Monday, January 21, 2008

The Factory

Strange day at work. Guy next to me is either suffering from some extreme cold or the onset of pneumonia. He sounds like a doberman choking on a Barbie doll. Got a jolt earlier in the day. I had to talk to a woman about a legal invoice we received related to the closing of a small factory in upstate New York that made plastic products. As she was telling me what this small company did (before going under … a long, sad story, that apparently had more to do with mismanagement than hard times), it occurred to me that this place was a smaller version of the plastics factory my father had worked in for decades before retiring around the age of 68.

It’s always nice to get those reminders when you’re sitting in an office reading clinical documents noting the financial decline of a company, when the reality of my life through the first 20 years or so, was watching Dad faithfully go to work every day at the factory to put food on the table and keep the roof over our heads. This small company in upstate New York circa 2007 could have just as easily been the larger factory Dad worked in from the early 60s through the mid 90s. Do I feel dirty or guilty eaves dropping on this failing company? Not really … Dad would have been over-joyed to know I was working in a place where I wasn’t get the working-class shit end of the stick. But it did get me to thinking about the factory.

For most of my childhood, the factory was a gray mist to me and everyone else in not just in my family, but the neighborhood. Most guys with families had working-class jobs. Mom would make a sandwich the night before. In the morning, Dad would pack the sandwich and a thermos of ice tea into a lunch pail, maybe some chips, and off he’d go in his shitty used Dodge. A scenario played out a few hundred times over all over the neighborhood. He’d leave for an 8:00 shift and come back around 4:45, usually not in a good or bad mood, just sort of “another day at work” attitude I now know all too well. It was somehow crucial for Mom to have dinner on the table right around that time. Would have done us all a lot better to eat later, but Mom’s still like that. I was probably a chunky kid because of the lethal amounts of junk food we had in the house, and the reality that a kid eating at 4:45 is going to be hungry at 9:00. After dinner, Dad would read the paper on his sofa (he owned the damn thing, literally and figuratively), and invariably nap before a night of TV. (We kids used to excavate the sofa when Dad or Mom left the room to find the loose change that would always slip from Dad’s pockets when he took his naps. Could range from a few cents to a dollar in change. I’d always use this in our monthly Catholic confessionals as something bad I’d done … stealing change from Dad … that’s the kind of kid I was and how far I got in terms of being a prick.)

Hardly a bad life. I’ll never quite get the stereotype of working-class guys sitting around a kitchen table, drunk, smoking, wearing a wife beater, and conveniently beating the wife and backhanding the kids. That wasn’t us, nor many of the families I knew back then. If there were guys like that, bad news, they’d have been miserable pricks no matter what they did with their lives. Some people just aren’t geared for happiness, and it’s a fucking idiot who uses his socio-economic class for an excuse to be miserable. It stands to reason that if you’re not making a lot of money, then you shouldn’t base your personal happiness on money. Not too many people seem to gather that’s about the best, most sane way you can get through life, especially in our hyper-status aware culture that’s geared towards creating miserable, unsatisfied pricks who never measure up to some mythical standard.

Dad would go off to work at this mystical place, and that’s all I ever knew about his work life, as he never brought it home with him, save for the occasional conversation with Mom complaining about some jerk at the job. We'd go to his company-sponsored summer picnics, but those were a blast, kids everywhere, a huge cookout, games, prizes -- I knew this was a respite to work as opposed to Dad's work. After my first year at college, I lucked out and gained entry into the summer work program at Dad’s factory. My two older brothers had blown off the opportunity, probably because the financial aid they were getting for college at the time (late 70s/early 80s) was phenomenal, paying for everything associated with school. Not for me – I had to make some money if I wanted to have any spending money during the school year, and build a small nest egg for the eventual move to the main campus and an apartment.

