I used to work for a temp agency that placed me in offices around the city to fill in for receptionist and office support work. A particular job could be anywhere from one day to two years. I worked all over the city, meeting lots of people and experiencing all types of office environments. I’m a fast learner and can fit in with a group of new people easily, so it was a good fit for me. I liked what I did and was good at it.
The only problem with this type of job is ‘no work, no money’. There would be days or weeks when nothing came in. I’d wait for the phone to ring as I wondered how long the last box of macaroni would last my family. Usually, just in the nick of (God’s) time, my boss would call and say there was work.
One hot summer I hadn’t worked in months. My husband and I agreed that I should seriously look for work outside the temp agency because every time I called my boss I heard the same thing, “there’s nothing out there right now”.
I had a good friend who also worked for the same temp outfit. She was real smart and not afraid of any task put in front of her. She was always out working somewhere. She’d worked in offices, greenhouses and hardware stores. They even had her name on a star in the office. Unlike me, who kept with office support or store clerking work, I couldn’t type fast, (failed that test), and knew very little about all this new fangled computer stuff. I didn’t want to travel out of the city limits because I hate winter driving. I didn’t get as many calls for work as she did.
My friend, the star, knew I’d been out of work for a long time and one day called me to say she’d taken an assignment packaging cones (for ice cream) at a manufacturing plant. It was for just a few days of work. She warned me the hours were long, the work was hard and the pay was low, but it was something. She suggested I call our boss and see if there was an opening for me at this place. She was quite sure I could get in. I thought, well, it has nothing to do with fast typing so that’s good, and I’ll gladly wear flats instead of heels to work for a few days. Plus, I need some money and would get to be with Star.
With no problem, my boss arranged for me to take the job too.
I woke up early, put on jeans, t-shirt and running shoes. I put my hair in a ponytail and packed a sandwich and plenty of water. It was already hot and humid when I stepped outside.
I drove a few city miles to an industrial park past the railroad tracks to a flat, treeless land where the paved streets turned into gravel roads and the commercial buildings looked rundown and closed. Many were boarded up. I didn’t see anybody. Tall weeds were growing up through the empty blacktop parking lots. It was street after street of blah buildings with roofs reflecting the scorching sun. I wondered at what time were these thriving places to work? And, what type of manufacturing was happening here when this was all up and coming? Now it looked like a robot ghost town. The economy, jobs sent overseas, and not much demand for boom boxes to be manufactured, must be a few reasons I thought.
Just when I thought I was lost, I drove to the very edge of rustville and saw cars in a parking lot . There was no sign to indicate what business was operating here, but I noticed Star’s car. The building was one story metal and cement 70’s era. It only had a few windows. Long weeds surrounded the building.
Some people were rambling into the front door. I followed them and found Star right away. She was cheerful and glad to see me. She showed me where to punch in.
In a side room we put on white lab coats. We laughed at the stained coats and questioned how clean they actually were. They hung big on us petite women. Over our hair we put on white shower cap type hats. Other workers were rushing around getting their lab coats and white hats on.
Back to the front area, the floors were cracked cement. Faded avocado green paint was chipping off the cement walls. Old plastic red chairs and round folding tables were scattered here and there in a funky shui sort or way. Several Coke machines lined the wall. The wide open entrance door and a few dim ceiling lights where the only sources of light. No one was chatting around the watercooler in this office. It was all go go go. Like ants going down a hole….
The temperature must have been in the mid 80s. My lab coat was heavy and stiff and I was beginning to feel like a potato baking. Now I wished we were packaging ice cream instead of cones. I have no memory of any fans, even for the supervisors who sat in the front area doing paper work and drinking coffee. They looked too young to be in charge and my guess was those new shiny cars parked outside were theirs.
When Star and I entered the cone packing room I quickly knew there’d be little conversation today over the loud machines. It sounded like a 747 was parked inside. Star had told me to bring ear plugs. Everyone wore ear plugs or headphones. I took the cotton balls out of my pocket and stuffed them in my ears. The noise level reduced from really, really loud to just really loud.
I was having second thoughts about this job and I hadn’t even started…
About 25 workers in dingy lab coats were packaging crispy cake cones. Everyone was working very fast and efficiently around a huge maze of conveyor belts and big machines. These people looked like pros at this. I hoped little ol’ me in the big ol’ lab coat could keep up.
