This story was written for one of the classes I took through Hugo House.
I like to walk with my eyes closed. Just for ten or fifteen seconds. I used to think I was practicing for—God forbid— I ever lost my eyesight. Then it dawned on me. I’m not closing my eyes; I’m opening my senses.
My early childhood was a profusion of visceral sensations, which like a powerful magnet can whoosh me back to my youth. Back to Santee Street, the heart of the Los Angeles Garment District, a maelstrom of smells, sounds, sights, and even tactile delights.
It’s a place that conjures joy even though it was often unpleasant. I often wonder if this joy is stems from being around my father and a semblance of order and conformity or simply the naivety of childhood, viewed through a skewed looking glass.
My father’s garment factory was snuggled on the fifth floor of the Cornell Building home to other manufacturers, designers and fashion labels, textile and notions distributors, wholesalers, and a mishmash of other businesses.
From the time I was born until my father passed away–when I was nine–most Saturdays, we drove from our suburban house to his factory. He’d named it Dori Ann, a combination of my mother’s first name, Doris, and my middle name, Ann. The gentility of the factory ended at the name.
The garment industry isn’t for the meek.
It’s cut-throat, frenetic, and dependent on the manual labor of pattern makers, fabric cutters, seamstresses, pressers, and a host of other workers, heads down in scores of cramped facilities, compressed into a small, grimy area in downtown Los Angeles.
Everything felt unclean from the air to the sidewalks, blackened detritus, soot, and humanity ground into the concrete by decades of foot traffic and uncountable vagrants and the destitute crumpled in doorways, sleeping on scraps of cardboard and filthy blankets, pushing carts overflowing with their possession, and often when we walked the streets, early in the morning, passed out from drugs or alcohol.
I was taught to walk close to my parents, skirting the slumbering, avoiding eye contact with those who watched us pass, and feigning oblivion when a body–strewn across the sidewalk or laying in the street– was dead.
Yes. I recall seeing dead people. My response was indifference. I’d compartmentalized them: Bedraggled, dirty, occasionally foul mouthed, and not worthy of much more than a sideway glance. I did not feel empathy because I didn’t understand how someone could slide so far as to land on the street with no hope of rising back up.
My life was regimented, and my purview was that of privilege. I knew the difference between my life and that of my father’s employees. I recognized when the day was done, we’d be returning to our spacious house to wash off the grime, launder our clothes, and begin our Sunday afresh nary a worry about food, water, clothing, and a place to sleep.
But before leisurely Sundays arrived, there was the rude early awakenings on Saturday mornings. My father would park near the Los Angeles Flower Mart. The glorious smell of chrysanthemums, lilies, and thousands of other flowers—like powerful incenses—momentarily conquering the miasma—overcast in the winter and steamy in the summer. We’d often walk a few extra blocks to a beloved hole-in the-wall diner.
We’d scoot across the vinyl banquettes, slick from the multitude of bodies before ours. The Formica tables were sticky with crumbs wedged in the metal casing around the edges, too trapped to join their associates, accumulated in the creases of the booths.
My parents would order kaiser rolls for my brother and me. We’d slather them with strawberry or grape jelly. When we took a bite, rivulets of butter and jelly would ooze from the edges, dripping down the sides of our mouths and onto our plates or table. It was messy, but delicious.
And there were cups of hot chocolate, we’d have to bloooow on before we could take a sip.
I loved eating in the diner because it was low stress. No harried mother demanding we hurry up, so she could whisk away and wash the dishes. No cold milk and hated corn flakes. No drama. Just the joy of eating a meal that required little effort on the part of my parents.
My tummy smiling, we’d walk to the Cornell building, which in my young eyes was quite elegant. Built in 1922, the lobby had inlaid marble floors and on one wall was rows of mailboxes, each with a stenciled number and shiny brass lock. Plaster relief on the walls and ceiling added interest, and I recall somber brass chandeliers casting strands of light from their lofty perches.
Rows of shiny, brass buttons heralded the two rickety elevators, which appeared sound, but gasped when asked to perform, bouncing at each stop, indecisive as to whether they’d arrived at the right place. Occasionally, the doors opened mid-way between the floors, and you’d have to step up or down, hoping the elevator wouldn’t suddenly course-correct, leaving you unbalanced with one foot inside and the other dangling.
My mother was terrified of the elevators, convinced they’d breakdown while she was in them. But the alternative of slogging up multiple flights of stairs in the poorly light, stuffy stairwells was worse. There was no guarantee the doors off the stairwells were unlocked.
My father’s factory took up at least half the floor. The entry was two unpainted wooden doors with a small plaque that read, “DoriAnn.” Even before opening the doors, you could hear the symphony taking place inside: Rhythmic tick, tick, tick of the sewing machines, whoosh of the pressers as they release billows of steam, rapid click-clack, click-clack of the buttonholer, swoosh of the machine that snipped stray threads, and intermittent “whoooo” of the thin plastic pulled over the finished garments, and then ripped off from the roll.
The opus was punctuated with non-stop chatter in a multitude of tongues and dialects, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and the occasional eastern European and southern accent.
