Factory People

(creative nonfiction example)

I spend my 8-hour shift flopping bags of hot caramel sauce into cardboard boxes.

Most of the day I’m by myself, singing songs in my head because I can’t force myself to sing out loud.

Two caramel bags vertical in the box next to one horizontal one.

And I do that again and then again.

Then I push the box further down the assembly line.

I grab another cardboard box.

I plunk in nine more bags the same exact way.

And push it down the line the same way.

And I do it all again.

And again.

And again.

I would work in the factory for two summers, between years of college. It’s where I would learn that some of the brightest and most passionate people in the world do manual labor and people sometimes dream bigger working assembly lines than they do in ivory towers or conference rooms.

The bags are warm and wet in my hands.

They go through a tunnel that sprays them with hot water before they get to me. It must clean and disinfect them.

 Its 10 am. The day is half over. I go to the break room to eat lunch. Marco, who operates the line I work on, brings a grocery bag packed with bologna, a loaf of wonder bread, and a jar of mayo. He makes himself a sandwich every day. He offers everyone at the long break table his sandwich fixings.

Marco tells me about a metal concert he went to with his 13-year-old daughter this weekend. I laugh, picturing Marco and a little eighth-grader cheering at a metal concert. At first it contrasts a lot with his bubbly personality but as a he goes on about metal music, I get it. He shows me a picture of them on his phone, they both have very serious looks, crossed arms, and matching black t-shirts.

After my lunch I got back to the line.

Two caramel bags vertical in the box next to one horizontal one.

Again and again.

Push the full box down the line.

Pull an empty box.

Fill it up.

Again, again, again.

Later I ask Marco if he could be anything in the world, what would he be.

Marco doesn’t miss a beat. “A rock star,” he replies, laughing.

He doesn’t ask why I asked him that.

At noon I watch the bigwigs in suits from the factory next door go on their lunch. They look so small from the sixth floor. They all look the same: navy or black suit, ruddy, red face, bald spot. Just like the boss in my factory. He wears fancy shoes that match their suit and he watches us work and he watches the machines work to make sure we're all functioning properly.

Then he goes golfing, according to Larry, our factory’s gossip. The boss’s son goes to Princeton, Larry says. He raises his eyebrows and looks down his nose and smiles just to make sure I know his son is there not cause he's smart or deserves it, but because his dad owns a lot of stuff.

Then the day is over and I go home.

The next day Marco and I work with little packets of frosting. He runs the machine and I help the packets fall from one conveyer belt into a cardboard box sitting on another conveyor belt. I make sure they weigh a certain amount. Marco likes to joke around and mess with the scale. I panic and frosting packets go everywhere. He laughs.

I push down the little packets of frosting. The sharp plastic edges on the packets turn my blue plastic gloves into shreds and cover my hands with scratches but it’s alright because today I’m working with fun people. And the machine is quiet and small so we can talk as we work.

 Marco runs the lines and Alejandra packs along with me. Alejandra is a temporary worker, so she just has this job for just a few days and gets paid less than the regular workers. They’re both from Mexico and they pass the time by telling me stories of their home and I love it and wish I could escape to the bright place they describe.

Everyone says that the Mexican accent is the ugliest accent of all the Spanish accents. I disagree, I love it. It’s beautiful like a factory, like the valley where they all are. It’s unpolished and direct and a little gritty. It’s not poetic and wispy like French or Italian. But it seems a lot more real.

Alejandra and I talk about factory work. She used to work at the Cudahy meat packing plant. She says it was great—she worked in a giant freezer but she got free parts of meat sometimes. She tells me the temp agency found a new placement for her when she finishes here, but she probably won’t be able to take it. They require steel-toed boots, which cost about $80. She tells us about her baby and how she’s worried because he’s been constipated. Alejandra says in Mexico they had a special plant they would use to clean out the baby’s butt when it got constipated.

Marco laughs. “My family taught me that nothing goes up the butt!” He pauses, and smiles, his cheeks are shiny and pink. “Things only come out,” he concludes with a faux serious tone.

