ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS, #2: Working Through Dignity by Meara Levezow

When people ask what my first job was, I take a deep breath, because my answer is usually a few sentences long.


Meara Levezow - Comedian and Career Waitress.

Meara Levezow – Comedian and not quite a Career Waitress.

“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.

226085_10152054748275507_1534970482_nAt 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.

The Lensing of Truth

Hello Everybody,

The voices are like shadows - ephemeral, but there nonetheless.

The voices are like shadows – ephemeral, but there, nonetheless.

Thursday, it became clear to me that I needed to sift through my belongings. I will be leaving New York City in less than two weeks, and I need to get rid of or give away anything I won’t need. I didn’t have to work and I had nowhere to be, so Thursday was a perfect day to get it done, or at least set aside any clothing I wouldn’t be taking with me. But shortly after realizing it was a good day to do so, I glanced over at the dresser, thought about going through it, then resumed what I’d been doing before I had the realization – staring dumbly into the computer, drinking coffee. After enough of that, I glanced over at the dresser again, then played my guitar. The dresser stood in front of me, like a hulking, wooden audience who looked unimpressed, in fact, looked as if it had died as a direct result of listening to me. With an encore obviously not needed, I put up my guitar, looked at the dresser again, then thought about eating. Finally – after not eating – I went to the wooden cadaver, opened the drawer that was home to all my t-shirts.

Most of the t-shirts were old, frayed at the neck and arms. Many sported little tiny holes, and some I could easily pull apart with my hands. Most of them could be thrown away, I only needed two or three at most to work in or wear at bar-b-ques. However, as I went through them, I noticed that deep within the fibers of each worn garment was a memory, and the shirts, together, created an image representing much of the ten years I’ve lived in New York. One shirt was given to me by a friend, another I recieved by volunteering for a park clean-up, and ah, this one I wore in a play. I was wearing this shirt when this happened, that shirt when I did that…etc. The memories started out fondly enough, but soon took a dramatic and dark turn, when I heard a voice way back in the back of my head shout FAILURE! several times. Then I heard another voice behind that voice screaming something inaudible, but based on the intonation, I determined it to be something like self-pity. I decided it was a good idea to shut the drawer and take a walk along the bay.

I walked out the door and into a straight-up, bona fide, sunny spring day. It was so bright, I ran back inside and grabbed my sunglasses. I rarely wear sunglasses, but the sun bouncing off the water of the bay would make a thorough, slow and internal voice-quieting walk a bit tough. So I put on the shades and headed to the water. Two blocks from the bay, I could smell the salt air. The sun felt good, though pockets of shade were a bit chilly. It was such a grand day. I felt as if I’d finally crawled out of that thick, blue-gray, melancholic blanket of winter.

Can you see Lady Liberty?

Can you see Lady Liberty?

At the pier at the end of 69th Street in Bay Ridge, a few clusters of Chinese or Mexican fisherman were trying their luck. It was a weekday, so there wasn’t a lot of people around. I meandered about the pier, finally making it to the edge, where I caught a clear view of the Statue of Liberty. Lady Lib’s oxidized green skin was a vibrant, otherworldly color on an otherwise complimentary pallete of earth tones. I took a picture to capture this symbol of our nation’s freedom, liberty and all round ability to do our own happy thing without fear of persecution or oppression, and to record her brilliant color that popped out from the landscape as if she wore that green dress just for me. Just to her right was lower Manhattan – a crowded forest of old and new giant steel and glass buildings – all pointing up, up, up. The highest, of course, was the still incomplete, new World Trade Center. The monolith and monument to global economic power towered behind Lady Liberty. Just wait, whispered the almost completed shiny giant to the little green lady, when they finish up my top floors, you and me gonna dance, sugar.

