When I first started working in a manufacturing environment, I had quite a shock to my 19 year old self.
That can't even begin to describe the culture shock. It was like going to another planet to work.
You see, and I'm sure any big place with thousands of employees are like this, it was like it's own little city. You could get anything there, from crack to a brand new TV, freshly fallen off the truck.
They had their own set of rules, too. Even though it was 1990, the whole sexual harassment stuff really wasn't something that was talked about. It was nothing for someone to come up to you and tell you just how fucked up they thought it was that you were taking away a job that some man could have to support his family.
I signed on for part time help, something to supplement my income while I was in school. In two days time I made way more then working 40 hours at my other job, and had major medical insurance. I figured this would be great, as I could concentrate more on school.
That is, until the first day I walked down that assembly l-i-n-e.
Seniority was high at the time, and women didn't start working there until the mid to late 70's. Even then, there weren't a whole lot of them that could hold day shift. As a part time employee, I was assigned to days, as seniority didn't hold any bearing on us.
So let's recap, shall we? The few women that held dayshift were pushing 40 or older. Most of the men that worked there were also that age, and didn't exactly appreciate women that worked there.
So my naive 19 year old ass walked down that line the first day just thinking I was just going to work.
Nu-uh. It was like walking nekkid through an all male prison. Men who had been there a long time and hadn't seen a woman in decades.
Oh, no one knew all the hooting and hollering bothered me. I held my head up and walked down that line like I belonged there, dammit. Secretly I just wanted to run and hide and find my Mommy, and I have called my Mom Mommy since the appropriate age, which is about 4.
The first couple of weeks were pretty tough. The work was hard, like I didn't know that kind of work existed. It didn't help that a lot of the bigger bosses decided they liked my 19 year old ass and pretty blatantly told me that good little girls don't have to work that hard if they do certain things.
I didn't do certain things, so I got even harder work.
This actually was a good thing, because slowly but surely the men in my section began to have respect for me. I did the hardest job on the line, a job that made grown men leave at lunch time and never go back. A job that made grown men actually cry.
Well, I cried, quite a bit actually, but not until I was in the safety of my car and far away from any assembly people.
I also would not allow myself to be treated like a piece of meat. On day three one of my lovely co-workers decided to grab my ass. I'm not sure how many stitches he got upside his head, but that big motor that shot the steering column did some major damage. I had learned a long time ago that a whole bunch of the time a blonde can go "Oooopss!" and get away with anything, even cracking the skull of a fucking perverted ass with a huge steel tool.
No one ever tried to touch me again.
The hooting and hollering had also subsided, as when one of the guys would yell out a particularity nasty comment I would simply walk up to them and ask them why they would say that. Most of these people were actually half-way decent men, who were quite embarrassed when called on their behavior.
Another rather disturbing fact was a lot of the women that were there didn't appreciate the fact that a 19 year old was getting a lot of their attention. There was no winning their respect, and they looked at me with contempt most days.
I did win the respect of most of the men, but there was one that I just couldn't stand, and the feeling was mutual.
He was my relief person. He gave me two breaks a day, and was a grouchy son-of-a-bitch. No matter what time I came back from break he claimed I was late. He also felt the need to tell me how that work was no women's work, and I really didn't belong there.
The other guys started getting on him about it, and he did lighten up a bit. I still couldn't stand him. He was just such a miserable person. Archie Bunker had nuttin' on this man.
One day when they were predicting a heavy early morning snow I came to work early. It had to be 4 in the morning when I got to work, and we started at 6. Grouchy son-of-a-bitch was already there, drinking coffee from the nastiest cup I've ever seen and eating cereal.
"I see you were worried about being late too, eh?" I asked him. "I worry about being late everyday. I get here at 3 most days," he said, turning back to his cereal.
3?? 3am?? This man was nucking futs.
Usually I didn't try to have a conversation with this man, but the deeply stained coffee cup he was using was bugging the piss out of me. I'm a bit of a germ-a-phob, and the thought of drinking out of a cup that looked like that just grossed me out.
"Look here girlie, this here cup was a gift, one of the best gifts I've ever been given. A man who had started here back in the 20's gave it to me when he retired, because he said I was the hardest working son-of-a-bitch he had ever seen, and that with people like me this place would be here forever, and his retirement would be safe. He never washed it, so neither do I."
