the workforce for almost 20 years. She made parts for machinery. She worked at a factory that had something to do with fabric, and one year there was a small fire and came home with bolts of salvaged flannel. Nightgowns for everyone!  She made plastic buckets at two different factories, getting paid minimum wage. Her big break came after she got laid off and heard about a union job at the John Deere plant. She got hired. She drove a fork truck, worked on the assembly line doing whatever job they asked her to for more than 9 years--until she was laid off just a month or so before she would have qualified for a pension.

She took care of an old woman, keeping her company and preparing her food. She worked in a bakery in a town so far away that her wages barely kept pace with the cost of her gas. She had another minimum wage factory job or two. 

When her twin's husband died, my mother moved back to Baltimore where she worked for the City of Baltimore as a custodian cleaning office buildings. She retired with a pension that was not quite large enough to cover her supplementary health insurance. 

My first job was at the town drive-in. I was 14 and the wage was 50 cents an hour plus tips. An exceptional night was five bucks. Hardly worth the suffering when the wild boys drove up and ordered fried ovaries or fried tits. But even before that I think I began sweeping the floors in my high school my freshman year. Friends went across the street to the Tasty Freeze while I pushed a mop as wide as the hallways. The next year I laundered towels and and practice jerseys for the football team. I can't remember how long that lasted. 

When I was 16--legally employable, I worked summers and holiday breaks at the local toy factory on the assembly line, and did that job during the summers partway through college. Probably my best day there was the day I ran a giant box staple through my thumb. After the tetnus shot, my mom and I met for drinks at the bowling alley bar. 

During college I worked in the dish line, dusting (reading) books in the library, as an art model, and as a technical assistant at the arts center, setting up for shows and running sound and lights. During a brief hiatus from college, I sold blood plasma until that went wrong and I did more art modeling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Bible Belt modesty caught even this midwestern Catholic by surprise. I wore a leotard with a chalk mark over my navel for the freshman classes. My last job before leaving the midwest for California was waiting tables at a fancy supper club on the Sauk River. I was made to shorten my uniform skirt twice. The trays filled with platters of surf and turf were too heavy for me and I was the recipient of more mercy tips than I would like to admit. 

In L.A. I narrowly missed getting a respectable receptionist job for 800 a month (1975) and instead got job for half that answering phones at a vocational school while wearing a nurse's uniform. Government Basic Grant money pretty much funded all our paychecks. There was a get rich and work for yourself scheme for a while where my husband and two friends and I made fiberglass automotive spoilers. It was a scam. I taught English as a foreign language at the Berlitz schools which was a wonderful gig in a bunch of ways. I met a man there who invited me to be his mistress in Buenas Aries. He has the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen and I still said no. I worked enough as an actress to get my health insurance--thanks to the kindness of friends. I got my Equity card and made enough to put my husband through law school. 

I stopped working when my older daughter was born and never went back. There was a raft of volunteer jobs and the marriage and mothering seemed like very hard work. The house was well-kept and the yard was beautiful. Roses, fruit trees, herbs, tomatoes, and a summer of endless squash that my daughters still talk about regretfully. 

I fought for more than a year after the marriage broke up to get temporary alimony. Then another two years to finalize the division of joint assets and a "permanent" alimony judgement. I think of it as my 401K. I've learned a bit about investing. I make some pocket change writing. I have a lot of contributor copies of literary magazines where I've been published. I took care of my mom for more than three years. I became a T'ai Chi Chih instructor a year or so ago and make a little more pocket change doing that. In another two years, there will be Social Security. 

I don't have a career. I'm only marginally useful in this world where money changing hands often seems like everything. I've been really, really lucky. 


Ms. Moon said...

I'd say you made your luck. The hard way.
Your mama- wow.

Sabine said...

reads like an amazing career to me but probably not the "career" type. I find it amazing and remarkable, you fell onto your feet so many times.

S Kay Murphy said...

Oh my gosh... your mom... my mom.... My mom made it as far as the 9th grade before she left school to get married. She was 15. He was 30. She left him a year or so later and ended up roaming around the Midwest, singing. She'd find a bar she liked that had a live band, and after a couple of drinks, she'd ask them if she could get up and sing a few songs with them. It always evolved into enough employment to pay her room and board for awhile. She'd drift on when she got bored or they didn't pay her or trouble started with some guy. Life was different then....

I'm so glad that your life experiences eventually brought you around to writing. It's a gift, and I'm grateful that you share it with us.