by Ralph Karst
In the spring of 1994, when I was 24, I worked for a month in a Tampax factory alongside the mentally retarded.
For a standard 8-hour work day, including 30 minutes for lunch a two 10-minute breaks, I took individually wrapped maxi-pads from a giant bin and put them into a three-pad box, then put those boxes into a larger shipping box. For this, I was paid the Massachusetts minimum wage at that time of $4.25 an hour, plus “piece work,” which means if I worked fast enough, I could earn a bonus.
My disabled co-workers made less than minimum wage, but their piece-work quotas were lower than the non-disabled workers like myself. I don’t know how many of them ended up getting the bonus rate, but I did witness a few tampon-boxing savants who must have been doing pretty well. I never bothered trying to earn the bonus, except for once, when I and Ramon—another “normal” worker—decided to amuse ourselves with a tampon-boxing derby. He won. I was fairly content just to earn the minimum, plod along, and take in the sights and sounds of, well, working in Tampax factory with the mentally retarded.
At this point I must address an unavoidable point. I’m aware that the term “mentally retarded” has long since been discarded, in favor of “developmentally disabled.” It’s also a no-no these days to wield “retarded” and “retard” as pejoratives, as in “that movie was wicked retarded,” or “you fuckin’ retard.” (Best imagined with a Boston accent—“re-TAH-ded.”) I use the word at the outset because we grew up using that word in the 1970s, and people around my age will instantly know what I mean, and what I’m referring to, and it’s a short-cut to establish a sense of time and place and voice. I mean no disrespect to my co-workers from that time, and hereafter I will simply use the term “disabled.”
So how and why did I land this job? Mind you, I wasn’t a teenager earning some extra cash, but a 24-year-old University of Michigan graduate—boxing tampons. How does that happen? The tale starts with me getting fired from my first full-time job out of college. I was working at the Smith College Office of Undergraduate Admission in Northampton as an assistant admission officer—basically helping to push around the massive tonnage of paper that flows through any college admissions office, even one at a small women’s liberal arts college. It wasn’t a great job, but it wasn’t too physically or mentally taxing, and the work environment was non-profit, white-collar pleasant. The sting of not starting off too well with my dream career of newspaper journalism was replaced with the simple pleasures of earning a steady paycheck and paying my own rent in a cheap house with three great housemates (male UMass biology grad student, female UMass history grad student, female Smith College art-design major).
Northampton, Mass. in the early 90s was a proper scene. It was a baby-Seattle with great music, artist-friendly rents downtown, cool record shops , cafes and ethnic restaurants, and tons of area college students both upscale (Smith College, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College), midscale (UMass) and hippy-scale (Hampshire College). I joined a couple writers’ groups, did freelance journalism, and wrote poetry and fiction. I had a radio show at Smith College’s WOZQ. I had a girlfriend. I’d go to house parties and see guys from Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. I couldn’t walk across town without running into two or three cool friends who would simply demand that I stop and chat. My house was always filled with people fun and funny, interesting and weird. Friends would come over, unannounced, just popping in, just paying a visit, and my housemates and I would offer them a pint bottle of Golden Anniversary beer, or a cup of tea, or a hit off a joint. I wasn’t conquering the world, but life was good.
But then I got fired. I had applied to and been accepted to an MFA program in creative writing, and I told Smith College I’d be leaving my job in about three months. With new adventures on the horizon, my focus at work hovered between “careless” and “not giving two shits.” In April, I screwed up on something you might call important—the admitted/rejected student mailing—and the folks at the admission office decided that a rejected student getting an “admit” letter and vice-versa was a fire-able offense. (For the record, the fucked-up letters never went out—they caught the mistake in time.) The director called me into her office and said, “Hey, Ralph, we like you. But, well, you were going to be leaving at the end of July anyway. We’d like you to leave NOW.” And then, as per Smith College HR procedure, I was escorted out of the building and off campus by an armed security officer.
