I recall reading that Greta Garbo, upon walking into the United Nations building in New York, looked at the carpets and exclaimed, “Think of the girls working in the factory making that!”. *
My respect for Greta only deepened, reading this.
Now — in a time much different from the period when Greta made her comment — her words need some explanation. However, the insight and truth of the comment has not changed.
At that time, wall-to-wall carpeting was still relatively new (and there’s a history of how and why it became so popular in the United States, but that’s for another writing). Factories, particularly those making carpeting, were mechanized, yet of course far less automated that factories of today. Workers still did much by hand, moving not just alongside, but within huge machines — dangerous, loud, crushing machines — with few, if any, safety regulations or equipment. The work was dangerous, even more so because it was boring and rhythmic, both enemies of safety. Then, as now, textile workers were badly paid, usually female, and seemingly invisible to the world.
That anyone — especially a famous actress — would think of a textile worker, especially when walking into the esteemed halls of the United Nations, was shocking.
However, Greta grew up poor, knowing girls and families who worked in the textile mills of her native Sweden. She understood the difficulty, the tediousness, the invisibility of the work. She saw and understood much about “little people” and their lives that most people of power and wealth — including many of the middle class — didn’t, and don’t, perceive and therefore cannot understand.
The seemingly little things that can and do affect a life, many lives, have always been of importance, and have often been invisible to those not imminent to the conditions.
The invisibility only grows as technology increases. Yes, there may be an app on your smartphone that enables you to schedule a food delivery, a house cleaning, a refill of gas delivered to your parked car. But individuals, each with their own life, family, needs, desires, difficulties, perform the work your app orders. Someone is delivering the food, cleaning the house, filling the gas tank. And an individual wrote the code that made the application, and that person was hired by an individual. . . And so on.
What about each of those people? What happens if the person delivering food has a flat tire on their car, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle? What happens if the girl who worked in the factory years ago had cracked fingers from working long hours with her hands in near freezing conditions? Was it merely painful, or did the blood from the cracks in her fingers stain the carpet, meaning she would be fired? Or did her manager have awareness and kindness, and give the girl salve, bandages, and a gentler job?
Little things no one thinks about. Small acts, passing thoughts, random words, physical things that matter. Little things that contribute to the anima, the spirt within what you use, what you encounter, within you. Little things that together form communities, companies, nations, our world. Our lives. Our selves. Our self.
* The exact quotation is not one I can find at the moment. I believe it was in Walking With Garbo, by Raymond Daum. I had thought it was in Greta Garbo: A Life Apart, by Karen Swenson, but I can’t find “United Nations” in the index. Daum’s book does not have an index.
I’ll be writing various pieces under the category Things You Don’t Think About and posting them here and on the Sardinian Arts website.