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Monday, August 25, 2014

Weeks 2 & 3: Digital Issues & Scuttlebutt

Last Sunday, I was so exhausted (we'd worked from 5 PM Saturday until 2 AM instead of the usual 3 to 11:30 because one of the line workers had died suddenly during the week, and his funeral was early Saturday afternoon), that I slept through both morning and evening church.  Forget about blogging!  Nothing turns you into a mute beast of burden (eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, work) like 58+ hours of physical labor at an increasingly fast pace over six days. 

I had bought a wrist brace after the first week, and my right arm returned to normal—the brace held the sore wrist steady, and also reminded me to be more ambidextrous in movement, switching tools from hand to hand and trying not to stress one side more than the other.  Heaven knows I don’t want my right arm to flake out on me again.  I wish my right hand had been briefly immobilized on the way to work about ten days ago, though…  

Have you ever been thinking about something and you unconsciously begin to act it out, either physically or verbally?  I accidentally flicked off the guy in the truck behind me in rush-hour traffic week before last, and I wasn’t at all ill-disposed toward him, but thinking about a Russian class at university more than 20 years ago, when I asked my instructor if there were any nicknames in that language for the fingers.  On the American hand, we have in succession: the “pinkie”, the ring finger, the middle finger (with which one “give the bird”—I was counting this one off when I snapped back to the present to realize that I was inadvertently giving an obscene gesture to the world.  I quickly began pretending to tick imaginary counted items off on my other digits, but I’m not sure that, or in fact “the bird” itself, was noticed by the truck driver or anybody else, thank the Lord!). And then we have the pointer finger and finally the thumb.  I can’t remember what the Russian names are (if you know them—leave it in the comments), but what initially prompted these thoughts was a peculiar spot of roughness on the back side of my steering wheel, which I’d never felt before.  The car is showing signs of age (today, I saw that my windshield had spontaneously cracked in a serpentine line up from the bottom passenger-side corner—and I have a $100 deductible to pay on the replacement before my insurance kicks in…), but what caused this?

At the factory, we’re not allowed to wear any jewelry (stud earrings and one necklace that can be tucked into our shirt collars being the exceptions), because of the danger of catching it in or on machinery.  As the orientation person said on training day, waggling his hands at us, “You come in with 10, we want you to leave with 10.”  So, for the first time in almost two decades I’m not wearing my gold class ring on the middle finger of my left hand.  And since I’d worn it essentially 24/7/365, and I’ve had the car 15 years, the ring had in turn worn a rough spot on the steering wheel, which I can only now sense with my naked finger.  My hand feels odd without the weight, and I keep looking at my wrist for the time—cell phones are great, but I miss my wristwatch, too!

As to less than pleasant college memories, why did the thin accountant of Week One bother me so much?  I took a visceral dislike to him the moment we met, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, as he has reappeared a couple of times since, and I’ve had the same reaction.  I really despised him on sight, and quickly worried that it was some latent group prejudice bubbling up. Then I realized (after all, one of my best friends is an accountant) that he reminded me a lot of the guy with whom I’d been in love in college—the same know-it-all air, the “lo, I have come from on high to instruct you mere mortals” attitude.  The accountant said he was there to work, but he didn’t get his hands (or his clothes) dirty—just walked around “observing”, pursing his lips and making notes.  All numerical theory and no human practice. 

A thousand things have to work properly to assure that an assembly line moves smoothly.  It’s all very well for a number-cruncher to say that actions should take “x” amount of time, that “y” output should be produced during a shift, but humans are not machines, and even machines themselves break down.  People get tired, their hands fumble, parts are found to be flawed, components break, the unending din proves distracting.  There’s time needed for unplanned bathroom breaks, cleaning up the work area, just walking around one’s station replenishing parts.  And stretching—even though the risk of repetitive motion injury is reduced by having employees perform a variety of actions, they get stiff over time.  I think that the best way for an accountant (or similarly office-centered individual) working for a manufacturing company to comprehend these realities, and to be able to incorporate humanity into his or her calculations and planning, is to have to work, really work, at the labor job for a specified period.  Most people don’t understand situations until they’ve lived through them, or observed someone they care about living through them.  As an obsessive-compulsive person who likes things (at least in parts of her life—my dining room floor is covered with jewelry components that I haven’t finished sorting, and I’m living out of a suitcase and a clean laundry basket because I haven’t finished getting my new bedroom clothes cabinet back together) in order, neatly compartmentalized, I know the appeal of the clean, arithmetically-balanced worksheet.  But treating people as purely mathematical inputs (no matter how innocently meant), leads to an attitude of enslavement, the capitalism without compassion Pope Francis has deplored.

