I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene. We were 17 and had lied to get hired; we couldn’t legally work in the plant for another year.
She was white, from “Taylor-tucky”, a name that mocked the southern roots of the many working class whites of Taylor, a suburb of Detroit, where I live. Without the factory we’d never have met.
I was black, I still am as a matter of fact; we were young and shapely then, which now I’m not, I don’t know about Jolene. She had just been hired and like they say it is in prison, you depend on those who know the lay of the land, even if it’s a day more than you.
The factory was a mechanized hell of extreme temperature, convoluted steel, and people at all levels with power, the wielding of which never did bode well. Women wore hairnets for “quality control”, but mostly to prevent decapitation; the long-haired guys wore them too. I wore braids to my waist, both old-fashioned and long before it was fashion again; the specter of hair and heads caught in rolling gears was so horrific we all wore the ugly nets in willing resignation, one more theft of our outside, normal lives.
Jolene and I circled each other with cat-like territoriality, two girls used to inhabiting the center of any attention; then we relaxed in the knowledge that our appeal could be divvied up without threat, there were plenty of male eyes for the both of us. We became friends, revolving around each other like planets, the type of friendship that burns too hot to last.
Jolene was blond, the type of blond that’s white in childhood, that leaves a fuzz of white on the arms and brows white as snow–what they call tow-headed. She had high cheekbones from a Nordic ancestor, or some long ago blood of Native America that gave her face hills and valleys in all the right places to made it perfect.
She had a mole near her mouth and perfect teeth and she laughed all the time at everything when she wasn’t mad about something. She was as beautiful as the mod girls in my teen magazines and proof that good looks were not exclusive to the rich and high class.
Ours was a work-hours friendship, walking our fast, hip-rolling walk down the cement runways of the packing lines, lithe and nubile. We flaunted our tiny waists and drum-tight thighs at the high senior ladies with tired feet and eyes who had left their younger bodies back in some other lifetime.
We ate in the lunch-room, laughed and drove men crazy and pretended we didn’t know. We held court with the tradesmen and machinists, flirted our way through the long, hard days. Even so I was dead serious, in ceaseless examination and contention with my surreal, hard surroundings; Alice fallen onto the wrong side of the looking glass, wanting to know just where and why I had landed.
I was forced into the blue-collar world by pregnancy at 16 and a hard-headed refusal to return to school, my sixties-style protest against formal education and yes, the humiliation of too-young motherhood–these were the days when there was still shame in such things.
The prospect of the factory met with the dismay of my businessman father and my mother, who had never worked a day in her life except in his employ, not returning to work after motherhood til she was widowed in middle age.
Mine was a first black family amidst bankers, salesmen, doctors–solid middle class–in the days when that term didn’t apply to blue collar folks, before proletarians had stock options and portfolios. My peers were preparing and poised for success in the form of a piece of the professional American pie.
The bottom line is, working in a factory was not exactly what was expected of me.
There were a handful of blacks in the plant, among them Miss Loretta, a bashful, hard-working woman who where we worked a “plant-ation”; Indiana, small and yellow, who could work faster than anyone but fell behind so they couldn’t her wear out like the machines.
Fast Freddy dressed like a techincolor pimp before he changed into his uniform each day, and years later had a 6-page spread in GQ; Edna, bright and funny, with sad eyes blacked from a husband fists; Tie-tongue Bob, big, sweet and “slow” never missed work, and a woman so inclined could take his money; fine Lynnette, who looked like Pam Grier and knew it.
The blacks were an island in a sea of white, they kept their eye on me, lest I be too smart and fast for my own good or theirs, causing trouble with my brick shithouse body or rebelling against the way they’d learned to live.
I was unaccustomed to the whites of the working class and eyed with amazement these new folks at the plant, the clear majority–Willadean with a Tennessee twang and black-dyed hair, who knew the most important thing one could have was a good man and good work shoes.
Men from towns Down South that aimed dogs and hoses on dark girls like me, bikers in full regalia with long chains on long wallets holding long money and Zig Zags, for long days of work and long party nights.
