Pictorial Inspiration

When I’m out in public and bored, I like to invent stories about people I see. I usually do this most often at places like Michael’s, which Leigh loves but is like kryptonite, or when I’m at a restaurant by myself. This morning, I came across a photo online, and for some reason I found it captivating. And a story sprung up in my head.

Here’s the original photo (click to enlarge):


After you’ve had a change to view the unaltered photo, have a look at a version that I annotated (click to enlarge):

radios annotated

Angela and Molly grew up on neighboring farms. Despite the fact that their families’ farms were more than a mile away, Angela and Molly saw each other every day. They both came from a large family (Angela-nine siblings; Molly-twelve siblings), and their friendship was a way to escape from the chaos of a large family. Everyday after school, Angela and Molly would walk together down the dusty, gravel road back to their farms, and back to the work that needed to be done. They dreamed of marrying the Danver brothers and having large families of their own.

They graduated from eighth grade and began to work at home, doing chores around the house and helping with farm work as much as their dads would let them. They saw less of one another, but after a summer of work they had worn a path in the corn fields that separated the farms. On days when they weren’t so tired that they couldn’t move, Angela and Molly would cross the fields and meet in a small pear grove. They would talk and gossip and snack on pears until the last remnants of the burnt red sun began to disappear, and then they would walk back home and start the day anew.

Then one summer when the weather had been particularly hot and dry, their respective family’s began to feel the impact of a drought. Crops sat scorched and dry in the fields, the milk cows dried up and gave very little milk, the few beef cattle looked gaunt and starved, and everyone began to worry about a winter food shortage.

Angela and Molly’s pastor began meeting with their parents, and in a few weeks he had convinced them that it might be best to send Angela and Molly away to the city to work for the winter, in an effort to make sure they had enough to eat and to send money back to the farms.

The girls were resistant at first, but they knew it was probably for the best, so at the end of August they packed some clothes, a few books, and ink and paper to write home, and headed north on the train to the city. Molly slept the whole way while Angela watched the countryside fly by her window.

When they arrived at the city they were overwhelmed and amazed by the size and the noise, but that amazement soon turned to acceptance, and acceptance gave way to immersion and apathy. They stayed at the local YWCA, and they both got jobs in a radio assembling factory. Molly had worried at first because the only radio she’d ever seen had been in a picture inside the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, but Angela was convinced they didn’t need to know anything about radios.

And she was right. The girls soon discovered that their job was less complicated than chopping wood or washing a cow’s udders, but far more monotonous and exhausting. At the end of each day they were continually shocked that they could be so tired from standing in one place, moving their arms and hands mere inches, over and over, for twelve hours a day.

At first, Molly’s fingers bled from the rough circuit boards and the pins of the transistors. Then they scabbed. Then the scabs would come off and her fingers would bleed some more. Then one day she realized she wasn’t having any more trouble with her fingers, and she was disgusted to see that on her fingertips she had grown thick, meaty callouses.

Their supervisor, Thomas, seemed to be a nice man. Angela like him because he would occasionally allow them five more minutes on their half-hour lunch break, and he would ignore the fact that sometimes a worker would stay in the bathroom for several minutes before emerging smelling slightly of cigarette smoke. Molly like him because he pronounced her name “MAH-lee” instead of “MOLL-ee” the way everyone else did. The girls dreaded when Thomas’s boss, Frank, who was the nephew of the owner, would come down from the offices above the factory. Frank thought Thomas was too easy on the women workers. To correct this laxity, Frank would pick a girl every visit and berate her and explain to the rest of the workers how the girl was only allowed to work there by the compassion of his uncle. He would curse and point, and as he did so he had to continually push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Frank thought the women should be working an extra hour a day, and he was convinced that a thirty minute lunch break only reinforced a woman’s propensity for gossip and hen-like behavior.