I managed to squeeze in another bank interview before work last week.  John had gone in to a local branch to transact business and noticed a “we’re hiring” sign, and asked the representative who was helping him about available positions.  She kindly gave him her contact information to pass on to me.  So, I dressed up and went to see her in person, copy of my resume in hand.  Turns out, that branch ISN’T hiring at present—though she thinks there will be an opening soon—the sign was for the company as a whole, and the gatekeeper for the region is the same woman I encountered at the unsuccessful group interview for the teller position a month or so ago.  So, I did try, but I can’t see that effort bearing fruit.  Bothersome, though, that the local branches can’t do the hiring themselves—no matter how much their advertising likes to claim the individual isn't forgotten by the corporation, in hiring it’s not a matter of the personal touch (the banker lady who’d given John her card turned out to be someone that had assisted my mother for decades—she hadn’t connected John with her because they have different last names), which could have benefited me in on this occasion.

I don’t know if my brief appearance at the factory in a dress and decent makeup (quickly doffed in the ladies’ locker room for more suitable work gear) contributed to my short-lived femme fatale status among rumor-mongers, but I was called over by Bill, one of the guys I sub for, mid-week and asked, point-blank, “Are you married or dating anybody?” It seems that this had been a topic of discussion on the line, and one or more men (unspecified) was interested in asking me out.  Bill was exceedingly diplomatic about all this, and I responded that he was to please inform the guy or guys in question, “Though the attention is greatly appreciated, I did not join the night shift for the social possibilities.”  I was so glad that Bill was circumspect in his questions: I was not required to reject one person in particular, but could pass along notice about my general unavailability.  Bill and Rob, the other guy in that section, told me, “We’ll get the gossip to stop.”  “Good grief,” I thought. “I’m the subject of speculative gossip?!”  I had no idea that a 40 (almost) year old spinster’s romantic live would prove such a hot topic on the factory floor!  This is clear evidence of the isolation of the night shift—that someone who chews off her lipstick (if she remembers to put any on) within an hour of beginning work, whose mousy hair is liberally seasoned with grey, whose arms are crisscrossed with shallow scratches and grease stains, should be considered a “catch” based solely on her appearance highly amuses, or bemuses, me. 

I am so glad to be physically isolated in my area (though frequently forgotten—announcements about breaks often pass me by, and I am seldom offered a menu for the nightly orders of takeout), out of gossip-range!  The forklift driver who asked me out thrice in the first few days has been more or less squelched (I don’t know if it was him Bill was asking about—I don’t think so, as they aren’t in direct contact), though we remain on cordial terms.  I have gotten to know another driver, a portly and cheerful man with a rich voice and white goatee, who worked on the first phase of the African-American History Museum being constructed in DC.  I’d felt instantly comfortable chatting with him, and when I found out that he’d played the role of Santa in years past, it all made sense (when I told him this, he started calling "Ho, ho, ho!" every time he passed my station, and singing snatches of "Jingle Bells").  He claimed not to be able to tell good stories, but he’d mentioned having an orchard in one of our first exchanges, and I countered, “Fifteen pecan trees—that’s a story.  How did you end up with those?” “Thirty-five,” he corrected me. “They stand on all that remains of the 2000 acres General Oglethorpe gave my ancestor.”  And what followed was a tale about said glorious predecessors, the founding of Washington, GA, and the fact that an archaeological team wants to excavate the remains of two Revolutionary War-era forts on the property.  Turns out, his son also has an MA in International Relations, and despite his complete fluency in Spanish is presently working at company that makes banners, for $2 less per hour than I am earning at the factory!  These are hard times for multiculturalists…

Despite my accident-prone nature, I've only had one accident thus far.  I mashed my left middle finger (the same denuded of the ring and guilty of an unwarranted “birdie”) about three hours into Thursday’s shift.  I was torquing a bolt with a power tool and holding the nut on the other end with a wrench, which flipped in the process, pinning the fingernail to first knuckle between the wrench and a very hard (solid steel) place (casing).  I managed to pull the wrench loose (one of those adrenaline-will-enable-you-to-do-incredible-feats moments) and inspected my damaged digit—I didn't break the skin (thank you, gloves!) and everything still worked.  But gosh, it throbbed.  Per protocol, I told my zone leader, and he got me ice and then hunted up some Aleve.  I’d hate to sound like a painkiller ad, but that stuff really did the trick, and fast.  Within 15 minutes, I was feeling no pain, and back to full-speed, two-handed assembly.  The finger hasn’t bothered me since—it’s slightly tender, but nothing that inhibits typing, let alone work.  I am really grateful.


