What’s your name, where are we, and where are you from?
My name is Faye Lewis. We’re on Pauger Street in the 7th Ward right now and I’m from uptown in the Calliope Project in New Orleans.
What was your first job?
I’ve had many jobs in New Orleans. My first job was in 1979. I was 17, scaling rust off the inside of ships on the Mississippi River, right on Dauphine Street. You had to climb up that boat, then climb down a ladder into a hole that was about 80 feet. They gave you a ladder to carry and equipment to scrape rust off. The ships came from everywhere, some all the way from China.
Every day we scaled the ships. I was making $3.35, a lot of people wanted that job. A couple hundred people would show up and only about 50 people would get on for the day. There were just as many women as men working, and it was mostly Black.
My mom made me quit when a worker fell asleep and fell down the 80 feet and died. I still remember the sight of his body.
That was a dangerous job! What did you do after?
After that worker died, I started working at the Burger King on Tulane and Carrollton. I made burgers, I cleaned tables, I did everything. My sister was the manager there and it was mainly a teenager job. At that time, didn’t have many men who wanted to get Burger King jobs. The few men on that job were toting heavy boxes and stacking. It was fine and I did okay.
Through this whole time, my mama had a whole candy store, we did it from our house. We sold hucklebucks – ice water in a cup that you let freeze with watermelon or any kinds of fruits. We sold bread, pies, cookies, and candy too. My mama would get day-old’s from the old Sunbeam Bread bakery and we would sell those in the neighborhood too.
My daddy knew I wanted to work, but I couldn’t keep a regular job. So he put me to work. He bought a pickup truck and we would sell cold drinks, beer, cigarettes.
How did you wind up working at the TV station?
When I was 21, I got pregnant so I stopped working on the truck and I started working at 1 Shell Square, the big building in the CBD [Central Business District]. It wasn’t a cable station, but a kind of TV channel. I would play VCR’s that would send a signal to people’s houses. It might have paid about four or five dollars an hour.
I worked the overnight shift at the station. It was morning when I got back and went to sleep. The man who hired me and trained me liked me and made a pass on me. I wasn’t for it. I liked the job, but I needed to getaway from him, so I had to leave the job.
After that, I worked at the Church’s Chicken on MLK and Claiborne. There I cut chicken, fried chicken, and worked the register. There wasn’t a particular one thing I did, I did everything. At Church’s, all the workers were Black and the majority of the workers were women.
All of the managers at Church’s were men. One of the managers told me, if you don’t have sex with me, you’re gone. I asked him to be transferred to the Church’s on St. Bernard. The manager at the new Church’s harassed me too. These two managers knew each other. When I didn’t respond to him making a pass, the new manager fired me. He accused our shift of taking money from the safe and made the four of us working that shift all take a lie detector test. We all passed, but he still fired me. He just wanted to put it on me.
After Church’s, my next job was at a school. I got a job at the schoolhouse where my kids went to school. I was a “hippie tutor.” A hippie tutor was a parent who went to the school and helped in the classroom, and helped with the parents too. We were all women and we had a male supervisor. That was a good job and an easy job. I didn’t get any benefits, time off, or health insurance. I was living in public housing at the time in the Calliope.
I loved the children and at the time my head was wrapped around the nursery, opening my own nursery. But unfortunately that school closed down.
After the school I worked at a Ground Pati (restaurant). It was mostly Black workers, with white men as managers. We made burgers. When anew manager was hired on he said I was too old to work there. I was the oldest worker there, 42, and everyone else was teenagers. The manager cut my hours down to 20 hours. And he wanted me to do work I hadn’t done before. I had to go and quit from that job. I think I was there for four years.
How did Katrina impact you?
I got my first stroke at 44 years old, but I didn’t even know it. My second stroke happened a week before Katrina in 2005, when I was 45, and then my third stroke happened two weeks after Katrina. I couldn’t walk after my third stroke. I had to learn how to walk again. I said Lord help me walk.
I went to Mississippi after Katrina. My dad’s people are in Mississippi. I worked at a restaurant in Mississippi. It was a Black owned family restaurant. The boss had me getting to the restaurant at 5am. I cleaned the bathroom, swept the floor, and cleaned the tables. But that job quit me. I told them I had to get home to New Orleans to get my medication because my Medicaid was for New Orleans only, and in Mississippi I couldn’t get my medication. My daughter would bring me the medication or I would take the bus down. But this time they wouldn’t give me time off to go to New Orleans to get my medication. So I had to quit. I got back to Louisiana in 2006, a year later.
How did you start your candy store?
In 2011, when I moved into a downstairs unit in the Calliope, I started a candy store. I got up at 6:30am to sell school children snacks, by 10 o’clock til 2 or 3am. Everyone would come. We sold sports drinks, cold drinks, cookies, potato chips, pig’s feet, pig’s lips. That was how I supported myself. I even sponsored a child overseas. I had all kinds of customers. This was at the same time that Calliope was being torn down [by the city].
How did the Calliope housing project being torn down impact you?
In the Calliope it felt like family. It felt like my family left me. There was construction going on everywhere. There was equipment and noise constantly going on, and sand piles the city was piling up in front of just anyone’s house and it would always blow into my house. The family left me though. The city didn’t give me an apartment after they made new buildings. I felt like I had to go. It kind of made me feel bad, but I’ve been put in worse places, I’m not worried. I’d tell them no now, even if they did offer it.