One day, while walking home from the factory, Angela happened to find a tattered, and very old-looking, copy of McClure’s Magazine hanging precariously from a trash can by its spine. Angela took it home with them, and when Molly woke up in the middle of the night Angela was still sitting in the corner reading the same article. Something about “The Shame of the Cities,” or “The Shame of our Cities.” Molly wasn’t sure of the title, but she knew Angela had finished the article earlier in the night, mostly because she wouldn’t shut up about it, and she couldn’t imagine why she’d be rereading it.

In the days that followed, Angela began talking in hushed voices and in closed-off groups with some of the scruffier women in the factory. They called each other “sister,” and nodded slyly whenever they passed one another on the factory floor. Angela would try to engage Molly with talk of folks like Lincoln Steffans, Marcus Garvey, and Richard Wright, but Molly grew bored with Angela’s new-found interest in politics, and soon Angela stopped discussing these things with Molly altogether.

Molly began to get worried when Angela began staying out late. She would come back to their room at the YWCA well after midnight, and sometimes she only had time for a couple hours of sleep before they had to go to work. When Molly questioned her, Angela would only say she had a meeting that she had to attended.

At work, Angela began to risk punishment from Frank by taking random breaks throughout the day. She’d simply walk away from the line and go sit down, which would force Frank to come down from his office and scream at her, and then turn and scream at Thomas. On one occasion, she looked at her watch, walked away from the line, and sat down on a bench, but before Frank saw her from his upstairs office, Thomas ran over and began to whisper furiously in her hear. Angela started to argue, but eventually, with a “hrumph” and a bad attitude, Angela went back to work. She finished that day without any more break-protests.

One day during their lunch break, several women that Molly didn’t know approached her and questioned her about whether or not she supported “the movement.” Molly didn’t know what they were talking about, but their tone scared her into saying that yes, she did support it. They told her that if that was true, then she should be at the next meeting with Angela. They left her feeling empty and nervous, and Molly left her cheese sandwich half uneaten on the wooden lunch table. That afternoon a photographer from the newspaper came in and took some pictures of the women on the line. Frank had yelled at the women before the photographer had arrived, and he had told them quite angrily that if he heard about any of the women lying and making up stories to the photographer there’d be trouble. Molly barely noticed the man all afternoon, despite the disruptions he caused. She simply could not take her eyes off of Angela, who kept staring and smiling at the photographer. By the end of the day Molly had heard Angela tell the photographer that he should show up the next Monday if he wanted some really good pictures.

That Friday night, Molly tried to talk to Angela about the women, the photographer, and her odd behavior. Angela was dismissive, and told her that she was too fragile to participate in what needed to happen. She said that after Monday, Molly could help her, but the work before then was too dangerous, and besides, she knew that Molly had no interest in politics. Angela left to go to out, and Molly went to sleep.

When Molly woke up the next morning she was concerned to discover that Angela had not returned. She began to convince herself that perhaps Angela was having a secret, romantic relationship with Thomas, as they were always whispering to one another. In her heart she knew that wasn’t true…but she wished it was.

By Sunday night Molly was so distraught that she’d hardly slept or eaten. She knew something bad had happened. Knew it had something to do with movements, meetings, and the photographer, but she didn’t know what. She stayed up all Sunday night, and when work time rolled around at five in the morning, Molly couldn’t wait to get out of the room.

When Molly got to the factory there were several large, imposing men waiting at the entrance. They stared at her as she passed, scrutinizing her every move. When she got inside to her position on the line, she noticed that there were quite a few women missing. And Frank was wandering around the floor of the factory, looking bemused and malevolently happy. Molly couldn’t help but notice that Thomas was amongst the missing, and along with everything else in her mind, she now had to contend with the possibility that Frank would be supervising them all day long.

Throughout the day, Frank paced the floor of the factory. No one spoke except Frank. Periodically, he would yell at a woman, but never for anything specific, and he sounded like he was enjoying the yelling more than the ever had before. Several times Molly heard Frank joke with the imposing men about the “non-moving movement.” She pretended not to hear.

Molly, and the rest of the women, worked the rest of the day in complete silence. And all morning, and into the afternoon, Molly tried half-heartedly to keep her tears from falling onto the transistors.

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