Thursday, July 16, 2015


High ceilings and small windows with bars way up at the top of gray walls, stale air, ear-piercing din: a vast warehouse resembling a prison where you find yourself at nineteen.  Short and slim, you look more like twelve.  Everything about the situation frightens you.  You’ve never been inside a factory before in your life.  Only a few months before you were attending the university, studying philosophy and literature.  You were going to be a journalist.  You were going to write stories about the downtrodden, the exploited, exposing the abuses of power, and calling for justice and equality.  Suddenly you’re a factory worker.  Because you’re young and speak English, you get a job before your parents do.  You’re a wiring technician at Western Electric's Clearing Plant in the Southwest Side of Chicago.  What are you doing here? you ask yourself.  You of the poetry books and collages.   You of the political demonstrations.  You of the French movies followed by long discussions in cafes.    This is not what you were promised before leaving Buenos Aires. 

The training session on the first day is short: the grumpy supervisor shows you a “gun” and points to an open spot on a long counter where more than ten young women are sitting already, working on wooden boards – panels that will eventually become the insides of telephones. 

“Insert this wire into the barrel.  See?  Like this,” the supervisor’s hand - big and chubby, holds the tool easily.  She tells you to grip it just so and shoot it around a metal screw on the panel.  The wire coils so rapidly you’re startled.  The supervisor snickers. 

“Now you do it,” she hands you the gun.  Your hand – small and weak – struggles to keep it firmly enough to discharge around the right screw without hurting yourself or anyone else.

You hesitate.  “C’mon on. You can do it,” she’s growing impatient.  You follow her instructions.      

“Like this?” you ask after trying the first one, your hand shaking.

Yes,” the supervisor replies in her husky voice, stares at you with a puzzled look, then moves on to the next new worker.  But, before leaving, she reminds you of the daily quota of boards: so many panels an hour have to be finished if you want to keep the job. 

You look to your right, to your left.  Women, mostly young, their heads bent over their small portion of the long counter where they wire coils silently, swiftly, focused on quality, but mostly, on quantity.  After a few seconds, you too bow your head to the work in front of you: wires, guns, screws, panels, the chair hard, the sounds disquieting.  Will you be able to do this eight hours a day, five days a week?  You struggle to insert the wire correctly, shoot the gun accurately, prove yourself a worthy wiring technician. 

Western Electric was established as the Hawthorne Works, in Cicero, Illinois, in 1905 by founder Enos Barton.  A large factory complex, it had 45,000 employees at the height of its operations. Besides telephone equipment, the factory produced a wide variety of consumer products, including refrigerators and electric fans. The rural Hawthorne plant became a virtually self-sufficient city, with a power plant, hospital, fire brigade, laundry, greenhouse, a brass band, and an annual beauty pageant. It even boasted a staff of trained nurses who made house calls.  Thousands of immigrant workers passed through its walls year after year, laboring long hours to provide their families a decent life.  

A subsidiary facility of Western Electric was opened later in the Clearing Industrial Park, on West 65th Street - within walking distance from your uncle’s house.  That’s where you’ve landed in the fall of 1970, completely against your better judgment.  But, of the three of you, you’re the one who finds a job first.  Somebody has to support the family.  To your parents’ dismay, signs proclaiming NO HELP NEEDED litter the fronts of factories, warehouses, and shops.  Before arriving in Chicago you were promised a virtual smorgasbord of jobs. 

The Hawthorne Works became famous in the early part of the 20th century as a leader in the “scientific management” of employees and the production process.  Researchers at the plant pioneered new technologies - the high-vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, and radio systems for airplanes. But after 1970, Western Electric started to slip, when the FCC ruled that customers could connect their own equipment to the telephone network.  These changes opened the door for independent manufacturers of telephone equipment and signaled the beginning of the end for Western Electric.

And that’s when you go to work there. 

In the lunchroom young black girls grill you with questions:
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have children?”
“How can I have children if I’m not married?” you reply annoyed.
They stare at you perplexed, puzzled by your wide-eyed confusion.  The dislocation you feel is as immense as the warehouse you find yourself in, a displacement so vast you’re not able to be who you are – or rather who you were before arriving to these shores.  Every day you beg your parents to let you go back home.  You write sad, frantic letters to all the friends you’ve left behind who reply with words of hope and patience.  Could you have stayed?  Did you have that choice?