The pay was $6.50 an hour … appreciably high for the time for kids in school. Dad was pleased that I took him up on the offer, but I was glad to have gainful employment, and probably in a place where I’d have Dad to guide me around and look out for me. There were about a dozen other kids in the same program, all in the same boat as me, working-class kids, sons and daughters of factory men, all attending local colleges, looking to make some good money in the few months before the next school year began in September.

I was assigned to the maintenance division – Dad was in production. This meant we wouldn’t have much contact during the day, which was probably for the best, as I’d see him at breaks and lunch time. Each division had a different color jumpsuit. Production was white, maintenance blue. First day was simply getting assigned two uniforms, work goggles and a hardhat, with a voucher to hit a local shoe store for a pair of steel-toed boots. It felt cool to be wearing a uniform, something I hadn’t done since my Little League and basketball days in early high school.

Maintenance didn’t mean sweeping up. It meant maintaining the numerous machines and heavy equipment in the factory: mechanics. I had zero mechanical aptitude. It didn’t matter. The expectation was for kids like me to come in and simply help out on jobs, help hold a wrench in place, do the grunt work of the department, sweeping floors, handling any small projects that came along that didn’t require too much know-how. Another college kid, Ed, was assigned with me – a football player on scholarship to one of those small northeast Pennsylvania colleges. The guy was built like a little bull, had the vibe of a surfer dude, we got along pretty well. The maintenance building, separate from the main factory, was a ramshackle two story building filled with greasy parts and work machines (drill presses, lathes, saws, etc.), pornography posted wherever possible. I was forever turning a corner in that place to find a poster of a naked woman bent over to show me her perfect ass. (I'd have to wonder if the same lax social standards would be allowable today.)

Of course, my main memory of the factory is the guys who worked there, a motley collection of Korean War Vets (Dad was an old timer for sneaking in on the tail end of World War II), Vietnam War vets, younger guys who had no war, some druggy/wastrel types who clearly weren’t going to last long and the occasional very tough broad who held her own with all those guys around. Ditto the occasional black worker. The handful of black guys who worked there fit right in, were in the same boat as the other guys, got along amazingly well with a bunch of white guys who were and still are often depicted as a bunch of racists. I found that if you worked with someone, you’d learn a lot more about them beyond race, you’d generally learn the truth of their nature, and that’s something greater than any surface value.

In maintenance, most of the guys were gritty older Korean War vets who put out the “mechanic” vibe. I often got placed with Pete, who reminded me of Yosemite Sam, a real crusty old guy, sort of looked like Van Gogh with a pair of Wayfarer shades. The odd thing was there seemed to be some bad blood between Pete and my Dad, at least that was the factory lore, but Pete and I got along great, and he confided in me that he had a lot of respect for my Dad, and Dad did vice-versa when I told him I was working with Pete a lot.

The oddest pair was Al and John, two old timers near retirement who were diametrically opposed in personality, but were best friends. I wrote a one-act play about them a year later at school, “Tweety Bird and Blowfish,” that the teacher went nuts about, called it the best student play he’d ever read. I simply imagined the last day of John at work, and the blow it would lay on Al, who never showed his emotions and seemed to have no one else in his life who could make him smile.

Al was a big burly guy who seemed really unhappy, clearly drank a lot and would often come in late or phone in sick. When he did come in, he’d sulk at his station by the lathe and generally not be approached by any of the managers until later in the morning as the “leave me alone” vibe he emanated would have spooked even Lou Reed. I'd occasionally see Al get into it with a manager in a way that suggested asking him to do any kind of work was an invitation to an argument.

John was a sparkplug. My first day there, standing there like an idiot in my hyper-clean jumpsuit (most blue maintenance suits were filthy with grease and oil stains), John walked up, hugged me, and cried out, “Billy, you look just like your Dad, I’m John, let me walk you around, you and me are going to be friends.” In that play title referred to above, he was Tweety Bird, just a very vibrant, comical guy, bald on top with pair of coke bottle glasses that made his eyes look enormous. Small, too, about 5’ 2” or so, compared to the grumbly bear of a man Al was. When I got paired off to help John, I knew I was in for a day of philosophical conversations, him talking about his wife and kids (two of whom were my age), a little work, a lot of bantering. Make no mistake, the guy worked his ass off, but I took note regarding the attitude he had about work, that you should enjoy doing it, see purpose in it whatever it was, and just do it.

