... coming of age in a sweatshop
Editor's note: Rob Mauceri lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife and daughter. He wrote this story in 1991 remembering the summer of 1979. His grandfather, Arthur Ciccia, lived many years in Melrose. Arthur died on January 30th, 2003 at the age of 82. Rose Sena of Melrose, Arthur's cousin, obtained this story from Rob, and supplied it to the Mirror.
I remember when I first learned to enjoy coffee. It was the summer I was 14 years old. I had my first job then, employed by my grandfather in one of the sweatshops in Boston's garment district. It wasn't a real job, since I was only working for my grandfather (and only on Saturdays), and it wasn't exactly a sweatshop either -- at least not on weekends -- but that is the way I like to think of it.
My grandfather was an Italian-born immigrant, a tailor who came to the United States with his family when he was 13 years old. He was a short, often toupee-d man whose vanity was only just overshadowed by his high spirits and generosity. He smoked cigars somewhat constantly; the thin brown ones that come from Brazil. A stubborn guy who readily passed up comfort for dignity, he would wear a suit on a steamy August afternoon because it was Sunday; ignoring the precedent set for the younger generation by JFK, he was almost never without a hat. For much of my childhood, he was the patriarchal figure in our family.
Before he was forced to retire because of a stroke, my grandfather designed women's sportswear for a living. His work, contrary to my adolescent preconceptions, had nothing to do with making skirts for cheerleaders or uniforms for field hockey players. What he did do was design everything from casual slacks and blouses to serious business-wear skirts to the most whimsical sun dresses. Things they sold in places like Casual Corner. He always spoke of his creations as sportswear, and although he never explained the reason for this, I like to think it had something to do with his interpretation of the word "sports."
Women's sportswear, however, was not the cause for my summer in the sweatshop. That particular year, my grandfather had taken on a project to provide athletic wear for the other gender. He had discovered a market for what struck me at the time to be the most ridiculous pants possible. They were wearable collages, made from five inch square pieces of cotton or wool stitched together and tailored in the form of pants -- a color-blind patchwork quilt molded into slacks. Making pants from so many squares of cloth is quite labor intensive, and cheap grandson-like labor is especially welcome to the process.
My grandfather and I would leave for the shop just after sunrise. My grandfather, revealing his roots as a tailor, always called the place where he worked the shop, even though it was several floors of a large city building. We would sneak into the city under the cover of darkness, when the streets were still quiet, and wind our way through Chinatown to where the shop was located.
The shop was in a grimy brick building, shouldered between two equally filthy others, its windows large and indiscernible with dirt. The alley before the building was fronted by a shabby Chinese restaurant and several unidentifiable stores. The pavement was always wet and padded with a layer of soggy, flattened boxes. We would illegally park my grandfather's battleship-size Delta 88 in the little passage next to the restaurant and make our way to the shop, reflexively breathing through our mouths to avoid the rancid smells from the restaurant and its dumpster.
Together, my grandfather and I would ride the open freight elevator to the shop at the top floor of the building. Riding in the freight elevator was exciting for me; along with the tingling sense of danger derived from its dilapidated condition, I always felt like I was riding through the guts of the building. It was like being in the windpipe of a dinosaur. Stepping out of the elevator onto the hardwood floor of the shop was usually a little dizzying. The shop was dark except for the muted light from the gray windows, and the black silhouettes cast by the endless rows of Singers made me think of tomb stones. The air was humid with the smells of new cloth, sweat and cigar smoke. Huge rolls of wools and cottons leaned imposingly against the walls. Long, wide tables, which ran the length of the shop and bisected it, stood like empty avenues. I welcomed the fluorescent lights, blinking their morning eyes, when my grandfather eventually switched them on.
Our first priority, after the lights, was the coffee. My grandfather prepared the coffee with the care of a newborn's mother and the ceremonial melodrama of the Vatican. First, he would open a bag of Italian coffee beans, bury his face in the top, breathing in the flavor. Next he prepared the beans in an old hand-crank grinder which was clamped to one of the work benches. As I watched, he would fill the percolator with cold water, add the ground coffee, and turn on the machine. In silence, we waited, listening to the bubbling of the percolator, while the shop filled with coffee aroma.
My grandfather would unsuccessfully mask his look of disapproval, as I added milk and heaps of sugar to my steaming white Styrofoam cup. He, of course, drank it black. After a few hurried sips, during which the flesh of my upper palette would be singed and the tip of my tongue would go fuzzy, my grandfather would smile and say, "And now, we go to work." And so, we would begin.
Usually, we would work together laying out rolls of fabric on the expanse of those mammoth tables. Pacing the length of the shop, we guided a giant, spool-like mechanism which held the roll of cloth and straddled the table. We would build a layer of wool ten inches thick, and then my grandfather would cut it into squares with a vertical, electric knife that was more like a miniature jig-saw than a knife. The products of our labor were dense, rectangular stacks of cloth, maybe 50 layers deep.
While we rolled out the cloth, my grandfather and I would say only what was necessary, and that was very little. We were connected through the roll of cloth; what needed to be said was usually satisfied with a tug or a push. We would work for an hour without saying more than, "Make your side straight." or "There's a wrinkle right there." When we reached the end of a roll, we stopped and drank our tepid coffee. My grandfather smoked his cigar.
March 7, 2003