“The Sweatshop” — a memoir, by Jim Donnelly

September 29th, 2022




Mr. Donnelly’s “The Sweatshop” is a memoir about his time working in a music accessory sweatshop by day, and slogging it out on the club circuit by night…Names and key elements have been changed.








Madmodder123, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons/from original color version

Madmodder123, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons/black and white version


The Sweatshop

by Jim Donnelly



…..The sweatshop stood on a side street in a small, unassuming building.  Not long after I left it closed for good; the heavy steel door was padlocked, the windows boarded up.  I always thought of sweatshops as slab-like monoliths high above the ground, large and imposing, with harsh fluorescent lights and dingy, factory windows.  This, on the other hand, was a little shop – a little shop of horrors.

…..       Years later I walked by and the paneling was gone, the door invitingly open to a quiet spring day.  Now it was a social club or meeting hall and a solitary man swept a neat level floor lined with folding chairs and tables.  I surveyed the novel scene for some minutes.  The man looked up but said nothing and swept on, unconcerned.  For a fleeting moment I longed to call out boyishly, “Hey, I worked here once…”

…..      Oh my friend.  If I could only convey what this place was like, what transpired on that killing floor you’re sweeping, how I felt.  How my standing here, staring, is no event to you, but how much it would’ve been to me.  How any and every person was reason to pause.  How I coveted the seven-by-three feet of world I could see, smell, hear through that door…


The Job

…..      The shop made musician’s accessories.  Being a player, I thought I’d found a niche of sorts.  When I applied I saw fellows my age with long hair, pulled in by the same promise of musicianly glamor, I guess.  Fellow rock ‘n’ rollers I could talk to.  There was to be scant talking, I soon found out.

…..I don’t recall how I heard about the job or how long I lasted.  Suffice to say it was longer than six months and fewer than ten.  I don’t remember the interview or a sense of relief after being hired – the place buzzed with rattling machines and bustle all around me as I left.  Joyless, deterministic bustle – like a munitions factory.

…..Tim was a long-hair and the one person that qualified as a friend.  An erstwhile metal-head, he was now coming into fusion and jazz as his guitar facility grew.  He was learned, articulate, and mannerly, which made him an oddball in rock ‘n’ roll.  He handled invoices and other paperwork, so he moved more in the management realm than production.

…..Felix was overseer and production manager, bossman, patron.  He was suspicious, tyrannical, careworn and petty.  He forbade speech of any kind unless related to the job and even this was rationed.  He was diligent – if diligence is the same as monomania.  There was no flair to anything he did, his every action was colorless.  He gave orders, delegated tasks, assessed completed work, all of it with the stoicism of a Prussian colonel.  It was said he’d been a conga player in his native Puerto Rico, but I couldn’t imagine it.  He smiled a carefree smile only when the help was silent and machinery chattered.  To me, that was the only frigid music of his soul.

…..Steve Delvecchio was the owner and “head of production.”  He was the classic business wunderkind, working his way up from bike repairman to opening his own shop.  With the assets he financed his real love: musical accessories.  An itinerant horn player for lounge acts in the ‘70s, he was now a mini-magnate, still reasonably young and handsome.  If Mussolini had looked like Warren Beatty, there you had Steve.  He once showed me photos of carved figures he’d made of trussed-up women in precise detail.  This was supposed to endear him to me, make me think, “Gee Steve, you’re one of the boys… I don’t mind this dictatorship at all.”

…..John was Steve’s old cohort from his bike shop days and a study in sublime contrasts.  He was warm-hearted, generous, easy-going and funny.  He was production assistant, and if Felix was the stoic Prussian, John was Sergeant Bilko, making a shambles out of any order or direction given.  He sauntered about the place, lending it the sanity it sorely lacked.  He worked steadily but not piously, as anxious for the day’s end as we were.

…..It was a job that owned my nights as well as my days.  The physical and mental fatigue of dreary, monotonous tasks and the dread of tomorrow’s identical round.  We would sit at improbable machines or stand at workbenches making pouches, literally hundreds, all day long.  Or punch rivets into gig bags or drum cases ‘til it seemed there couldn’t be that many musicians in the galaxy, let alone the region.  The clocks might as well have been Fisher-Price toys.  Often I remember saying, “That can’t be right…  John, what time you got?”  Then, just as we thought we were homeward bound, they’d call a dreaded “production meeting.”

