|Rose stood across from the garment factory and eyed
the entrance anxiously. She'd been frozen in place for nearly half an hour, trying to
mount the courage to go in.All morning, while journeying up to the Waldorf and back, she had been
dreading this moment. It wasn't that she was nervous about working for a living; she
actually felt an anticipation of sorts for accomplishing something with her hands.
She just felt unprepared.
Rose had done a bit of sewing over
the past few years but she could in no way pronounce herself as proficient. The previous
night, while waiting for sleep to come, she had mulled over the short list of jobs that
she might be able to hold.
She knew she had a good mind but
precious few marketable skills.
They don't pay much for being
able to stand on the points of your toes.
It's not right, but truly
interesting jobs are scarce for women. The average woman doesn't have a career
The problem is, if I try to get
a job based on my education there will be questions asked, questions I don't want to
answer. And too many of those jobs will be quite social. A seamstress, on the other hand,
can be anonymous, and being one doesn't require anything but experience.
Which I don't have.
Rose finally forced her legs to
move and strode across the street. Pushing open the factory door, she was immediately hit
by the aroma of material being ironed commingled with the smells of machine oil, leather
and the particular musty scent of damp cloth left lying in one place for too long. The
room was high and long, with rows of women intently at work over various sewing machines
and others laboring over the ironing boards that lined the walls. The squeak of the
pushcarts as they moved between tables was layered with the sound of the irons steaming
over garments and the constant whir of the sewing machines wheels. It took Rose's eyes a
few seconds to fully adjust to the relative dimness of the room. Thick layers of grime
covered the windows and strangled the daylight.
Several of the nearby women looked
up at Rose but quickly returned to their work. A shabbily-dressed man walking between the
rows spotted her and approached. His hair was a black thicket and his shirt and pants had
many stains where he had wiped his hands clean of oil and grease while working on the
Must be one of the mechanics,
"Looking for someone?"
he asked abruptly.
the manager, please."
"And what would you be needin
Rose tried to ignore the flock of
butterflies in her stomach.
"I'm looking for work."
The man eyed her appraisingly.
In the early morning, before she
had taken the El uptown, Rose had stood outside the factory and watched the women arrive,
seeing how they dressed for work. They all wore short sleeved dresses in dark solid
colors, all the easier to conceal the job's grime. She had put on a similar simple work
dress and hat for her afternoon job hunting.
"Follow me," he
He led her to a small office off
the main room, sparsely furnished with just a desk, two chairs and a cabinet. The man
offered her a seat as he moved around the desk to the chair behind it, and it dawned on
Rose that this man, despite appearances, was the owner of the business.
"What's your name?"
"All right, Rose. Can you run
an ornamental stitching machine?"
What's that? I'd better just be
"How about a
"You DO know how to run a
"I don't really need many
girls right now but I can always use another good worker. I just don't have the time to be
teachin no one. We'll give you a try for this afternoon and then we'll talk."
He walked to the door, whistled
out across the floor, and then returned to his seat. A tap on the glass heralded the
arrival of another supervisor.
"Jonesy, put Rose here on a
machine," the owner instructed. "Give her something easy to start, and keep an
eye on her."
As Rose followed Mr. Jones out she
turned to the owner.
"Thank you, sir."
Mr. Jones led Rose to an open
machine along the far wall. He quickly explained the operation of the sewing machine and
rolled over a heaping tray of garments.
Rose tried to follow his
explanations as best she could. The machine wasn't too different from the one she had used
at home but was obviously designed for a greater volume of work.
"We'll start ya off doing
some simple hems on these dresses. The lengths are already marked. The machine is set to
do a simple double chain stitch, is all. I'll check back on you in a bit."
Rose looked at the pile of dresses
to her right.
How long is it supposed to take
me to finish all of those?
The woman in the next station
smiled a greeting as she shifted a finished dress to her left, grabbed another from her
right, and silently started in on the new garment.
Rose placed a dress on the
What do I do first?
Someone had already pinned the
lengths; all that was needed was a hem. Rose started sewing, using her hand on the wheel
to do several deliberate back stitches to lock the start, just as her mother had taught
her. It took a while for her to get the feel for the amount of foot pressure needed on the
treadle, and her speed in drawing the material across the machine was often too fast or
too slow. Twice she had to cut her thread and begin again as her line began to drift, but
she finally finished the first dress.
Snipping past the final stitch,
she tied a square knot in the end and ran her finger along the seam she had created,
examining her work.
Not bad, she thought, as she
placed the dress on her 'finished' tray and began another.
While on her third garment, Rose
mistakenly applied too much pull on the fabric while simultaneously peddling too fast on
the treadle, and she created a tangle of bunched material and thread, with the needle
jammed down in the base of the machine. She signaled for help, and Mr. Jones pursed his
lips as he silently cleared the snarl and re-engaged the machine wheel.
Rose looked at her fingers. They
were smudged with beige dye from the material, as was her left forearm. She wiped them as
best she could while she waited to resume.
After half an hour Rose had
completed ten dress hems, barely making a dent in her pile. She glanced over at her
neighbor and noticed her stack was half gone.
Didn't she get a tray just
before I started?
Rose watched her work for a moment
and felt intimidated by the speed with which she sewed. Her hands seemed to fly across the
machine, her feet a blur of activity.
God, I don't think I could ever
be that fast.
Several minutes later, Rose became
aware that the owner had quietly moved to spot behind her, watching her work. She
self-consciously completed the dress on which she was working and put it on top of her
I really hate someone watching
over my shoulder, Rose thought. As she turned to acknowledge his presence he stepped
forward and picked up her just-completed dress.