With that he dumped the remaining coffee on the ground, rinsed it out in the water fountain, and moved to another table that was free of 19 year old blondes that were taking away jobs from a deserving man. Never mind the fact that he had been there almost 40 years, and if he retired a deserving man could have his job.
Fucker. Oh how he pissed me off....
So that day at lunch I loudly complained about the Grouchy son-of-a-bitch. "Why doesn't he retire?? Does he not have a life? Why in the hell would he get here at 3 in the morning every fucking day?"
One of the guys sitting at the table told me of Grouchy son-of-a-bitch's situation. "Oh, he's always been a miserable asshole, but he's gotten worse since his wife passed on. About the time he was going to retire his wife got cancer and died in just a couple of month's time. She was his world, and I reckon he can't stand being at home without her. He's in bed by 7 most nights, which I guess just makes life bearable for him."
Yes, I felt like a real.fucking.bitch.
I saw him in a whole new light now. Now I could see that he walked with a limp and how bad his hands were banged up from working on that line all those years. I saw a broken man who popped tylenol like candy just to stand the pain, but that pain was nothing compared to the emotional pain he felt at home.
I made an effort to actually talk to him like a human now, and he actually responded in a positive way. Oh, he was still a Grouchy son-of-a-bitch, but he seemed to at least tolerate me now. He'd even tell me about what he did with his grandchildren that weekend and even brought me some vegetables from his garden a couple of times.
Feeling like a taste-tester was needed, I cut up some tomatoes first and fed them to my co-workers to be sure they weren't laced with poison. After the first few times, I decided he wasn't trying to bump me off.
So for the next couple of years we went on quietly tolerating each other. I learned bunches of jobs, and was one of the first women who became a utility-someone with no set job that covers for the people on vacation or who are out sick.
Eventually the physical pain became worse then the emotional pain, and he just couldn't keep up anymore. He had to be around 65, and if that work killed my now 21 year old ass I can just image how bad it hurt a 65 year old ass. Oh, he could have gotten a way easier job with his seniority, but his pride would never allow that.
His last day of work is what we call the walk around day. Usually people come to work in their Sunday best with there families and say good-bye to everyone. We had a cake for lunchtime, and passed around the hat to fill his card with money.
He came in dressed like any other day, but had his daughter, son, and grandchildren with him. He actually acted human too.
At lunch time we all ate cake and related some funny stories to his family. He slowly pulled himself up from the table. Sitting still made his aches and pains intensify, and by now he had a real hard time moving when he sat for a long time.
He walked over to his cabinet that had his reproduction, cereal, and that nasty ass cup. He grabbed the cup, and slowly walked back to the table. While standing at the front of the table he recounted that story he told me a couple of years ago, and set that germ fest of a cup in front of me.
"You are the hardest working son-of-a-bitch I have ever seen, and with people like you here my retirement will be safe forever. Get off this line kid, you are smart and could do more good in other ways here. You don't want to end up like me."
Now you must realize that in my three years of service there I had never cried in that plant. Ever. Not even the time when my fingers got stuck in a motor and I broke 22 bones in my hand.
I didn't cry then either, as I knew this would make him uncomfortable and possibly make him cry too. I must admit that my big brown eyes did fill with tears, but I held them back, out of respect for this broken old man who had worked so hard for so long.
His funeral was a few years later, and it didn't have the best turnout. I went to pay my respects to a man who showed contempt for me most of the time I had known him, but redeemed himself in the end.
"My Father really liked you," his daughter told me. "He would be really pleased that you came today. He talked about you all the time. 'You should see this new girl we got at work' he'd say. 'She works harder then 5 men'."
I thanked her and walked to the casket. As I knelt down to pray, I thought about why this man came into my life. Possibly to show me you can't judge a book by it's cover. Maybe it was to show me that sometimes people are miserable because their own lives are so incredibly painful, and you just never knew about it.
What I did know was that my life was better for having this Grumpy son-of-a-bitch in my life.
That cup still sits on my desk, and yes I drink my coffee out of it. Now mind you I didn't wash it, but I did rinse the hell out of it with boiling water.
This new generation I tell you...I can just hear him saying it.
Every once in awhile some new person will ask about it. I retell the story in more politically correct terms, as things have changed quite a bit in 16 years. When they make a face at the disgusting looking cup I'll tell them to show some respect. I am the future, after all.