…..Steve would come dashing through the door with his Don Johnson threads and a we-have-urgent-business look, affectedly tossing a lock of hair, that like his underlings wouldn’t behave.  His clothes were “Miami Vice” but his hair was “Hawaii Five-O.”  He was never without a satchel, full of product designs, or maybe a portfolio of women, bound and gagged.

…..Then we’d stand, sit, or lean around the work bench and talk production.  In the best of worlds this would be a Worker’s Council but don’t hyperventilate, this is America as we know it.  In his balmier moods Steve would act the democrat, as if it were “input” he desired of us.  On such nights it was the duration of the farce that got to us.  But other nights he was the livid Jehovah, calling us “lazy shits,” pounding his fist for emphasis, yelling, almost shrieking,

…..“Fuck me…!  Fuck ME!  FUCK ME!!!  YOU people fuck ME!  I have DEADlines.  I have AC-counts opening in SINGapore… In BANGkok.  I’m not dragging MY ass.  So who the FUCK IS?!  ALL (BAM!) of you.  ALL (BAM!) of YOU.  All you LA-zy (BAM!) FU-cking (BAM!) SHITS” (BAM!).

…..Later I discovered from an inside source that Steve owned cassettes on “worker motivation.”  The tapes described strategies (ala Pavlov and B.F. Skinner) of punishment and reward.  Lie to your crew.  Tell them productivity is lagging and keep them late to press your point.  On top of that, exhibit your neurosis in full flower.  Assault their weary bodies with  onslaught and accusation, treat them as guilty parties.  Steve’s production meetings were darkly methodical; an assault would be followed a week later by a cooling period and promise of profit-sharings or time-and-a-half for our captivity.  None of this materialized, of course.  Anyone with the temerity to ask got the typical free market reductio – things aren’t as good as we’d hoped, but be happy we’re here and you’ve still got a job.

…..“In the old days,” John mused, “what a cool place this was.  We’d close up at night, fire up a doobie and some beers and blast the Dead or Santana.  Steve was mellow, man.  Now?  I dunno.  Somethin’s gotten into ‘im.”

…..The ’80’s had gotten into him, along with money and coke.  So much for those halcyon days, those sweatshop summers of love.


The Machines

    …..        There was a huge hydraulic leather-cutter with a swing apparatus that was manually operated.  This hydro-powered arm was positioned over a leather sheath and then pressed down, creating uniform cut-outs for such things as drummer’s stick bags, end tabs for guitar straps (attaching body to strap), gig bags, soft-shell instrument cases, etc.  You were instructed to operate with one arm on the swing bar and the other pinned to your side, to prevent your free arm being mangled.  Years before, it was said, a repairman’s hair got caught in the swing bar as he signaled his partner to turn on the power.  He didn’t move quickly enough, and part of his scalp was torn off.

…..An electro-powered riveter was used for designs, for securing halves of leather, for clasp assemblies.  This beast was worked from a sitting position using both hands to guide a given piece to where a rivet, clasp or stud was desired.  A spring pedal was then depressed with the foot bringing down a fang-like band of steel through the leather or cloth.  This happened quickly, very quickly, so fingers were fleshy prey if not moved with haste.  Tales were prosaic of fingernails or joints with metal studs as unintended finery.

…..The cheaper accessories were made of a synthetic mesh that aped the cotton webbing one sees on a shoulder bag.  This material had to be “sealed.”  This was in fact simply melting the frayed edges by use of a large stationary iron.  The fibers hovered like an irritant dust, making it difficult to breathe.  Labored at long enough, a festering would occur in the chest and throat.  Often a festering in the nose occurred, like over-exposure to a solvent, an exceptionally potent one.  I took the chest pains home, and doses of fresh air only aggravated the condition, as the lungs now felt too constricted.

…..There were several other contraptions – large and small – that needn’t be given elaborate detail.  But even the simplest of tools is menacing in an atmosphere of breakneck profit.  It was drilled into us that too much movement wasted time, and time of course, is money.  Doug, a young apprentice, would scrutinize me, saying, “You don’t need three moves to do that, let me show you how to do it in two…”  If two movements were more strenuous but quicker, speed ruled the roost.  Physical stress was your problem.