She asks him what he would do. Marco knows, he has four kids. He says to mash up beans real well and add a lot of oil and pour that down the baby’s throat.

“But the baby’s too small to eat that,” Alejandra counters.

“Then add more oil!” he laughs.

Marco and Alejandra start talking about all the different medicines and superstitions they had in Mexico. Marco lived on a farm in Northern Mexico. He tells us about breaking his arm as a kid. Instead of going to the hospital his mom just told him to drink a lot of water.

“We were just poor, it wasn’t really superstition,” he smiles.

But most of my summer days I spend on the third floor, working on the Jenson line, which produces bars of baking chocolate. It tastes like plastic and after pushing thousands of them into little trays on a conveyer belt everyday they start to look like hunks of perfectly molded plastic too. And the seventh floor, where they are made before they pump them down to us to form, package and pack, smells like rancid butter.

The first part of the summer I work with the same man.

I don’t like him. He’s old, black, and lives in a part of the city where the boss lets him come in late so he doesn’t have to wait for the bus when it’s dark. He probably doesn’t like me either. He’s apathetic and boring. He used to have kids and a wife but he was probably so apathetic and boring and drunk they all went away. We talk to each other anyways.

“What’s your favorite color,” I ask.

“Green.”

“My favorite color is green too.”

“mmhmmm.”

“What kind of music do you like,” I ask.

“You don’t know any of the music I listen too.” He laughs proudly.

“We have five more hours.”

“Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson.”

“I’ve obviously heard of Michael Jackson.”

“What’s your favorite song of his?”

“The 1-2-3 song,” I say sheepishly and defensively.

And plus I’ve heard of all the others I just wouldn’t be able to name or recognize anything they’ve done.

I spend the rest of the day laughing uncomfortably to myself.

“What do you like to do,” I ask.

“Nothing.”

“I like to run and read books,” I add looking at the clock on the wall for the nth time that day.

Silence. Except for the machine cranking out an endless supply of bars and plastic wrapping.

It smells like pizza whenever I’m packing the bars into the cardboard boxes. I realize I just associate pizza with the cardboard boxes they come in. I think this is a little pathetic, but it’s a delicious smell.

“Well, what do you do after work?” I ask.

“I take the bus home, then I drink until I fall asleep. Then I wake up at 4am, do exercises, and take the bus to work.”

“What do you like to drink?” I ask.

“Cheap things.”

“Do you drink?” he asks.

“Yes, of course, I’m a college kid,” I say.

He’s not impressed.

“What do you like to drink?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I’m not picky. Whatever is at parties. Beer and mixed drinks usually.”

He has a knowledgeable look. “I like beer,” he responds.

I grab three bars put them in the box. Again, Again, Again. Push the box back on the conveyer to be packaged by shipping. Make another box. Again and again and again.

“I bet your ma cooks for you,” he says.

I'm flustered again.

“Yeah she does...She's a pretty good cook,” I rebound.

“What does she make?” he asks.

“Lots of stuff. I'm part Italian so around the holidays she makes really good ravioli, and her meatballs are the best. I love her meatloaf, and my sister's a vegetarian so she has lots of good recipes for her,” and I go on.

“Did your mom ever cook for you?” I ask.

“We only ever ate rice.”

I don't know what to say.

“Rice and rice and rice and rice and beans sometimes. That's what we ate when I was a kid. I didn't know what meat was until I moved out and worked on my own. I hate rice.”

He tells me that now that he's on his own he eats a lot of lunch meat.

I make a box. Grab 3 bars. He grabs his bars. We fills our boxes. Push those back. We do it again and again and again, standing on a thin black rubber mat that doesn’t stop our feet from hurting.

Then one day he tells me it’s his last day. Temporary workers can only work for six months at a time. He says it works out because then he can collect unemployment for the other six months. And then after that he comes back and does the whole cycle again.

I can’t imagine living like that.