From 1924 until 1933, the Hawthorne plant was the site of a series of experiments conducted under the auspices of the National Research Council. The initial studies involved the impact of changes in lighting levels on the productivity of several groups of workers. The most involved of the experiments, the relay assembly test room, involved isolating six women, then measuring their production, health, and social interactions in response to changes in working conditions, such as the number and duration of rest periods, length of the work day, and the amount of food they ate. 

Every morning, after breakfast, your aunt, who works there too, and you walk the ten blocks to the Clearing Industrial Plant. You cross the railroad tracks on 59th Street and keep south.  During your morning treks she likes to offer advice like warning you against Puerto Ricans who work at the plant. 

“I’m not afraid of them,” you say.

“That’s because you speak their language,” she replies and also warns you against black people.  

Stunned at her racist beliefs, you offer no counterargument.  You know the history of this country but you never thought your own family would be party to such bigotry.  Not a year ago you were marching in support of the Civil Rights Movement, appalled at the water hoses, dogs, and batons the police used to control the demonstrators. 

At the entrance to the factory, you each go your own way.  You have no idea what she does, but you know what you’re doing is tedious; the surroundings dull yet raucous.  Disconnected from your world, your adolescence interrupted, uprooted from familiar soil, you’re not able to grow and mature normally.  Immigration forces you to start again, to be a child in some way.  At least, that’s what you feel at this time: a child who has to work to support her family, dependent on others to make sense of this new world you’ve been thrown in,

The research of what came to be known as “The Hawthorne Effect” started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace, such as, brightness of lights and humidity; and later, moved into the psychological aspects, such as, breaks, group pressure, working hours, and managerial leadership.   The study was only expected to last one year, but because the researchers were set back each time they tried to relate the manipulated physical conditions to the worker's productivity, the project extended out to five years.

“You have to work faster, the supervisor cautions you. It’s been a week already but you’re nowhere close to achieving the quota expected of you.

“I’m trying.  It’s not easy, you reply in your small, mortified voice, your accent identifying you as a foreigner.  What else can you say?  That you hate the factory, the job, the country your parents have brought you to for some reason you still don’t quite understand? 

“If you stopped looking around and concentrated on your job, you’d work faster,” she retorts, her impatient voice sharp and loud.  She’s a stout woman, always dressed in dark colors – blue, brown, gray – hair upswept and no jewelry of any kind. 

The experimenters who collected and analyzed the data determined, at first, that there appeared to be a correlation between the intensity of the lights and the productivity, which increased as each improvement was introduced, until the crucial twelfth test.  In this test, researchers removed all the special conditions, yet output increased again.  Realizing that the light levels and other enhancements may not have had any impact on the hourly output, the experimenters conducted interviews with the participants to determine the likely cause of the increases. The interviews determined that the increases in production were not a result of changes to light intensity; instead, the workers worked harder because they noticed that they were being watched closely. Ultimately, because of the constant supervision and the process of being monitored actively, productivity increased. 

After two weeks, payday arrives. It’s Friday afternoon when your aunt and you leave the factory, walk home.  In one pocket you carry your first paycheck; in the other, a letter to your friend Elena.  On your way you spot a mailbox on the corner, take out the envelope from your right pocket and drop it in the blue box. 

You arrive home to great anticipation, can’t wait to show everyone your first paycheck.  Your parents, aunts, and uncles are gathered in the living room.  Even your two young cousins are thrilled.  
You pull out an envelope from your left pocket and hold it up.

“Oh my God! It’s the letter.”

“What happened?” your mother asks confused. “Is that your paycheck? It doesn’t look like a paycheck.”

You immediately realize that your check is in the mailbox in the corner.  When you’re finally able to communicate the calamity to the family, general chaos ensues.

“Go to the mailbox and wait for the mailman to pick up the mail,” your father recommends. 

“No, no,” exclaims your aunt Sophie, “go to the post office and wait for the mail to be brought back from the box. Then you can explain to the clerk what happened.”

“We’ll go to the office Monday and ask them for another check,” your aunt Maria suggests.

Your mother shakes her head, dumbfounded, unable to speak.  Finally, she says, “how could you? What’s the matter with you?”

After much discussion, Sophie’s advice seems the best idea.  You remain speechless. 