    …..        It was this theology that led to a worker’s thumb and two fingers being sheared off at the tips.  Using a carpenter’s knife, he was separating sheaths of leather preparing them for the hydraulic cutter.  Sean was always browbeaten for his slowness.  This day he stepped it up, only to pay with his digits.

     …..       The office was fond of boasting the out-of-court settlement with Sean’s folks.  Not openly – they said talk of the incident “upset” Steve.  I thought it would be just the powder keg to blow the place open, reveal him for what he was, a greedy overlord, heedless of what he left in his wake.  Doug and Felix bragged about that settlement as verily as they barked out orders.  It wasn’t lost on the rest of us.


The Latin-American Sewing Room

     …..       Cesar, Marisol, and Machado were the sewers and stitchers.  They worked ceaselessly, in an area partitioned off.  All three were warm, compassionate sorts in the big-hearted manner of Latin people.

…..Cesar was a spirit.  His laugh was carefree and infectious.  It made him double over, squinting and wiping away tears.  I made him laugh often and he sometimes wrapped an arm around my shoulders, giving me a shake, as if thanking me, wordlessly, for some communal human gift.  He taught me Spanish with a point-to-it-and-say method.  He’d point to the window, I’d say, “La ventana;” to the door, “La puerta;” to a spider, “Arana.”  Himself?  “Caballero.”  When he would point to Doug, I’d hesitate.  Circumspectly, I’d say, “Gran Jefe.”  Yes, he taught me the invective but he smiled grandly when I opted not to use it.

…..I would speak of Che or Zapata or Sandino and he would nod reverentially, his hand over his heart.  I would refer to some event in Latino history and he would brighten, saying, “Oh yeah?!  You know ‘bout dat?”  He sang slow, sentimental songs toward evening like “Corazon.”  In the afternoon he sang jaunty Mexican things.  He was a spirit, that Cesar.

…..Marisol was voracious in her effort to learn English in all its forms.  She took an interest in headbanger slang like, “wail” “ax” “dude” “radical.”  She had two grown sons in college and her meager pay was, as she called it, “grocery money.”  Every so often I asked after her family.  She would straighten up regally in her chair and say, “They are quite well, J.  It is very nice of you to ask.”  Her home, I guessed, was like many I’d known as a child – tidy, cozy, fragrant with the smells of Latin cooking, reverberant with Latin music and talk.  The music urgent and exciting, the talk lively and engaging.  Her sons, I knew, were upright young men, their mother a buffer of love and courage against a prejudicial world.

…..Machado spoke little English.  Cesar and Marisol translated what was required of him for the job, and then some.  He’d spot Cesar laughing at one of my quips and prod him to translate.  At times they did so automatically.  He worked the machine furthest back, out of sight and earshot.  On occasion I’d be working nearby and catch some derisive comment about Steve.  Cesar listened like a seasoned priest, but shushed him when Steve was about.  He was lanky and panther-like and he looked distrustfully at anyone who spoke – whether he understood them or not – as if he’d spent time in the company of jailers.

…..He wore jazzy sport shirts open at the chest, and walked with the sway of a gaucho.  When he smiled it was the smile of a cardsharp or playboy – a smile seen at resorts or casinos.  He had scars on his arms like knife wounds and a gash under one eye.  One day I left a biography of Castro on the bench only to find him poring over it.  He handed it back saying,

…..“To my people, Fidel is a great man.”  Steve walked by en route to his office and it sparked a comparison for Machado.  “Not like that maricon.”

       …..     I laughed and said, “So true.”

…..He was silent for a moment, searching my face for signs of sincerity.  Then that pirate’s grin spread over his face like a languid tide.