OK, not a major tragedy. It wasn’t like I had a mortgage to pay and squalling children to feed, but I still had three months in which I needed to save some money for grad school. On the night of my shit-canning, I was hanging out at home, drinking beer with my girlfriend Amanda, my housemates, and a few other friends. Amanda worked at a non-profit social services agency devoted to “creative staffing solutions.” In other words, they found sub-minimum wage jobs for the developmentally disabled. Exploitation? Maybe. But hey—the disabled found jobs and actually made money they could keep rather than just draining state social welfare coffers, and the contractors got cheap labor. Win-win! Amanda explained that they just got a big job from Tampax—it was so big, that they didn’t have enough disabled workers to fully staff the job. So they were taking anybody. “So, you could work there if you really wanted to,” she said.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I could work in a Tampax factory with retarded co-workers?”
It was a no brainer. “When can I start?”
Boom! Total number of days spent unemployed: zero!
The next morning I drove my Mercury Tracer over to the worksite—a sprawling old former paper factory that like a lot of old factories and mills around New England had been abandoned and then renovated and subdivided into offices, artists’ studios and small-scale manufacturing spaces. I met Amanda in the office, filled out my W-4s, and she took me out onto the floor. In the Hollywood version of this story, the shallow hipster writer-wannabe takes the job alongside the developmentally disabled, hoping to get a few stories out of the human freakshow, but ends up genuinely touched by their boundary-less affection, their childlike simplicity, their bottomless good cheer and enthusiasm. He even, daresay, makes some friends and learns a lesson or two: it wasn’t a freakshow, because they weren’t freaks and they weren’t there to put on a show for him. They were human beings trying to do a job the best they could. Like any of us. But that’s Hollywood. Is that really what happened in real life? Well, yeah. Pretty much.
The whole site had maybe 25 workers or so. There were some of the disabled workers working in groups, a few working in pairs, and some working solo—whatever they were comfortable with. Speed wasn’t the goal, as long as they did something. Most of the workers worked quietly and intently. Occasionally I’d hear some hoots and cackles and shouts, mostly positive and friendly as they engaged with each other or the staffers. Most of them weren’t very visibly disabled—there were only a few workers with what seemed to be mild Down’s Syndrome. But still, they stood out—something in the way their clothes were mismatched or not the right size, some awkwardness in their gait, or lopsidedness of their smile, or a facial tic like rapidly blinking eyes or sticking their tongue out at steady intervals. But hell, I figured after a few weeks of boxing Tampax all day, I’d be developing some tics of my own, if not carpal-tunnel syndrome.
There were maybe four or five social work staffers from Amanda’s agency supervising and helping everybody keep on task. Sometimes the disabled workers would wander away, get distracted or just start acting silly and the aides would gently try to get them focused again. Two of the aides were really big guys who clearly doubled as some kind of security for the cases of the disabled workers losing control of themselves. “Once a week or so we get an incident,” Amanda explained to me once. “They get bored or frustrated, or have little arguments with each other. Usually it’s no big deal. We have a ‘time out’ area we take them to for 15 minutes or so for them to calm down. But once in a while they’ll throw something, or kick or bite. Allen and Jay, those big guys over there, can show you a few scratches.”
I remember one “time out” incident. On the other side of the floor, I heard someone screeching—in pain or anger, or both, I couldn’t tell—and a few minutes later one of the female staffers was leading John, one of our biggest workers, a real Lenny from Of Mice and Men, gently by the hand toward the “time out area.” John’s face with contorted with rage. He looked like he could have totally gone into Hulk-smash mode, but he wasn’t fighting the aide—he was walking slowly along with her. Once he got to the “time out” box, the aide said a few soft words to him, and he launched into a sudden spasming tantrum, flapping his arms and spinning around, eyes tightly closed, head tilted back, howling his displeasure at God and/or the ceiling. After a few spins, he sat down on the floor and sulked for about 10 minutes before going back to work.
I didn’t know this at the time, but John was really harmless. Despite the ferocious display I had just witnessed, the big staffers didn’t bother coming over to help. John might have acted out, but he never laid a finger on anyone, never gave anyone so much as a shove. I spent the rest of the day fantasizing about John re-enacting the famous scene from Of Mice and Men—the owner’s son, a total punk, coming over and mouthing off, challenging John to a fight, calling him a “lousy retard” or something, throwing a punch, and John catching his fist in his huge maw and crushing it like a pack of Saltines. But no punks showed up to take the role of Curly, alas.