Maria and you walk to the post office where you try to explain your predicament to the suspicious clerk. Maria adds her comments, confirming you’re telling the truth. At first the postal worker looks at both of you unconvinced but after a few minutes of explanation and pleading, she realizes you’re telling the truth and starts to laugh.  You don’t find it funny at all but you force yourself to grin, showing goodwill and hoping for a quick resolution. 

“You have to wait for the mailman to bring the bag. He comes around 4:30.”

“That’s ok,” you nod and look at your aunt. 

When the mailman returns with the mailbag your heart starts to pound.  What if it isn’t in the bag?  What if someone took it?  What if it fell out of your pocket in the street?  Maria and the clerk rummage inside. 

You hold your breath.  Why is it taking so long? 

Your heart pounds.  After five interminable minutes the clerk pulls out an envelope.  “I think this is it,” she says.   You grab it and read your name through the window.   A very deep sigh of relief escapes from your mouth.  “Thank you, thank you,” you touch the clerk’s arm. 

On the way back home you wonder if that’s an omen of things to come in this new life in this new country.

The conclusions about worker productivity were in sharp contrast to the common perceptions of that time. Financial reward was found to be much less conducive to worker output than expected. Instead, greater yield resulted when management made workers feel valued and aware that their concerns were taken seriously.  The phrase "Hawthorne Effect" has come to mean any unexpected outcome from non-experimental variables in social or behavioral sciences.  

Before the end of the month you’re fired for lack of productivity and inability to focus on the work.  Perhaps too much attention doesn’t always lead to workers feeling valued and producing more.  It will be a while before you find another job – this time as a typist for Montgomery Ward’s catalog division.  Better suited to this kind of work, you’ll make friends, start taking art classes on Saturdays, go back to writing poems and stories, and, in this way, begin the process of finding yourself again, the one you left in Buenos Aires.  It will take you a long time to realize the unpredicted consequences – your “Hawthorne Effect” – of leaving home, of starting again, of adapting to a whole new world.  As a matter of fact, you think you’re still working on that. 

Monday, July 13, 2015


Image result for athens cityImage result for athens city streets


Let me start by describing the view from my mother’s slim balcony: concrete apartment buildings of 5 or 6 floors with balconies, a very narrow street populated by pigeons, small cars, motorcycles, and the occasional cat.  Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street because sidewalks are impassable, parked as they are with motorcycles or simply too narrow to maneuver with a bag. (Is there a synonym for narrow? I’m going to need it so as not to bore you with the word.) Balconies across the street are mostly empty of people these days but there are green plants, a table here, a chair there, some laundry hanging. People are away, on holiday as they like to say.  The top apartments of the buildings tend to be recessed and therefore offer larger, more spacious balconies called verandas. They’re like penthouses and coveted. 

There are a handful of shops visible from my vantage point: a leather bag workshop, a car mechanic, an apartment-management office, an off-track betting parlor for the lottery and other sports, and, in the distance (in the corner) the confluence of two streets, a pharmacy, a frozen fish and seafood store, and a few more buildings.  If I look the other way I see an uphill street losing itself in the near mountain.

On Sundays the accordionist strolls and plays around 10-11 in the morning, hoping for a few coins thrown from the balconies. On most weekdays a small truck with loudspeakers rolls by announcing his intentions to buy whatever you might want to sell him: old appliances, rags, furniture, anything old and useless to you but obviously profitable to him. The roar of motorcycles can drive me batty, especially at night time, but these days the traffic has noticeably decreased.  Few cars, few people make their way up and down.  Are they on holiday or just staying home?

After a couple of days, I venture out on my own despite my mother’s warnings – Watch your purse! Keep it next to you at all times.  Look both ways when you’re crossing the streets. This is not Chicago. They’ll mow you down and keep going. Call me when you get there.   I’m going to meet a friend for a long stroll downtown.  I am proud to say that I buy the trolley tickets, get off on the right corner (both times), and find the place all on my own.  Athens is not an easy city to navigate, especially downtown.  No matter. The bitter orange trees are delightful to see as are the acacia trees with their bright blue/purple flowers.  Legend has it that when the Germans occupied Athens during the war, they went crazy eating the oranges.  Note: they are not edible.  Go figure those Germans.