Argh.  Enough said!  I need to head off to bed shortly, so I’ll be back on track for this next week’s work, starting later today.  The “night’s sleep” standard doesn’t apply to us nightshifters, with our undead schedules of wakeful dark and sleeping daylight, but I hope I can rest well between now and then.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Not So Wrenching

This is my impact wrench. There are many like it, but this one is mine.  It is my life.  I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my impact wrench is useless.  Without my impact wrench, I am useless...

I actually use five such wrenches (power drills with socket bits, basically) in my work, so I can't say I have an exclusive allegiance, but I would be helpless without them.

By Saturday afternoon, I was so exhausted I could feel my pulse in my chest when I breathed. Almost sixty hours of manual labor wearing steel-toed, plastic-lined leather boots (weight on my postal scale: 2 lbs. each) in six days really wears a person out!

The initial impression of the factory was a little overwhelming: there's pervasive and perpetual noise, loops of blue hose hang overhead for the pneumatic tools on the main line, trolleys move along the assembly line, forklifts run hither and thither, everyone plugs away at their stations, and then there is the challenge of navigating the labyrinths of supply shelves...it was all disorienting.

Even with good plugs stuffed deep into my ear canals, the plant is a non-stop cacophony: the rattle and quack (some sound exactly like duck calls) of impact wrenches tuned to precise newton-meters, the classical ditties sung (like tinny player pianos) by the automated trolleys on the line, signaling their progress between stations.  There are mallets banging, diesel engines roaring as the tractors are cranked for the first time, beeps from line machinery, and whirring from the fleet of small yellow forklifts racing around the perimeter (they are darting into the dark holds of delivery trucks backed up to open dock doors around three sides of the building, hoisting off heavy components and whisking them to stations on the line.  The forklift drivers also give a perfunctory double-tap on their horns when they go through pedestrian intersections, but unless you've caught the eye of the driver, you can't be sure of his seeing you).  Snatches of song and shouted conversation echo around the plant, too--it is a nonstop concatenation of industry and sound.

Though generally clean, filled with light and well-equipped, absent unpleasant fumes and odors, and though the workers are shielded from many injuries by protective gear and OSHA guidelines, the modern tractor factory is still a potentially dangerous place to work. Mainly, one has to watch out for the forklifts, which are driven by a gregarious bunch of paunchy men, some of whom don't bother to look over their shoulders when whirling half a ton of cast metal in reverse (I knew I came close to getting squished the other day when I was beavering away at my secondary station, inside the safety lines yet, and suddenly felt the hot breath of a forklift engine on the back of my neck). The main reported injuries are to the hands, and I am so grateful to have cut-resistant gloves, as some of the metal parts I heft have rough edges, and there is the ever-present danger of pinching one's fingers in the machinery.

We "newbies" had to wear yellow reflective vests until certified to work our assigned stations unsupervised and trusted to navigate the maze of shelves, carts, machinery, stacks of fiberglass pallets, wooden boxes, steel "buckhead" (I kept erroneously calling them "carabou") holders, and, of course, the whizzing forklifts without getting lost or being crushed.  I was declared certified in a day (a night) and a half, and allowed to de-vest, but the paperwork wasn't actually completed until my fourth shift.  I am happy to have my own little corner, or two corners, at a pair of stations assembling "subs".  I put together components for the folks on the line to install. I spend most of the 10 hours of my nighttime workday on my feet, only getting to sit down for the two 15-minute breaks and at the mealtime, which occurs after most of the dayshift population is long asleep, at 10 PM.  I work much faster by myself. Most people do, probably, but the main line seems to be chat central, particularly when there is a backup, and I know I would start making more mistakes than I am already, and not catch them, if I had someone to talk to over an engine or transmission, and so I am glad to be in my own little world.

