Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Shoe Factory

I got up this morning at 6:20 because I needed to make a call at 6:30.  Unfortunately, once I'm up with the alarm there's no going back to sleep for me, no matter how tired I might still feel, so here I sat before 7 thinking about what I might do with the day.

It's one of those alone at the house days, as most of my summer days are now that the girls are grown and gone.  Having had only one car during most of their growing up years, and me NOT having it during the daytime hours most days (and this having been in the pre scooter years) the kids and I didn't really go anywhere most summer vacation days anyway except to the few places worth the walk.  Luckily, the girls were were fairly self sufficient though not friends with each other by any stretch of the imagination.  The only thing that's different now is that I don't have to put on the striped shirt and whistle every morning in order to referee their squabbles, and I don't need to serve lunch except to myself.

I figured I was due for a blog entry, but the think tank on my shoulders was bone dry.  I opted to take one of my typical nowhere in particular rides to see if anything would pop into my consciousness that could be worth a few words.  I got more than I had bargained for...

I was only a few blocks from the house when I passed by the street on which is the building which housed the shoe factory I worked in for a whole summer during high school and a solitary week during college.  The uncle who was like a big brother to me worked there for most of his life, and I'll never understand how he could stand it.

I did grunt work the year I worked there in high school.  I moved boxes from the end of the assembly line into their appropriate piles for delivery and then moved them again onto the trucks when they'd arrive.  I mixed huge boxes of rubber pellets to be molded into the soles of the lower end sneakers and slippers they produced there.  And I did whatever junky things the boss could find for me to do.

The former "Carter Rubber" factory on Darling St. in Wilkes-Barre

I remember this week, the Fourth of July week, that summer.  The whole plant shut down for the week.  Except for the boss, a couple of other kids, and me who came in every day except for the 4th itself.  We did special crap work then, like clean out the insides of sticky glue machines with some kind of solvent that make my knees weak and gave me a headache.  I distinctly remember being overjoyed that I wasn't picked to clean the alleyway around the back of the building in which it was reported that there were veritable thriving plantations' worth of poison ivy.  I didn't even want to think about the spiders.  That might have been the only summer of my life during which I looked forward to the start of school.

I also remember, as if I could forget it, a quite humbling experience that I scored on a day when I was sent outside to mow the strip of grass between the sidewalk of the factory and the street. Of course for extra good measure the mower kept stalling and I had to keep restarting it every few minutes.  There I was, fighting with the mower and cutting what grass I could between restarts when a monstrous gas wave hit me square in the gut.  It was the kind where you pray that you'll make it to the bathroom, and then again when you get there that there will come a moment when you will think it might be safe to leave.  I killed the gas engine on the mower though the one inside me was going full throttle, and bolted into the building through the main doors.  Luckily there was a bathroom right there and I made it!

The grass I had to cut a few times that summer

It was after I came out, my thanks to the Almighty still on my lips for having gotten there in first place, when I was cut down at the knees.  There was the plant superintendent waiting to tell me that the bathroom I'd just used was for him and the other bosses.  I was supposed to be using the one for the peons in the back that had a trench urinal and stalls that I don't think even had doors on them.  There has never been a moment since in my entire life, nor before that one that I can recall, in which I was made to feel what prejudice must feel like.  What the caste system in India that I'd read about in school must feel like.  What being stomped on simply for not being "good enough" for something must feel like.

Eventually all of Carter's manufacturing jobs went
overseas, but the portals to the hellish nightmare of
its existence remain.

Riding by that rotten old shoe factory also reminded me of a day on which I kind of did the same thing to somebody else.

During the summer in college when I went back there to work, as I mentioned, I only lasted a week before I quit outright.  I believe it was between my freshman and sophomore years.  The jerk who admonished me for using his precious bathroom hired me on that year, I think, only as a favor to my uncle.  I distinctly remember him introducing me derisively to the new "lifers" who had hired on after my prior stint in shoe factory hell with, "This is Joe.  He's a college boy with us for the summer."  All the zombie like regulars heard was that "college boy" and he might as well have had said, "This is Joe, and he has leprosy" for the warmth with which I was welcomed into their midst.

He had me doing the same basic things I'd done four summers before, but as each of the five days passed before I quit, my spirit sank lower than it had ever been in my 20 or so years on the planet.  God forgive me, but I was feeling the exact opposite of what I had felt that day I came out of the toilet to be told that I wasn't good enough to use it.  I was feeling that I was far better a person than to be reduced to doing the crap kind of manual labor I was doing.  And worse, I felt that I was far better a person than to have to work with such low-lifes, ne'er-do-wells, and losers who would have been lucky to have scored a high school diploma before selling their souls to the shoe factory.

It was during that week when I sat by a table in the break area alone to have the sandwich my Mom had packed for lunch when I was approached by a girl from an adjacent table where she'd been sitting with two other girls.  She asked me if I'd like to move to their table, and, again, God forgive me, I declined her offer.  I have never revisited that memory without feeling like an absolute idiot because even though I said, "No, thank you," politely I can't imagine that my scorn for that young lady and her friends wasn't written all over my face like some kind of billboard.  How dare I think that I was better than she and her friends?  How dare I now be the one saying, "You're not good enough to share MY space," with another person, especially with a person who was likely reaching out to do me a kind act and to be a friend?  It's hard to forgive myself sometimes when I think back on stuff like this that I've done, but I'm grateful that there is Someone who forgives us all no matter what and no matter how often we come to Him and say, "I'm sorry.  I did it again."

I'm still no huge fan of manual labor and look for a way to get out of it anytime it comes near me, but I'm not stupid enough to think that I'm somehow better than the folks who do it for a living.

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