There were engineers and machinists, exacting and smug in the security of their skills, who more or less looked out for all of us–the machines and people–and we grudgingly looked up to them, even if some of them spent hunting season with supervisors.
I managed a wary co-existence with all my new co-workers at first, then settled into the realization that they were all “just people”. Eventually, I became their leader. But that’s another story.
Jolene was a young mother too; for me young and unwed meant not reaching my destiny–for Jolene, not escaping hers. For if work in the plant was for me the fall from grace, for her it was the height of good fortune, the key to a future other than trapped in a trailer home.
We wore skin tight, high-waist Levis, denim corsets that noosed our torsos into tight circles small enough for a man’s hands to wrap around and touch fingers front to back. Even childbirth could not destroy our strong, young curves; motherhood gave us more of what got us in trouble in the first place.
Our jeans had threadbare wear in all the right places that implied rubbing against all the wrong things. We were locked together in beauty and failure and rebellion.
We never buttoned our uniforms; the white lab-coat hems flew behind us as we sashayed down cinder block halls. We raced past women with wisdom and seniority to get to the source of real attention, guys we looked right in the eyes as we smoked cigarettes on the loading docks, letting them think they were smarter than us and might have a chance, never letting on they were wrong on both counts.
Bra’s burned on TV and we didn’t wear them, proud that no one could make us, and mostly, because they stood quite nicely on their own. A supervisor, Phil, had his eye on us and when we’d burst into his office to report a mishap on the line or stomped about some new imposition, he’d sit up, unable to tear his eyes away from us at breast level.
He called us “High Beams” as if he was being original, and we’d roll our eyes and swivel back to our machines, letting him know that whatever he was thinking, it was out of the question.
When the line broke down or shut down early, we jumped in cars and hit the gravel road behind the plant, and flew to the bar where we’d we stay til last call. If we got there too early, by closing time we’d be knee-deep in beer and Southern Comfort and 7-Up; if somebody else was buying, Jack Daniels with a Pepsi chaser, back in the days when I still ruined my liquor.
By closing time we’d be sloshed and stumbling, the bar full of eye-lined, hard-drinkin’ women and wanna’ be cowboys chained to assembly jobs and wives reading Harlequin Romances. Sometimes we’d sing, drunk and off-key:
“You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, With four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times been through some sad times But this time the hurt it won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille”
The jukebox was full of those Kenny Rodgers songs, ballads of Elvis and Patsy Cline. The barmaids took no shit, could fight you like a man and sawdust and sickness lined the bathroom floors.
I know I was watched by some God I didn’t believe in at the time, on those nights after last call–a drive home cold drunk on a coal black highway, hand over one eye to keep the center line from blurring into two.
That I didn’t die or kill I attribute to forces miraculous.
It was June, suddenly summer, I’d been at the plant 6 months. The weather turned glorious and I left it outside each day while I went in for the afternoon shift at 3. Day after day I was missing the summer, getting off work at midnight, or 2 or 3 a.m. I should have been graduating and here I was punching a clock.
In an awful epiphany, it occurred to me that there was no more “summer vacation”. You might get off a week or two but not a whole summer, like year after year since kindergarten. This revelation was a bad surprise and hit me very, very hard.
Jolene and I were working in separate departments, and the summer heat combined with the inferno inside turned the plant into a sauna. Grease oozed from the gears of the conveyor belts and even up out of the bricks in the floor, both working and walking were a dangerous proposition. We toiled in a steam bath of production quotas, eight, ten, twelve hours a day.
Some vomited in the heat, some passed out, the supervisors handed out salt tablets. From the catwalk waves of heat could be seen quavering over our steaming heads; In the flat and flickering fluorescence light the sweating, moving limbs and machinery were a vision of a different kind of hell.
Angry conflicts spit into the air at the smallest provocation or supervisory order. There was talk of a walk-out but no one dared to face the wrath of the company and union both.
Still, in the parking lot on breaks and lunch, parties sprang from trunks of cars and station wagons; 8-track tapes played Willie Nelson, Bowie, Marvin Gaye; the beer and weed hidden from security guards.