I was put at a work table with three or four other non-disabled workers. They were all Hispanics—Puerto Ricans living down Route 5 in Holyoke. One of them, the aforementioned Ramon, was friendly and outgoing and we chatted away the work days. He’d been at the Tampax job for about six weeks. He was taking evening GED courses and taking any work he could find during the day. He was a young guy, not much older than myself, but married with two kids. He of course wanted to know what led me—a white guy—to this job. I was uncomfortable telling him the whole truth, keenly aware of the chasm of class and race. I couldn’t tell him I took the job mostly for the novelty value—that I was soon to be moving on graduate school. But I didn’t want to lie.
“Well, I got fired from a job at Smith College. My girlfriend told me about this job—she works for the place that sets up jobs like these. I figure I’d do it for awhile until I found something better.”
“That’s cool, man,” Ramon said. “A job’s a job, right?”
A job’s a job, a paycheck’s a paycheck. That’s for damn sure. I wasn’t new to blue-collar work. I’d gotten my hands dirty before, gotten good and sweaty. I had picked cucumbers, worked in a candle factory (Yankee Candle Company—they have shops these days all over Korea), worked at K-Mart and at two different supermarkets. But still—these were always part-time jobs while I was a high school or college student. I felt sorry for Ramon, taking a job like this out of necessity, though he wasn’t asking for pity and probably would have angrily dismissed it had anyone given him any. He was working hard and believed he was bound for better things. I believed he was, too. I admired his dignity at not viewing this job as below his dignity.
We talked a lot during those long Tampax-stuffing days. I tried out some of my mostly-forgotten high school Spanish, and he laughed at the weird shit I remembered. He threw his head back and cackled when I recalled the word for ‘hubcaps’—tapacubos. We talked about the sad decline of the post-Larry Bird Boston Celtics. We talked about music—Ramon recorded his own Spanish-language rap demo tapes, and liked jazz as well. I made a John Coltrane mix tape for him. When I told him I played a bit of saxophone, he wanted me to come over and jam with him, and play on one of his next rap tunes. That cutting session never happened, I’m sorry to say. Never made it past the idle talk stage. Or rather—I treated it like idle talk. Ramon was serious, but I was too shy, too nervous, too damn scared to go up to the Holyoke barrio, meet Ramon’s family, and play a few riffs over his beats and rhymes. I thought about making up that encounter for this essay, but no—much better to leave you the reality of my chickenshit self.
STAR TREK PHIL
Here was another artistic opportunity that I sadly passed up. In my first few days, a short, intense-looking guy, maybe 30, hands stuffed into a blue windbreaker came up to me. Without a word, he looked at me up and down a few times. He had big brown fluffy eyebrows.
“Hi,” I said, trying to smile.
“Do you like Star Trek?”
By now I was used to incredibly random questions being the first things out of people’s mouths when they met me. Previously ones included, “Do you get to bring cookies from home?” and “Can I buy a shirt for tomorrow?” So the Star Trek question didn’t even phase me. (haha)
“The old one or the new one?” I said.
“Next Generation,” he said.
“Um, yeah. I guess. Star Trek is pretty cool.” I was a trying not to sound like too big of a fan, partly because I really wasn’t, but also because Amanda had told / warned me about this guy—Star Trek Phil. He was writing a Star Trek play, and during breaks (or, during regular working hours) he would wander around and ask people to be in his play, and if you agreed, well, you’d end up seeing a LOT of Star Trek Phil. And now here he was.
“I’m writing a PLAY,” he said, making an expansive gesture with hands. “A Star Trek play. I think you could play . . .” I don’t remember what role he had me pegged for. Data? Worf? The Borg? Definitely not Picard, though.
“Well, thanks. I’ll think about it,” I said.
“GREAT!” Phil said, and scurried away back to work
I was afraid to ask him if he actually had a script I could see, because what if he did? I guess I would sort of HAVE to read a Star Trek play by a developmentally disabled person. In hindsight, after several MFA fiction workshops and teaching a lot of high school creative writing, I’m absolutely positive that I’ve seen much, much worse.
A few days later, Phil popped up again, and this time he was definitely in the mood for some casting. “So what about my play?” he said. He was smiling but his eyes were steely and hard. “Can you be in it? I think you would be PERFECT for *****”
I really didn’t want to accept, but I really didn’t want to crush the guy with a flat-out refusal either. Nor did I want to hand him a lame “sorry, but I’m a little busy” excuse that even he would see as tantamount to a fat “No.” I decided on something that in retrospect was much crueler—I made a joke that I figured was too sophisticated for him to understand.