There were no introductions. No training. No Walmart cheer. I shadowed Star as she motioned me to follow her. She’d been there a few days already and knew what to do. She was so cool and confidant.
Thousands and thousands of cones came from one giant box. The cones rode on a conveyor belt where they were picked up in groups of 6 then placed in styrofoam holders, packaged and sealed in colorful boxes ready for the grocery store shelf. The finished product was stacked neatly in big boxes placed on shipping crates.
I did not recognize the cone brand. It looked like a regional store brand perhaps. The box had a 60s clip art picture of happy kids at a birthday party eating vanilla ice cream cones.
Star led me toward the end of the assembly line. It was where the cones needed to be put into the boxes with the smiling party kids. Several others workers were already on this task. It was a tight space to work side by side. No one gave us eye contact or greeted us. I smiled at a young lady next to me and she gave me a forced smile back. A young handsome guy seemed to have plenty of time to give Star eye contact. He gave her flirty glances all day. They’d visit and laugh now and then. I thought was just difficult enough to think let alone talk over the ear deafening machines. I didn’t want to loose any concentration on my task at hand. I was afraid I might be the Lucy in the room and slow production down.
We got right to work. I watched Star as she packaged like a pro. Cones in groups of 6 were coming at us faster then bugs on a windshield. She grabbed them and placed them in styrofoam holders then into the happy kid boxes with such grace and ease.
I wasn’t so lucky. I kept breaking off the top right cone of every box. Every time! Broken cones could not be boxed up. The other workers were starting to give me eye contact now and the supers were walking the floor. Star yelled in my ear giving me a tip on how to pack them without breaking them. This was hard to do. I could feel the sweat rolling down my from my back to my legs. I was determined to stop breaking cones. I think I can. I think I can.
Just as I got the hang of it, the cones stopped coming down the conveyer belt. (They must have been opening a new giant box of cones.) We were pulled to another station. Star found her groove quickly and I did too on this one. This task had us bending over in a far reach, on tippy toe, to grab cones and stack them in groups of 6. No cones breaking here and I can count to 6 so this should be a breeze. It was going good until I began to second guess my counting…is this 5 or 7? I was so hot and thirsty at this point. The loud machines were vibrating through my entire body. I felt as if the conveyer belt was sucking me into a black hole of endless 6. I snapped out of it and turned to looked at the cobweb covered clock on the wall only to see we’d been working just an hour and a half! Lord, have mercy.
Sometimes Star and I looked at each other and just laughed. To not laugh would be giving in to this hellish job. We were going to take the high road and finish our work. Our boss back at the temp agency would be proud of us and we would collect a paycheck for our labors. In the end we would win. But, the end was a long ways away..
Then, I had to go to the bathroom. “JUST FOLLOW THE SIGNS.” Star yelled in my ear. I gladly left the torture chamber and followed a handwritten sign pointing to the rest room. I found myself in a large room with a high ceiling. There was no light except the sunshine coming through a teeny tiny window. No one was around. Old machines and tables were stacked up in piles. In the far corner was a rest room. It was the size of a closet and had no light. I couldn’t see until my eyes adjusted. My lab coat brushed against the wall. The toilet wouldn’t flush. I flushed again and this time it didn’t fill with water. There was no soap or towels. Good thing we wore plastic gloves when we handle all these cones that those happy little children will be eating at birthday parties.
Walking back to the assembly line I felt like a dishrag. Usually I can raise above and get through tough situations with a burst of energy and a smile but today I was in a place I’d never been before. My clothes were drenched in sweat and sticking to me under the big stiff lab coat. The elastic band on my shower cap had nicked my ear and I felt blood on the top of my ear. I covered it with the white cap. My old ankle injury had flared up and was throbbing from standing on the hard cement floor. My chronic shoulder problem was killing me from bending and reaching. My head was pounding from the constant loud noise. My back was stiff from working bent over. I was thirsty and my water was out in my car beginning to boil. There was no relief in sight. I had to face it. This was not just a yucky job, it was a down right miserable job!
It was going to be a long day. I still had 9 hours to go. I should say WE had 9 hours to go. Star was in this with me. And so were my coworkers.