…..I’d run into him at times on his way to a Portuguese bar.  He was taciturn but kind.  Coming from – and mostly I saw him from my window – he walked like a killer in a silent film.  He looked absurdly lithe, like Conrad Veidt in Caligari, drunkenly fixed to a path he knew by rote.  I called to him once, leaning out from my window in insomnia, and he doubled back oddly, as if the voice had come from his mind.  He grunted and looked woozily at the ghetto buildings.  He appeared to focus on me, a blurry human hitch in his scanner.  He shouted a garbled obscenity, forgot why he had stopped, and staggered on.  After nights like these his voice was absent from the sewing room, his head was in his hands at lunchtime, and he disappeared often to the john.

…..Some of the headbangers said Machado did blow to straighten out – the proverbial cup calling the kettle black – but we all had our excesses.  Some of us would do anything to prolong the illusion of the night, to ward off the oncoming day.

…..The john was no less a refuge for me than for others.  The window opened out on a lot grown over with honeysuckle, Black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, goldenrod.  A cozy community of birds, field mice, praying mantis’, and even a bunny or two.  An old Caribbean man in a fossil of a frame house had a rooster, anything but punctual.  I took to calling him “Timex” because he crowed ‘round the clock.  I would sometimes duck to the john and sit astride the windowsill of a summer day, looking out upon the urban idyll.  A mantis on a stalk swabbing his head like a house cat…  A field mouse on his hinds surveying the swaying of the grass…  A stray cat prowling…  The distant barking of a dog at lazy intervals…  Ants in single file along the sill…  A bumble bee suspended in air, perusing me from a hundred eyes…  The sound of a rug being beaten…  A crow, swaggering like a mobster down a well-worn path…

…..Then a pounding at the door would shake me to my shoes.  I’d wait a minute or two and flush the commode, run water and rattle the towel dispenser, coming out to be frowned at by Felix and Doug.


The Nighttime Endeavor

        …..    Friday nights were the toughest.  It meant eight grueling hours of factory work followed by three sets of music, ‘til after midnight.  There’d be no time for a nap, only dinner, then loading up the van with equipment.  I prayed that Steve didn’t call one of his inane meetings, making me sweat food, rest, and the long haul out to Jersey.  My drummer would show up at the door of the place on those nights, hitting the horn until Steve reluctantly let me go.  I’d get the “fairness” lecture the following Monday, but that was a weekend away…

…..We played the towns of central New Jersey: Clark, Kenilworth, Rahway, Sayreville.  Then the constellation of shore points: Keansburg, West End, Asbury Park.  The clubs ran the gamut from pretty-boy palaces to seedy biker bars, wherever they paid us to play.  Crowd size was anyone’s guess; it was the ’80’s and people had fled to the home front.  Those that couldn’t be coaxed we called “wall units” for the furnishing so central to their lives.  When we could hope for nothing beyond our entourage we’d quip, “Well fellas, it’s just Aunt Mimi and Uncle Rojas tonight.”

…..But that wasn’t the only variable.  It was hell to play badly to a good-sized crowd, or sublimely to an empty room.  Then there was equipment failure, transport problems, in-band quarrels, drunken rowdies, or coke-fiend club owners ripping us off.

…..We were lucky enough, and good enough, to never face a hostile audience, but we faced our share of indifferent ones, which was itself a bitter pill.  The project had to be worthwhile, had to add up, or nothing did.  We were still a cover band at the time, so our sense of purpose was bound up with audience reaction, living or dying by it.  If we couldn’t salvage that, there was one failsafe – improvisation, our own creative capacity.

        …..    The jazz pianist George Wallington once came home from a show, replete with improvisation so sublime, he went to wash his hands and heard symphonies coming from the tap.  We’d sometimes get home from those Jersey gigs so late it was early, and I’d wait around for the sun to come up.  Pulling out my bass I’d find my fingers so nimble, my mind so acute, I knew exactly what Wallington meant.  I looked out on the shuttered storefronts, sleepy pigeons huddled on my ledge, serenaded by joyful noise.

      …..      My day and nighttime worlds were such galaxies apart that I envied those going home to only quietude and slumber, if indeed they did.  But when I thought of the future-less futility of this, or any job, I could only keep slogging on, for whatever the game was worth.  Sometimes, such as those symphonic mornings, it paid dividends.  Other nights we schlepped amps and drum cases up endless flights, after lackluster shows, depressed and dog-tired, flouncing on a threadbare sofa.  In chorus, with a sigh and a sardonic laugh we said, “This is what it’s all about.”


