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October 5, 2013

Port City Post: When work opens door to another world, you need ‘Ambassador Jack’

In 1976, I was guaranteed dozens of jobs that I didn’t want, right out of high school. Central Maine was full of factory positions waiting to be filled. Going to college was just one option.

Instead of going to college, I could have worked in a shoe factory, an egg barn, a furniture factory, a woolen mill, an electronic plant or a shirt factory. I could have become a stitcher, a picker, a runner or a killer (of chickens).

I was trying not to become a joker, a smoker and a midnight toker. The summer before my first year of college, I worked at the Ethan Allen furniture factory, three miles from my hometown.

I rode to work with my Uncle Cecil and my friend’s alcoholic dad. Our shifts started at 7 a.m.

I stayed in bed as long as I could, took a five-second shower and then walked down to the corner at the end of our street, leaned on a tree and waited for them to pull up. I was a 17-year-old girl riding to work in a beat-up pickup with two men in their 60s before jump seats were invented.

We arrived at the factory on time every day. Being late was not an option.

I worked as a team with another woman, sliding parts of unfinished furniture through a sanding machine – one part after the other until lunch, and then half an hour later, we were right back at it.

When the bin with the furniture parts got low, it was refilled by a quiet man we called a “runna” who seemed to like his job.

On the way home, I slept against the passenger window. The alcoholic drove, and my sweet Uncle Cecil – who, at the end of that summer, reported to my parents that I treated everyone the same (the highest compliment of my young life) – slid to the middle, making room for me.

Today, 37 years later, I work in fashion. It’s all women except for Jack, a quiet man we call a “cutta” who seems to like his job.

Jack has worked in the same industry for 40 years. He cuts fabric – an arcane skill in a fickle industry. He retires every so often, and then we drag him back because he’s the only one who can do what he does as well as he does.

The women I work with are refugees. They arrived in the United States in the late ’90s knowing no (or very little) English. They understand what it means to lose everything and to see relatives arrested and, in some cases, tortured. In the last 13 to 15 years, they have become U.S. citizens, watched their kids graduate from Portland High School, voted in a presidential election, purchased homes and become grandmothers.

Jack has a thick Maine accent. When he’s not trying to retire, he lives in the same town he grew up in.

Lunch with Jack and the women from other countries is a lesson in linguistics. I often translate Jack’s English into English: “He is saying ‘pattehn,’ but he means ‘pattern,’ ” I say. “A ‘fayah’ is like a carnival with rides and food and animals,” I explain.

Jack and the girls trade words. He can say five or 10 words in their language, and in return he teaches them how to say “scissah” and “papah” and “Good mohnin’.”

Jack is the kindest person in the room, always. He could bring peace to the Middle East, calm to a storm and silence to a riot by asking simple questions out of sincere curiosity and respect. “What year did you come to the United States?” “Do you have any kids?” “Is your family here with you?” “How do you say ‘apple’?”

Quiet chatter between a man who treats everyone the same and women who risk using the wrong word – “Ambassador Jack,” I call him.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

respondtoportcitypost@gmail.com





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