Back down the stuffy ant hole. Star greeted me with a smile. She was the only bright spot in the room. We continued on tip toe bending over to reach for cones. 1 2 3 4 5 6. Repeat. And so on and so on. It never ended. 1 2 3 4 5 6. Surely I am in the twilight zone. 1 2 3 4 5 6.
Star and I were not laughing as much when we’d look at each other now. It was heading toward noon and we were ready for a break. Finally the machines stopped and everyone left. Lines formed at the Coke machines. Star and I pulled out our bag lunches and sat at a round table with a few others. No one talked with us. It was just a bunch of strangers sitting together in dirty lab coats smelling like a football locker room. Most people went outside to smoke. Some took off into town for fast food. This definitely wasn’t the group that’s going to keep in touch and have a Christmas party.
I couldn’t bare the thought of going outside in the mid-day heat but Star wanted to. So we took off our lab coats and stepped outside. I took shelter in the shade of the building. We talked about the job. We laughed about it. We whined about it. We dreaded having to come back the next day. Even though the outside was like a furnace it was nice to be away from the noise.
The rest of the day was the same and worse. We worked at a few more stations. Each task required fast repetitive moves or heavy lifting or some insane position to work in. I lifted boxes that were bigger than me. My cotton balls had turned into sweat wads. I was dehydrating as a fast pace. I began to tell myself things like ‘it’s temporary…be glad I have a job…it’s better then many other things people do to make a buck…be glad I can work…this will a great story to tell my grandkids…’
Finally after we’d been there for almost 12 years..I mean hours, we hobbled out to our cars like two old women who’d lost their walkers. Star and I were both very active and in shape gals but this was more then our 40-something bodies could take. I surprised myself, and I’d never seen her in this condition either.
We said a quick goodbye and drove our separate ways.
When I got home I announced to the family that I was taking a long bath and if anyone needed to use the bathroom that evening they better use it now. Even though I was very hungry I was too weak to put anything up to my mouth. My arms ached. I only had energy to bathe or eat and I decided to bathe even though I lost several pounds that day.
I sank down into the bathtub that was deep with cool water. My ears were ringing. The bath water turned grey. I couldn’t believe how hard and long I’d worked. I didn’t know if I was proud of myself or if I was an idiot.
Then I asked myself, who works that hard? The answer came real quick. The builders of the pyramids, the plantation slaves, farmers who don’t have modern tractors, miners, people who’ve build their homes with bare hands, and my coworkers at the cone factory who do this for a living. I have certainly done physical labor in my life before, but it would be for a few hours at a time, not my life’s work. Now I had a whole new understanding and respect those who do this all day long, every day. It light of all that, I didn’t have anything to complain about. And now more than ever I was glad my career was sitting in comfortable offices were I can sip on coffee at a desk while I work and can read a book if it gets quiet.
Tomorrow didn’t look so bright for me. I had to get up and do this all over again.
I didn’t sleep well that night. The number 6 kept waking me up. The alarm clock woke me out of a nightmare where I dreamt our lab coats had been used at a medical waste facility.
I popped some aspirin for breakfast and was on the road to rustville. The second day was hotter still. This time I brought real earplugs and found that very helpful.
The day was just a continuation from the previous one. More of the same for Star and I. The saving grace was knowing this was our last day. We were stiff and sore and running on adreniline now. Heat. Noise. Abusing our bodies. Hour after hour. All day.
Then FINALLY it was quitting time! It was a huge relief to know we’d never go back!
After work, it was straight to the bath. I had seconds of everything at supper. That evening Star called me. Her voice sounded week. We talked about the heat, the noise, the back breaking work and were amazed at how stiff a body could be. We talked about it over and over, amazed at how hard we’d worked!
A few days later, still stiff and sore and catching up on rest, the paycheck arrived in the mail. I was shocked! By the time taxes and SS were pulled I could of sold lemonade on the street corner and made more money, and I’d still have my hearing! So my coworkers live on this kind a wage? They work much too hard for this low pay. Unbelievable and sad. I’ve worked for low wages before but the work was not demanding. Basically, I was getting fair pay for the work I was doing. But this back breaking, long day in undesirable conditions should surely have better pay! This was real work. I will forever look at hard labor workers in a different light. They are my new heroes. Those who want to work and are willing to sweat to do it.
In the end, it was good to have grocery money, and it was good to experience hard work. Plus, it is a good story to tell the grandkids…while they enjoy a vanilla ice cream cone.