Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sweat Shop

It's been jungle-hot out there with television news people, digital thermometers in hand, taking the temperature of everything from Phillies seats to sidewalks all the while talking about dew points and heat index like they know what the hell they are talking about. We are in day 7 of a nasty heat wave and yesterday was one of those days when you think despite running around the clock, your AC not doing a good job - until you step outside and back in.

The weather station here at Club 'Fred hit 104.6 while the water temperature hit 88.

At least I work in the cool of an air conditioned office. Actually it's a little too air conditioned as I have to wear a zip up jacket at my desk. I've tried to have it fixed, but gave up long ago.

Broad St in 1907. Factory is on right.
I've had worse. In college, I worked at a friends clothing factory during the summers and on days like this, that place was like the entrance to hell. I fully understood the term "sweat shop" there.

The factory was on Broad and Carpenter streets in Philly and my friend was the last remaining tenant in a six floor 19th century factory building. He occupied the entire 2nd floor.

It was the 1980's and this was the last stand for factories full of union labor in Philly.

One of the first tasks I had was to set up fans throughout the non-air conditioned factory floor where a league of nations sat chained to their sewing machines while the Puerto Rican maintenance man Edgar and I set up fans. The fans were on poles with a hefty weighted stand and of course everyone wanted the fan on them to blow the hot air across their sweaty brow and cool them.

It was one of my first days and I had somehow become the "ice water man in hell" with all the ladies begging me in a strange tongue to "put the fan here". We tried our best to accommodate the ladies until we were down to fans without stands. The remaining fans had a 4 inch plate with holes that should have been used to fasten the fan to a now missing stand.

Edgar told me in broken English to "nail da fan to da floor". I asked him if he was sure since I had my doubts. After all, I was an engineering student and had some concept of torque.  Edgar assured me that he did it all the time and so he left me to set up the first stand-less fan.

I nailed that sucker to the wooden floor with four six inch nails, powered it on and watched in horror as it twisted the nails out of the floor, striking the ground and bending the blades.

No one was hurt but needless to say, the ladies were not happy.  A noisy chatter broke out and I learned the word "stupid" in 15 languages. Of course, Edgar was no where to be found after sending me out on the floor to accomplish his cockamamie scheme and I was left alone to explain in a game of sweat shop charades that it was not my fault. 

The factory floor was bad enough in that building, but the real horrors lay in the back at the steam tables. There, men labored in the steam, ironing the finished Military Uniforms in 120 degree heat. I hated even going back there and I remember that they always had wet towels around their necks while they worked.  I've never seen men more exhausted after a days work then the men that worked back there on days like this.
My main job at the sweat shop was to "Cut paper". I worked along side the fresh-off-the boat-Italian designer Mario as he would extrapolate a 40 regular pattern into all the sizes the factory floor needed. My job was to cut out a complete set of all sized parts from heavy cardboard and stamp them with the size, ready for the cutters to lay them on the cloth laid out on the cutting tables. Mario and I would work side by side at our table over looking the cutting room floor through sheets of plastic. We had a small AC unit that blew hot air unto the hot cutting room floor but it didn't do much but piss off Joe and the rest of the "cutters" since the design room was pretty much open to the factory.

Everyday at exactly 10 AM Mario would say "Coffee Time" in a thick Italian accent, an expression that is stuck in my head to this day. CoffeeTime. Coffee-Time. Coffee-Time. Coffee-Time. Coffee-Time. Coffee-Time. Over and over and over.

That was a different era in Philadelphia, one where there were factory jobs like that and you could raise a family on that kind of income. That whole section of the economy doesn't even exist anymore.

My friend would go on to build a new building with air conditioning out by the airport in the 1990's and the Broad and Carpenter building was demolished to make way for the "Avenue of the arts".

There is still an undeveloped piece of land at Broad between Carpenter and Washington Ave.

I am not sure I miss it.