OK, I just lied to you. Writing for the weekly alternative paper isn’t a living wage for a middle-aged man, unless you want to sleep in your parents’ basement. And I did do just that, until they had both died. So seven years ago I had to take a second job.
On my first day at the toy factory, I got hit on the head by an empty plastic bucket. It happened while I was reaching down into a huge cardboard container – it’s called a gaylord, about four feet square and four feet deep – filled with the polyurethane powder that fed the furnace molds. The powder was measured out in one of the buckets and placed within reach of the two machinists standing on a platform over me. One of them dumped the powder into a mold and tossed the empty bucket back into the gaylord, the other used a pneumatic drill to bolt shut the machine, then and smacked a big, green button, which swung the arm holding the mold into a furnace. After a few minutes, the polyurethane emerged as a scorching-hot child’s toy. On some shifts, the toy was a yellow plastic refrigerator. On other shifts, it was a miniature dining-room set. Other furnaces labored over different toys that trained children for their adult roles as homemakers or illegal immigrant kitchen help. Tiny sinks, tiny ovens, tiny frying pans.
The empty bucket didn’t hurt much. I set it aside and continued filling more buckets with powder, right up to the line drawn on the inside of the bucket, getting the powder as close to the line as I could. I was pretty good at filling those buckets. I had a future with this company.
Another bucket hit me on the side of the head.
The bucket fell inside the box, and I reached inside and grabbed it and tossed it aside without looking. But I did think: “That wasn’t an accident….”
A few minutes later, another bucket hit me on the back of my neck. I looked up at the machine platform. Two guys in sweat-stained T-shirts, the machinists, stared back. The expression on their faces was, “What are you gonna do about it?”
By the end of that first shift, I’d been hit by the buckets 27 times. I didn’t do anything about it. I just kept loading the buckets and stacking them on the platform, and the machinists kept dumping them into the molds, running them into the furnace, and pulling out little yellow refrigerators.
The time clock buzzed at 3 o’clock, I went home with my clothes and hair and ears filled with polyurethane dust and figured that was enough. I was living like a hobo with my thumb to the wind anyway. It blows around me with the whine of a pedal-steel guitar, an ache that I awaken to every morning. I didn’t need to take shit from high-school dropouts to remind me of all that. At The Driftwood that night, I was melancholy marinating in whiskey.
But I got up the next morning and went back. And I kept getting faster at loading those buckets. Get ahead of the machines. I handled the buckets well enough to advance quickly through the company, leaving the buckets behind as I was promoted through a series of shitty jobs. My favorite was a warehouse assignment where the toys were assembled, packed in boxes, the boxes stapled shut and stacked on wood pallets to be shipped around the country. I liked the guys in the warehouse, they had time to fool around.
One of them was an ungainly goof, Sammy, who walked the line between competent enough to keep his job and incompetent enough to avoid being promoted out of the warehouse. Sam – I never did learn his last name – was slapping together the ovens one afternoon when he reached for a new stack of the black-tinted plastic windows for the little oven doors. The window on top of the stack was covered with a smooth layer of dust. Sam called a couple of us over to check it out, and with his fingernail delicately scratched in the dust, MERRY FUCKING XMAS.
We were laughing so hard that Sam could hardly steady himself enough to snap the little plastic window onto the little plastic door and get the oven into the box and staple it shut. “I wish I could see that kid’s face on Christmas morning,” someone howled. For the rest of the afternoon, we snickered and called out to each other, “Ho, ho, no.”
That was a few years ago. Now I was a machinist. A slave to the whims of the furnace cycle. During breaks between feeding molds into the furnace, I’d wipe my sleeve across my face, swing my baseball cap around backward on my head, lean on the railing and look out across the factory floor. My hands were calloused and red from pulling the hot toys from the furnace, but no one wore gloves. It was a tough-guy thing. From my perch, I could see a new guy leaning deep into his gaylord, scraping his buckets along the bottom, loading them for the next round of toys.
I watched the business of toys. Ants scrambling to assemble pleasure. I saw the supervisors gesturing, the fork lifts scurrying about and a couple of guys on break standing in an open delivery bay door, escaping the heat. Two dozen women hovered over an assembly line, cutting plastic plates and plastic silverware away from the thin plastic frames than held them together, a part of the manufacturing process. They flung the forks, spoons and plates into a box creeping down the assembly line, and flipped the plastic scrap into a pile on the floor. With the exception of the secretaries in the air-conditioned offices up front, and the two quality-control people – who everyone avoided – these were the only women in the plant.
Every 15 minutes or so, a ripped-up old soul staggering behind a push broom swept away the scrap pile. In my seven years, I had never held that particular job.
During my three- and four-minute breaks, I often had great thoughts. I wrote passages in my head for Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There. But mostly, I had mediocre thoughts. I watched the women leaning over the assembly lines, saw their shirts darkening with sweat, and tried to imagine what they were talking about. They were always talking. I rarely spoke to my platform partner. It was too loud out there, like yelling across the mouth of hell. We didn’t have anything to talk about, anyway.
The assembly-line women had nothing to say to me. I’d wipe the sweat from my brow, lean on my railing and wonder if they had noticed me up on that platform. It was, after all, a position of responsibility, and called for high levels of physical strength and endurance, unlike pushing a broom. When you reached the platforms, you were a god in that big room.
Some of these women were attractive, with their long hair tied up and out of the way, or corn rows carefully tucked beneath shower caps to hold off the polyurethane dust. In the summer they wore shorts, because it was hot in the building. I imagined, when the shift ended at 3 o’clock, slipping out the door with a couple of them, and maybe a few of the guys, for beers at the bar a half-mile down the road, maybe dance to Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” on the juke box.
But they never asked me, and I never asked them. They didn’t consider me one of them. I didn’t consider myself one of them. The other machinists lounged on their machines like great, winking gods, full of confidence and scorn. They used the same words that I did, but their gestures were a different language. They shrugged, and the world rolled from their shoulders and into the gutter.
The time clock buzzed at 3 o’clock. I picked up an empty plastic bucket and flung it at the new guy leaning over the big box of powder. It hit him on the back of the head and skidded across the floor.