As my freshman year of college was winding down, I gave my father a call. I told him that I wanted to work in a factory that summer.
My parents divorced when I was six-years-old and growing up I lived with my mother and two siblings. Beyond asking my father for Christmas or birthday gifts over the years when I was a child, this was my first time as an adult asking him for something.
My dad didn’t immediately respond to my request. When he did, I could hear disappointment in his voice. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
As a first generation college student, I didn’t know anything about internships at the time. Nor did I think it was possible to stay in my university town all summer and just get a job there. So, it seemed my only recourse was to return to my small hometown and work.
The reason I wanted to work in a factory that summer was simple: to earn some “good money.” At least that’s what I had always heard about factory jobs. This was the late 1990s and factory jobs in my home state of Michigan were still thriving, unaware of the economic reckoning on its way. I figured this “good money” would help subsidize my college costs, since my mother was paying for a good portion of my tuition on her credit card.
Where I’m from, factory work seemed to be a rite of passage. A way of life. There was something special — a sense of pride — that came with getting that first factory job where your father, uncle, or cousin had worked his whole career. It wasn’t always easy to get the job. But when you got it, you got in the union, and you were in. On that salary, you could take care of your family, buy a home, and live out the “American dream.”
Since getting discharged from the Army, my father — a first-generation American of Cape Verdean descent — had worked in factories most of his adult life. Growing up, I saw the dynamic of this firsthand. It meant people would work long and hard hours at the factory, come home, eat dinner, drink a few ice cold beers, do some work around the house, watch television, go to bed, and then rinse, wash, repeat the next day.
Unlike those conversations you hear today about millennials allegedly having a poor work ethic, where I’m from, no one seemed allergic to a hard day’s work and a well-earned pay check, no matter how old they were. In fact, people actively hoped for an opportunity to work overtime, or a double, and get paid that time-and-a-half or double-time on the weekends. It felt like it was in our hands, even if the work was undervalued and underpaid.
And so, my Dad got me the job I asked for. I was excited, even a little nervous. I remember arriving at the small factory in my Mom’s Mercury Topaz around 6 am before my 6:30 shift began. Despite my nerves, I was confident because I was my Dad’s son — I knew I could do the work.
When I walked into the dark, hot factory, everything seemed to stop. People stopped mid-conversations as I passed by them, looking me up and down.
“You must be Al’s boy,” said a man in dirty work clothes, which confused me because the shift hadn’t even begun yet. “Jimmy will get you set up,” he said, and motioned over to a man who didn’t make eye contact with me.
“Fresh meat,” I heard one guy say as another added, “We got us a fancy college student again. Let’s see how long he lasts.”
A bell went off and everyone dispersed to their respective work stations alongside various machines. I had no idea what they made in the factory and I didn’t ask. I walked over to Jimmy. “Morning, I’m Tony.” Without the slightest acknowledgement of my greeting, my training began.
“You grab this,” he said, pointing to a long metal cylindrical tube. “Then you put it in this hole,” he continued, placing the metal tube in a slot in the machine. “You push this button and then once it’s good and ready, you pull down on this.” I didn’t know what “good and ready” meant, but I nodded my head anyway.
When he pushed the button, a humming engine began to run. He pulled down on a lever and it drilled a hole through the tube. Then he pulled the tube out and placed it in a large container.
“That’s it. Give it a try,” he said, motioning to me. “Easy enough,” I thought.
I felt the eyes of everyone in the factory looking at me. My heart started to race. I grabbed the metal tube, put it in the slot just like I was taught, pushed the button, waited until I thought it was “good and ready,” and then pulled down on the lever. A loud grinding noise stopped the machine cold. All of the guys on the factory floor started laughing.
“Well, we can’t use that one,” Jimmy said. “Turn off the machine and try it again.” As I went to remove the metal tube, I felt everyone’s eyes on me again. When I grabbed it, I immediately pulled my hand back, yelling out some kind of expletive. More laughter. The tube was burning hot. I looked at my trainer. He was wearing gloves.
“You don’t want to touch that without gloves,” he said, five seconds too late. “They’re over there,” he said, motioning to a small bucket of gloves.
After about six tries, I finally got the balance right and drilled a hole in that metal tube. This accomplishment somehow felt big and small at the same time. After that, everyone seemed to ignore me and got back to work.
When the bell went off a few hours later to signal lunchtime, all the workers went outside to a group of wooden picnic tables. There was a sea of lunch pails with homemade sandwiches, potato chips, and RC Colas or Faygo soda pops.
“Come on and join us,” said the guy who knew my dad. All the guys were smiling and far more welcoming than just a few hours earlier. This rattled me. As I started to walk over to the picnic tables, I knew I had a decision to make.
“I forgot to bring my lunch,” I said, not telling the truth. “I’m going to run down to the corner store to grab a sandwich. I’ll be back.” Their kind eyes went away and I went back to being ignored. They knew what I knew — that I wasn’t coming back.
My dad and I never really talked about that day. I think he knew I wouldn’t last but he wanted me to have the experience. Fortunately, he knew I needed to earn money that summer so he managed to help get me another job at a different factory working the second shift packaging auto parts.
The difference between the two factory jobs was night and day. Though the work wasn’t easy, instead of being in extreme heat, I worked under large fans. Instead of getting covered in oil during my shift, I returned home at night mostly clean. Instead of being surrounded solely by grown men, I worked alongside a few other college students.
I lasted the whole summer working that second factory job, and I felt like I earned every single paycheck. And I had nothing but serious respect for men and women who work in factories for most of their adult lives to take care of their families.
After that summer, I knew that I would never work in a factory again. Not because I couldn’t or because I thought the work was beneath me, but because I could finally see that my father and family were giving me an opportunity to take a different path. My dad worked in a factory so I didn’t have to.
A few weeks after I quit the first factory job, a check for that half-day I worked arrived in the mail. I never cashed it.
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