Apr 272009
Photo by webhamster

Photo by webhamster

On my way into work this morning I ended up following a tractor trailer that had a flat bed on the back stacked high with wooden pallets, and for a few minutes I was lost in memories of a period in my life where it looked like I was going to end up living the the blue collar world.

After I got back from my largely unsuccessful turn at being a roadie for the Renaissance Festival I spent a few months wallowing at my Mother’s house being largely useless.  When I say wallow I’m being pretty literal.  I slept all day, stayed up all night, smoked like a chimney in my bedroom, and was pretty much an out-and-out drain on her finances and her sanity.  She was constantly on my case to get a job and do something with my life, and I was constantly ignoring her requests and continuing my daily routine of “get up, waste my life, go back to bed.”

One day, however, she knocked on my door at the ungodly hour of noon or something like that and simply said “Come on, Mike.  Get up.  It’s time to find a job.”

My eyes snapped open and the first thought that popped through my mind was She’s right.

Two days later I had a job working as a temp for Skaraborg Invest (USA), Incorporated.

SII was an injection molding plant.  Specifically, we made CD jewel cases.  The job itself was pretty simple.  I monitored the machines as they put out boxes of jewel cases.  I would inspect every sixth box or so that came down the line and make sure there weren’t any flaws in the product.  If there were I’d notify the supervisor on duty so that he could make adjustments.  I would put the finished product on a pallet, load more boxes into the machine, and repeat the process.  When a pallet was full I moved it over to this nifty spinning platform and cover it in shrink wrap for shipping.  At certain points throughout the night I would fold up boxes to prepare them filling.

Sometimes I got to drive a fork lift.  I highly reccomend driving a forklift, or even better standing on the forks of a forklift as it’s being driven, as a recreational activity.  It’s hella fun.

After a while I impressed them with my abilities and they hired me on full time from the temp agency (translation : I showed up on time and sober and wasn’t a complete moron).  Christmas rolled around and as a Christmas bonus they gave everyone who worked for the company an entire weeks worth of pay as a bonus.  This was big money for me at the time, and a pretty sweet reward all around.  This was the early 90’s, you see, and compact disc sales were through the roof.  We really couldn’t make jewel cases fast enough.

Eventually SII announced they were moving to Lake Wales, Florida, to expand their operations.  They offered to let anyone who wished to move over with them do so if they wanted to keep their job.  I quite literally had nothing going on here in St. Petersburg so I decided to go with them.  We spent a few weeks getting the factory ready (note to any of you who do industrial painting : epoxy based paint is evil) and then we moved over.

After a short time in Polk County I started attending the Polk Community College.  It’s this point in my life I reference when I mention the fact that at one time I was working full time, going to school full time, and participating in all of the shows at the college becuase I was on a theater scholarship.  I was pretty much on top of the world.  I was in great shape, had a decent job, was making good friends, and enjoying life.  At the time the job was just a stepping stone towards my acting career.

Of course, as often happens to the aspiring artist, life kind of got in the way of my plans.  I met a girl, we fell in love, and suddenly my highly focused solo life got a lot more complicated.  We moved back to Pinellas County and I went to work for the Home Shopping Network.  I got fired from that job and attempted to make a go of getting a job at another plastics factory in Pinellas county but eventually ended up working in a convenience store.  The girl got pregnant, we got married, and in December of 1995 our son was born.  We were living with my friend Steve in his really small house and I was making six bucks an hour or so working the midnight shift in a gas station.

I caught wind that SII was expanding operations and made a few phone calls.  Pretty soon the decision was made to move back to Polk County.  There was talk of training me to be a supervisor.

At that point I was pretty much convinced that my life path was being laid out for me.  I was going to be a blue collar factory worker for the rest of my days.

Fortunately (although it didn’t seem like it at the time) things didn’t turn out quite that way when I got back to Polk County.  The supervisor position they dangled in front of me wasn’t at their state-of-the-art modern facility but at this piece of shit side project they had running in a building across the street.  They were using a temporary mold to make some kind of flower potting plants they were going to sell at Wal-Mart, and the entire shift was spent pulling these crappy bowls out of the machine and trimming all the excess “flash” from them with a box cutter.  I still have a deep scar on my left thumb from doing that.  This was during a really harsh winter in a building with no insulation and no heat.  The only thing we had to keep us warm was an orange grove heater.  Something like this…

Cantherm EC 200 Indirect Fired Portable Heater

Cantherm EC 200 Indirect Fired Portable Heater

Except ours was about 20 years old.  If you were standing directly in front of it you were blasted by a wave of super heated air that did absolutely nothing in the realm of radiant heat.  You were either boiling or frozen.  There were no other alternatives.

The amount of suck I was dealing with at Blue Chip (the name of the side company) on top of the suck of being a new parent led to me being fired due to excessive absenteeism.  My career in the plastics industry was cut off at the knees.

Which is ok.  A short time after that I got a part-time job working in the business machines department for Staples, which eventually turned into a full-time gig.  That got us back to Pinellas County when I got a lead position at the store in Bradenton, then eventually Clearwater.  My computer experience helped me get an entry level programming job with Auction Broker Software, and eventually (through a long series of events chronicled here) got me where I am today.

But for a brief time it really looked like i was going to be a factory guy, and I really think those years helped define who I am today.  It was, for the most part, mind numbing and tedious work and I’ll never say it wasn’t.  That being said, there was something honestly rewarding about it.  We were creating things from scratch.  We were producers.  It was hard, sweaty, and intellectually unrewarding work but at the end of your shift you could look at the stacks of completed product and say “I helped make that.”  There was something immensely satisfying in that.

I think more than anything those years help me to appreciate what I have now and explain why I’m so shocked over the fact that people seem to just casually chuck off jobs, even with things as bad as they are right now.  There are times when I wish I was doing something else, something more artistic, and there are certainly times when I get a sense of wanderlust and feel the urge to just pick everything up and start over again somewhere else.  When I start feeling that way, though, I remember those years in the factory.  I remember feeling like I’d never amount to anything more than a line man or maybe a shift supervisor and I say “No.  Protect what you have.”

So there you go.  The story of Mike the working man.

All brought on by a tractor trailer carrying a load of wooden pallets.

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  4 Responses to “Muscle Memory”

  1. “It was hard, sweaty, and intellectually unrewarding work but at the end of your shift you could look at the stacks of completed product and say ‘I helped make that.’ There was something immensely satisfying in that.”

    That sense of accomplishment is why I occasionally entertain brief fantasies of going back into landscaping or construction. I don’t miss my job at the big-box hardware store, but being able to look around at a big pile of stuff and know you’re the one who put it there with your own two hands has something to recommend it.

    … and the forklift thing, too.

  2. That’s a great write-up, Mike. I can recognize myself in many parts of the story. Only I went sort of the other way around. Spent ten years slaving in IT and wanted to do something *real* for once. And what’s more real than driving a tractor trailer and bringing you, for example, a load of wooden pallets. A lot more real than, say, writing some sort of middleware application stack that I can only explain to a layman using a whiteboard.

    However, I have also seen that that business is rough as hell, that I compete head-to-head with Polish guys who work for $2 an hour, and that I don’t get treated with a modicum of respect the way I did in the IT world, so in a way things are kind of coming full circle for me right now.

    Right this second I’m at the “stay up all night, sleep all day, chainsmoke and generally be a drag” phase, but I’ll get out of it as soon as this fucking depression ends.

    It’s amazing to see how different people have similar experiences, it’s even better if they are eloquent enough to tell their stories and leave them somewhere for people like me to find them. Nice job, Mike. Looking forward to reading your blog again. Definitely worth a bookmark.

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