Maria from the Sewing Room

I’m a big fan of our premier local theater group, Forward Theater Co. In the fall they mount their fourth monologue festival, this year the theme is work, Someone’s Gotta Do It! It’s the third time I’ve submitted monologues for consideration. The theme of the first festival was The Love That Changed My Life and I submitted Fifteen Valentines. The second festival’s theme was food, Soul Food and I submitted three monologues, The Orphan Holidays, Good Morning, and Oleo Run. I didn’t submit to their third festival about banned books, Out of the Fire, but this year submitted an adaptation of a poem I wrote about working at Jockey Menswear in Kenosha, Wisconsin and how it changed my life. The monologue entitled, Maria from the Sewing Room (and Gloria from the Lay-Up Department), was not selected but this year made the semifinals out of 300 submissions. Of course, I’ll be in the audience of Someone’s Gotta Do It! and continue to both write and submit monologues. Maybe I’ll even mount my own collection of monologues based on my memoir in process, Perfectly Flawed. Following is this year’s submission for you to enjoy.


Maria from the Sewing Room (and Gloria from the Lay-Up Department)

This year I began collecting Social Security. I’ve worked for 55 years, first babysitting my siblings during summers, then at 16, waitressing weekends at my aunt and uncle’s diner, Bill’s Lunch.  My first full-time job was 45 years ago as a newly-married wife in 1971. My husband Frank and I moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin for work — Frank at Anaconda American Brass, and me at Jockey Menswear International.

That’s where I met Maria from the sewing room and Gloria from the lay-up department —more about them later. This was not only my first full-time job, but a work environment which reinforced my blue-collar, working-class values and family legacy as a union member. Before I arrived in Kenosha as a married woman looking for a job, I had to “find myself,” as baby boomers described the experience in the late 1960’s.

Frank and I met at college in 1968 and became fully engaged in the politics and culture of the times. From roundtable discussions in the student union we moved to the streets, protesting the war in Vietnam, for civil rights, and decriminalization of marijuana. Soon we took a road trip in search of America, arriving in San Francisco a year after the Summer of Love. It was too late. The drug culture already took a deadly turn and victims; there were more lost souls then young people like us looking to find ourselves. Instead, we found ourselves heading home to Wisconsin. It wasn’t long afterwards that we tired of the hippie lifestyle and what Frank described as “psychedelic, rock-a-rock-a, bullshit.”  We married.

Jockey Menswear was housed in the industrial heart of Kenosha, adjacent to an American Motors plant. I worked in the lay-up department where I inspected the cloth that would be transformed into men’s underwear and t-shirts. I’d “lay-up” the fabric, cutting out any imperfections with my shears which I wore in a holster like a six-shooter, and then powder a pattern for the shapers to cut out the pieces of the garments for the sewing room.

My friends and family teased me a lot, “So how was your work day today inspecting men’s underwear?” “Did you find anything in those briefs?” As much as I was sometimes the butt of jokes, I must admit, I liked the work. It was physical, it required some level of skill and a good eye for detail, and I worked with a lot of women. I was comfortable with women.

That’s where I met Maria from the sewing room. Maria kept to herself.  She didn’t take the concrete stairs three floors down and back to eat the daily lunch specials the Polish and Italian matrons made each day in the steaming basement kitchen. Instead she brought her sack lunch, the Kraft paper bag reused so many times it looked like the stained, wrinkled skin of my great grandmother. Maria retreated to the ladies room, laid out like a two-room suite, with torn naugahyde love seats and chairs interspersed with ash tray pedestals that collected the cigarette butts we discarded. We were only allowed to smoke in the bathroom during toilet breaks and lunch. It was a union-negotiated agreement.

Maria would sit in one of the chairs and reach inside the bag to retrieve her lunch — two corn tortillas, a tomato, a glass salt shaker and a peach and placed them in her lap. Her hand would dive deeper into the bag retrieving square paper napkins and a pen. She’d cross her legs, carefully capturing her lunch in the space in between, as she placed the napkin on her knee and would begin writing.

