This is an essay regarding the productivity of man. Most of the real productivity in this essay (and the memories of it) take place in the shoe factories of Johnson City, New York. Some of these factories no longer exist. Others exist, however their glorious purpose is now being perverted. Part 1 of this essay covers “real productivity” and the memories of it.
Part 2 of this essay directs its attention to “invented memories of productivity” and the manner in which this benefits man. Philosopher Husserl and author/philosopher Jorge Louis Borges are brought into the discussion for the light they have shown on the phenomena we call memory. I believe that the inclusion of these two men has not given a sense of exclusivity to memory. Quite the reverse should be true; my conclusion is in praise of productivity.
Part 1: Real Productivity
There are memories that do not leave us (as most do); some are happy, some are sad, some frighten their way into the indelible niches of our minds. Productivity, seemingly, should not be a memory, and possibly, in a true sense, it is not. Yet, in my mind, productivity shares all of the attributes of memory; faces, words, activity, pain, joy, and occasionally ecstasy (when a difficult piece of work is accomplished well). The following paragraphs will attempt to explain a few memories of productivity.
The impetus of these memories was a walk through Johnson City, New York. You see, that is where I grew up into physical adulthood (mental adulthood came decades later). That walk took me past the “Jigger” factory, a multiple story brick building. That June day, when I walked past the Jigger, her eyes, made of pane glass, had been randomly poked out, destroyed, shattered. Replacing them were sheets of aluminum; a patchwork of carelessness.
The Jigger, once the proud workplace of immigrants and first generations was kept; well swept. Shoes, sneakers, tennis shoes, basketball shoes, and ladies casual canvas-tops were its products. The Jigger is now the hiding place of various scrap goods; a warehouse. It was once the body of a healthy industry. An analogy can be made; the body of a healthy young woman; vibrant, beautiful in her own way, and productive. Now she is close to death, storing waste in her bowels, aluminum cataracts blurring her view of a once pulsating village. I am sure she weeps when no one is looking.
She is no different than other temples of productivity. Among them are the “Sunrise”, the “Paracord”, the “Academy”, the “Misses’ and Children’s”, the “Scout”, and other buildings that make up the list. This list twists its way through the minds of the elderly in Johnson City, Endicott, Binghamton, and several other villages (both in New York and Pennsylvania).
And there is an echo, a mirror if you will. This mirror reflects memories of productivity in the business machine factories in Endicott. Buildings that had real names such as the “Bundy Building”, the “Brick School”, “Hayes Avenue Warehouse”, and “Heat Treat.” When production changed from mechanical accounting to electronic calculating the names changed to numbers; 005, 250, 47, 41 and 28; how quaint. Nowadays they have a collective theme; they are called a “Campus”; how euphemistic.
However, I have departed from my thoughts and memories of productivity. These memories are of others and myself. This begs a question. Are other’s memories really any different than my own? I thought these thoughts so they can not be other’s memories. These are my creation. Others will have to create their own.
Both of my parents worked in the shoe factories of Johnson City. My mother worked in the “Jigger” factory where I would often sneak in and visit her on summer afternoons. The shoes she produced were mentioned above. Mom’s task was one of the last to be performed on these almost complete shoes. There was a canvas “upper” that had been glued to a rubber “lower” which comprised the sole and the heel. Mom would peel a thick sticky rubber strip (about 1″ wide) from a waxy paper which held several such strips. She would then wind the strip around the shoe seam between the upper and the lower. This served two purposes. It would cover the seam between the two halves of the shoe and it would also protect that seam from separating prematurely. This task could be completed with a high rate of productivity for the nimble fingered worker. I am sure that my mother had her own memories of this process (well into her retirement years). As I stated; they are her memories, not mine, and they are now lost.
There were other memories of her task that I have not mentioned. These occurred at home and not in the factory. Mom would sit in her favorite chair massaging her right wrist. “Ache tonight Mom?” one of us would ask. She would simply nod an affirmative and continue the massaging. The last task of the work she did would be to grasp a steel roller by its wooden handle. This tool would allow her to roll that sticky strip of rubber even tighter to the shoe. All day long rolling, rolling, rolling; shoe after shoe after shoe.
Mom had what we call today Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There was no name or cure for it at that time. There were no immobilization splints. There were no sick days for an aching wrist, and there surely were no benefits called “disability” (or at least no one took advantage of them). Through the pain, through the self-nursing at night, productivity marched on the following day.
Was it right? Was it wrong? Was it good. Or was it evil? There were no concepts of those existential questions back then. It was simply a matter of productivity. The shoe business had to meet its commitments if it was to make a profit. Likewise, Mom had to meet her commitments in order to make her wages.
The same was true for my dad. His job in the “Sunrise” packing room was to remove finished shoes from a conveyor belt line. These shoes were really boots; rubber hip boots for fishermen, heavy rubber insulated boots for the soldiers fighting in Korea, high leather boots for paratroopers and protective boots for firemen. Dad would place these boots in a cardboard case of the correct size; twelve pair to a case. Once the case was full he would lift it over to a heavy-duty staple machine to close the lid-flaps together. He would then place that case on top of the previous case that had just been completed. At times the pile was so high that he had to heave the case upward and forward at the same time; in hope that it would stay there.
This was the method of production for a five foot seven inch man; slight of build. He endured day after day, month after month, year after year, loading, stapling and heaving. His arms looked like Popeye’s; thin boned, thick muscled. No time off; sickness or a night on the town were no excuses for my dad. He showed up for work (on time) every morning. Even professional people (now or then) do not have that type of commitment.
