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Sitting on privilege

| Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When I sat down in the 79 green-apple back, 98 white Y-tower and chrome based Sayl chair, all I could think about was Rosa.

Rosa, for the past 19 years, has been making the Sayl chair, a high-end office chair from Herman-Miller. She knows all the parts, all the color codes and every delivery route. Rosa practically wrote the books on mass-produced chairs. She wakes up every day at 5 a.m., clocks in at 5:53 a.m., works a minimum of eight hours and then goes home for the night. She returns Monday through Saturday like clockwork, repeating the cycle.

This past June and July, Rosa was my co-worker, my mentor and my friend. She helped me navigate my summer job in the factory and avoid an imminent, complete mental breakdown.

Work was always hot, redundant, non-stop and long. The weak of heart do not last long in a factory. It takes mental and emotional strength to persevere through a life of uninspiring work. Rosa had this strength in abundance.

I did not. I was strong at home and school, but I did not feel strong here.

Chair-making is a rapid and lonely process (no socializing). So for roughly eight hours a day, I found myself alone with my thoughts, and not with thoughts of the task at hand (that was too vacant a process to occupy anyone’s mind). I thought about my future, my faith, my failings and my fate. It was enlightening at times, yet so frightening. Delivering chair parts for hours, I found myself wondering, “Is this all there is?”

I thought about the lives of my co-workers, like Rosa. I grew up very differently from Rosa, but we were not so different. She had likely contemplated her own future, faith, failings and fate on that same factory floor and asked herself, “Is this all there is?”

On days I was visibly defeated, Rosa would come over to me say with her Spanglish, “Porque no smile? Almost done today, smile Chiquita!”

So for Rosa, I did. And with Rosa’s help, I found my strength on the factory floor.

I soon found things to distract me from the monotonous work. Rosa’s companionship and my secret mission to sit down in one of our Sayl chairs were the two things that made my factory life bearable.

I never completed my chair-sitting mission while at Herman-Miller, though I once came close. I saw a chair pushed off to the side of the assembly line, sitting idly. Mid-delivery route I tried creeping towards it. I got so close but stopped when Rosa hurried around the curve of the assembly line pushing a tool cart with the speed and distress of someone getting chased by an axe murderer.

“Ayyyaayayy! Can you help with carts? I sorry but we behind. Never time for to sit in chairs,” she explained.

So I abandoned my mission. If Rosa worked 19 years and never got the chance to touch a finished chair, neither would I.

Eventually I left Herman-Miller to return to college. A month into school, I went to the library to study, and there it was. The Sayl chair — 79 green-apple back, 98 white Y-tower, chrome base — was parked in front of an unoccupied black table. After a moment of paralyzing awe, I approached the table. In disbelief, I touched the chair, lacing my fingers through its netted back. When the moment felt right, I pulled it out from the table and reverently sat down.

After 400 hours building this chair as a worker, I had finally completed my chair-sitting mission by leaving. Workers are not allowed to sit. Workers are not allowed to stop being productive. Workers are not allowed to hurt the bottom line at any cost.

But I wasn’t a worker anymore. Removed from the factory at my expensive private university, I finally found myself seated in the Sayl chair.

My expected triumph was masked by enormous guilt. My mind went to Rosa, who deserved to sit in this chair far more than I did, but who will likely never have the opportunity.She has spent 60,000 hours making this chair. She is still walking 11 miles a day pushing 50-pound carts. She is wiping sweat off her brow on her oversized pink t-shirt. She is straining her 50-some-year-old back every day to make a miniscule living and build a chair that she will never, ever sit in.

At that thought, I started to cry, sitting in the Sayl chair in the library.

How could anyone have the right to sit in this chair if Rosa cannot?

Sitting there, I felt privileged in the most disgusting way.

The sad truth is that some people in this world will make chairs while others will sit in them. The sadder truth is that some people, seated in their high-end office chairs, consider themselves better people than Rosa, who built that chair with her bare hands.

Rosa deserves to kick up her feet, retire and relax. But she will build chairs for many years to come. And with the thought of Rosa, I rose from the chair.

Contact Kelly Monahan at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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