Earlier that day, I saw her waving shears in one hand and shaking a spool of thread in another yelling in Spanish as she argued with the lone sewing machine maintenance man in his cowboy boots and pegged jeans.  He wore his tool belt low like a gun holster and swaggered between the rows of operators. He had a stable of girlfriends whose machines were lubricated and hummed like streamlined engines. We suspected he exchanged favors. He refused to fix Maria’s machine; she spurned his advances, so she would bring her own tools and when he wasn’t looking she’d repair and tune her machine until it hummed.

I asked her what she was writing. She told me letters to her husband who worked the cabbage harvest and lived with the other migrants. She said sometimes she’d write poems to her children so they were reminded that there is beauty in the songs of birds and that God lives in the crocuses in spring. I smoked my last cigarette until it reached the filter and left the bathroom without telling Maria how much I admired her as she folded the napkins, returned them to the bag as her teeth bit into the peach and juice ran down her face like tears.

Two years into my job, just when I was beginning to get restless and looked for something new to pique my interest, my prayers were answered when Gloria — as in G-L-O-R-I-A — walked into my workplace the first time — no let me be precise — sauntered like a sailor into my life.

I was immediately smitten. Her long raven’s black hair and lean athletic body, dark chocolate brown eyes, and carmine lips demanded attention. She was both confident and casually relaxed. She exuded a sense that she belonged wherever she was. I knew in that moment that she would change my life forever.

We became fast friends. When Frank had his weekly boy’s night out — we had our girl’s night in. Gloria would arrive at my house, often with a bottle of wine in hand. I would have two or three joints pre-rolled and music playing, lights dimmed, and candles flickering. We would talk for hours, listening to jazz or Bette Midler sing, “Do You Want to Dance?” This in fact had become our song, a seductive invitation. Dancing is often described as a metaphor for lovemaking. The question in our minds, though unspoken, was did we want to dance?

Months passed and our mutual attraction grew stronger. The moment of reckoning finally came. Frank would be traveling to a duplicate bridge tournament out of state. I suggested to him that I planned on inviting Gloria to spend the weekend with me so I wouldn’t be alone, as if that ever was an issue before. He thought it was a good idea.

When the Friday evening of our weekend arrived, I lingered in the bath, drawing the soapy water into the sponge and caressing my body, imagining Gloria’s touch. I made a pact with myself. Though I had desired women before and questioned my sexuality, I considered myself a heterosexual woman. Gloria on the other hand was clearly a lesbian. I decided that if she made the first move, I would surrender to her. She would know what to do and I would submit to her lead. As I imagined the seduction scene, I became more aroused. I was aware that as I bathed, I was preparing my body for her.

Before Gloria arrived, I was faced with the moment I feared.  Though I felt compelled to act on my attraction to Gloria, that my desire for her seemed to be an irresistible urge, I was aware that in the end it was still a choice for me whether or not to transgress my marital boundaries. Not only was I considering embarking on an affair, I was choosing to make love with a woman. In my young life and with my upbringing this was taboo.

What I didn’t realize at the time was Gloria had also made a bargain with herself that since I was married she would wait for me to make the first move. We talked for hours after dinner, drinking wine and smoking joints, moving from the couch to the floor, our bodies next to each other drawing closer. We had reached an impasse and never made it to bed or each other’s arms that night. We slept on the living room floor, sharing only unspoken words and the awareness that we were not taking the next step.

Shortly afterwards Frank and I moved to Madison — a geographic escape — disguised by my decision to go back to school. When I look back however — these two women — Maria from the sewing room and Gloria from the lay-up department —both changed my life forever. That first full-time job, 45 years ago, laid the foundation for my life, led me to feminism, and opened a door for me to discover, explore, and embrace my identity —the work of one’s life.

Read the poem upon which the monologue was based:

Maria from the Sewing Room 

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