He looked at her hem and then
pulled a needle from his lapel and began to pick at her seam, testing its tightness. He
withdrew at random another dress from her small "completed" pile and repeated
Replacing it, he shook his head.
"Like I said, we've no time
for beginners and I have nary an opening for even a presser."
Rose considered him for a second,
then picked up her bag from under the table and turned to leave without a word.
"You might try the
sweaters," he suggested, without malice.
Rose didn't respond and started
towards the exit.
There is no way I'm going to
work in a sweatshop, she thought.
As she walked by the women Rose
felt her face burning, and she concentrated on looking straight ahead until she had made
her way through the door and into the outer entranceway.
Those girls think I can't even
make it as a seamstress. How embarrassing! Little rich girl can't even sew!
Rose leaned against the side of
the foyer, eyes closed.
Why do I think that? It's
stupid; they don't know who I am. I'm just another working girl to them. They probably
forgot about me the second I left.
Still, it's embarrassing. I've
never failed at anything before and I've never had anyone dismiss me before, either.
Rose stepped out onto the sidewalk
and glanced up and down the street, trying to decide where to go next.
Oh well, she thought, it
can't get any worse than that!
The rest of the afternoon and the
next morning were filled with more of the same.
Some shops wouldn't even consider
her without any sewing experience. One owner, on seeing the speed of her work, berated her
loudly in front of his entire workforce for wasting his time.
And at one factory Rose made the
mistake of absent-mindedly removing her hat at the interview.
"We don't need your kind
here," the manager said abruptly.
For a second, Rose had the strange
notion that he knew secrets about her, about Titanic, and that he somehow blamed
the survivors for those who had perished. She flushed with guilt, and then she noticed his
gaze was fixed steadily on her hair. His comment became crystal clear.
"My kind?" she shot
back. She felt foolish and tired and her temper rose in spite of her best efforts to
"Feminists are not
welcome!" he said with disdain.
"Why? Because you might be
forced to treat your workers decently; pay them a fair wage?"
She suddenly found herself playing
a part for which she hadn't auditioned.
"Come on," he said,
shoving her quickly towards the door. "Out with you."
She thought of dozens of retorts
but couldn't find the energy to utter even one, and she ended up standing on the sidewalk,
hat in hand, as the door slammed loudly behind her.
I should not have let my
tiredness get the better of me, Rose thought.
'Can't get any worse?'
Boy, was I wrong!
By noontime on Wednesday she was
becoming discouraged, and decided to take a break from her search.
Rose wandered about the streets
and avenues in her neighborhood, ducking in and out of a few shops, looking without much
Maybe I could work as a
schooling would come up.
Some stores are hiring women as
salesmen, but that might be too visible. I would never know when an old acquaintance might
happen by the shop.
Rose snapped to attention,
teetering on the brink of a gaping hole in the street. She felt a momentary vertigo,
staring into the deep pit, and then stepped back from the edge.
"You ain't payin proper mind
where ya walkin, miss!" a city worker scolded her.
"Sorry," was all she
could manage. His tone made her feel like a schoolgirl who had distractedly wandered out
Rose heard him mutter under his breath as she walked away.
She stepped up on the sidewalk and
surveyed the excavation. A large section of Sixth Avenue was undergoing sewer replacement
to meet the rapidly increasing demands of the growing city. It was badly congesting the
traffic and adding to the general din of the street scene.
And it's not doing wonders for
the smell around here, either, Rose thought.
Her mind wrapped around her
experiences of the day and Rose soon found she had wound her way back to her apartment
building by rote. She sat on the steps and put her head in her hands.
For perhaps the hundredth time
over the previous few days, Rose wondered if she was doing the right thing.
As she rested, she became aware of
the clip-clop of a horse slowly walking up the street and glanced up to see the ice-man's
wagon approaching. She watched him stop at each building and laboriously grab great blocks
of ice with his tongs, lugging them inside.
"West Side Ice" was
painted on the wagon's side, the letters arching over a rendition of a glistening blue
block. Water dripped to the cobblestone from the underside of the carriage, runoff from
the melting ice inside.
I suppose it's time I got some
ice, Rose thought, and she went inside to unlock her door. By the time she had
returned to the stoop the wagon was in front of her building.
"Hello," Rose greeted
the cart's driver.
"Ice for you today?"
"Yes, please. Top
"I know. Cash only,
"Carson." He tapped his
tongs against the side of his cart, near the front. 'C. Carson', it read, in plain black
"I'm Rose Dawson."
"Ah huh," he replied as
he tonged a block and headed up the stairs.
Rose watched him disappear into
Friendly, she thought, and
she was awaiting his return when a nearby snort caught her attention. She turned to the
horse harnessed to the front of cart.
He was a chestnut with two white
stockings in the rear, though his coloring was difficult to discern what with cumulative
layers of dust, dirt and smoke covering him. Rose patted him lightly a few times, but was
afraid to run her hand over his coat.
No point in making a clean spot, she
thought, and she laughed out loud.
She went forward and scratched him
behind the right ear. He tilted his head towards her and seemed to enjoy the sudden
"I wish I had something to
feed you, fella," Rose said to him, and his eyes turned to the gentle sound of her
Rose could hear Mr. Carson rapping
on Mrs. O'Reilly's door and the subsequent muffled tones of their conversation, then he
re-emerged from the building and hustled down the stairs.
"Hey, what are ya doing
there?" he called to Rose.
"Just saying hello, Mr.
"Well, don't! I don't need
him to be getting spoiled by no attention."
Rose continued to pat the horse's
"What's his name?"
"If ya must know, it's Red.
Now we best be getting on with our business."
Rose paid for her ice and watched
the horse and owner amble down the street.
"Thank you, Mr. Carson,"
she called out after them.
Red, Rose thought. Now there's
an original name!