It was a cacophony of sounds that to a young child took on a physical form that could be packaged up and replayed like a soothing lullaby. Closing my eyes, even today, I can hear the melody of DoriAnn, played at any time, like twisting the key in a music box.
But unlike a music box, it varied. This was Los Angeles. Scorching hot, half the year. The only relief was the giant fans my father strategically placed throughout the factory. The persistent percussion of whoop-whoop-whoop.
To improve ventilation, he’d open the windows at the far end of the factory. Giant steel sash windows with chicken wire sandwiched between thick, wavy glass, which opened outward, large enough for a child to slip through.
Despite the danger, I relished sticking my head out the window and watching the hubbub below, vehicles and pedestrians of every ilk, an occasional drunk or deranged, screaming at someone, or something, and the clickety-clackety of the canvas bins and racks of clothing, being pushed down the sidewalks.
The noises of the street added to the concerto.
While some people might yearn for silence, I’ve always sought sound. When I lived in apartments, I’d leave my windows open, taking comfort in the passing cars and noises of the street. I missed these sounds when I lived in Texas, needing a layer of glass between the heat and the air conditioning. Happily, the sounds of the crickets and cicadas passed through the glass, providing a rhythmic chorus of chirps, clicks, and buzzes.
In my rural house, the silence is unsettling. Only the ticking and occasional chiming of our clocks punctuate the night. It’s so devoid of noise that I can hear my blood whooshing through my ears. During the day, my typing, pinging of the microwave, and prancing of the cat seem thunderous.
When we visited DoriAnn, my brother was tasked with sweeping the floors, which were a universe of scrambled, colorful threads, snippets of fabric, piles of lint, errant buttons, hooks, and snaps, and riffraff tracked in by dozens of shoes and deliveries.
The smell never changed, a fusion of machine oil, burnt fabric from the pressers, dust, and essence of musty old building. The dressing room—used by the women in my father’s factory—was more pleasant. Their work smocks, neatly hung on a rack, a collection of colors scented with their perfumes and deodorants.
You never knew what you’d find when you first entered DoriAnn. The garments being sewed varied. Sometimes, there were racks of dresses, waiting to be finished, inspected, or covered in plastic to be escorted down the elevator to a delivery truck. Other times, there were canvas bins, overflowing with bundles of cut pieces, ready to be sorted and assigned to seamstresses.
My father, like his father, and thousands of other Jews thrived in the garment–the schmatte–business. By 1910, Jews comprised 39% of the garment district workers in New York City, and 25% of the nation’s workforce. Many branched out from sewing to designing and retailing like Levi Strauss, Diane Van Furstenburg, Kenneth Cole, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi, Ralph Lauren, Jacobi Press of J. Press, and Barney and Fred Pressman of Barneys.
The dresses sewn in my father’s factory—for Fred Rothschild of California—often ended up in Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Bergman Dorf, and other high-end stores. Some of these dresses were hand-beaded and embroidered, by low-wage workers in Asian countries, and then sent back to America to be completed. For the most part, the construction of a garment—from sewing through the addition of buttons and bows—were done in the same location.
The workers in my father’s factory were primarily from Mexico and Latin America. Several were Japanese and Chinese, and one woman came from Czechoslovakia. I know this because she gave my parents an exquisite cut glass ashtray that now graces one of my curio cabinets.
Other women—I can’t recall any men working for my father—came from across the United States, including a large black woman from the deep South who’d disappear for a week on a drinking binge, and then return as if she’d never left. She was such a good worker that my father would simply point her to the stack of garments that had piled up, and she set to work.
Elsie, a red-headed black woman was the forewoman at DoriAnn. She was a lovely lady, and I recall visiting her and her family several times in their east L.A. bungalow.
Some of the women who worked at DoriAnn weren’t legally in the country. When my father got word that U.S. Immigration officials were making their way through the building, he’d inform his employees. Those who didn’t have papers would quietly leave, returning when it was safe.
I’m not sure if my father’s support of illegal immigrants stemmed from compassion or his belief that everyone deserves a chance. His uncle, his mother’s youngest brother, Desiderio, had immigrated from Hungary to Laredo Texas in 1938. He stayed a short time, then moved permanently to Mexico City, believing it was better to be a small fish in a large pond than a little fish in the giant American pond.
Other relatives, sensing the darkening of Europe with the rise of Hitler, immigrated to Argentina.
My exposure to the plight of immigrants at an early age, equally shaped my perceptions. I’ve always believing there’s room enough for everyone, and the opportunity to reach for the American dream shouldn’t be squashed at the border.
The Immigration Act of 1965 removed national-origin quotas, allowing people from Mexico, Latin America, Asia, and other non-European countries and Canada to not just reach for the brass ring, but grab it. They took the jobs they could find, including in the garment industry, which at times, could be dangerous.
There’s a saying that a seamstress isn’t a seamstress until she runs a needle through her finger. The sewing machines used in a commercial industry are fast and merciless. Step on the treadle and the needle races over whatever’s in front of it, including an errant finger.