How he and Al became best friends, I have no idea. Obviously, they worked in the same department, from what I remember, starting around the same week, too. I should mention that the factory opened up in the early 60’s, and my father was among the first few dozen employees along with John and Al. For that reason alone, I got along with Al as, like so many other guys, he saw my father in me. (I never understood that as I didn't sense any physical or personality resemblance, but there it was.) It was good to see that whatever Dad’s reputation was at work, there were people in this place who treated me with respect as a sign of respect for my father. So whatever he was doing there, he was doing it right. The guys who worked with Dad would often joke about the hiding places he had and how he knew how to kill time when necessary, but I also got the vibe they were learning their jobs by watching him and were pretty impressed with him. (Dad turned down a few opportunities to move up the corporate latter as they would have involved pulling up roots and leaving the area, and I can tell you, it was a chore to get Dad past the county line. I think all the traveling he did in the armed forces as a mechanic, which he’d go on doing for another decade after WW II ended, wore him out in terms of moving around.)

The main reason Ed and I were hired, beyond helping out in Maintenance, was to paint the metal portion of the factory roof. There were a lot of ducts, air vents and piping that were on the roof, and they had to be weather-proofed to avoid rusting. Ditto the wooden walk ways that led all along the roof, which was a sea of gravel with these various metallic configurations sprouting up like towns every few yards. It was a big job and would take most of the summer.

I’ve never been more tan in my life than I got those two summer at the factory. Because Ed and I would go up there around 9:30, take the morning and afternoon breaks, and lunch, but most of the day was spent painting in the summer sun, in an environment that was a lot like a desert. It only made sense to unzip the jump suit down to the waist, use the arms as a belt, and get tanned while we worked. We’d occasionally get busted for this, as one of the maintenance managers would routinely check up on us during the day. But most days were a strange, lonely hum with a paint brush – everything hummed up there, you cold hear the factory working through the sounds these ducts and pipes would make. I can’t recall which, but one of the managers was a prick, an older guy, about the only guy who didn’t like my Dad, but I took solace, because a lot of guys thought this guy was a bit of an asshole. Still, I recall him dressing me down a few times for not wearing my full uniform … in 90-degree heat and direct sunlight on a roof filled with metal and gravel. We didn’t take him that seriously, and he didn’t take us that seriously because he knew we’d be gone soon enough. (The best managers were usually guys who had worked the factory floor in some sense for years and had been promoted to manager – for every guy like that, there were three or four who had always been nothing but managerial types with little or no feel for the men who worked for them.)

The only other major job we had, near each summer's end, was to build "coffins" for burnt-out and old dyes, which were long, extremely heavy metal rolls that were used to produced sheets of plastic. We were building literally coffin-style casings out of wood to hold these things, and I actually got pretty good at carpentry for a very short while, as we'd have to build first a proportionately-sized box, and then wooden frames inside to hold the bars on each end, finished off with a lid for the casket. We'd also drive these things to a near-by warehouse in a delivery truck (Ed drove as he knew how to drive a stick) and put them away -- a fun job to be honest as it kept us busy for a few weeks and we had a clear-cut goal each day.

It became a treat to take breaks as it meant human contact in the lunchroom, a gritty, no-frills place, a soda machine, some non-descript tables and metal folding chairs. But it meant “no work” and eating, so it was a good place. Guys would treat me like a novelty there because I was a college kid. I still remember reading “A Tale of Two Cities” on break there, which must have freaked out many a coworker as the Penthouse “Letters” Forum would have been more in line, and trying to choke back tears at the book’s end. There was a lot of joking, a lot of complaining. I recall one little guy with a beard who worked on the floor, complaining about the “college kids getting a tan on the roof while I work my ass off.” I look back and recognize that even then, I could have kicked the shit out of the little ogre, but I kept my mouth shut at the time as I could see this guy was just an unhappy little prick, and my being there was simply a lightning rod for his misery. Had he goaded me into a fight, I probably would have been booted off the summer program and lost a good chunk of change.

