When people ask what my first job was, I take a deep breath, because my answer is usually a few sentences long.
“Well…ok, so have you ever seen those big plastic drinking-glass racks they use in restaurants? Yeah, I worked in a factory where I assembled those…and did a whole bunch of other factory-work stuff, but those glass racks were the main thing. Hmm…what was the place called?”
“Well…the factory was called the Rehabilitation Center of Sheboygan, or RCS, but it’s…hmm? What’s Sheboygan? Uh, it’s a city, Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, where I’m from. The factory’s considered a rehabilitation center because it’s a…different…kind of factory. It’s actually a not-for-profit organization, whose slogan is Dignity Through Work, because the majority of the workforce are DD or CMI.”
“DD/CMI stands for developmentally disabled or chronically mentally ill. Those workers are called the clients, but they also employed people they called model workers. That’s what I was. They needed to have some people who didn’t have any physical or psychological afflictions to sort of, I guess, model the jobs being done…or drive forklifts or be supervisors or whatever.”
My dad was the sales rep for the factory, so all my cousins and I spent a summer or two working there. Wisconsin is – or was – a manufacturing state, so when I was in high school, it wasn’t unusual for the local kids to do factory work at some time or another. The RCS is a small operation with two locations: The North Plant and The Main Plant.
The Main Plant looks a lot more like what someone might imagine when they hear the words “rehabilitation center”. There were quiet, brightly-lit classrooms where clients would have occupational therapy, and a big lunchroom/auditorium where the clients would gather for different events. My high school swing choir did performances there during Christmas, and the clients put on an annual Christmas pageant and spring musical. The manufacturing area was one big room where people did simple piecework on a series of long tables and benches, such as putting a certain number of screws and fasteners into little plastic bags. This was where the people with more severe disabilities worked. A lot of the staff used wheelchairs and had limited speech or motor functioning. I have a distinct memory of a guy with an enormous skull and small, pointy chin – he had something like Sotos Syndrome. But I was only assigned to work at the Main Plant once or twice. Mostly, I worked uptown at the North Plant.
The North Plant was a big gray building with high ceilings and cement floors dotted with eye-wash stations and safety signs. You entered the building right onto the factory floor and were immediately met with the sounds of machines, buzzers, chatter, the sounds of “the oldies” blasting through the PA, and the permanent smell of acetone and sweat.
I always get transported back to those summers when I smell acetone. You’re probably familiar with the smell. It’s the main ingredient in nail polish remover. The piece of machinery that used acetone – I still have no idea what it did – was run by a guy who my cousin and I called Thumbs-Up Andy. I don’t know what Andy’s particular affliction was, but he was a big, friendly guy who used to punctuate most sentences with a thumbs-up sign. He used to come over to us right after the lunchtime buzzer sounded to inquire about our plans for lunch.
“HELLO, MEARA LEVEZOW,” he would ask with a big smile and the ever-present thumbs-up. “HELLO, EMILY LEVEZOW. ARE YOU GOING TO BOB LEVEZOW’S HOUSE FOR LUNCH TODAY?” Other times it would be, ”ARE YOU GOING TO CHARCOAL INN FOR LUNCH TODAY, MEARA LEVEZOW?” He was one of the sweetest and most well liked clients, so I was surprised when my dad told me that he had once attacked someone on the floor.
In general, there really wasn’t any of the freaking out or acting crazy that I suppose might be expected from the people I worked with. Most of the clients at the North Plant were high functioning, many of them had Down Syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. Many lived in the same assisted living facility and came to work on the same bus. A lot of them smoked. Everyday, I’d see my dad sharing cigarettes and offering lights to clients before and after work, in the parking lot. They would tease each other about how bad smoking was for their health.
Looking back, I realize that a lot of us without physical or mental disabilities who worked there were also social misfits, too.
Sheboygan has a large refugee population of Hmong people who came over after the Vietnam War. Many had come to work at RCS, where English was not a requirement. Their kids would work during summer break, too. A kid in my show choir, Kham, was nearly electrocuted one summer, burning serial numbers into a glass rack two stations down from me.
One guy had been in a devastating motorcycle accident and had impaired movement and speech, but always wore his leather and maintained general badassness.
