One summer I worked in a car parts factory on the outskirts of town. Close to the Detroit border, our town was booming with new factories supplying car parts to the American companies from the sweat of their good Canadian neighbours and we were more than happy to oblige. I was about seventeen and was responsible for putting shiny new bumpers into plastic bags and moving them along the conveyor belt. I wondered how many parts the factory supplied given this was a mere one insignificant portion of a whole car, but I didn’t have time to ponder the complexities of building an entire shiny vehicle. I was a fill-in for someone who had called in sick. I don’t really remember how I got the job exactly, just that I had to be there from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon with a half hour lunch and two fifteen minute breaks.
My first day on the floor I was shown the conveyor line. Glittery new bumpers hung from the ceiling and were floating by. I was to grab one, inspect for scratches, put it into a large plastic bag and hang it back on the line. Easy-peazy…I guess. I started in and my hands instantly became scratched along the edges of the bumpers. I was thrown a pair of work gloves and started again. One guy noticed my two left hands and my slow ambling at getting the bumpers into the plastic bags. Instead of berating or calling me down, he stepped beside me and helped me out. He never said a word. Just made it look easy and showed me a tip about inspecting the bumpers at a quicker pace. He couldn’t have been more than twenty himself. I was grateful for the lack of conversation at my obvious awkwardness.
I ate my lunch outside with some of the women from the factory. They were older, some married and had kids. I must have looked green and pretty shiny myself, still in high school and dumber than the bumpers I put into the plastic bags. They wore kerchiefs around their hair and wore bland uniforms, some stained with paint from the bumpers. Their hands looked rough from handling car parts all day and they smoked their cigarettes while eating sandwiches. They didn’t seem to mind the quick pace of the factory or that their lives were so regulated by a boss that neither knew them nor acknowledged their presence. They just seemed content to be working. The young man that had given me a hand on the line came out for a cigarette. ‘You’ll get used to it’, he said. ‘Don’t worry about being slow right now. It’s better to check for scratches and be right, than to be quick’, he assured me. I felt better after that little pep talk. The women continued to eye me with long suspicious looks and mocked disdain, wondering how I got into a factory job so quickly with no union ties and no family around the business. I wondered that myself, I told them. Just lucky, I guess. We all headed back in to get back to our lines.
My luck was short-lived. I was told after my shift the following day the person I was replacing was coming back. ‘Thanks for filling in, but we’re okay now. We will call you if we need you again.’ That never happened. I learned a few things about my very short time in a factory. I felt awkward and slow and the name Norma Rae was what every woman was whispering around the factory floor. Work that was repetitive, extremely fast paced and one that demanded strong arms, hands and a quick eye cemented my belief that I was no factory girl. Norma Rae would have to live on without me.
I suppose had maturity and desperation been on my side, I could have made a more valiant effort in sustaining what little employment was offered to me, but my heart wasn’t in it. At seventeen, a factory was not where I wanted to be. I think that summer I moved on to becoming a waitress/counter person girl at a local restaurant. It proved to be more my speed, although my awkwardness would rear its ugly head at the worst times. I almost dropped a pizza on a table of customers and a freshly brewed pot of coffee inexplicably ended up on the floor…but, the tips were okay despite my clumsiness and I didn’t have to worry about scratched bumpers….and no, I did not suffer any bruised chins. Thanks.