I learned how to sew on a commercial sewing machine and nicked my finger several times. No doubt, if the expectation were for me to sew as quickly as possible—for hours on end—I would have joined the league of commercial seamstresses, piercing a finger or two.
Along with sewing machines, there was an machine, which overlocked seams so they wouldn’t fray, a slick buttonholer machine that could both make stitch the buttonhole—which was cut with a sharp scissors–and sew on the button, a machine that blind-stitched hems… a machine to sew on hooks, eyes, and snaps… and a cool machine that created a whoosh of air to float loose threads away from garments so they could be cleanly snipped.
Most of the garments sewn for Fred Rothschild were two-tone, such as a black tailored dress with a white collar and cuffs. To add interest, many of the garments had large, silky bows, sailor ties, and scarfs in paisley, abstract, and geometric patterns. I loved the patterns and colors, and the splash of pizazz against the dense, woven fabric.
It was the age of polyester double knit, an inconceivably awful fabric, which came in a variety of neutral and pastel colors. It was thick and hot like flannel, course like burlap, and draped awkwardly. While polyester revolutionized panty hose, it corrupted the clothing industry.
Even as a child, I thought most of the dresses my father manufactured were ghastly…not because of the design, but the synthetic fabrics. No doubt, fabrics concocted from petrochemicals have their advantages, but in the 60’s and 70’s synthetic fabrics, like polyester double-knit, was akin to wearing industrial-strength trash bags.
The one advantage, at least in the garment industry, was it was easy to lay-out and cut.
Before a dress gets a $500 price tag, it emerges from a bolt of fabric.
The tables used for cutting are the length of two to three pool tables and as wide as least two. Huge bolts of fabric are rolled across these tables, creating layers of fabric with sheets of smooth white pattern paper separating the colors. For instance, there might be twenty layers of fabric for a specific size with four to five layers for each color.
At the very top are the pattern pieces, placed closely together. A skilled “cutter” guides an electric cutting machine–with a vertical blade–through the labyrinth of patterns, making sharp turns for notched collars, gentle curves for the tops of sleeves, and short cuts for interfacing.
Scraps of fabric were used to bundle-up the pieces, which were then chucked into a canvas bin, ready to be pushed down the street or driven to a manufacturer.
The manufacturer, like my father, had equally large tables. They placed the bundles on the table, and like a jigsaw puzzle arranged them in a specific order with the larger pieces on one end, smaller ones in the middle, lining, and interfacing at the end.
They then walked the length of the table gathering the pieces for a specific color or size. These pieces were then bundled and tied with a scrap of fabric with a ticket attached with instructions.
On Saturdays, I would sit on a tall stool and fill out the tickets—based on what my parent’s dictated—attach the ticket to the scrap of fabric and then place the bundles in a bin. Voila!
Everything was memorable and fascinating about my father’s factory, which revolved around the movement of bins and racks.
I was intimately familiar with both. As a baby and toddler, I napped in canvas bins. When I got older, I pushed them around the factory, some filled with garment pieces, ready to be sorted and others with bundles, waiting to be sewn. They were huge, four feet wide and at least three feet high with large rickety wheels that never rolled smoothy, perpetually clogged with lint, threads, and grime.
The metal racks, painted black, were decades old. The bottoms were rectangular with caster wheels. Two curved bars, welded to the base, supported a bar across the top, strong enough to support dozens of garments.
On hot days, I liked to press my face against the metal and inhale the tinny smell. It was comforting, the strength of the rack and coolness of the metal.
When I was little, I mistook a rack for a set of monkey bars and crashed down to the ground. I awoke in the dressing room with one of my father’s seamstresses spoon-feeding me salty broth. I obviously survived, but to this day, the word “bouillon” invokes memories of bonking my head, and a disdain for any cube that’s dissolved in hot water.
There are other smells that followed me into adulthood. One of my assigned tasks was to tidy the lunchroom. It wasn’t so much a lunchroom as a space at the back of the factory, near the windows with several large tables pushed together, surrounded by a collection of wooden chairs, some with handsewn cushions.
In the center was jars of pickled condiments. They looked tantalizing–petite yellow peppers, sliced jalapenos, and carrots with little ridges. But if I got too close, I gasped. Vinegar. Acidic, overwhelming. A smell that traumatizes me even today. When I walk by a shelf of pickled vegetables, my heart quickens, fearful a jar will fall off the shelf, releasing its dreaded pungency.
Complementing the smells of my father’s factory were the tastes. The sensory delights. His Asian employees would bring my brother and I sweets: Sticky crackers dipped in honey, candy wrapped in rice paper that melted in our mouths, and yellow candies that tasted like bananas. There were also homemade tamales, trips to Chinatown for war wonton soup and crunchy fortune cookies, and burritos with chorizo and spicy red sauce from Olvera Street.
I close my eyes. I can still smell, hear, feel, and taste the visceral sensations of my childhood. But there’s no returning. DoriAnn, the floors of garment manufacturers, designers, wholesalers, and notion merchants… the gritty, but glorious wonderment of the schmatte business is no more at Santee Alley. Replaced by sanitized, upscale condos that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.