The Girl Bus

…..One warm April day Doug came charging in after lunch, blurting out, “Hey man, there’s a girl bus outside!”

…..It was an overtime Saturday, Steve was off to a trade show, and John was in charge.   Without Felix, who never worked weekends, a looser atmosphere reigned.  Oh, there was work aplenty – we had a quota to make – but the attitude was, “Hey, it’s Saturday, after all…”

…..Five of us headbangers lunged outside and sure enough – a girl bus.  An old orange-and-black full of girls seventeen, eighteen – and damn if all of them weren’t pretty.  After five hours in a sweatshop, they were beauty queens.  Some were dangling from windows and reaching for our hands, smiling.  Tim and I climbed aboard and they converged on us with questions about New York – they were from a small Indiana town – and why we were cooped up on a lovely April day.

…..“Well, we work here.” I said hesitantly, resentfully looking out at the shop.

…..A tape deck played Ian Dury.

…..One girl asked if we liked UFO.

…..Someone touched my hair.

…..I heard Tim say, “I just turned twenty-four…”

…..Girls whizzed on and off the bus with tales of excitement.

…..Weed was making the rounds among a clique of girls near the emergency door.

…..Two of the guys played it safe, standing outside the bus, strategically close to the shop.

…..Doug especially.

…..Doug was being groomed for management.  He was something of a henchman for Felix, staying on top of the crew, doling out tasks and hassles.  I caught sight of him from where I sat, near the front stairwell, and I could sense the tumult within him, the struggle between ambition and hormones as he spoke, guardedly, to a girl a few feet from the shop.

…..“Hey, where’s the driver?” I asked.

…..“Getting lunch,” a few voices spoke.

…..Billy, a headbanger, slammed hard on the window nearest Tim and we looked to see Steve’s van straddling the curb.  The signal was a little late.  Next thing I knew Steve was angling up and down the pavement, craning his neck to try and spot us.

…..Like little hooky players we ducked.

…..A plump, giddy girl called out to Steve, “Are you looking for something Mister Johnson?”

…..Preoccupied and still ambling, Steve snapped, “Do I remind you of a Johnson you know?”

…..“Yeah – he’s on TV,” another chimed.


…..“But he’s cute…  You have a big nose.”

…..Heartier laughter and more of it.

…..Steve glared at her for a moment, then I heard him shout “Tim!” like a prissy schoolmarm.

…..Tim was leaning from a window trying to placate Steve with some half-baked tale.

…..A few girls still spoke in whispery cliques on the sunny street.

…..Doug, Billy, and Howie were gone, conspicuously.

…..Tim got off the bus.

…..Steve shot a stream of invective at him and he volleyed a few words back, but stopped short of tempting fate.  He scratched his forearm, threw down a cigarette and ducked inside.

…..My turn.

…..Steve stood with his arms folded, rocking on his heels.

…..The girls on the street dispersed and came back to the bus.  A stocky, fifty-ish man cut across the gas station whistling and carrying his lunch.

…..The driver.

…..A pretty brunette who’d eyed us cautiously since entry, and who appeared older than the others – due more likely to wisdom than years – spoke up.

…..“You better run along to daddy, little boy.”

…..The wind, as they say, went out of my sails.  My shoulders drooped and I halted on the bottom step.  I looked out from confession-booth eyes.

…..Some of the girls looked away.  Some looked sympathetic.

…..No one laughed.

…..I wished someone had.  For indignation would be preferable to feeling absurd.  An absurd Christmas elf in rock ‘n’ roll clothing.  A grown man acting like a boy to make a living.

…..An anonymous girl from the heartland had set my course for the moment.  I would finish the day’s work and quit, but what did it matter?  There’d be just another grindstone waiting.  She was right – and she was wrong.  But I hadn’t the time to explain the world, or the wherewithal to keep it at bay.






Jim Donnelly is largely self-educated, growing up in the underclass, working at everything from busboy to bus driver, forklift operator to trucker, cabby to clerk.  He is a former journalist for the Aquarian, and a poet with two collections published by a small press in Maine. His non-fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cafe Review, Jewish Currents, and most recently Lumpen and Journal of Working Class Studies.






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