Last Valentine's Day I told friends and family I was going to temp in a chocolate factory. They laughed of course. The immediate image in their minds — and yours, probably — was from I Love Lucy . Frantic over a runaway train of chocolates on an assembly line, Lucy and Ethel stuff candy into their mouths and chew like bewildered squirrels, until Mrs. Ricardo finally lets loose her famous wail.
I'm a life-long chocoholic, so I saw myself turning instead into Norma Rae. Jumping on the switched-off conveyer belt at the end of the shift, I would shout defiantly, "It's gonna take you.the police department, the fire department. and the NATIONAL GUARD to get me outta here!"
But that isn't what brought me to Malley's Chocolates. When you haven't found work in six months, or a boyfriend in six years; you have no money, no car, you're on food stamps, you're 36, and Valentine's day is coming up, an ad in the newspaper that says: CANDY MAKING, THURS & FRIDAY 4pm-4am NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY is a no-brainer. Malley's, Cleveland's own Willie Wonka, makes chocolate-covered strawberries for Valentine's Day only - and sells them fresh. Four twelve-hour shifts crank out the boxes and people buy them as soon as they're made.
At 4pm Thursday I'm crowded in with a long line of hair-netted women, all races and ages. The packing room is enormous, cold, pink, and brightly lit. I am paired up with Katya, who was a draftsperson in the Ukraine but has trouble finding work here. Our job is simply to place a piece of corrugated wax paper on top of the chocolate boxes and cover each with a red gingham-patterned lid, emblazoned with a strawberry. Over and over and over again. Katya's husband has cancer and medical bills. When she goes home at 4am, she has to start cooking a big meal for her family, with no sleep. Suddenly being single doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
A Puerto Rican woman, Athena, who leads the crew one conveyer belt over, seems to enjoy being single — raunchy mouths are inevitable in rooms full of working women with no men around. Her voice rings out over the rumbling machines: "Pick it up, come on now, keep the line going." I glance over and see she has a jaunty grin on her face, and it stays most of the night. She trades good-hearted mock barbs with Donna, another crew leader. Donna is Appalachian; Athena calls her "hillbilly". Donna gets her back by calling her a Mexican.
I learn to focus on the "bambambam" of the shrink-wrapper to keep awake. The shrink-wrap girl is about 6 feet tall and looks like a supermodel. She pulls the bar up and down with jaw-dropping speed. Who needs to get signed with Revlon when you have a talent like that?
Male employees come and go, to pour more chocolate or load filled boxes on a dolly. I begin to see this as the ultimate Cinderella experience for a woman on Valentine's Day: wearing a hairnet and gloves and stuffing chocolates in boxes for the princes to buy for their princesses. A woman laughs hysterically when the PA system announces lunch at midnight.
By the middle of the second night there are deserters. I stick it out, but my brain doesn't. By now I must have put lids on 5,000 boxes. "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix is on the radio - or is it? Terrified, I stop for a second and prick up my ears, concentrate real hard. Am I hallucinating music? Oh well, Jimi hallucinated all the time.
By 4:15 am Saturday, I have not become Norma Rae or Lucy: I have become Papillon, coming out of solitary confinement. Time moves veerrrrrry sloooooowwly.
Something strange has happened to my legs: It never made sense to me when people told me to put my legs up during my break when I've been standing a long time. Blood goes down the legs, right? Now it hits me that it has to go up too, and can have a hard time of it. The sensation is like being frozen alive. There are unexpected shooting pains, like a fork jabbing. Perhaps those unfortunate folks of the Donner party, the first to drop into the snow as dinner, experienced something like this.
Numb, I wait for my pumpkin carriage - the Rapid Transit. Then there's a long icy road, and then, somehow, I'm in my bed. The four ibuprofen I have taken make the pains vanish in no time. Ibuprofen is my new chocolate - and my handsome prince.