Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Work Experience

I haven't been feeling very well lately and I don't know why. Maybe I'm coming down with something. Maybe I'm more stressed than I'm aware of. In any case, I am very glad to be home and home for the next three days and I wish I could shake off the stress of work the way a dog shakes off water.

This morning as I sat at my desk, I remembered the first time working with my father. He was an installer for a family owned window treatment business and they were swamped with work. I helped my father out and then got hired on full time.

I started working up stairs with the other women, mostly older; hard talking, hard laughing women who had lived in the city all their life, descendants of the French Canadians who had come down to work the mills.

The mills were empty now, or turned into office and retail space, but I enjoyed sitting on the large, cluttered receiving table during their smoke breaks, listening to their tales of recalcitrant husbands, craft fairs and adult children while the cigarette smoke wreathed the air above their permed heads.

It wasn't long, though, before I was working downstairs with my father, as he was also the upholsterer and they were swamped with work. I started with the easiest step and worked my way up; one morning I came down the stairs to see the cording arranged in a dollar sign. This was my father's way of hinting at the pay increase I would get if I could manage this step of the process; not many people could.

The cellar space was huge, one half closed off. A row of windows looked out over the sluggish river that seemed to erode the foundation of the building on a daily basis; the whole building tilted toward the muddy water.

There was a wide door that could be swung open, revealing the verdant green of the river bank and letting in some much needed fresh air. There was a radio high up in one corner under a heap of grey sawdust, put up high in hopes of better reception. We got radio channels from Boston, I heard Coldplay's "Yellow" and David Gray's "Forgive Me." I was listening to that radio on 9/11; when the second tower went down, I laid down my nail gun and wept.

I worked down there for hours, learning my way around a nail gun and the saws. When the boss wasn't around, I'd slip my feet out of my Birkenstocks and worked barefoot. If I wore shoes at the end of any day there were at least three or four staples sunk deep into the soles and I'd pry them out with my fingernails. With bare feet, I walked delicately, feeling for the screws, staples and slivers of wood before putting my weight down.

My boss caught me once and sighed.

"Just know that if you cut your foot, you're not getting any worker's comp."

"It's a deal," I said simply.

The boss was a large man of German descent and whose service in the Navy had marked him indelibly. When he got mad, he roared, his face looking something like a squashed tomato. His wife was the designer, a thin, sharp faced woman who tried to look younger than she was and came down fluttering swatches of fabric to ask my father's opinion on a project. I tried and mostly succeeded in avoiding them both.

My father taught me how to upholster the cornices, how to feel the edges with the palm of my hand, how to hide the stitches, how to place the fabric to show the pattern to the best advantage. He taught me that to get a crisp and elegant look along the edge, I had to be brave and slice the fabric almost to the face, believing that the cord would hide the cut.

Soon I was moved permanently down there, since I wasn't making much progress on the industrial sewing machines that went about ninety miles an hour and always seemed about to eat my fingers off. I was producing cornices with as much speed and elegance as my father, my rows of staples even and seamless. If there were two or three in a batch, I could make each one identical to the others, a difficult thing to do with the thin, silk fabrics that pulled so easily.

Determined to learn the whole process, I devised a way of getting the eight by four feet pieces of plywood up on the saw using my toe as leverage and throwing the whole strength of my back into tilting it up and on. From that point on, I didn't need the help of any of the men and could plan, build and upholster the entire cornice, start to finish.

I would arrive at quarter to six and fill the biggest mug I could find with coffee. The project manager always kept real cream on hand and I poured it in lavishly, until my coffee was the silky color of almonds. Then I would descend into the damp cold of the cellar, down the winding wooden back stairs, flipping the lights on as I went.

My tools would be just as I had left them, my work place neatly swept and my work laid out for me, to pick up where I had left off. I would put my mug of coffee down and look around me with deep satisfaction; I was a crafts person.

My work sold for hundreds of dollars and were all over the area, I had done the cornices in the lobby of the famous Prudential Tower in downtown Boston. The fabric for those had been silk striped in wide bands of gold and silver and with no cording at the bottom edge, the most difficult style to do, as there is no way to hide an error.

Often the entire building would be working for weeks on a huge project, hundreds of window treatments for new retirement homes going up around the Boston area. When it was almost complete, my father would load up the work van and I would drive with him down into the city, my window rolled down so the extra long rods could hang out.

My father is a crazy driver, it was quite common for him to have a sandwich in one hand, his cell phone in his other and to drive with his knee or the palm of his hand. We would listen to the radio blaring loud, classical music.

On those install trips, we worked fourteen, fifteen hour days. Often the other workmen would be finishing up their projects as well, carpet layers and painters would look up and look again, startled to see a girl with messy dark hair walking in with an six foot cornice balanced on her shoulder, a tool belt around her dusty jeans.

We worked late into the evening, the building deserted and eerie. As soon as the other workers left, I would kick my shoes off and leave pale footprints on the windowsills as I screwed in brackets, the screws in my mouth, my shoulders aching.

Then we would climb into the now empty van and drive downtown, dusty and sweaty, to eat dinner on the boss. I would run my fingers through my hair and retie it as neatly as I could. We ate very well, I distinctly remember a dinner at Legal Seafood, all the lights and the quiet voices and the tantalizing smell of the food.

Then we would drive back up into the deep woods of New England, the wind rushing by the open windows, exhausted and lost in thought and listening to the evening program of WGBR. In between the adagio for strings and the piano concertos would be the advertisements for the Boston Pops and for Neena's Lighting showroom, her accented and elegant voice as much a part of my childhood culture as Macmillan/McGraw textbooks and apple picking in the fall.

1 comment:

T said...

I love how you always seem to take me wherever you're going in your journey of words. Always greatness.

Feel better soon. Sleep helps. :)