“You’ve got to make the turn on the pocket. Make sure it’s straight or it will have a crease in it and you’ll have to redo it. It takes a year of doing welt pockets everyday to get good at it”. I’ve heard Max say this more than once, talking above the noise of the sewing machines, showing someone how he wanted a pocket sewn or how the corners of a collar should be finished.
This was Mary’s job. Making pockets. all shapes and sizes. Didn’t matter if it was coats, pants or finely-tailored suits. Max said that Mary was the patron saint of pockets. Mary was a piece worker. Which meant that you got paid by the number of pieces you finished, not by the hours you worked. Five cents a pocket. Most of the time she had to fight for a few extra cents for pockets that were difficult and required her to work so close to the needle that she was sent to the emergency room more than once with a needle stuck in her finger or one that went through it. It was a result of the frenetic pace they worked. It was the amount of pieces that had to be completed for a days wages, and everything had to be showroom quality. It had to have the right drape and hanger appeal.The incessant buzz of a hundred sewing machines and Max walking up and down the aisles checking the quality of the work or settling a feud between sewing operators in the cramped working conditions was constant.
After school I would walk a few blocks to where Mary worked. She was at the end of a long line of sewing machines next to a second floor window. I would pick up little pebbles from the street and pitch them at the window to get her attention and ask for a dollar or what ever change she had. I didn’t call up to her or go into the factory because Max would put me to work if he knew I was there. Knowing I wanted money, he would have me sweeping the factory floors or running errands for him. When the window would open sometimes it was not Mary, but cranky Max that would stick his head out and yell down at me “Your mother works hard for her money! If you want money come up and work for it!”. I would have no choice but to go up. Filtering down as you walked up the crickety old stairs to the factory you heard a constant buzz of sewing machines like a concerto of fog horns and cellos inhaling and exhaling.
When you opened the factory door, adding to this industrial melody was the hissing sound of Angelo’s iron presser. He was always in a t-shirt even in winter because of the heat from the big iron press. He’d lay a garment down, push down on the presser foot and lower the top of the presser clam, and the iron would release a big plume of steam. He’d lift the top of the clam and the garment would be as flat as a board. I remember the time he pressed my best pants for Easter Sunday. The creases were like knife pleats and lasted till I grew out of them.
I can still sometimes hear the moaning of machinery filtering out of a building, reminding me of those pants I ripped on that Easter Sunday. The smell of the steam when it heats wool brings me right back to Max’s factory. I can see Mary going in her purse and throwing some change out the window to me below. These memories lead me to consider the shape of a pocket that I have just sewn. Max would probably have me redo it.