I was eighteen and ready to spend the summer sleeping in and watching TV. Just a few weeks after I finished 12th grade, though, my mother screwed up the agenda by insisting that I get a job. Way to cramp my style, Mom.
Dayton has little industry. It used to manufacture coke for pig iron, and the old coke ovens are still up in the woods, covered in vines. The train that used to stop downtown now runs straight through. Logging trucks and semis pass through continuously, from places further north to places further south and back again. There are a lot of factories, including La-Z-Boy, Kayser Roth (Hue and No Nonsense panty hose), Robinson Manufacturing (low-end underpants and tube socks), and Suburban Manufacturing. There is a smattering of fast food chains. There are a few small businesses, some of which have receptionists. My mother intended for me to be a receptionist.
She took me to a job placement agency. The woman at the front desk gave me a list of job skills to check off. I marked the ones that had to do with typing, proofreading, and using Microsoft applications. A few days later, I got a call that they had found a job for me.
The agency gave me another form to fill out. They sat me in a room with some other people, and we watched a short informational video on workplace attitude and grooming. They sent me into the bathroom, and I peed into a cup and carried to cup to the office of a white-haired man who apparently did the drug testing at his desk.
I had been placed at Suburban Manufacturing, a factory that produced parts for RVs. I was assigned to the mid shift, 3:45 in the afternoon to midnight, with a 15-minute break for lunch. The heat in the factory was oppressive; in the summer, even the nights in southeast Tennessee are sweltering. I was a scrawny teenager with noodle arms and low blood pressure, and when I showed up on my first day I found that my co-workers were all tough, leather-skinned chain-smokers. In the middle of the factory was a pair of industrial fans, each taller than I was, failing to stir the air. Every inhaled breath fell heavily down my throat and rested in the bottom of my lungs. I wore a pair of overalls over a loose T-shirt, and within half an hour my back was drenched with sweat.
"You got sent by the job agency, didn't you?" one said wisely. She spat on the floor and jammed her cigarette back into her mouth. "Yeah, that's how most of them come. There's a 90-day probationary period before they have to give you benefits. They hire on a whole shift at a time, work them 90 days, and then fire the whole lot, except maybe five or six who work real good. They kept me on. Ronnie in paint, too, and a couple guys I don't know."
This week, my department was working on the frames of the water heater doors for Winnebagos. The frames were punched out of metal sheets on the other side of the plant, on a press that sent up sparks and made a bang! sound. Then the frames were hung on a conveyor line and sent up through a hole in the wall into the paint department. They came out powder-coated and ready to be wrapped in foam tape. That's what we did: pick up a strip of foam tape and a metal frame, peel the backing off of the tape, and wrap it around the outside of the frame. Then we put the frame down on a pallet, picked up another frame and strip of tape, and did it again. And again, and again, and again.
The edges of the frames were sharp. Midway through the workday, I discarded my shredded cut-proof gloves and put on a new pair. There were boxes of Band-Aids that I raided to patch the deeper slashes on my hands. At the end of the day, bleeding and aching and panting, clothing stiff with sweat, I staggered out to my mother's car. I cried partway home. I peeled off my overalls and T-shirt and fell into bed. When my mother shook me awake, it was time to put on the freshly washed and dried overalls and T-shirt and get back into the car. My grandmother called the house that day and insisted that I quit. I refused.
On the third day, my grandmother called the house again. I didn't quit. I wrapped the metal doors and wished for death. I went into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, and discovered that my legs wouldn't stand up again. I refilled my water bottle over and over. I tried to tune out the guy who gyrated his hips and chanted, "I like it! I love it! I want some more of it!" every time we emptied a pallet of frames.
On the fourth day, my grandmother called again. My mother told me I was quitting whether I liked it or not. She called the job agency. They required only two days notice.
On day four, I assembled latches for the water heater doors. This was more difficult but involved no lacerations. There were four pieces to the latches. I plucked a washer, a spring, a connector piece, and a little plastic toggle from bins and jammed them together through the metal frame. The like it, love it, want it guy was nervous. His 90 days were almost up. He didn't know where he'd work after Suburban laid him off.
On day five, I was assigned to the conveyor hooks that took the frames into the paint department. As the painted frames returned through another hole in the wall, I unhooked them and stacked them onto pallets. The hooks moved a little faster than I did. I fell behind and eventually was jumping to try to reach the frames before they disappeared up into the wall a second time. A young man working a second conveyor belt took pity on the awkward geek. He snatched all of the frames off of his hooks, snatched all of mine down, and got back to his own hooks in time to keep pace with the traveling frames, all without a word of criticism. This process repeated every five minutes for the entirety of the day.
On day six it was back to the latches. I took a spring, a washer, a connector piece, and a little plastic toggle. I assembled them, and then put the latch into my overalls. When I walked out of the sweltering plant into the Tennessee midnight, I carried a little piece of Hell burning in my bib pocket.
Failing to make it through the summer at my assigned workplace required a follow-up trip to the job placement agency. The white-haired man was irate. In his office, I ducked my head and looked at my hands, palms crisscrossed in fine scabs. I looked up at the man. He was yelling about what a wuss I turned out to be, how I wouldn't go anywhere in life if I quit all the tasks that weren't easy, how ashamed he was to have thought I had what it took to work a real job. He slammed his hands down on the desk. He had only one thumb. I thought:
He lost his thumb doing this kind of work. Now they pay him to send more workers.
On my way out of the agency, I saw two young men in the waiting room. They were big, brawny good ol' boy types, with cutoff T-shirts and grubby jeans. Both were sweating nervously.
"They're gonna send us to Suburban, aren't they?" one said to the other.
"Oh, Jesus," the second one breathed.
I ended up working at Wendy's. Initially there was a lot of teasing and a little awe for the college-bound new hire. One of the managers asked if I'd had a job before.
"Just six days," I said, "at Suburban."
The manager swore.
"I've worked every factory in the county," he said, listing them all off. "Suburban is the worst. They had me on the press. After two hours, I said 'Screw you all' and walked out the door. Didn't stop to tell anyone. Right out the door. Six days? What's wrong with you?"
"I guess I'm just stupid," I said.
That fall, I packed up and moved from East Tennessee to Northern Virginia. I bought sheets for my dorm bunk. I bought a rug, and a few dishes, and a desk lamp. I bought textbooks and drafting supplies. I went to movies and ate out with new friends, and spent every cent I earned over the summer.
I have moved 12 times in the last nine years. I've lived in dorms, townhouses, apartments, an attic, and a walk-in closet. Sometimes I'm moving up, and sometimes I'm moving down. 12 times I've packed up everything I own, thinking about the success or the failure that is taking from where I am to where I'm going to be. Every once in a while, when packing or unpacking, I open a box and find that spring with the latch on the end. I think: Nothing since those six days has been or ever will be so exhausting, so pointless, so endless, so utterly unrewarding. I close the box with a huge smile on my face. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'm not working for Suburban Manufacturing.