My Life on the Line
“This is the life,” I said to myself as I ran one of 40,000 pieces of plastic around a router, earplugs only somewhat muffling the machine sounds, the safety goggles pinching behind my ears, “that I warned my students they would have if they didn’t study.”
What was I doing there? Why did I go back for a second day? Why am I looking forward to a third? And why am I convinced that three, or maybe four, will probably be enough?
My stepson, Scott, owns Pak-Rite, a company that manufactures customized shipping and packing containers – for auto glass, robots, airplane wheels and the like. On this occasion they landed a huge project to construct specialized pallets for Walmart. Lots of them – and quickly. And while Pak-Rite had specialized machines to cut out and drill the plastic parts that separated the pallets, the sharp edges had to be rounded off, one edge at a time, by people like me. I thought at first it was by people not-so-much like me, but I was mistaken.
The process sounds simple. I reported for the second shift, from 3:30 – 11:30, got my safety glasses and earplugs, and received my two minutes of training. Each piece was roughly the size of a VHS cassette. I stood at a table with a whirling blade the size of my fingertip projecting from the surface. I was to run each of the twelve edges along the whirling blade, neatly rounding it off. Then I would stack them into a box. No problem. Scott gave me more instructions about raising and lowering the blade and changing the blade when it got dull, but I paid little attention to that. He was dealing with an English major whose only experience in working with his hands consisted of typing and making coffee.
There were, in fact, no problems – at least until I actually started working. How hard was I to push the piece against the blade? What happens if I slipped and my finger brushed against it? (Answer: nothing happened. But one of the guys working in the shop was missing a few fingers.) I pressed on, taking some pleasure in the small cloud of black sawdust I was creating.
After a few minutes Scott came by to check on my work. He noted that I was being consistent, by which he meant that I was somehow missing half of one edge of each piece. He suggested that I actually count the sides as I went along, and I’m grateful that he did not add, “if you can actually count to four three times.” He came by again with a couple more suggestions about how not to ruin these nearly indestructible objects. Scott likes things done right, even if it’s one of 40,000 invisible pieces for Walmart. His mom is the same way about my cleaning the shower.
Pretty soon I fell into a rhythm – something that Mark, Scott’s assistant, told me would happen. This is a good thing, because it frees up your mind to think of other things, which is a bad thing, because you find yourself doing every edge three of four times. I found that I had to pay pretty close attention, which was a good thing because it took my mind off of the Middle East, the oil spill, and how to use my new iPhone.
Stephen, another retired teacher who I’d recruited for the job, was experiencing a nostalgia high because forty years previously he’d worked on a Ford assembly line. On the drive to work he suggested we roll a pack of cigarettes into the sleeve of our t-shirts, and maybe get some tattoos. Pak-Rite is a union shop. Teamsters. I’d been a union rep for the teachers union, which is not quite the same thing. One of my jobs was to check the spelling on our picket signs. When a teamster comes up to you and pantomimes breaking a stick, it’s time for your break whether you want one or not. I wanted one, and I enjoyed being told what to do.
Soon – how soon I could not tell because the whole concept of time dissolves in the heat, noise and repetition – I had accumulated a stack of completed pieces. Scott and his assistants had stopped coming by to give me instructions I nodded at but couldn’t hear. Someone else – it might have been Stephen – had been moving my completed pieces into the box. Management must have felt that my skills had maxed out without an added task.
My Teamster buddies then came over to tell us it was time for lunch, so we dropped what we were working on, blasted the black fragments off our clothing, shoes, skin and hair with an air hose, and then staggered to the bathroom to wash up. We had thirty minutes for lunch but I had neglected to bring food. My wife had suggested we bring sandwiches but I declined – expecting maybe a buffet or perhaps something catered. Stephen drove us to a nearby Coney Dog place where I again washed up, marveling at the accumulation of black grit in the sink and wondering what the guy cleaning the drains would think. Over lunch Stephen explained to me that this was how America was built. I thought that insight explained a lot about our country.
Back on the job, it felt like I had never been gone. It felt like I’d been doing this for years. It felt like I’d be doing this forever, and that was OK. I’m not a Catholic, but I believe I had a glimpse of Purgatory. Someone had stacked eight columns of the untrimmed pieces beside my table, and I decided it would be fun to have the columns “race.” I tried to be random in where I selected the pieces to be ground, and trying to be systematically random (Think: koan.) effectively shut down the few remaining operational brain cells. I was approaching enlightenment.
Unfortunately I never discovered which column “won” because I noticed from the increasingly ragged look of my edges that it was time to adjust my router blade. Scott had gone home, and I had no clue how he had told me to adjust it. Also, the guy now supervising me did not yet know how stupid I was, and I was not eager to demonstrate by asking. So I simply moved to an empty machine with its own stacks of unground pieces.
I knew from my work with management consultants that being part of a work team means making good decisions. I decided that when I finished the stacks of parts I was working on that I would go home. I suspect Stephen was doing something similar because it was not very difficult to convince him to leave. As we were cleaning up our workspace, which for me meant deciding (another decision!) how little cleaning up I could get away with, my Teamster brothers came over and said it was time for another break. I told them we were leaving, and he looked puzzled because it was only 10:30, an hour before the end of our shift. I explained that I could leave whenever I stopped having fun, and that time was fast approaching. He still looked puzzled, but I can’t help that.
I returned a few days later without Stephen, who was vacationing in Maine. (Since he is a retired teacher, I was glad to have given him some work to vacation from.) This time the pieces were different – much thinner and with fewer holes in them. I was going to ask Scott how they would be used, but then I realized that I really didn’t care. The stacks were waiting for me. The routers were humming. I had a fresh set of earplugs. The force of work was drawing me toward my workplace at my machine.