The entire city seems deserted, emptier than I’ve ever seen it. Downtown on weekends you can bowl on the avenues – the only wide streets in the entire city. Taxis are so plentiful I am awed. And the drivers are so polite compared to the past that it is a pleasure to hail one as opposed to earlier times when I used to dread the thought of hailing a cab: if you weren’t going their way, they wouldn’t take you; if there was someone else in it, they’d ask you where you’re going and decide if they would let you in. Today they beg for fares, lined up in corners one after another – 6 or 7 or 8.

Let me continue by describing the Tuesday market where you buy a kilo or two of peaches or eggplants or green beans or lemons – never one lemon or two eggplants – “they’ll laugh at you” my mother says.  Block after block, the stalls brim over with watermelons, cauliflower, broccoli, towels, blankets, utensils, garlic, dresses, trousers, cherries, toilet paper, fresh fish; in other words - you name it, they sell it. 

In the evenings we go to the open-air cinemas - ubiquitous, remarkable, and fragrant with jasmine. We sit under the blue sky and watch a big screen surrounded by greenery.  Sometimes cats’ shrieks can interfere with the movie but we learn to ignore them. The same way we learn to ignore the cigarette smoke all around us.  And the occasional backyard party next door.

And now I’ll tell you about the walk to the trolley stop: again narrow sidewalks, so narrow I walk in the middle of the street.  I pass the corner where the pharmacist sells mom her medications and even does some of her errands. Then the small supermarket – “Melissa” – that knows her well and even carries her groceries home. I cross the street and there is the stop.  All the streets are a noisy assault on the senses. Signs of all shapes and sizes crowd the fronts of buildings. Shops fight for space even though now many are empty, vacant, FOR RENT.  There is no respite from sounds and sights.  Blank walls are covered with graffiti. No place to rest your eyes or ears.  Colors and words attack you all the time. Clothing stores, shoe stores, cosmetics boutiques, cafes, bakeries, banks. From the trolley on my way downtown or back home I spot the Parthenon, the Gates of Hadrian, the Acropolis. I marvel at the this view - so quotidian and yet so extraordinary.

And now I’ll speak about the spot where I go every few days to withdraw cash from the ATM.  An African man sells bags and purses on the sidewalk. They are obviously designer knock-offs, sprawled on top of blankets. He speaks to me in English trying to entice me to buy one or two but I shake my head no and continue walking.  Next door three cafes are filled with men and women smoking (smoking has been banned for a few years) and drinking coffee.  These images are the most ubiquitous in the city. I wonder why these people are out here instead of working or in school. 

One morning I go to a café downtown.  This is what I overhear:  “I am not a communist. I’m a Marxist. There is a big difference.”  Then the man continues expounding on “the state vs. the people.”  I sit on the sidewalk sipping my coffee and emailing friends on my little computer.  When the man walks by me on his way home, I smile.

One afternoon my friend Maria takes me to a cafe behind the Numismatic Museum where quiet reigns. It is a very large patio open to the sky with tables and chairs and umbrellas, trees, flowers, fresh air.  The museum used to be the mansion of Heinrich Schliemann – the German archeologist who dug up Troy.  We talk for a long time about our lives before setting off for a walk towards Exarhia, an old neighborhood filled with graffiti and young people dreaming about a better future.  We stop at the Goethe Institute and a fantastic bookstore/cafe called Free Thinking Zone where the owner tells me that John Cass from The Chicago Tribune had written a nice article about her store a few months ago.  We walk by a small square where junkies are shooting up (seriously - in the open) next to the Law School.  We settle in Alexandrino Cafe for a beer and bruschetta.  On the way back to the trolley stop another group of junkies starts fighting and chasing each other (right in front of the university).  No matter.  We watch and keep walking. 

Another afternoon Maria takes me to a neighborhood near downtown with zig-zag streets and old, peeling buildings with old fabric shops and new, trendy cafes. Anything old is new again. Some try to rehab, remodel, and make old, abandoned spaces habitable again. One large space is referred to as "the chickens place." I think the owner raises chickens but no, there are large paper-mache colorful chickens hanging from the ceiling. Underneath the chickens, large tables accommodate customers reading, drinking, and working on their computers. Huge paper-mache chickens!