“Well, sorry man, I’d like to be in your play. But you see, it’s a non-union production, and I’m a member of Actor’s Equity.” I know, I know. Shame on me, right?
But here’s how he answered. He dramatically held out his hand and said, “LET ME SEE YOUR UNION CARD!” I swear, he really said that.
“Um, I, uh, left it at home,” I managed.
He crossed his arms and cocked his head. A sarcastic grin creased his face. “Uh-huh, a LIKELY STORY!” He shook his head at me and went back to work.
I just stood there. What had just happened? A developmentally disabled guy had called bullshit on my condescending attempt to outsmart and confuse him. He knew what Actor’s Equity was, for fuck’s sake! What’s more, he didn’t sound that angry—there was a kind of delight in his voice, a twinkle in his eye that suggested he didn’t really mind I was just trying to evade getting Shanghai’d into his play. However serious he was about his Star Trek play (and he seemed VERY serious), he was having fun in shooting down my excuse, in having gotten the best of me. In other words, Phil was pretty smart, and pretty cool. I can hear his voice in my head, 20 years later: “A LIKELY STORY!”
One thing you face when you work with developmentally disabled adults is that they are . . . adults. In other words, they have the urges and desires any adult has, including sexual urges, but can often lack the maturity and social skills to deal with them. I knew this going into the job, mostly thanks to having read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, featuring poor old Benji, the “idiot” who gets castrated after a sexual assault. Thankfully this wasn’t a big issue at this job site. Amanda explained to me that they, especially the men, had been receiving counseling since adolescence about what was proper and improper. Still, there were a few unseemly moments.
At a work station near mine, there was one young guy, maybe in his mid-20s, almost always working alone, who was blind in addition to his developmental problems. He worked only a few hours each day, usually at a glacial pace. He sat down while almost all of the other workers stood. One day I looked over and saw him Tampax-stuffing with only one hand. His other hand was in his pocket and he was . . . wait a minute. WAS he? Oh Christ.
“That guy’s wacking off over there,” I said to Ramon.
“Oh, Tom?” Ramon chuckled. “Yeah, he’ll do that from time to time. He’s blind so I guess he doesn’t know that people can see him. Haha. A staffer usually comes around and tells him to stop, sometimes actually pulling his hand out of his pants.”
“Playing a little pocket pinball,” I said.
Ramon nodded. “Yeah, Pocket Pinball Tom.”
“P-Squared. My man’s gotta take that action to the bathroom, know what I’m sayin’?”
“A little P.P. after you pee-pee.” We laughed, and for the rest of my time there, old Tom was dubbed ‘P².’
Cruel? Maybe. But I defy anyone to work in a place like this and 100% successfully refrain from the occasional dark joke. It was a tool to keep the weirdness at bay, to keep the sad desperation of some of these workers from really getting to you.
There was one other time when my co-workers’ hormones were put on display, and it involved my girlfriend. Amanda, a petite, pretty blond who looked a lot like Becky from the Roseanne sitcom, didn’t normally come out to the work site; she worked at the social service’s main offices a few miles away. However, she did occasionally make some visits for various reasons, and when she came, she came out to the factory floor to both chat and enjoy the sight of me boxing sanitary pads—basically to bust my balls a little. Normally, this happened without incident, but one time, we had a new worker, Tony, a pretty young, energetic guy, working near me. As soon as he spotted Amanda walking across the floor toward me, Tony suddenly transformed himself into a cross between David Lee Roth and a drunken fratboy.
“Whooooaaa! She’s not bad AT ALL!” he announced to no one in particular.
Amanda and I tried to talk a bit, but it was hard with Tony staring literally slack-jawed about 15 feet away. After Amanda left, Tony followed her with his eyes, then came over to me.
“Hey! She’s NOT BAD AT ALL!” he informed me
“Yeah, she’s pretty,” I said.
I waited for him to ask me if she was my girlfriend, but he didn’t. He just kind of stood there awhile, lost in his own thoughts that I really didn’t want to spend too much time imagining, a grin on his face that charitably might be described as moony (not so charitably as lecherous). Finally, he went back to work. Really, I was flattered that Tony thought my girlfriend “wasn’t bad at all.” In fact, after that incident, it became a go-to phrase of mine to good-naturedly tease her when we were hanging out. “Say Amanda, you’re not bad AT ALL!” At first she would laugh, then after about 10 times, roll her eyes, then after about 20times, gently punch me in the arm, then at about the 30th rendition, really punch me in the arm and tell me to cut the shit.
