The small upstairs room was dark, a thin sliver of sunlight showing through a few cracks in the wall. Cobwebs clung to every corner. One lone light bulb hung suspended from a thin wire in the center of the room. Around the perimeter of the small cramped room stood old discarded sewing machines. In the very center of the room stood two large tables, scissors and straight pins littered their tops. Tiny bits of cloth lay scattered on the floor. The air in tiny room was stifling and smelled of unwashed children.
A diminutive creature dressed in threadbare rags manned each machine. Their backs bent and hunched as if they were old men instead of young girls. Each eye was fixed unswervingly on the task at hand. Some were using machines while others did their sewing by hand. The girls’ faces were streaked with dirt and sweat and were unnaturally pale. In one corner of the crowded room stood the bucket used for the girls’ personal needs, which only added to the stench of the room.
No one dared to look at me, a stranger in the doorway. I had been sent to investigate the conditions of the shop by my editor. I was the daily paper’s investigative reporter. The editor, working on an anonymous tip, had sent me here.
I stood and watched them working for a time. With their hands flying the needles moved in and out in a rhythmic motion. The stitches were even and neat, most women would not be able to duplicate their delicate stitches.
One girl stood out in her abilities and in her personal demeanor. She was a young colored girl; she could not have been more than eight years old, although she looked much older. Her clothing, if they could be called that, was fastened with pins. I found it amazing they were able to stay on at all, as they hung from her tiny frame. Her face was heavily streaked with dirt and sweat, her teeth were black with decay and her lips were dry and cracked dried blood was crusted in the corners. She told me her name was Millie.
“How long have you been working here, Millie?”
“I don’t rightly know.” Her eyes were fixed on the floor where her toe scuffed a discarded scrap of red silk fabric.
“How old are you?”
“I’m eight years old this Friday.”
“Eight? Why you’re almost half-grown! Do you remember before you came?”
“No, ma’am. I shore can’t.” She dared a quick look at my face and then averted her eyes once again.
“Do you like working here, Millie?”
“Yes, ma’am. I do.” Her eyes never left the floor and her answer astounded me. I was sure I would hear a negative response. “I like that I’m not on the street. I gets food to eat when my work is done and if the mistress accepts it.”
I realized in my savior complex I had not thought about this from every angle. I had not realized these girls would see this not as a prison but as a way of life, a way to keep themselves fed and warm. I found though, my heart aching over the life these girls would have most would not live out their teen years. It was destined to be a life of hard work, toil and strain. A life lived without sunshine and walks in the park. A life without joy and laughter, a life of cramped living quarters, not enough food and water. A life of constantly pleasing the superior in order to obtain the barest necessities of life. A life I am not sure I could enjoy.
I found myself longing for more for these girls. I craved the ability to rescue them all, take them away from this crowded room with its humming sewing machines. I wanted to take them away from the needles and thread, from the fabric. I want to take them away from it all.
“Millie, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Why, ma’am, I want to be a fine lady. I want to have girls like me to do the sewing. I have to work now, or I’ll not be getting lunch.” She walked back to her sewing machine thus ending the interview.
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