The summer I was 16 I rebelled at working for my mother’s small newspaper. I was determined to be independent. Which I was, just as soon as she got through twisting a local factory owner’s arm to give me a job in return for a break on the company’s overdue advertising bill.
So I found myself at First-Rate Packaging Inc., housed in the basement of an old brick shoe factory. There I stood for the summer of 1973, eight hours a day, stapling bags containing clothes and accessories for a line of knock-off Barbie and Ken dolls, cleverly renamed Sherrie and Chuck.
At first glance, the plastic duo looked like their pricier counterparts. Sherrie had the same blonde ponytail and permanently arched feet; Chuck obviously worked out a lot. But on closer examination, Sherrie’s nose lacked the requisite perky tilt and there was something not quite right about Chuck’s neck.
The bags packed on my line held synthetic doll dresses and pants that molted like a flock of dying geese, and by day’s end we’d all be hacking and rubbing our eyes. I probably ingested enough polyester that summer to weave a circus tent.
The owner was a hulking middle-aged redhead everyone called Big Jean. Her swaggering, good-looking son and his silent, heavily pregnant wife worked on the line with us. Big Jean never spoke in anything but a yell, and started or ended nearly every sentence with “for shit’s sake!”
She didn’t like any unnecessary talking and went apoplectic if anyone took one second over the allotted 30 minutes for lunch. We could listen to the radio, but keeping time with a foot, head or hip was forbidden. To this day, whenever I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight, my feet start killing me and I have to pee.
Most of the other workers were ancient-looking Polish and Italian women who were probably in their 40s. Each woman had one hand noticeably bigger than the other from years of operating huge industrial staplers and hot-press machines that sealed package parts together.
They made the most of the lunch break, snapping open countless Tupperware containers of homemade pierogi, meatballs and cannelloni, and passing them around. When I opened my lunch bag the first day and pulled out a limp peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a shocked silence fell over the table. Then all of them began pushing food my way, insisting I eat up.
One morning in July, the woman operating the biggest hot-press machine let out a loud whoop and jumped back. We all froze, imagining the worst. Big Jean ran the length of the room to the press.
“Well, for shit’s sake,” she boomed. “I thought you’d cut off your goddamn finger.” Big Jean stomped back to her office, glaring at us. “The rest of you get back to work!”
It turned out that the barrel of bathing-suit clad Sherries and Chucks awaiting packaging held a stunning surprise: Somehow a male doll had ended up in the female-doll plastic molder back at the toy factory. The result was a Chuck with breasts.
This was the funniest thing any of us could imagine. No amount of hollering by Big Jean could suppress us. For the rest of the day, every few minutes someone would start giggling and then we’d all start again. Even the usually mute daughter-in-law laughed, holding her huge pregnant belly.
We placed Chuck-with-breasts in the center of the lunch table, modestly draped in a paper-napkin poncho. Big Jean let us keep him there all summer.