WHY SHE DIDN’T COME INTO WORK

How you doing, Wanda?

Doing good, doing good.

That’s how Wanda and I used to greet each other in the late 1980s when she’d come in to work 7 hours after me. We both worked at the Greyston Bakery, which was started by the Zen Community of New York in Yonkers, and I’d be reviewing orders for cakes and tarts in the front office while Wanda worked in packing in the back of the baking floor.

The packing room consisted of an enormous built-in commercial freezer. Every day the packers would go in there, haul out trays full of 6” or 10” heavy Chocolate Mousse or Lemon Mousse cakes, not to mention the different tarts, and pack them up in the brown cardboard boxes that said Greyston Bakery with its logo of the polounia leaf (in the old days it said a livelihood of the Zen Community of New York).

Eddie the driver would come in very early in the morning to start his long route of deliveries, the bakers and clerical staff (that was me) would come in around 8, and the packers, including Wanda, would arrive in mid-afternoon to pack up the new product and prepare the next day’s delivery based on the list of orders and customers that I generated.

Wanda worked alongside two men in the packing room. She was big and heavyset, incredibly strong, and pulled and carried those heavy cakes and trays like one of the guys. She was a single mother with children, and before coming to do a packing shift she did another shift of work somewhere else starting in the early morning. That didn’t prevent her from coming into the bakery in full make-up, wearing nice street clothes with a couple of thick gold strands around her neck and bracelets round her wrists, before changing into whites and putting her hair into a net, as we all had to do orders of the Board of Health.

She was friendly but practical, getting to work right away, always on time, dependable as a clock, never missing one day of work.

Till she did. One day she didn’t show up. Didn’t send a message, didn’t call, not a word. In a bakery in the middle of downtown Yonkers, where employee absenteeism was always a problem, Wanda’s one day of absence alarmed her boss, Howard.

Guess who didn’t come in to work today? he told everyone. Wanda. I hope she didn’t get into a big accident. If Wanda missed a day of work, it had to be bad.

The next day Wanda came in, put on her whites and went back to work as though nothing happened.

Hey Wanda, said Howard, the most amiable man in the world, good to see you. What happened yesterday?

Wanda gave a brief shake of her head. Gave birth, she said.

No one had any idea she was pregnant under those large bakery whites, so no one said anything about how maybe she shouldn’t be carrying boxes of cakes or pulling the heavy tray roller back and forth. She didn’t want them to know. She worked without saying a word to anyone, gave birth one day, came into work the day after, and wouldn’t have said a word if Howard hadn’t asked.

When Mitt Romney spoke five years ago of how only 47% of our population really carries their weight, the rest sponging off the system, I instantly thought of Wanda and whether he or I were the parasites sponging off of her. I thought of how you can’t judge anyone till you’re standing in their shoes.

I thought of all the single mothers I’d see waiting with their children in school bus stops, the children dressed in boots, coats and gloves against the winter cold while the mothers often shivered because they’d just slapped something on quickly before hurrying the kids out the door. I’d overhear them asking their neighbors to pick up their kids at 3 when the buses came back because they’d be at work, and could they keep them around for a few hours till they came home.

And if you were like Wanda, you finished one job and hurried on to the second, carried your pregnancy to term and gave birth without saying a word to your employer in case the man got it into his head to let you go.

And I also think of Wanda when I’d spot her on weekends, walking down Main Street with several young children in tow, dressed to the nines, bejeweled and made up, nails manicured in burgundy, laughing and razzing with her friends, going inside McCory’s for breakfast, loving those weekends.