Some of the younger guys tended to be fuck-ups … I don’t know why as that particular factory was far above the working conditions of most factories in the area. There was one guy in particular who was just borderline crazy, came in one day missing his front teeth, said he had tried to bite a fire hydrant. Whether that was true or not, who knows – he probably got into a fight at a local bar and got his teeth knocked out. But you never knew with him. There were some real outdoorsmen there, too. One guy told about running over a sea turtle while on vacation in South Carolina. Got out of his car, realized the turtle wasn’t dead, so he got out a tire iron and beat it to death to make sure. Threw the turtle in the back of his pick-up and had turtle soup the rest of his vacation.

I’d check in with Dad when in the lunch room, but there was no rule that we had to sit together. He was often sitting with his crew, talking shit about the day’s work, and I’d often be with the maintenance guys, talking about what have you. I recall one guy, Harry, who was the biggest character in the factory, who worked in the dye shop, where they’d clean the huge, smooth dyes that would need to go back to the factory floor ASAP so the guys in production could keep pace with their orders. In terms of the plastic, think saran wrap, or any rolls of plastic – there are hundreds of kinds of plastic products that would come out of the plant based on orders from manufacturers. One of our Christmas presents at home every year was plastic sleds made in the factory, simply rolls of thick plastic with a handle on one end. If you sprayed Pam on the bottom of those things, they were like rocket sleds.

Harry was always flirting with the women in the place, a big, burr-headed guy who was a lot like Curly in The Three Stooges. (I should also mention that there were a handful of guys there who were Three Stooges scholars, buying books on the comedy trio and having deep discussions on the pluses/minuses of Shemp versus Curly Joe.) We got along great – most people did with Harry. His thing was to crack me up while I was eating. He’d often talk about the various kinds of shits he was taking lately and was so graphic in his descriptions that at first everyone would be grossed out, but after awhile, laughing hysterically. He got me a few times, laughing so hard I couldn’t finish eating. The guy was just naturally funny. The odd thing? The dye shop had to be the worst job in the place. Harry would spend all day burning dried plastic off hot metallic rollers, some a foot or two long, others a few feet long and weighing tons. He’d stand there with a blowtorch and a putty knife, melting and scraping off burnt plastic with some really noxious fumes coming off as a result, an then cleaning each roller with an odd mix of ammonia and acetone. A toxic, hot place to work. But Harry had a blast most days. Again, another sign to me that if you put your mind into your work and took pleasure in doing the job, you could do just about anything and still manage to be reasonably happy.

The few women in the place were usually middle-aged, hard as nails on the outside, but matronly once you talked to them. They had to be tough to put up with a room full of belching, farting guys talking sports and hunting all day. But there was one girl, probably my age, and beautiful, who worked on the floor, and for the life of me, she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Blue eyes, long brown hair, a great pair of tits that were perfectly shaped in her white jumpsuit. I don’t know what is was, as the other guys said she wasn’t married or dating. The other college guys came up zero with her, too – not sure if it was a college thing or she just didn’t want to deal with any guys in that place. She seemed really out of place there, like a model who had wandered in for a fashion shoot and was now held prisoner.

The few guys in the place around my age, i.e., in their early 20s, did tend to be standoffish with the college guys doing summer work. And my quiet response was usually, what the fuck, I can’t help that. Every older guy I worked with in the place told me he’d break my legs if he ever saw me come in there as a full-time worker. Not that it seemed like a bad place to me to work. But they were coming at it from years of experience, while I was a novelty worker there for a few months in summer, not being exposed to the same pressures in work or life that they had going on. There was one college guy who did just that – said, fuck it, I’m just not going back to college in the fall, I like it here. A big guy, bigger than Ed, and you know what? He had that vibe about him that he would be better off in a factory, and was probably forcing himself to go to college for his parents’ sake, who were probably non-too-pleased with his choice. In terms of factories, there were a lot worse ones to work in than that one.