SALLY AND LUCILLE
Sally and Lucille were two of the fastest workers I saw. Sally was young, maybe early 30s, tall and gawky; Lucille was a short older woman, about 55, with close-cropped gray hair. They worked at a table together, along with a few others, but there had separated a little space at the table for themselves. They had the various bins and boxes they worked with efficiently arranged. During work hours, they didn’t talk with each other, or anyone else. They kept their heads down and did some serious Tampax boxing.
Sally was one of the friendliest people I met there. It’s a cliché and a stereotype to say that the developmentally disabled lack social boundaries and will immediately try to be your best friend. I saw many who were clearly shy and quite anti-social. But Sally? She did indeed try to be my best friend on my first day. I know that I’ve been writing some of the disabled workers’ dialog in all-caps, but sorry, for some of them, especially Sally, it’s the best way to show their loud, gushing sincerity.
“Hiya! What’s your name?”
“Um, I’m Ralph.”
“NICE TO MEET YOU RALPH!”
And at the end of each day: “SEE YOU TOMORROW RALPH!” And when I came in the next day, a huge “GOOD MORNING RALPH!” from Sally always awaited me. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? Who wouldn’t be charmed by that?
Lucille wasn’t nearly as effusive as Sally. During breaks, Sally and Lucille would talk, but it was mostly Sally doing the talking, with Lucille mostly smiling and nodding. She had trouble making eye-contact with people, but she still somehow seemed to exude a sense of warmth and kindness. The staffers always enjoyed coming over and talking with her.
I learned that she was the longest tenured worker at the social agency, working at various jobs for more than two years, with perfect attendance. While I was there, there was a special lunch-time ceremony where Lucille and other workers were honored for their accomplishments. The local newspaper sent over a reporter and a photographer. Lucille was the final honoree, and when she was called up to the make-shift podium at one end of the work site, near the time-out area, the applause and whoops from the staffers, workers—disabled and non-disabled—and even a few of the workers’ family members was the loudest. She grinned shyly as the photographer’s flash popped. She actually scored an interview, and I heard her say to the note-scribbling reporter, “I like my job, and I’m gonna stick with it.”
I remember an interview in the Paris Review with Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She recalled hanging out with Faulkner in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She had heard the county insane asylum was moving to a new building, and the patients would be moving themselves and all their belongings that afternoon. She asked Faulkner if he wanted to go watch the insane moving themselves to the new hospital. Faulkner turned her down. The person interviewing Harper Lee found that hard to believe—Faulkner turning down a chance to see a ready-made, real-life slice of Southern Gothic? “I know,” Lee said. “But I felt strongly it was something I felt I could offer him,” Lee said. “Like a gift.”
I took the job because it seemed like just such a gift, one that offered too many possibilities for weirdness and wonder to turn down. But I’m not going to lie: an eight-hour day spent packaging Tampax was also a lot of mind-crushing boredom, no matter how interesting my co-workers were. And the pay was garbage—after taxes, my weekly check was about 150 bucks. After a month, I applied for and got a job working in the office of a bus tour company just up the street from my house. It paid more than twice the Tampax gig. Plus, every day, one of my tasks was go to the bank and deposit checks—a lovely stroll downtown, chat with whoever was out and about, and a lovely stroll back in the warm early summer New England sunshine. They even told me to take my time. I called Amanda and told her I was done at the factory.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to anyone. Normally I hate goodbyes, but I wish I could have shaken hands with Ramon, wished Star Trek Phil luck with his play, and given a hug to Sally and Lucille. I hope they are well. Crossing paths with them was indeed a gift. When discussing with friends the crappy jobs we’ve had in our lives, I always get to trump everyone by saying “I worked in a Tampax factory with the developmentally disabled. . . No really. I did.” And those old faces and voices swim up out of my memory, and inevitably, it’s good old Star Trek Phil who gets the last word in my recounting: “LET ME SEE YOUR UNION CARD! . . . UH HUH, A LIKELY STORY!”