In this cauldron of heat, rage and music, love affairs bubbled up among single and married alike, furtive grapplings behind storage rooms and rows of stacked wooden pallets, full-blown trysts during the midnight shift in motel rooms that line the roads on the way home. The next day was still hot and you still went back to work.
One day, during a break-down on the line, I slipped away. Not far of course, for the line would start up and I’d better be there, or else. I hid behind boxes and machines to furiously read a page or two of Flaubert, Hegel, Hershey.
Not just me, for in the plant were real scholars, some discuss issues of the day like career diplomats from their designated spots in the lunchroom, others study in silent, desperate reading, their brief and hungry moments of escape.
I looked for the best route to dodge the foreman and slipped through the back of the line, careful on the oil-slick floors; past the press where a lady lost two fingers–one on one year and one the next, past the maintenance tool shed, over a skid of supplies and past bins of packing boxes, around the hi-lo shack. Finally, drenched in sweat, I reached my destination, the railcar dock.
Away from the suffocating heat in the plant, it was a fine June day, hot and bright new summer. I blinked in the clean, clear light, I could smell the hay used to pack equipment and the blue wildflowers and wheat that grew along the tracks. The plant was built on old farmland and there was still a rural beauty to anything that had escaped the industrial maw.
The dock was a massive barn, high and open ended so train cars could be maneuvered in and out on tracks embedded in the floors. A car would be uncoupled and unloaded, emptied of raw materials, then days or weeks later, hitched up and rolled back down the tracks.
The train was a mammoth thing, wheels higher than the top of my head; a sleeping mastodon of black steel. Sometimes a car would be bright red or yellow depending on the cargo, or huge tankers filled with oil.
Young guys they too restless and trapped in the plant on a hot day, would climb up the sides and smoke a joint on top of the car, twenty feet high, unseen by hunting supervisors or worrisome chicks. I listened closely, I was lucky today, all alone. I walked the length of the car and snatched off my hairnet, to feel the breeze blow cool through my braids.
A beam of sunshine from a vent in the roof made a square on the floor ahead of me, I watched the motes of dust and grain float in a tube of light from the sky to the floor. I walked over and stood in the patch of sun, as if that square of light held the last vestige of my long ago life.
Suddenly, reality and self-pity swirled around me snow in a globe–my ruined life, friends at proms and graduations, summer parties before going off to college. I was a teenager with a child who refused to let parents or welfare help too much, now paying the price for my young lust and pride, defiant and rebellious, tying my fate to those who labored.
I looked into the light but the sun held no answers, I let the sweet June heat replace the steam-bath that I had left on the line. I saw myself, movie-like, from outside myself; a dark, lonely seraph in a column of light and defeat. Well, I would stick it out a while longer, then decide what to do.
A dozen summers later I was still there.
I started out telling you about Jolene. Actually there’s not much more to say; we stayed friends for a while before she was fired, her pretty smile didn’t make up for her smart mouth after too many beers.
She started going with a man, the kind you couldn’t be with and stay beautiful, you had to turn brittle and hard and ready to take an ass whippin’. I wonder if her face got that punched up look of too many schnapps and bar-fights, if her pretty teeth were gone; if she added many children to that first one, if she met up with crack cocaine. I don’t know what happened to her, after that first year or two of seniority I never saw her again.
It’s been three decades since we met; but when I see a woman of means, wealth I think sometimes of Jolene. If her life were different she would have been a lady, with a cultured laugh and cheekbones and white-blond hair. In my memories she’s still young, raw and beautiful as the hills.
Maybe I told you about her so that I could tell you about me. For looking back of course my life was not near over, my factory days were clearly no defeat; just another row of pieces in the puzzle of my life, a long stop in my journey of years.
Maybe I just wanted you to know that once I was young with a waist so small a man’s hands could fit all around, with thighs like congas and hip-length braids that blew in the wind, once upon a time I had another life.
I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene.
MARSHA CUSIC moderates the Belles Lettres forum of ThePuristS.com, a connoiseurs site dedicated to “The Best”. She is writing a book about growing up in the sixties in Detroit. She can be reached at: email@example.com
MARSHA CUSIC, Copyright 2002