My Days as a Learner
“For days and days I hunted for work. Days fled into weeks, and weeks into months, and still I was Looking for work. Ten cent stores, restaurants, cafes, mills, mills, mills–and all said ‘No, we can’t use learners. Too many experienced hands already. Had to lay off—.’ I got to the point where I hated every day that came, for with every new day came a renewed search for work. I looked for work in nearby cities. No luck–so back I came.
“At last a fried told me to go to work with her, and she would show me how to weave and I could apply as an experienced hand in the future.
“Bong, clong, clammer! I never heard such noise as I entered the weave room door. People rushed to an fro, starting looms, tying threads–and the noise! My friend spoke to me but I was deaf with the roar and I followed her dumbly.
“She shouted at the foreman and asked him if he would let me stay and learn to weave. He shouted back that I could if somebody would agree to teach me. A man over in the farthest corner of the room promised to let me work with him beginning on the following Monday for six weeks.
“Monday I got up at 5:00 A.M., drank a cup of coffee, ate an egg and a biscuit and left for work. I had to walk a half a mile and catch a bus at the highway. I ran most of the way through the woods for fear of missing my bus, and too, I was a little afraid of the darkness–even though I had a flashlight.
“I waited by the roadside. Two workers passed me on their way to the silk mill. A light appeared in a window on the opposite side of the road. I smelled meat frying. ‘Fat back and gravy,’ I thought. Something rustled in a cornfield nearby and a dog came trotting past. Two or three cars whizzed by, another and another–other workers hurrying to work; other slaves like me, only they got paid for being slaves–not much, but some. My toes were frozen.
“Then came the bus, with great headlights, and around the edge red and green ones. I waved frantically for him to stop. I got on and searched with numb fingers for my 25 cents and bought four bus tokens. The bus driver smiled. ‘A little chilly, eh?’
“As day was breaking we alighted at the mill gates and once again I entered into the weave room. My fingers were clumsy. I broke threads and my teachers patiently helped me and showed me what to do. And every few minutes the bossman and foreman would come around and watch me.
“I began to think about quitting time. I was dead tired; my back ached from stooping and tying those everlasting threads. I went to look at the clock. It was 11:00, and we worked until 3:00 P.M. The weave room was hot and stuffy.
“I watched the other workers. Like bees, they worked–running, walking, stooping, starting looms, stopping looms–endlessly the eight hours through. Never speaking to their neighbors, seldom looking up, they smiled sometimes.
“My ‘teacher’ pointed out a dried-up looking man in the center isle with a gun on his knee. ‘That’s a stool pigeon,’ he said. ‘Keep away from him.’
“That very day after work, the stool pigeon came to me and was very friendly. I left him alone.
“That night I had dreams of the mill; of the grinning stool pigeon; of the soured-up foreman; and of the looms–looms and cloth.
“I had worked two weeks before I had a ‘smash up’ which kept two people busy for the rest of the day tying string together. The next day it happened again and I was afraid to touch the looms. I was so tired and nervous, I cried. My teacher was, of course, losing by my mistakes, but he was very nice and did not fuss. ‘Everybody does that when they’re learning,’ he said, and after work, on my way home, he told me funny stories about how he used to make mistakes and the sly way he got by with it. I felt much better.
“After five weeks, I did not mind the roar so much. I could hear very easily. Then they put me on six looms by myself and told me I would get pay. I wenthome that day triumphantly. The foreman gave me eight looms very soon and it kept me running every minute of the eight hours I worked. I hated it–everything about it. On my first pay day I drew $9.
“Then they began cutting work down. I got three days a week. A month passed. I got cut to two days. Another month and fourteen of us were laid off at once. And then I was again in the great army of unemployed.”
From Hourwich and Palmer, eds., I Am A Woman Worker: A Scrapbook of Autobiographies (Affiliated Schools for Workers, 1936), pp. 15-16.