Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Automated board loading machinery

I spent a good chunk of the summer of 1993 trying to find a job.  I returned back to Elkhart for the summer, because even though that summer of 1992 in Bloomington was life-changing and ended up becoming my first book, I made absolutely no money selling glowsticks and telemarketing.  I needed real work, factory work, the kind of thing that would pay me more than minimum wage in exchange for spending three months operating a punch press or doing the same thing over and over, thousands of times a night.

I went to Manpower, the temp agency, with some hope of finding anything even vaguely computer-related, like changing backup tapes or reinstalling DOS programs or beating dot-matrix printers with a wrench.  But this was 1993, and there weren’t a lot of computers in factories.  And most of the places that did have them would farm out the maintenance and support through their home office, so some guys working at what was then called Anderson Consulting would drive out of the Chicago corporate office when an IBM mainframe went south, and bill all the hours back to the account.  I had a girlfriend who once spent a summer working for Manpower, loaned out to Miles Pharmaceutical doing mindless Lotus 1-2-3 stuff.  She only made a buck or two above minimum wage, and the work was mindless and air-conditioned.  I knew just as much about WordPerfect and Lotus – I’d worked as a computer consultant for the university for two years at this point.  But if you went to Manpower and you had a vagina and you knew how to read, they gave you the typing test and put you in the virtual secretary pool.  If you did not, they pulled out the manual labor listings and tried to slot you in at a factory somewhere.

The first day, they loaned me out to UPS, to help a guy do an inventory count of all of their repair parts for vehicles.  We went to the big Elkhart warehouse, which was just down the road from where Ray lived, and it seemed like it was only a year or two old at that time.  I don’t know where they used to be; I just remember a big empty field suddenly becoming a giant ugly UPS warehouse, built overnight from those prefab metal panels they used to construct every factory in Elkhart.  I don’t entirely remember the system we used for the inventory, although it certainly involved paper and not some kind of tabletized bar code reading beep-beep making Star Trek computer thing.  It was more like a clipboard full of tractor-feed paper forms, and the guy I worked with would say “1005734-slash-22-spec-4” and I would mark a box and say “check.”  This went on for hours, and I watched a bunch of guys in brown shorts dismember the contents of a large semi, throwing boxes onto conveyors, taking a big truck trailer and reformatting it into contents for dozens of smaller trucks.

Two observations that stuck with me: one, the backs of UPS trucks have clear ceilings.  They aren’t really clear as much as they’re transparent, like a see-through tinted plastic, that lets light through so they can see in the truck without lights.  It’s a sort of brown-green shade.  Two: those giant trucks are powered by four-cylinder engines.  Each cylinder is gigantic, coffee can-sized, but it’s not a V-8.  Someone must have done the math on the best engine to use for all of that stop-start traffic while hauling literal tons of boxes, and that’s what they got.

One of the mechanics was an old guy, an Ernest Borgnine from Airwolf looking dude, who spent the afternoon dismantling a huge four-banger, wrenching on it and carefully removing each part.  We stopped and ate lunch with him.  I told him I was into computers, and he produced a folded-up magazine ad for a 486-33DX computer, something from the back of Popular Mechanics or something.  It lauded that the machine came with dozens of software titles, a sound card, a microphone.  “You don’t even need to know how to program.  You can just talk to it,” he said.  Maybe it recorded voice memos, but this was twenty years pre-Siri.  “Well, you still need to…”  “No!  You just talk to it!”  I always wanted to see if he actually bought it and then did a “help computer” into the mic and got nothing but a DOS prompt.

That job lasted a day, and the inventory was over.  The next morning, they sent me to a factory in Middlebury, something with a vaguely generic name, like A&B Wood Works.  I was to report there at 6 AM.  I remember trying to go to bed at something like 8:00 the night before, which was completely stupid, since half the time I stayed up until four in the morning, and now I needed to wake up at four in the morning.  I didn’t have a car, and this place was maybe a half-hour away, so my Mom had to leave early and drive me there.  At the time, I was trying to avoid everyone in my family, so spending an hour a day in the car with my Mom wasn’t ideal.