12 bars in the box. 3 bars at a time. The nutrition labels of the bars and the scan code on the box face you. Fold, grab 3 bars and shove into the box. Again, again, and again. Fold another box.

Next I have Dave to work with.

Ugh.

I hate working with Dave. He’s middle-aged, his skin is almost translucent, and he’s a ginger. He’s dumb and he never does anything more than he has too, if that. He also never talks. So everyday it’s just 8 hours of

Sliding chocolate bars, 2 or 3 at a time, onto the adjacent line so they can be wrapped in plastic.

Then the next hour, 12 bars into a box that I just folded.

And back and forth all day.

And Dave never talks and I hate him.

I try.

Sometimes his head bobs but he doesn’t talk and he doesn’t make eye contact.

Larry is my favorite. He has all the gossip.  He works the part of the line where the chocolate gets poured into the molds. When he has time he emerges from down a hall and chats.

He’s almost like my grandpa.

He loves chatting.

His white work shirt is always smeared with chocolate and his big belly pops out from the bottom of his often wrongly buttoned work shirt. He always has something to say to pass the time.

He has worked for the factory so long he has some good stories.

He remembers when the Falk factory down the road exploded.

He says the company purchased one of the lines on the fifth floor from the chocolate factory Jeffrey Dahmer worked at.

Larry loves gambling—When his son got married Larry bet him $400 that he wouldn't stay married to his wife for more than four years.

Larry hates his daughter-in-law.

On the Jensen line, Robin is always the operator.

Robin reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my high school teacher’s when I was scared about life after high school. “High school is the only time in your life where you are forced to spend the entire day with people you don’t like,” he reminded me. This didn’t make me feel better and he was wrong.

Robin is mean and worn out and looked like she should be working the night shift at George Webb's. She refers to her grandchildren as “her babies” and visits her boyfriend in jail whenever she can afford the gas money to drive up north.

If the Jensen line was running smoothly Robin would sit on her stool and text and read trashy novels.

The Jensen line rarely ran smoothly.

Sometimes all the chocolate bars get jammed up as they come down the line and for an ominous thirty seconds nothing happens and then clunk clunk CRASH they're on the floor and they're piling up and I hop under the machine to try and unclog the tunnel and salvage the bars. Sometimes I put the bars on the line to far forward in their slot and the machine that wraps them in plastic doesn't know what to do and it chokes and everything gets melted because, well, it's a hot machine and it's plastic and chocolate. This means Robin has to restart it so she puts down her trashy novel and gets up.

“WHAT THE FUCK!” She storms over to the line, gives it a real good kick, and swipes at the conveyer belt knocking the bars covered in melted plastic to the floor with both of her flailing arms. “ARE YOU FUCKING RETARTED! THIS FUCKING BULLSHIT AGAIN! IS IT THAT FUCKING HARD TO PUT BARS IN TRAYS! YOU FUCKING BITCH!”

A factory floor is the only place I've ever heard someone say “cunt.”

Then she glowers at everybody.

Then she resets the machine and savagely throws the bars into their slots as they come down the line. Then she sits back down.

It used to bother me, ruin my day, when she yelled like that, but now I'm not even sure if I was the one she was yelling at.

Sometimes Larry runs his machine so the bars are too heavy and they overflow their molds and the bars come out to large, misshapen chunks with a crust of chocolate around them. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The automatic scale teases us as it pushes the bars off the line into a big white bucket on the floor. Or sometimes the bars are too fat to make it through the tunnel and they get stuck and there’s another jam. It’s Larry's turn to get yelled at.

And Larry is nowhere to be seen for the rest of the day. If it's his fault the line breaks down he'll hide in his little back hallway room, too embarrassed to come out for the rest of the day. It's a long day for all of us.

At 1:30pm everyday Robin goes home, and Travis, the second-shift operator runs our line for the last half hour of our shift. Travis has long brown hair tied up in a bun and then hidden under a hairnet, and he has a baby face despite his messy beard covered up with a beard net. He chain-smokes and is engaged to a girl he met while working at a liquor store. He usually wears worn-out black t-shirts featuring some band from the 80s. I like him because he has an opinion on everything. He makes me wish that a hairnet and size XL blue-collared work shirt covered in chocolate stains wasn’t part of my uniform.