I took a picture of lower Manhattan and thought about the first time I came to New York, ten years ago – when World Trade Center was still called Ground Zero, a gaping hole in the ground surrounded by a chainlink fence. I was 28 and I thought I was old, a veteran worn down from the battle of Life. But as I stood on the pier Thursday, I saw that 28 year version of me clearly – a clueless, scared, pink-skinned baby who mistook his empty pockets for wisdom. I heard yelling, just behind me. I turned around and was relieved to find it was not another voice in my head, but some angry kid running around with a stick. Frowning as he ran about, he hit all the benches and rails with the stick, yelling every now and then. He made it all the way to the end, then turned and ran back to land, hitting, yelling all the way.

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

I decided to walk along the bay’s edge to check out the driftwood. Like the pier, the path along the bay was populated only by clusters of fishermen speaking softly in foreign tongues, their eyes glued to their lines as they twitched in the windy afternoon. Further on, I saw a jogger, but the lack of people made the place feel not just unpopulated, but deserted, and gave the foghorns of the ships a much lonelier sound. Underneath the giant Verrazano Bridge, one frieghter headed out of the bay, another headed in. They came close to each other, as if they wanted to warn each other of what lay ahead. But they just drifted by without stopping, as if they knew such warnings would always fall into the water before finding their target…so they just blow the horn, leaving the deep, slow, monosyllabic honks to represent everything they want to say to each other.

Ships in, ships out.

Ships in, ships out.

Sunlight danced across the water in a brilliant blue hue. I was shocked to have never noticed such a color before. I stopped to take a pic – a permanent momento of this other worldly blue on the water. Snap, snap. It was also low tide, and I noticed how surreal the green algae-covered rocks appeared. They are of course submerged during high tide, but like the blue sunlight, I was shocked to have never noticed such a green – a color beyond description other than alien. Snap, snap – more pictures to remind me of what New York looked like when I was 37 years old – an age when I know longer thought of Life as a battle, but more like a game with no ball, no uniforms, inconsistent officiating, and a time limit that doesn’t seem to be enforced until one of the other players never shows up again. My hands were cold after taking the pictures. The sun had lowered to a late afternoon angle. The wind gently shoved me in a homeward direction.

When I got back to my apartment, I perused the pictures I’d taken on my smartphone. But I was somewhat puzzled to find that none of the pictures looked the way they did when I took them. Manhattan and the World Trade Center didn’t look very big in the picture. They looked far away, insignificant. The Statue of Liberty didn’t even show up in any of the pictures I took. In one, if I zoomed in all the way, I saw a blurry glimpse of Lady Lib, but no one would guess the green blob to be a symbol of liberty. I was even more puzzled to find that the sunlight on the water were not electric blue but just plain, ordinary white. And finally, the hyper green rocks – that green that made me sense thriving and vibrant existences were possible outside of the known and only have to be seen once to become reality…was just run of the mill, algae-green.

It's much greener in my mind.

It’s much greener in my mind.

I moved beyond mere puzzlement and became perplexed. Could my perception of what I saw that afternoon, of what I saw in all my 10 years of New York, of ALL I’ve ever seen on Planet Earth, be fundamentally skewed? Could the color dial on the old RCA TV that is my brain be broken? Do I need to be fixed? I leaned back in my chair, scratched my head, collegiately. Then I crossed my arms to begin a session of long and deep pondering. As I did so, I felt something in my coat pocket. Hmm, what could it be? I asked myself in a deep and learned voice. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my sunglasses. Oh, that’s right, the lenses are reddish-brown, and tend make the lighter colors pop out – they tweak the greens and turn whites a soothing yet sparkling blue – and blends the background in earth tones, to give life something like a holographic vibe. The sunglasses alter my vision reality.

They’re cool sunglasses but I always feel like an idiot when I wear them, they’re just not my style. But like I said, I rarely wear them. And though the pictures I took show the facts and real colors of the day – and not what I saw – I did, nonetheless, see crazy blues and greens. They have been recorded in my mind, along with a towering glass and steel giant just waiting to bump and grind with a little green lady as she stands her ground on a little island in the bay – unafraid of what’s behind her, and clear in the hue of an undefined color as she faces the endless sea, holding her torch high over the troubled waters. That is what I saw – when I existed at that time and at that place – and is forever in my mind.

10 Years

10 Years

I still haven’t thrown anything out yet.

Be well…