At this factory, they painted the chipboard pieces that make up entertainment centers and bookshelves.  The whole factory was essentially a huge loop of a conveyor belts.  One guy would put a board on the belt, and it would go through a sprayer that laid down a coat of lacquer paint.  Then it would go through a drying station, which would cure the paint quickly with hot air.  Then it would get flipped, and go through a second time, and then it would get pulled and stacked.  You’d do a couple of stacks per pallet, a pallet every couple of hours, a few pallets a day, a few dozen pallets per semi truck, a few trucks per order, and then you’d change color or change lumber type and do it again.

Maybe four or five people ran the entire factory.  They worked every day, from 6 AM to 6 PM.  Almost every week, they would work five days a week, sometimes six or seven.  They paid time and a half for every hour past 40, and double time for every hour past 60.  I think the minimum wage at that time was $4.25, and Manpower paid me $6.60.  So the average minimum wage burger-slinger made $170 a week, and at Manpower, I’d make $264.  But if I stayed at this job, I’d make $396 a week, plus an extra $158.40 for each weekend day I worked.  That meant if they did work seven days a week, I’d make more than a week’s flipping-burgers pay over the course of a weekend in the factory.  How hard could this be?

Factory work is always mind-numbing, but this particular setup seemed worse than normal.  It took a fair amount of effort to pull boards off of the stack and slap them onto the conveyor.  That sounds easy, but it’s a full-body workout; it’s like slinging kettlebells around.  You have to spin and dip and pull and lift and heft and spin and drop, all with precision.  And you do the same movements over and over and over.  The same exact movements.  The chipboard pieces aren’t heavy, but moving them in the same exact way makes them seem heavy.  I worked without gloves; when I asked if they had any, someone answered “we stopped paying the supplier, so they stopped delivering more gloves.”  The work was continuous, and I had to constantly supply boards.  I could barely think, and all of my thinking power went to one simple equation: $6.60 an hour, times 40 hours, plus 20 hours times 1.5 times 6.60.

Different factories have a different rhythm.  The best way to break the routine is to talk to someone, work at a machine next to another guy, pack boxes with someone else, find some job that requires you to stop every 20 minutes and sweep the floor or go to the other side of the building and get more parts.  But this job eliminated all of this.  You simply fed in boards, flipped boards, pulled boards, as fast as you could, just to keep up.  The machines weren’t deafening, but you didn’t work with anyone, as the people running the painter and dryer were stuck at their stations, a hundred feet away from you.  A guy ran a fork truck, but he was constantly moving around pallets, hauling in new blank boards and packing away the finished pieces.  We did stop for 20 minutes to eat a quick lunch, but I barely got to say hello to the coworkers before we got back to it.

A few hours into the shift, one of the boards grabbed the palm of my hand, gouged out a chunk of flesh.  I bled from the hand, but didn’t notice it, because I had to fight to keep up with the line.  The guy on the paint machine noticed it though, because I was bleeding onto the boards.  We were doing a run of black parts – those matte black bookshelves were all the rage in the 90s, and the department stores were selling them as fast as we could paint them.  So the blood-stained boards just got covered with a jet black, leaving behind no trace of my injury, although someone out there’s got a bookcase containing some of my genetic material sealed within.  The fork truck driver took over my spot for a minute, told me to go throw a band-aid onto my hand and get back to work.  I found a half-pilfered first aid kit, got fixed up, and went back to it.

It had been dark when I started work.  By the time we left, all but two hours of the day had passed, and all I wanted to do was eat and go back to bed.  Although the idea of going back and working 60, 70 hours a week seemed tantalizing from a financial aspect, I couldn’t see doing the same thing every day for the rest of the summer.  I told my mom I couldn’t go back, would try to find another temp assignment, maybe another agency.

Even though I felt exhausted, I couldn’t sleep that night.  My hand hurt, but mostly I still felt my body twisting, picking up boards, putting them back down, flipping them, pulling them, stacking them.  I closed my eyes and only saw the conveyor in front of me, heard the paint machine spraying down coats of matte black.  The only way I could sleep was to put a death metal CD on my headphones, on repeat, on low volume, a constant sound of something familiar to break up the automated feeling of being a board-loading machine.  I drifted in and out of sleep, in twenty minute fits and spurts, then took a shower and headed out on my ten-speed to find another job.