A Circle of Elephants (release scheduled for October 2017)
The Fels Company shared the top floor of a squat, grey, 1920's era, three-story factory building at 719 South Main with an outfit that manufactured uniforms for the men who drove trucks and made home deliveries for companies including Helms Bakery, Good Humor Ice Cream and Adohr Dairy. A spacious, but worrisomely creaky, freight elevator with a battered wood floor, three cotton-batten padded walls, an absent ceiling with an unobscured view of the cables that raised and lowered the cage, and a manually operated, sliding, metal grill door was the usual way up and down. The shop fronted South Main, but the windows were so layered with years of accumulated grime that, except for summers when they were thrown open to catch the occasional smoggy breeze, they offered no view down to the street.
The shop was laid out to reflect the steps in the belt-making process. That is, besides the area set aside for the office, the space closest to the front door, where deliveries of fabric, leather, buckles, and ornaments were received, were the storage shelves that held bolts of various colors of cloth along with sheets and rolls of fragrant, tanned leather in a variety of colors. The company's usual leather stock cut a wide swath through the animal kingdom – kid goat, calfskin, alligator, sharkskin, rattlesnake, crocodile, cowhide, kangaroo and armadillo. From thick, full-grain cowhide to paper-thin snakeskin, a relatively large, varied and colorful inventory was kept on hand at all times since a rush order from a dress manufacturer could – if they were lucky – pop up at any moment. Also, toward the front of the shop were industrial-strength metal shelves where boxes of buttons, buckles and grommets were kept.
Moving deeper into the shop was the clicker press, or simply "the clicker" as everyone called it, along with more metal shelving holding the long, curved wooden and metal-edged dies that the clicker slammed down on layers of cloth or leather to cut the basic shape of a belt.
Beyond the clicker was the spray booth where the various layers that comprised a fabric belt were glued. The spray booth was essentially a three-sided box, vented to the outdoors, and where a pressurized spray gun, on a long hose attached to an air compressor, was used to cover trays of belt parts with a pungent, quick-drying adhesive. Also in this area were an array of human-powered machines that punched holes, installed ornamentation such as rhinestones or other sorts of costume jewelry, attached grommets, or that stamped the name of the dress manufacturer, sometimes with gold foil, on the back of each belt. Here, also in the middle of the factory, was a long table with benches where employees could take their lunch break if they didn't want to eat out. One of the benefits of working for a trio of former Communists who were still committed to bettering the lot of the working man was that there was never a doubt that this would always be a union shop. In this case, employees were all members of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). And, if Elizabeth (Liz) Yerger, the union steward and lead sewing machine operator, wasn't fast enough to sign-up a new employee, Stell was right there with enrollment materials and a few well-practiced words urging membership.
"She serious?" Angela Sturgis, a brand new, surprised, and suspicious, sewing machine operator asked Liz when Stell, had stuffed membership materials into her hands before she'd even hung up her coat or sat down at her machine.
"Oh, she's serious." Liz assured her, smiling. "Those three are nothing but serious. Count your blessings, girl. You've landed in the best shop in LA!"
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