“This is Sherry, she’s one of the new interns here,” my adviser introduced. “She’ll be shadowing your work here.”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” I half-shouted and offered my hand. Between all of the machinery clinks and clonks and the earplugs we had on, you had to yell if you wanted to be heard. Get real close next to the person. The milk chocolate woman had a gentle, motherly face.
“Nice to meet you too. I’m S.” A bright smile.
That wasn’t the nice smile that greeted me when I met her again on my own. S had a serious expression. Maybe she hates me, I joked with myself. But really, maybe she’s just shy.
I lingered behind her, quietly observing. She must’ve been nervous– I know I would have, to have some random kid show up and watch your every move. Or just feel awkward. Make her feel comfortable. Show her that you’re genuine. I edged myself on and gulped down my anxiety.
“How long have you worked here?” I asked earnestly.
“25 years. I’m ready to get outta here.” We laughed. I could slowly feel the ice breaking.
“Oh yeah?” I said more “oh yeah”s and “oh okay”s in week than I did all year.
After she explained her job to me, an old pale guy from the other line came over. He leaned against the metal bar above the conveyor belt, real cocky looking. “Hey!” He clearly addressed S, openly ignoring me. His lizard eyes repeatedly glanced at me. “Who’s that?” Not the most discreet. S rolled her eyes and gave me a ‘This guy’ look.
“Who’s that?” as if we didn’t hear the first several times. The guy reminded me of a parrot. An old parrot lizard.
S reluctantly went over and answered, “She’s an intern here.”
I thought it would be polite to introduce myself. He crinkled his nose when he heard my name. “Sheerily?” he echoed. Well, close enough. He looked back to S and continued to ignore me. “I thought she was another one of your victims,” he said like it was the cleverest thing. Victim for what? When he didn’t get the reaction he expected, he repeated himself. I think we laughed it off to get things over with and went to another part of S’s work station.
“That guy, he’s real nosy.”
“Yeah, he real nosy. Always wantin’ to know people’s business, askin’ about everything and everyone.”
“Is he always like that?”
“Yeah,” she stressed. “Always askin’ about everything. He sees you and doesn’t recognize your face, so he come around here askin’ who you are. It’s like, ‘It’s none of your business!'”
“I gotcha. You know what I should’ve said when he asked was, ‘Hey, nice to meet you. I’m actually her (waved my hand towards S) secret lover, so– (‘back off’ gesture)'” S was laughing. “‘if you could just like, leave us alone that would be great.'” I could feel her drop her guard. I found out later that it takes around an hour for a person to open up to me.
I wondered if she had any children. Who did she go home to at the end of her shift? She worked real hard, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. On her feet the whole time.
“Thanks for taking the time to show me around.” I shook her hand at the end of my time with her. “I really admire your work.”
Crescent eyes and a beaming, warm smile. “It was really nice meeting you.”
“Thanks, you too,” I said as I pushed past the green swinging door.
“I have three daughters. The oldest one is 42.” What?
“I had her when I was 17.” H, originally from Vietnam, came to America after living in Malaysia for two years. “My daughter is in Ohio, my other daughter in… my youngest son is in Bloomington, Indiana. All of them are scattered everywhere.” She was 59 but looked 45~50. Thick eyeliner, drawn eyebrows and dark eyeshadow on her bottom lids. She had a pretty face.
“You know, they’re pretty much American,” she continued. “The oldest one came here when she was 10, the other one when she was 2… the oldest is in Ohio, the other… the youngest is in Bloomington, Indiana. All of my family is scattered everywhere. They all went to American schools and learned, and they’re smart. They went to school and they’re smart. Not like me, who’s still here.”
I tried to refocus the conversation on her kids. “Thanks to their mother, right?”
“Right,” she said proudly. I like this woman.
She took off her right glove. When one of the machines had malfunctioned, her hand got caught while trying to fix the situation: 2 nails in the thumb and some more nails in other parts of her hand. Her left knee has had surgery and I could imagine the pains and aches her joints must’ve felt over all this time. “Get your degree and use your brain,” H told me. “Don’t end up like me. When your body gets old, you just can’t do it anymore.” She put a hand on her shoulder and stretched in rotation.
She was married and then later re-married to a co-worker. I saw a glimpse of him and he towered over her. I already had to almost bend over just to hear H over the machines; the husband was significantly taller than me (around 6′ 2″-3″). She had to turn her head completely up just to talk to him. The sheer size difference made me think he was her angry boss thinking we were chatting too much.
“I started working here in 1981.” I remember the year because it came up so frequently. “1981. I was a young woman, just came to America and well, you know I had to get a job. So I started working here.”
“And you’re here now.”
“Right. I’ve been here for a long time, a long time.”
She was eager to show me her whole work station. “If we mess up too many times, they’ll fire you. No matter who you are or how many years you’ve worked here. It doesn’t matter. You mess up, they fire you,” she turned around and had a serious look on her face.
She wore dark grey eyeliner and a little bit too much eyeshadow on the bottom lid– but maybe it was sweated off. Where she worked, it was hot. “During the summer, if it’s 90 degrees outside, it’s 100 in here.”
“Yeah, 100,” she nodded. “We don’t have A/C or anything.”
“Not even fans?” She pointed to two large steel fans that stood a little bit higher than me.
“We have those, but–” There was only one for each assembly line.
Before I really got a close up look at him, he reminded me of a flappy pigeon– like if a pigeon could be obese, that was D. He wasn’t necessarily fat, but his beer belly protruded on his skinny frame, melted layers of chins (loose skin from old age?). He approached me with a friendly demeanor and reminded me of an apologetic, yet justified, child.
“Everyone here is pretty friendly. You know, some people are nicer and others have attitudes.” I know he had seen me talk to H and S, and even though you couldn’t hear what people were saying 3 feet away from you, facial expressions aren’t that hard to interpret. Was D saying that H had an attitude?
“It’s not so bad here,” he laughed. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince me or himself.
“Sometimes this job just feels more like babysitting than work.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, it’s that I’m in charge of the line technically, but I have to go around telling people to ‘to this’ or ‘do that,’ on top of my work already. And if something goes wrong, well, I’m responsible. Because I’m ‘in charge’ of the whole line. I do work, but I like to have my fun too, you know?” He searched my face for some type of understanding. I imagined him taking breaks while S and H slaved away.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“But you know, S and H work really hard too. They’ve been around here for as long as you have, if not longer. You just gotta fuckin’ step it up. I know it doesn’t seem fair that you’re responsible for the faults that might happen during work, but it’s exactly because you’re responsible that you have to step up to the plate. You have teammates that rely on you and you’re failing them; that’s why they don’t believe in you. Maybe work would be more fun if you made friends with them, or save fun for after work.”
“And S, you seem really sweet. But you gotta trust people a little bit more. I’m not sure what happened to you in your lifetime, but not everyone’s that bad. I’m sure you have your reasons to be suspicious, but I feel like you’d be so much happier if you just loosened up a little. Maybe just once in a while, like you did with me today. You look so beautiful when you smile.”
“H, you’re so independent and hardworking, I really admire you for that. You worked an unimaginable amount to get to where you are and where your kids are today. Where would they be without you? I’m sure you made countless sacrifices when you decided to leave home, so don’t let that all go down the drain with demeaning remarks about yourself. Stay triumphant.” That’s what I wanted to say to all of them.
Instead, I went home and wrote about it.