1951 # 8: Knobs
Taking the Oakton Street bus from downtown Skokie to the light industrial section of small factories on the southeastern border of Skokie, Mitchell began walking the streets looking for an after-school, part time job.
This area was particularly good for him because it was only a twelve-minute bus ride from school and a brisk ten-minute walk to his home.
An hour and a half, two streets, and three job applications into the exploration, led into a small office, Mitchell was introduced to Mister Ed Rogan, who interviewed, then hired him.
“Rogan Bros.” was the name on the sign above the front door of the yellow brick, one-story building. The products made at Rogan Bros. were knobs: knobs for radios, televisions, washing machines, dryers, military radar—you name it; wherever a knob was needed to turn on, turn off, or adjust, it could be made at Rogan Bros.
The manufacturing process was simple. Granular plastic of the appropriate color would be fed into a plastic injection press where, melted, it poured into the appropriate steel mold, making a hardened, semi-finished product that was pushed out of the mold by underpins. It was then swept into a carton and carried to a drill press where it was fitted by hand into a singular mold, holding it steady so that a hole might be drilled in the proper position. The knob would then be brought to a tapping and screwing press where, fitted into a like mold, the drilled hole was threaded and an octagonal-headed screw inserted in one operation. The finished product was later counted, boxed and shipped.
Mitchell would be working on the drilling and tapping machines from four to eight p.m., with a half-hour break, three days a week with pay at union scale.
The presses would always be pre-set with the proper holding mold and at the right drill speed—leastwise at first.
The night shift consisted of three people: Stanislaus Kowalczyk, who worked in the press room, spoke only Polish, and was never seen unless it was to cross the plant to re-fill his coffee cup or use the toilet; Tom Schmedling, a boy of Mitchell’s age who attended a private, Christian school; and Mitchell.
“Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you, you’ll cry and cry, the whole night through.”
The pitch turned full volume to be heard above the whine of the drill presses, Hank Williams poured from the radio.
Tom Schmedling and Mitchell Lipensky sat on high, backless stools at the second and fourth drill presses. To the right of each boy, also on high stools, was a box of un-drilled knobs. On the floor to the left was the box of drilled knobs. The air pressure of each machine turned to near-exploding, the counters on the presses were click, click, clicking.
Reach to the right, grab a knob, fit it into the mold, hold it tight and stamp on the pedal, and the descending hi-speed drill bit into the knob disgorging a thin ribbon of plastic. Lift your foot and the bit rose and, click, the counter counted. Grab another knob.
They timed themselves, having a new race every quarter-hour.
Click, click, click.
Tom glanced at the counter to the side of his press. Tall and gangling, his straight, black hair hanging over his forehead: click, 278; click, 279; click, 280.
Mitchell glanced at the clock on the wall. The sweeping second hand going from 7:29, click, from 55 seconds, click, 56, 57, 58, click, click, click. “Time!”
Stopping, straightening their backs, both boys leaned back.
Looking at his counter, “386,” Tom said. “You?”
“Schmuck, I’ll get’ch’ya next time!”
Standing, stretching, the boys went to the foreman’s desk.
Sitting on the chair, tilting it back on two legs, Mitchell stretched his legs across the desk.
Sitting on the desk, Tom called his girlfriend, talked for near fifteen minutes, hung up, slapped Mitchell across the sole of one of his shoes. Both boys returned to the presses, had another race, and fifteen minutes later stopped, declared who the winner was, punched out and went home.
Turning the air pressure up, speeding the presses, making a game of it, the two boys completed about as much work in four hours as three full-time men did in eight hours. They did get complaints, though.
The excessive friction made by the high speed caused the bits to become dull about three times faster than normal, and breakage was about twice that of the full-time shift, and each morning there was a row of seven or eight bits left by the grinder awaiting re-sharpening.
From Ed Rogan: “What the hell you two guys doin’ to my bits? Eatin’ ’em?” But he couldn’t be too mad because extra production was always there.
From the day men: “Hey, why don’t you two fuckers slow down an’ leave us somethin’ to do once in a while? Shit! You make us look bad to the boss.”
After tax deductions, Tom and Mitchell cleared about $18.50 a week, for what amounted to, in reality, approximately six hours of actual work, which, for students with part-time jobs in 1951, wasn’t too bad.
(A "Becoming" excerpt )