“We will no longer be needing your services.”
These words were typed on letterhead, folded into an invoice on thin yellow carbon copy paper, with my last check tucked inside. I found the letter in the stack of mail after returning from a week-long family camping trip over Spring Break, junior year of high school. This was my second “real” job; I’d quit fast food when this opportunity came along. The perks were obvious — work with my friends doing something I was good at! I recruited heavily to ensure a steady supply of friends. We were the artists behind a local fashion designer/entrepreneur popular with the older glitzy ladies. She kept a booth at the market trade center, selling her wares and taking wholesale orders for small boutiques.
Our skills: a steady hand and complete accuracy with slick paint and brush, ability to blend colors, apply glitter, clouds of glitter, lung-fulls of glitter, ability to tolerate fine particles of glitter everywhere. We were high school students, mostly. Paid by piece, for painting a pink and white hibiscus with a glittering green hummingbird or green grass hills with dashed black slick lines indicating the bouncing and sure path of the golf ball. We applied flat paint, pushed into the fibers, set it aside to dry, then pick up a dry piece to apply the outline slick paint to the design, then glitter, heavily. Slick paint came in a bottle with small nozzle. Tap to dislodge the bubbles, keep a safety pin nearby in case you need to clean the nib. Beware of any splatters. We orchestrated our movements carefully to keep our prizes free from touching any wet paint. You didn’t get paid for damaged work; too many accidents and it could come out of your wages.
Because I was able to work with so many of my close friends, it was hard to think of it as a job. It felt more like an art club. I had actually recruited two of my art class friends and another close friend, who happened to be very crafty. We all sat together hunched over our shirts, listening to the radio, talking, gossiping, telling stories, working for hours as fast as our hands would allow, with our tally sheets nearby.
It was a sweat shop. I was fast, but not fast enough to make the per piece pricing work in my favor. Others were more accurate or trusted with more high value pieces, but even they could barely sustain the pace needed. Right before I left on vacation, I asked another employee a question, “why aren’t we paid per hour instead of per piece?” The letter was my reply. Maybe the work was slowing down or she wasn’t happy with me? My friends were still there, but none of them ever brought up my question again. The letter hit like a stab through the heart. This was my second “real” job and I’d been fired? I was devastated. It felt like the end of something, like a loss. The lesson was clear; don’t ask questions unless you’re prepared for the consequences.