“You’re an inconsistent worker!” she squawked at me, eyes bulging and cords prominent in her neck. Were it not for the giant hairnet, she could have been mistaken for a large baby bird. My heart raced, the sound of pulsing blood thundered within my ears. Twelve pairs of eyes peered out at me from under baby blue hairnets, everyone waiting to see how I would respond.
“I won’t be singled out during a team meeting!” I shouted back hysterically, then burst into tears and fled for the privacy of the locker room. A few moments later one of the other girls who worked on the line, young and pretty and pregnant with her second child, entered quietly to ask if I was ok. Trying to recover some face, I replied toughly “I’m fine, I’m just sick of dealing with Joyce. She’s such a bitch.” The girl nodded and said nothing. We left the locker room together and rejoined the assembly line. Ten minutes later, Joyce stood in front of me with a maniacal smile on her face as she gathered the pile of tubes that I had finished gluing and cackled “so hard working with a BITCH like me, huh? I guess SOME people must think I’m a real BITCH!” Stunned, I snapped my head around to the girl who moments earlier had tried to comfort me in the bathroom, but she only looked away.
The beat of the country music blared over the sound of the extrusion equipment as all around me people hustled to make endotracheal tubes, the tubes that keep people alive during surgeries and after accidents. We worked in assembly lines, each line making tubes of different sizes with differing specifications. Every line had an hourly quota to meet, depending on order size and the number of pending orders. Joyce was the keeper of the numbers. Not a supervisor exactly, she counted the completed product at the end of the line and calculated the hourly goals. She clearly had the impression that she was in charge, though.
I was 20 years old, and working there was my sister’s fault. A few months prior, she had woken me one morning with a phone call. “Call Manpower,” she commanded. “They are hiring for the catheter plants.” Because I tended to not question much back then, I called. I was looking for work since the shoe store job I dabbled in was deliberately decreasing my hours (I was not much of a salesperson, and also the shoe store is the only job I ever tried to do stoned). I had recently moved into my first apartment with a friend, and needed an income. After a few ‘tests’ that involved circling dots quickly and placing a series of words in alphabetical order, I carried on the family tradition of working in a mill.
During training I learned that because the tubes we manufactured needed to be sterile, the workers were instructed to be clean and avoid using hair spray or make up. Clearly, the rule-makers had not felt the pressure to look appealing underneath gigantic pastel hairnets, because there was a pack of females in there that wore more make-up than most hookers I’d seen on television. Terry, the trainer, was a witty fellow confined to a wheelchair after a mountain biking accident – he had been 21 at the time, and divulged to me that he had been so angry about the accident that he had signed his own DNR in the hospital. Terry wheeled among the lines of workers easily, often stopping to chat with people. I noticed, though, that one of the make-up girls was eyeing him everywhere he went. I learned on a lunch break that she was Terry’s girlfriend and that they lived together. At the end of our shift (swing, 3-11), she would slip into the passenger seat of the brown Chevelle while Terry crawled into the driver’s side. He told us that he drove illegally, using a cane to push the pedals.
After I was assigned to a line – Joyce’s line – Terry frequently wheeled over to chat with me. I knew this made his girlfriend crazy, because she would glare over from her line and start talking to the other girls around her using lots of hand gestures, so I didn’t really understand why he kept doing it. I was a very naïve 20 year old, please understand. I was flattered by the attention, but I also liked talking to the guy because he was funny and it was a nice distraction from a rather depressing job. I had my own troubles to deal with – mainly an unemployed abusive boyfriend living off of me in my second-story apartment. I did not have any interest in adding an unavailable paraplegic to the mix. But Jill, Terry’s girlfriend, followed me to my car one night after our shift was over. Terry had not been there that day.
“What is going on between you and Terry?” she demanded. I hadn’t noticed her behind me as I opened my car door. It scared me. Puzzled, I explained to her that there was nothing going on between us, that I had a boyfriend. Unconvinced, she narrowed her eyes and said “better not be nothin’ going on” before she slunk off into the dark.
About a month later I was in the bathroom stall peeing, with my pants around my knees, contemplating the mill’s love of shit music and trying to figure out a way to tolerate it without losing my mind, when the locker room door burst open and I heard my name. It was Jill.
“I just need to know what is going on between you and Terry.”
“Me and Terry? Nothing! I have a boyfriend!” I wiped quickly and hiked my pants back up in case she rushed the door, since she was clearly insane.
“I think there’s something going on, and I wanna know what it is.” I stayed in the stall behind the locked door and replied,
“You’re wrong. There is something wrong with you. There is NOTHING going on between me and Terry. I have an upstairs apartment, for God’s sake!” I waited until I heard the door close before I came out of the stall trembling.
Weeks later came the “inconsistent worker” meeting. I still didn’t quit even though I should have. Jill and Joyce were friends and constantly made things difficult for me. Terry steered clear of me because I assume he didn’t want to be butchered in his sleep. Jill’s stepfather was one of the higher-ups there. It was only a matter of time before I was laid off. And I was, without notice.
I think back on this time in my life and wish I could go back and shake myself. I did not defend myself even though I was clearly being bullied and harassed. WHY? Why do I still struggle with being assertive 15 years later? Why do I still feel trapped and powerless in an unhappy job? I had options back then, it just took me a while to figure them out. I hope this time I figure it out quicker.
As for Jill and Terry? Well, fast forward about 5 years. I was home from college for Thanksgiving, drinking heavily at a bar with friends and family, when I spotted Jill sitting at the bar making whore-ish googly eyes at the man standing next to her who was clearly not Terry. I probably should have walked away, but I didn’t. Instead I chose to confirm that she was in fact who I thought she was (yup, it was her) and then inquired as to Terry’s whereabouts (she shrugged and said she didn’t know). Then I sucker punched her and ended up being escorted out of the bar after indulging in my first bar fight. The whole drive home I ran my fingers over the indents of Jills’ teeth on my knuckles, wishing I had done it years earlier.
All in due time, I guess.