This morning – like we do every time I come to Athens – mom and I walk to the bank so she can collect her social security and pay her rent. (First question mark: pay her rent in the bank?) There is a line outside the door waiting to get in. Is the bank that crowded we have to wait outside? Not. We have to go up to the door and press a red button. When the red becomes green we can open the door. Close that door and press another red button that turns green in a few seconds. In the meantime, if there are two people (like in our case) you are stuck in this tiny enclosure. (Second question: what is that about?) Walk in and there must be about 50 people waiting. What the heck is going on? Most of them are old. They have come to collect their social security. We take a number: 387. I look up at the counter on the wall to see what number is being waited on right now: 299. What?! (Third question: why do they have to come here and wait?) Answer: because their money is not delivered by the postman anymore (what? the mail carrier brought you cash?). Yes, because they used to be robbed. So now, you have to go to the bank and wait for two or three hours to collect your pension money.
I look at the faces of the women waiting: tired, wrinkled, hopeless. They stare out into space and/or look at me and/or look at the counter. When we walk in, a man who is leaving gives my mom his number: 360. Ok, that's something. Only 59 numbers to go.

In the meantime mom goes up to a desk where a woman she knows is working and introduces me. Mom's passbook is old, and she must get a new one. (What number question is this? Anyway, passbook? I haven't seen one of those in 30 years.) We sit down and after half an hour mom has a new passbook and the clerk's signature on her number, so she can now go to the teller ahead of the others and get her money and pay her rent. I always say: it pays to know people. In this case, it saves us an hour wait, at least.

To get out of the bank we must go through the same procedure as when we walked in. One door first. Close that door. Stand in the glass enclosure. Open the other door. The line to get in has grown longer by now. Good luck folks! Did you bring something to read? Your lunch? Some candy at least or a crossword puzzle?

Let me take you to Syllabi Cafe this evening, one of my favorite cafes in Pangrati.  Set in an alleyway where there is no traffic, the café is also a bookstore. Rather small and charming inside, I prefer to sit outside, surrounded by green shrubs and trees, the occasional dog with its owner, children riding by on bikes.  The owner - Philippos - plays tango music for me and then brings out his guitar to sing a song.  He’s a sweet man who knows his books and his music. I must return some morning to sip coffee and read.  A week later I return, welcoming the solitude despite the sounds of the bustling city all around.  I read Andre Aciman’s book, sip a French coffee, jot down notes for future essays. 

Some mornings I walk to St. Lazarus’s square: quiet, residential streets. But once there, the square surrounds you with cafes: chairs, tables, trees, cigarette smoke. And a tiny fountain.  Pigeons everywhere. People feed them, call them “doves,” and are inexplicably fond of them. They shit all over, startle me out of my wits flying into my head.

The senior citizens sit on benches and twirl their worry beads absentmindedly. They stare in the distance. The men, at least. The women feed the pigeons or sit next to the men, attempting to chat. Pigeons walk around our feet, jump on a chair and try to grab our potato chips or chocolate cakes. Their feathers flutter around, fall on our heads or inside our coffee cups. Disgusting pigeons! Aggressive little birds ubiquitous as clouds.

There are so many older people here. With canes. Some smoking. White-haired. Doing nothing. There is very little grass, mostly brown soil, dry and stony. Short trees offer shade. The chapel of St. Lazarus attracts a few faithful. When they walk by, they cross themselves.
They spend several hours at the square before going home for lunch and a nap.
The children, like children everywhere, play ball or with their iPads. Roughhouse. Mothers admonish good behavior, yelling to be heard above their din.

I overhear a conversation about the highlight of the day:
-What are you making for lunch?
-Okra with lamb. And you?
-Fish with greens.
-We had fish yesterday.
-Yes, fish is good for you. We'll have okra tomorrow.
-I'm tired of meat, meat every day.

The square is busy enough to make us feel alive but not too chaotic. A good place to read, write, and listen to other people's conversations.

In the center, a statue of Lord Byron keeps watch. The neighborhood also bears his name. A hero for the Greeks, there are other statues around the city and references to his support and dedication to the cause of Greek Independence in the 19th century. He fought the Ottomans and died in 1824 at the Battle of Messolonghi.

Under the watchful eyes of Lord Byron, the Greek people try to return to some kind of glory days, not to fall into despair, to survive and triumph.

Back home in Chicago, my image of the city when I close my eyes : concrete blocks piled on top of each other crowded around with barely an inch of green space or free air sprinkled with magnificent ruins of ancient structures popping up when you least expect them, columns, arches, sculptures, monuments.  I would rather have the old ruins. 
Image result for athens city streets     Image result for athens city streets