The room was filled with long workbenches, faced with metal stools. The big room had a wide, worn wooden plank floor, thick concrete columns breaking up the space. The windows were huge spans between the concrete beams, murky textured glass in small panes held in metal mullions. They let in a soft dirty light, but we couldn't see out. An AM radio played, the sound echoing off the walls, a cheerful chorale singing, "Double-You Em Eff Peeeeeee! Smoooooth Muuuuusic!"
On the bench, a small vise with knobs and adjustable handles stood on the work surface, and to one side a soldering iron was poised, point down in a thick coiled holder, to guard against burns. There were bins near the back of the bench, some holding flat dull-green chips, and others filled with the intricate, toy-like capacitors, transistors, resistors; emblazoned with drops of bright red paint, shiny with silver, or striped in brown, blue, pink, yellow.
Beside me, a young Filipina woman bent over her vice, probing with the soldering iron as a thin veil of smoke rose up from her work. She wiped the hot tip of the iron on a damp sponge, and stuck it back into the holder. She reached into a bin, selected a resistor, and deftly threaded its leads through the holes in the circuit board. She flipped it over, and neatly clipped the ends off with a tiny pair of cutters.
"Hey, Cal, can't we turn that thing to some real music?" A tall black woman entered the room, laden down with a big bag and a box of donuts. "Why do you like that damn elevator music anyway, you think we're working in a high-rise?" She twiddled the dial and the pure sound of the Temptations flowed out of the radio.
I was nineteen, home from my first year at college, and it was my first real job. I earned minimum hourly wage, assembling printed circuit boards for walkie-talkie radios, at a factory in Red Bank, New Jersey. My co-workers were mostly women, young and uneducated, some who were young mothers, some wild-child Jersey girls who spent their nights and weekends on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.
For eight hours a day, I bent over my work, crimping tiny wires, holding the malleable thread of solder to the hot iron's tip. I loved how it held firm, first, and then suddenly melted and ran and puddled.
By the day's end, my back would ache. My fingers were sore, because I was still clumsy and new, poking my fingertips with the little wires. We had two little jars of fluid at our workbench - they were actually baby-food jars, brought by the women workers from home because the size was convenient. One held an amber liquid resin, the other a clear industrial solvent. We sometimes dabbed a connection with resin to make the solder flow better. When we finished a board, we dipped our brush in the solvent, and cleaned it. The resin and solvent fumed in the thick air, and the foreman was good about allowing girls to get up and clear their heads when overcome.
I liked soldering. I was pretty good at it - I was praised as a "natural." I loved watching the solder flow, and even better, I loved it when I had to un-do a solder joint - press a ribbon of braided metal against the joint with the hot iron, and watch as the fibers sucked the molten silver into themselves, freeing the trapped wire from the board. The braid, once flexible, now stiffened and solid with metal.
Our quality control was casual, but it was all about the electrical connection, and the flow. Connections that let the electrons flow from one component to the next. That summer was about connection - with Mina, who gave me my first taste of Filipino food in the lunch room. The back-and-forth arguments over the radio station - soul or salsa, all-news or easy listening. Watching Vonda, waving her hands in the air as she told an ever-more-crazy story, her acrylic nails sparkling. Covering for Joy, who was dating a guy in the stockroom - I'd let her run my refill orders instead of going myself, so she could grab a few minutes with him in the stacks. We'd sometimes smoke a joint together on the loading dock after our shift ended, the smoke like the burning incense of resin up in the factory loft above.
I was the only one on the floor who was going to college, but I easily slipped into the flow anyway. I propped my elbows on the table in the lunch room, red sauce from meatball subs dripping down onto the oily paper. I cackled at the put-downs and practical jokes. I met the boyfriends, shook hands with the husbands, wiggled my fingers "hi" at the children. The life of the factory fumed and flowed around me, the current buoyed me, and I rode my circuit-board rafts through the rapids. I let the molten solder flow and fuse all the different pieces of my life together, joining them.
I learned to tell the difference between a properly done solder joint, shiny and flat, mirrored and pure; and what we called "cold solder" where the joint, while firm, had been disturbed in the cooling process. Cold solder was dull and pebbled, cold joints were weak, and compromised the ability of the electrons to freely flow. The solder must be hot enough to meld the disparate parts of the circuit board as if they were one, to properly make the electrical connections - or so we were told.
In this room, we never actually saw a fully assembled radio - except for Cal's boom box, whose sound connected our days. We breathed vaporized silver and listened to sweet soul music all summer long.