Friday, July 21, 2006

Child Labor

This blob was supposed to be about Asian restaurants in NY but I had lunch with my cousin “little” Sheila today and we were reminiscing about where we worked when we were kids. First let me explain that “little” in my family is a consequence of age not size. For example “big” Bill is 70 and the eldest of all the first cousins but he is very trim. He swims everyday and is in really good shape. “Little” Bill is also around 70. He is terribly overweight and it amazes me that he can walk from his car to my mothers back door. “Big” Sheila is 57 and “little” Sheila is around 54. It’s that simple. We have no other blood duplicates. We have Johns that have married into the family and a Stephanie who used to be Stacy but she went back to Stephanie—which was good because her brother married a Stacey. Moving right along…

When I was a kid there were three handbag factories in the family. Two were in Newburgh, New York and one was in Boonton N.J. They employed large numbers of local residents and in the summer they employed us – the bigs and the littles. Sometimes we worked in the office sometimes we worked in the factory. I loved the switchboard. It was the kind that had plugs so when you wanted to connect a call you had to find the right plug. But alas, my Aunt Claire worked the switchboard so when I worked in the office I was relegated to filing and typing except when she was on a lunch break.

We all had to take typing in school but unfortunately my typewriter had the letters on the keys—all the other typewriters were blank. The teacher asked me if he could trust me not to look at the keys and of course, I said yes. I lied and furthermore anyone who knew me knew I couldn’t be trusted. So I never learned to type without looking at the keys. This slows one down considerably. I could never pass a fast typing test. Actually, I never learned to type—which maybe why I aspired to be management – I was incapable of developing secretarial skills. Further, I got bored easily so I was known to toss, instead of file, important shipping and purchasing documents..

But they couldn’t fire me so they put me in the factory where I packed and stacked handbags. They knew I couldn’t put a bag together and I could only do limited damage putting handbags into a carton and then stacking one carton on top of the other. (My other cousins were also employed in one of the three factories but we all had different skills so we all did different jobs. Picture Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory). It was mindless work but it was fun to be in the factory with the workers. In those days, most of the employees were Italian and Polish immigrants. But they all learned and spoke English and insisted that their children did the same. They wanted something better for their families than what they had in the "old" country and they used the factory as a stepping stone toward opportunity. But some also felt that the factory was their opportunity. A great many of them worked in the factory for years, and in fact their children did as well but there was no shame in working hard and making a living. They took great pride in their work and in being citizens. In those days the factory was a family business not only for my family but for all the people who worked there. And I learned so many life lessons about cultural differences, language differences, patience, and kindness. Lessons I would never have learned in an academic setting.

All my friends worked from the time they were 12 or 13. There were no child labor laws—at least none anyone paid attention to. Some of them worked as cashiers in supermarkets, some as babysitters, some as waiters or waitresses, some as lifeguards, some as day laborers. I worked at Boonton Handbag. It was nice not to have to look for a job and nicer to be assured of employment despite my incompetence.

Sometime in the early 70’s two of the family businesses closed. One in Boonton and one in Newburgh. Like so many other businesses, imports were becoming cheaper than making products in the U.S. My cousin “big” Bill made the transition. My father and other uncles and cousins did not. The businesses went bankrupt and a great many people in both towns were unemployed. Other than the fact that my dad was unemployed – he was also totally disabled so we didn’t worry about silly stuff-- I was unaffected. I had already made the transition from the factory to a small family owned restaurant in town. Unlike my skills as an office worker I was a terrific waitress. It’s difficult to be a good waitress. You have to play nicely with others, stay organized and deal with dissatisfied, often hostile customers.

Both my kids have worked in those kind of jobs. Seth worked in a supermarket unloading crates and other such tasks, and Jordan has worked as a waitress in a few places. They both benefited from those experiences. Interning at a dream job is fine but builds experience not necessarily character. When I interview young people for jobs I really don’t care if they went to Harvard or Yale. I want to know if they ever worked in a factory or a restaurant or had a real job. I know for sure that it’s the skills they can learn on a real job with people from all different places and economic incomes that will make them a good hire and probably a great success. We’re just sayin…


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I worked at the Boonton Handbag Factory in 1973, while going to BHS. $2/hr.
Later, when the building bought by The Kanter Bros, I painted and restored every window in the building! It took a year. Never forget that elevator!