I’ll never forget at the end of the first day, after getting out of my uniform, standing there in my shorts and t-shirt. I was by the work clock, waiting for Dad, had just punched out, was saying goodbye to the people I’d met that day as they left. As I bent over to untie my work shoes, I found that I couldn’t – my stomach would cramp up each time. This was the first time I’d been on my feet for 8-9 hours. When you go to school, you’re sitting most of the day. The summer jobs I’d had before, all lawn mowing and landscaping, were a few intense hours of physical labor followed by immediate rest. This was eight hours of standing with two 15 minute breaks and 30-minute lunch hour, but otherwise on my feet all day. It was a bit of a shock.

Dad and I would drive to and from work together in his shitty Dodge, and that’s when we’d talk about work, the people I should befriend, those I should watch myself around. He’d been in that place since the early 60s (this was 1983-84), was really one of the “founding fathers” of the place, so he knew it inside and out. I got to see a whole different side to him because of the summer factory job, and I liked it. I could see that he was well-respected at work, that he wasn’t known as a shitbird or the type of pain-in-the-ass worker I’ve dealt and worked with many times over my work life. The guy who was quiet and tight-lipped around the house was actually pretty gregarious at work in his own way, and I knew his work ethic coming out of the Depression and fighting in World War II, followed by years in the service, was something people recognized on the job.

And I got to see and feel what it was all about: the working-class thing. Honestly? It’s not that much different from the office thing. I see it this way. In a factory, the worst things going are the drudgery and the boredom of doing what becomes a very basic job (believe me, most jobs in a factory are nowhere near as basic as you’d think, take years to perfect, but once you do, become dull), on top of dealing with fucked-up managerial types and never having any job security as you recognize yourself as low man on the totem pole in the corporate hierarchy (despite doing the work that must get done to produce goods). In an office, the worst things going on are psychological warfare, hideous, high-school like games of status and one-upsmanship, mental stress that’s often far worse than anything you’d find in a factory, dealing with fucked-up managerial types and never having any job security no matter where you are on the corporate totem pole.

They both have their pluses and minuses. From having experienced both, I can see the one thing I miss about factory work is the sense of camaraderie, the feeling of being in something together, that you’re not out to screw over your coworker, not just because it doesn’t get you anywhere, but simply because it’s the wrong thing to do. In offices … christ, I’ve met some seedy, truly evil individuals, people who should be in jail or beaten mercilessly. The thing about office work? Repeat after me: more money. That’s pretty much it. Guys who work in predominately male factories think “hanging around pussy” all day must be heaven, but I think I’ve detailed in the past the problems that come with mixed-sex work places (type in "Corporate Amazonia" on this blog’s search window for a real treat). I rarely get that “guy” vibe in offices that was common currency in the factory, and when I do, I watch myself, as I know people will be noting this and making generally wrong character assessments as a result. Offices are often tense places filled with unhappy people – I think part of the reason people like working with me is I’m not tense, and my main goal every day is to get shit done with a minimum of hassle and/or attitude, working that straight line from Point A (9:00 am) to Point B (5:00 pm).

Just like Dad. He was lucky enough to dodge the fate of those poor bastards stuck in that small plastics factory that went down a few months ago. It wasn’t lost on me that on the day the doors were shuttered to the place, probably after a tearful, final announcement from the owners, the workers gathered in the break room one last time, that this could have just as easily been my Dad among them, getting the heave-ho, maybe a few weeks severance and a slap on the back. I’m glad Dad got better in his work life, and I know he’d be glad that I was in a place reading about such a sad occurrence as opposed to being stuck in it. I think that’s why he was glad to have me there in his factory for a few summers, and why he wanted to never see me there again.

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