Sometimes we pass the time arguing back and forth about politics. We have fun throwing our equally uninformed opinions at each other like only 20-somethings can. But most of the time we talk about cooking. When Travis tells me about the steak he grilled last night or the curry he packed for his lunch I never find myself staring at the clock on the wall.

Travis never went to cooking school or got a job in a restaurant’s kitchen. At first this confused me, but then I realized Travi is a genius. Cooking is the one thing school or work hasn’t ruined for me. No one ever tells me I’m bad at making pie crusts or forces me to make another batch of gazpacho. Why let other people ruin what makes life sacred to you.

When I first started college I worked as a telemarketer during the evenings. Once in a while we’d all have to go around and answer an icebreaker question. It was one of those ‘get to know your co-workers’ things. The question was, “What is your dream job?” Everyone just said their major. Civil engineer. Actuary. PR agent. Social worker. It killed me. In my head I was screaming “speech writer for the president, sci-fi author, TV writer, the person who comes up with names for nail polish!” But out loud I just said, “journalist.” I don’t want to be a journalist.

I worked for a newspaper for a year. I was smarter than all the editors above me, but I had to write so many stories about things that didn’t matter, that my articles were the literary equivalent of mush. And then my articles would get so over edited (sometimes in the wrong direction, I would think) that I couldn’t even recognize them in the paper. Later I worked in public relations, and watched people with degrees in law and economics butcher my beautiful press releases.

Eventually I realized that maybe, even if I could report on whatever I wanted, had enough time, and other people didn’t ruin my work, my writing would still be shit.

So maybe that’s how people end up working on assembly lines for 40 years. They don’t want the sacred part of them getting shoved through a meat grinder. And they probably need the money.

Once there were wood chips in the bars. I don't know how. It was a fun day, because there's nothing to pack when there's bits of wood in the product. But then the boss comes downstairs from his desk and air-conditioned office. He doesn’t like to talk to the factory workers so he just growls at us and has a lot of intense sounding phone calls. They demoted the cook who made the botched batch. Now she just wanders around the factory and mutters under her breath as she cleans the windows and washes the floor. She can only reach the bottom third of the windows. We don't say anything.

One day, I’m sliding the bars onto the conveyor belt. Slide. Clink. Slide. Clink. I look around at the factory floor, wooden pallets stacked with cardboard boxes of product, everything is wrapped in layers of white plastic, ready to be shipped. There’s a layer of dust and plastic-y chocolate on everything. The lights are unforgiving and illuminate everything—the dirty buckets of misshaped chocolate bars, piles of broken boxes, scraps of plastic.

I’m working with Dave today and my life is tedious like watching the ticking clock on the wall that will never speed up. Dave’s on lunch break so I’m by myself for 20 minutes. Larry is bored, he emerges from his hall to talk with me. I ask him if Dave ever talked. Larry shrugs his shoulders. Larry says Dave has worked here for thirty years, being a line worker in the factory. This fact makes me feel claustrophobic, like I’m stuck in one of those big cardboard boxes and my only desire in the world is to claw my way out of the trap.

I’m one of those college kids so Larry tries to impress me. He knows I study journalism and he tells me that Dave’s dad used to have a regular column in the Journal. I’m intrigued and Larry knows it so he keeps on going. He tells me that Dave used to be married and one day he walked in on his wife with another guy in their bed.

Larry shakes his head. He goes back to his room. Dave returns from the break room.

“If you could be anything in the world, what would you be,” I ask him.

He just continued sliding the bars into their trays and watching everything go by.

“I would like to be a speech writer someday,” I tell him.

“So what would you be,” I ask again.

He pauses. “A bum.”

I’m silent for a moment.

“That would be nice…no responsibility,” I say. “A blank slate.”

And we look at each other and laugh.

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