And there was the old-timer named Sandy, a slim, slight woman in her fifties with wispy blond hair who never learned to read or write. She’d been a mink farmer for most of her life, but after her husband died, some animal rights activists snuck onto her property and released the minks into the wild. After she lost her livelihood, she was able to start over at RCS. The minks were all dead a few days after their release.
But what had the greatest impact on me was the fact that there was a small contingent of openly gay folks – in Wisconsin, in the Nineties – working at the factory. Sheboygan certainly isn’t in the Bible Belt, but being gay back then was still something that needed to be kept to oneself. But at RCS, my dad’s closest buddies there were “the girls”, a group of lesbians who worked as floor supervisors. He and my mother used to go out dancing with them every couple of months and have them over to the house for Christmas parties. My parents are politically conservative in the way most of Midwestern America is, but those memories of my parents and “the girls” always made me feel a little less misfit-like, later, when as I was discovering I was a lesbian, myself.
When the motley crew of RCS employees came together on North 24th street, we were all just workers among workers. The day there started at eight and ended at three-thirty. When you arrived, you would clock in using a big, old-fashioned punch machine. On the top were three smiley faces. One was smiling for “GOOD”, one frowning for “BAD”, and one had a straight line for a mouth that was supposed to signify “OK”. Beneath them the card read, “How was your day today?” You were supposed to circle which one fit. But I never did.
The factory was extremely hot during the summer months. Sheboygan is right along Lake Michigan, where it’s hot and humid in July and August. There was a certain temperature it had to reach in the factory for the management to be required to turn on the air conditioner, otherwise we’d just have to sweat it out. There was constant grumbling from the model workers. But the clients were, on the whole, not big complainers.
The day was divided by two fifteen-minute breaks and one half-hour lunch break. Many days, for lunch, my dad would drive me and Emily to our house a few miles away. I remember that feeling of taking off my boots and lying down on the couch in our den. The two of us would face each other on the couch with our legs stretched out and just sit there silently for about five minutes, before heating up Hot Pockets, or making peanut butter sandwiches. That was The Tired, a special type of fatigue that’s caused by a mixture of physical labor and the mental exhaustion of doing the same thing over and over. But it was a good tired. Work tired. I think people who’ve never had to work on their feet all day are missing out by never experiencing how indescribably good it feels to take off your boots – or nurse shoes or waitress clogs – and wiggle your toes. It’s really something.
I have to admit, I sort of get off on the idea of being some sort of blue-collar hero. Of course I’m not. I went to an expensive liberal arts college and have been financially supported in some form or another even up to this day. But it does feel good to feel smug about some facts of working in only get-yer-hands-dirty jobs. And things haven’t changed much. I’m currently getting closer and closer to warranting the title of Career Waitress. I still chuckle at the idea of having things like vacation time or sick days or health insurance or, even more hilarious, corporate credit cards. When I was complaining to my mother the other day about my chronic lower back pain, she just exhaled her mouthful of Marlboro smoke and said, “Well, at least you came by it honestly.”
Blue-collar work doesn’t stop for anybody. You don’t get personal days. On September 11th, 2001, my dad came over to the table where I was assembling toilet fixtures and told me that there was some sort of terrible plane crash in New York and that one of the World Trade Center Towers had been hit. Nobody really understood what was going on at that point or how severe it was, so we just went on working. A few minutes later, he came back and said it was actually some kind of attack and the second tower had been hit. I tried to remember which buildings made up the World Trade Center. I’d visited New York the previous summer but still didn’t know the city the way I do now. I remember my dad telling me that the management wouldn’t turn on the radio because they didn’t want to upset the clients, which of course very well may have been true, but I also think they really just didn’t want us to be thinking about anything that would slow us down.
At the time, I was furious. But now that I’ve been working at similar types of jobs for so long, I’m used to not being able to get out of work for anything other than severe, SEVERE, injury or illness. I was on a shift with a waitress who had full-blown flu to the point where she couldn’t speak. She took orders by pointing, nodding, and engaging in food-specific pantomime. Which is why I now don’t think its odd that my work day was not going to be interrupted by something as insignificant as the most devastating attack ever having taken place on American soil. I can’t help but feel proud to be an American on that count. Sore legs, tired feet, and dirty fingernails, we keep pressing on. Punching in, punching out.
Meara Levezow is a comedian, writer, actress and famous waitress living in New York City. She is from Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, a fine American city.