Hot Leather and High Fives

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Wendy Hodge

By Wendy Hodge

If you read my last column, you know that I recently left my office job of several years. In fact, I walked away from the health care field altogether. For almost three decades now, doctors’ offices and hospitals have been where I’ve spent my working days. And I loved it. But lately the hours began to be filled less with helping people and more with “customer complaints.” Literally hundreds of phone calls every single work day took up more and more of my time. There’s something about being a faceless voice on the phone – it seems to give angry people the courage (or the cowardice) to be hateful. Knowing the chances of ever meeting me face to face are slim to none, I became the vessel in which to pour their every bitter thought. Countless times I drove home after eight or nine hours of being yelled at, cursed at and blamed for every wrong thing in a stranger’s life feeling like a human trash can filled to the brim with someone else’s grimy hate.

And so now I don’t do that anymore. It was really as simple as that. I just said “I’m done” and walked away.

Of course it was a bit more complicated. After updating my resume, I went online and applied for just about every kind of job you can imagine with only one stipulation – no more dealing with the angry public. You’d be surprised by how many positions there are out there that require little to no contact with anyone other than your co-workers. They ranged from research assistants and data entry techs at Auburn University to shipping and receiving in warehouses and factories.

I decided to use an employment agency to help me find the right fit. Our conversation was brief and to the point.

“Give me something where I can clock in, keep my head down, work hard, and clock out. No answering phones, no customer service, no public relations.”

“I have the perfect opening for you,” I was told.

“Great! When can I start?”

“Right away. Do you speak Korean?”

“Well … no.”

“Perfect.”

And just like that, I became a car parts assembler at a Korean-owned plant just five minutes from my front door. I bought steel-toed shoes and khaki pants and reported to work the next morning with absolutely no idea what was in store.

It turns out I didn’t need the steel-toed shoes after all. I don’t work with automated machinery. I work, instead, with dashboards – specifically, the passenger-side dashboard for the Hyundai Santa Fe. My job is to cover the dashboard with leather. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. The dashboard core, which is a heavy plastic, is sprayed with a heat-release glue and then covered with a thin layer of filament. Then another spraying of glue gets it ready for the leather to be applied.

There is a small room on the plant floor where a Korean man and two Korean ladies sit hunched over sewing machines. They spend their days piecing together these expensive pieces of leather, getting the seams picture perfect and the airbag logo sewn in just the right spot. Among the three of them, they have over 100 years of sewing experience, almost all of it in Korea. When I pass by their glass-walled room, they look up at me with eyes that don’t show the strain those years must surely have taken on their vision. The gentleman stitcher (who I call Mister Sew in my head) always smiles behind his mask and nods his head at me. He has no gray hair or wrinkles and could pass for a 30-year-old, though I am told he is over 70.

Once the leather has been sewn and has left the hum of the sewing machines for the busy plant floor, it is brought to my station. I do not have a desk. There is no place for potted plants or picture frames – it is completely utilitarian. A metal arm that rotates is located at waist level and is surrounded by a steel frame that holds two plastic baskets and a fan aimed directly at my face. The baskets hold my supplies – pliers, scissors, box cutter and blades and two crimping tools. A heat gun rests in a holder on the frame of my station, and a thick buffer pad lies between my feet and the concrete floor.

A group of Korean women have been in the plant for a couple of months now, teaching the local workers exactly how to heat the leather and stretch it to fit perfectly over the dashboard core. There can be no wrinkles or air bubbles or creases or imperfections of any kind. The stretching requires every muscle in your arms and back. It also requires patience and persistence. This is no job for sissies.

I have been assigned to Qua Soon, one of the Korean “originals” who is an expert. I stand at her station on the first morning and observe. Her hands fly over the leather, smooth and quick, as if she was born standing in that very spot with leather in her hands. Her motions are hypnotic – an Asian dance that is lovely.

And then I go to my station and try to replicate what she has shown me. My first attempt was a clumsy effort, and so is my pronunciation of Qua Soon’s name. She kindly agrees to let me call her Croissant, and she calls me Ah-Winnie. We bow to each other a lot, and it works. By the end of the first day (when I’ve churned out 3 more dashboards) I feel really satisfied with what I’ve done. Croissant gives me a high five – the Koreans are very big on high fives – and tells me “Good-a job, Ah-Winnie.”

The next day, we follow the same routine. Croissant demonstrates, and then I try to replicate. That day I manage to complete five dashboards. Croissant stands at my station, inspecting them all, and pronounces “You are head of class” and says I can leave a few minutes early. I get a high five from Croissant and Yeo Soon and Mei Lin before I shut down my station and pick up my backpack.

I clock out and head for the door. But it turns out, I really don’t want to go. I like it here. When I imagined a factory, this is not what I pictured. It’s not noisy. There is a steady hum of work, but no screeching machines or yelling voices. It’s not hot or dark or dirty. It is air-conditioned, well-lit, and as clean as any house you’d want to visit. I watch Croissant high five another new girl and I wave to Mister Sew, who smiles and nods.

And I go home. My body is sore and tired, but there is a spring in my step. Turns out there is a beauty in working with your hands, in producing something tangible you can hold up and admire. There is an art to perfecting a skill. There is a joy in hard physical work that you can leave behind you with no lingering taste of bitterness to follow you home. And there is a peace in knowing that you are happy to return to your work again tomorrow.

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