When I was a child in New York City, I never sewed my own clothes. I was spoiled. My great aunt Ida sewed my clothing for me. She was a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, who made fabric fly under the needle of any sewing machine. When she came to visit, she almost always ended up pumping the foot pedal of my mother’s clack-clacking Singer, stitching new dresses, blouses and pants for me. I took her expertise for granted, never asked her about it when she was alive. But by the time I met her in the 1960s she had amassed over fifty years of experience as a seamstress. As a teenager, she was a shirt maker at a New York City men’s shirt factory. At the same time, her older sister Dora made shirtwaists—fancy women’s blouses—at a shirtwaist sweatshop. The profession abounded with recent immigrants like them.
I learned about the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire of 1911 after both of my great aunts had died. Their memories came back to me as soon as I heard about the 123 immigrant girls who burned to death due to working conditions so deplorable and a factory so unsafe that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster until 9/11. What if my great aunts had jumped out of the ninth floor of the factory, hair and clothes in flames, just like the 14-year-old girls who were the fire’s youngest victims?
Memories of Ida and Dora and theTriangle Shirtwaist fire returned when I learned about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. More than 10 times more women—and men—died there than at the Triangle factory, but the reason for their deaths remained the same. That is why I wrote this poem.
A trendy shop in the neighborhood
hangs t-shirts in the window:
a panda with pistols;
the Mad Hatter singing;
“Keep Calm and Carry On”;
“Charles Bukowski Told Me To Do It.”
Next to the display, a sign:
“all t-shirts made by artists;”
but inside each shirt, the label:
“Hanes/made in Bangladesh.”
What if Hanes, Gap, Calvin Klein,
Walmart, Hilfiger, and Penny’s
printed t-shirts paying tribute
to those Bangladeshi artists
who cut and sewed them.
On the front of a shirt:
a melted sewing machine;
on its back: rows of bodies,
burnt and wrapped in white cloth,
lying outside the burnt sweatshop.
A shirt with a soundtrack:
a young woman’s sobs
as she looks for her husband,
missing under the eight-story
warren of garment factories
collapsed on its workers.
A woman’s crushed and folded body
encircling a shirt with the words:
“I knew the factory was unsafe,
but the boss said ‘no pay
if you don’t show up.'”
The shirt showing a couple
sandwiched between fallen pillars,
blood tears dried on his face,
her neck, snapped broken
by a chunk of ceiling.
Caption: “Phantom Apparel.”
Shirt raining Jewish and Italian
immigrant girls, jumping
from the burning Triangle Shirtwaist factory
in New York City in 1911.
“What happens now,” asks this shirt,
“to the people who make our clothes?”
My poem ends with a question that Rachel and I want to attempt to answer. That is why we are going to Bangladesh. We do not want to take the lives and expertise of garment workers like the men and women of Rana Plaza, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and my great aunts Ida and Dora, for granted. We intend to pay tribute to them, affirm our interdependence with them and try to find ways to support their struggle for better lives.