On and on march the memories of productivity. My first experience in the shoe factories was as a high school student off for summer vacation. I had to iron and apply a shine to leather shoes. The ironing removed the wrinkles from the leather and the chemical coating placed a nice finish on shoe. The iron had two handles to apply more even pressure. The chemicals (which smelled like urine) was a milky substance that dried to a bright shine.
My work bench was between two older workers. I, at first, did not understand why. However, I soon discovered that I was placed there to separate the two men from killing each other. It became apparent that the price for their piece-work could vary from case to case. When a good paying case of shoes came through the factory each man would do anything he could to grab it for himself. Therefore there was a well deserved mutual animosity.
This arrangement, with my workbench placed between the two, worked out well for the boss as well as the two rivals. They did not have to fight over which one of them would take the lesser paying cases of shoes; they simply gave them to me. For a week or two I did not know how they could be raising families on such low wages. I was making 68 cents per hour. Little did I know that they were making close to double that amount.
Those higher wages did not keep them from working like horses. In fact the higher the price the faster they worked. Hour after hour, day after day, no air conditioning, the stifling heat of the fourth floor; but yet they produced. At the end of the day I could hardly walk the two miles along the railroad tracks to get home. These two men had to go home and do their evening chores around the house. I never heard either of them complain.
As an aside I should mention a little story about that same factory. There was a Ukrainian man, John, who had worked at the shoe factory for 50 years. He retired. After a month or two he could not stand it any longer. He asked for an audience with the factory owner and was granted one (as the shoe factory owner always did). John begged for a job, any job. He was granted his wish. I watched John produce in his 51st year. He was magnificent.
Part 2: Invented Productivity
These memories of productivity go on and on. Sitting in my parent’s home I could observe beautiful chestnut molding, oak floors, quality plastered walls and ceilings, wide porches to front and rear. Who produced the molding? Today it would be soft pine. Back then it was hard chestnut. Who built the tools and machines that could cut such hard woods without burning or scorching the surface? Who were the patient workers that gently guided their production through the wood planes? How were the machines created?
Those questions that ran through my mind were not instances of real memory of production but rather imagined memory of production. It did not matter that it was imagined because that is where creativeness and invention are found; and production follows.
The philosopher Husserl made some good points regarding memory. He spoke of misty horizons, those areas of memory that may or may not reflect what actually occurred. Husserl asked his readers to walk around a desk, observing it as the reader walked. That desk, if it were the only one the observer ever saw, would be the image that would come to mind every time someone used the word “desk.” Likewise, if the observer had his attention drawn away from the desk for a moment (as he was circling it) he may have missed a very important feature of the desk. The observer’s mind would then “fill in” that missing feature with what he had seen just prior and immediately after his attention had been diverted. In other words we invent what we do not actually see, and, those inventions are “truth” to us.
Carrying this “invented memory” one step farther we could learn from the Argentinean author Jorge Louis Borges. He has stated several times (in several different ways) that each reader reads the same book; yet a different book. One single book has many different versions; one for each reader. This is another (yet separate) example of what Husserl had explained. We interpret via past experience
You as the reader may question how this relates to “invented productivity.” It explains two different factors. First; memories are different for the person doing the productive work as opposed to those who observed or read about it. The producing person feels the weight of the work, experiences the tactile feedback of the tools he is using, sees every imperfection of the finished product. The observer imagines the weight, sees the tools but will not have the ability to use them without great practice. The observer also accepts the premise that the finished product is satisfactory if the producer ships it. The producing individual is the only person that knows about any existing flaws.
The second factor of invented productivity occurs when the observer sees a product (completed, incomplete or in the form of raw materials). He has various thoughts regarding the product. He could think about the person producing it; “Why is he doing this or that?” Maybe the thoughts are “How did he do it?”, “When did it get produced?”, “Where was it produced?” The answers to all these questions beg the observer to imagine various scenarios of “invented productivity.” These inventions are either discarded off-handedly or accepted as the best possible answer known to the person considering and imagining the productivity. This is all based on personal judgment. Finally these judgments allow the imaginer to either do additional research to determine a better answer or depend on his own judgment to be sufficient.
Another set of similar questions would arise if the observer concentrated on the raw materials of the product, or the marketability of the product, or the cost of labor.
“Where did the materials come from? Who excavated, planted, found, drilled, smelted, or forged the raw materials? Is the marketplace demanding the product? How many units/pounds per sales period do we need to have on hand? Do we need to stock spare parts? Should we make the product locally due to its complexity or can we build it off-shore?”
As mentioned, answers to all of these questions depend on the personal judgment of the person doing this “invented productivity” and should be followed up by some diligent research if the size of the investment requires it.
Disregarding a large scope of production; what do all of these “invented productivities” buy for us? It buys new inventions and new businesses. How does this occur? It occurs through preparedness, planning and forethought; not to mention capital investment. The casual observer of a product, if he has “invented productivity” in his mind, is better prepared with creative and “combinatory” solutions to problems that are sure to arise.
The intelligentsia must not place productivity on the same plane as immorality simply because it is the spawn of capitalism. Some of our modern day sociologists would prefer that line of thinking. Let us rather place productivity on the same plan as creativeness and academia. Without the divisions of labor and productivity we would all remain sitting in caves. Oh, we could be thinking brilliant thoughts (and possibly even have some method of recording them on a rock) but without those who produce, and their invented memories of production and how they would accomplish it, we would remain in those caves unappreciative of those who knowingly sacrificed their time, muscles, and planning, to be the producers.
So these are my two types of INVISIBLE FACTORIES.
Those that have disappeared from our past and those that we invent.