Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Heartbreak Street
Dorothy Gilman Butters
1958, Macrae Smith

There it was again, the great dividing line, as intangible but as firm as the Mason-Dixon line. It wasn't only money, it was the security that money brought with it, the knowledge that always there would be enough food and clothing and heat and movie money.

Seventeen-year-old Kitty Boscz is bitter as she graduates from a high school she was always too busy to enjoy. She lives in a slum neighborhood in a small New England city, and the hopelessness of her mother's drudgery and her own prospects weigh heavily upon her. Her older brother Tomas is sliding, fueled by the same angry frustration, into crime while her younger brother Danny is being wooed by a gang. Trying to find a job that pays well enough to provide not just for herself and her savings (she hopes to save enough to enter a secretarial course), but to help support her family of four, she has to bypass pleasant but low-paying jobs at stores for a grueling one in the press room of a local factory. The only perk is that the boy she's always had a crush on is working there too; he's a sububan kid who's only there for the summer, but Kitty's thrilled.

Kitty's shorthand for all that is wrong with her life is the name of the street she lives on, the street she'd much prefer cute Dean never see. Pearl Street is crime, is danger, is decay and loss and struggle and heartbreak, and she wants out. She has spirited conversations on this topic with a newcomer to the neighborhood, Cy Whitney, who is working with the new Community Center to convince the local toughs to abandon their pose of 'anyone who goes to the Center is a wuss and must be beaten up' and use the program. Cy's in his mid-twenties, from a New York City slum, and has recently gone through the same experience Kitty's struggling with - the anger and frustration and bitterness - and counsels her that it will help her more if she changes her attitude, that it's good to want to get ahead in life, but hating where she's from will just devour her. He also wants to save her intelligent, restless, rebellious brother Tomas and needs her help.

Factory work. She had sworn she would never work in a factory.

My father didn't die when I was a baby, my mother didn't work long hours in a diner and we didn't live in a slum. But I know exactly why Kitty swore she'd never work in a factory. If you live close to people who work all their lives in factories and you want something else and you're overly sensitive, the idea of working in that world is terrifying, even if it's just for a summer; there's no guarantee you'll ever get out again. It takes so much effort to do something different, and it's so easy to just keep going in every day. Kitty, whose need is so desperate, does it. She gets well-paid work in the press room of a plastics factory.

Kitty's job is described in detail, which pleases me. Far too many writers ignore their characters' jobs as unimportant, but all work is important - it takes up so much of your time and how you do it, how you think of it, is tremendously revealing. Kitty's factory job is essentially to place plastic objects into a set of machines that bake them into various shapes, based on molds. She makes parts for compacts, knobs for televisions, and various objects she can't quite figure out, and is paid by the finished article. As with most blue-collar jobs, it sounds simple. As with most blue-collar jobs, it's not. The machines are red-hot and it's unsafe to wear gloves so burns and blisters are part of the job. Each product has some requirement; a screw to be inserted properly, for instance. And when you've just about mastered one product, the quota's filled and the factory switches molds to make a new product with a whole new set of requirements. The work is repetitive and boring, but if you get careless you could lose a hand or an arm. All this in a confined space with massive ovens during a brutal summer, with temperatures reaching into the hundreds. No wonder Kitty is nonplussed when her secret crush, Dean, reveals his very middle-class fear of being 'a second-rate man' like his father, who lost out on the big promotion to president of his bank. Poor Dean never quite recovers his luster in Kitty's eyes; she was attracted to his safe, good-looking affluence but she's a natural fighter and the struggle to become president instead of vice president is so alien to her that it doesn't register as a worthy fight. Cy's attempts to change Pearl Street and help Tomas become a doctor, and the dreams of Dean's pal PeeWee (and anyone who's ever watched an old movie knows who gets the girl once they see that name) to make it as an actor in New York are more in her line.

Dorothy Gilman Butters was born in New Brunswick, NJ, home to the main campus of the state university, Rutgers, and currently an impoverished small city itself. She was more widely known as Dorothy Gilman, under which name she wrote the Mrs. Pollifax mystery series. Although New Brunswick is traditionally oriented north, toward New York City, she seems to have been drawn south, to Philadelphia, for she attended first the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on north Broad Street (1940-1945), then the University of Pennsylvania (1963-1964).

Other Books
Ten Leagues To Boston Town 1962

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