My main station is neat and organized. I learned that the man who works there during daylight hours did, in fact, use to be a doctor in his native land, and he keeps everything in surgical order, and a bowl of individually-wrapped mints in the middle of the work table. There are steel racks of several dozen open plastic containers, all filled to various levels with bolts, nuts, bushings, and other parts.  My line supervisor checks on me regularly, and makes sure I have the parts I need in abundance, and the man for whom I sub has been very nice about telling me my faults gently, and gradually, so I can improve without feeling like I am getting scolded.  (My sister had cautioned me that language in a manufacturing setting was sure to be raw, but thus far in this majority-male environment it has been considerably cleaner than that among some of my former female coworkers!)

Physically, however, I feel a certain kinship with one of those unfortunate waterfowl engulfed by a tanker spill. My skin is saturated with engine grease, a grey sludge that has accumulated under my fingernails and in my ears, and settled into my wrist wrinkles. No matter how diligently I rub my washcloth over my arms, I still feel the sticky film and see the fissures between my pores lined with graphite, as if I am wearing a fine lattice body-stocking.  The stuff seems impervious to soap and water. George Orwell wrote about the unpleasant sensation of having soap dry on the back of one's neck, and I have a similar, though more viscous feeling on my back after my shower.  My right wrist aches from the vibration of torquing bolts to fifty and sixty newton-meters.  Shallow scratches cover my ID badge and my left forearm from hoisting metal parts and fitting them together--absent my yellow vest and with all this superficial wear and tear, I already look like an old hand!

The line supervisor is female, and probably two-thirds of the employees are African American.  It's been a major cultural adjustment for me to be asked, immediately after exchanging names, "Are you married? Do you have kids?"  In the world of DC social interaction, these are questions only indirectly posed, and usually after considerable discussion of the person's job and point of origin. Here, we're all semi-skilled labor, putting in ten paid hours a weekday on the assembly line, and eight more on Saturday.  This really gives new meaning to "full time job."  All waking hours are absorbed with work, so the nighttime employee has only his or her shift-sharers to talk to. After 10.5 hours at the plant you are dog-tired, and after three days of the same, the conversations around the meal tables recede in volume, and everyone ends up staring, glassy-eyed, at the 24-hour news program reporting wars and rumors thereof which is constantly playing on the flatscreens in the upper corner of the room.

As always, there are interesting characters among my coworkers.  One fortyish good ol' boy forklift driver has asked me out three times so far [to coffee after work (at 4 in the morning!?), lunch and afternoon tea (or whatever one consumes on a Sunday after dinner). I was thinking he must be desperate, to approach a woman covered head to toe in machine oil, wearing personal protective equipment and sweating over transmission parts. And then I reflected that a person working the industrial night shift truly has no other social recourse. All you do is work, eat and sleep.  I am one of perhaps eight women out of about eighty workers, and the only young(ish) single Caucasian female.]  I saw one of the maintenance guys, a New York native who calls Seattle home (his wife, though, has determined they won't return to Washington State, preferring to be in the warm and sunny South) briskly kicking a malfunctioning trolley that had bottle-necked the whole line--he said not only did kicking get the job done, it was also a good way to release frustration.  And when I arrived at work on Thursday, we were joined at the opening group five-minute meeting (we all stand around in our gear while the supervisor gets up on a little metal platform and gives us a rundown of the day and a pep talk for the evening) there was a thin bespectacled guy in clean, pressed clothes who looked like the stereotype of a nerdy and neurotic accountant straight out of central casting...who turned out to be an accountant.  He said he was volunteering on the line to improve production, and he tried to sound tough in front of the proles by saying "damn" a couple of times, which actually made him sound more wimpy than he looked.  I think he lasted maybe two hours before disappearing in the direction of home.

So, in other words, I survived my first week of "real" full-time work. I'm tired, sore, and stained, but I made it.  Lord willing, I'll adjust to the hours and the pace, and my wrist won't get worse.  And maybe, a daytime job with benefits, fewer hours and a higher wage will drop into my lap.  But in the meantime, I'll be at my station.  Or in bed asleep!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Pre-Job Jitters

How is it, when I know I have to get up early, I can't doze off for donuts, but when I know I have to begin working a 10.5-hour night shift tomorrow, and must stay up as late as possible tonight to begin the acclimation to the new schedule, I yearn for sleep with my whole soul?  I drank a quart of caffeinated tea just two hours ago, and can barely keep my eyelids open.  How I am going to keep alert and working on an assembly line until 4 AM for the next five nights I do not know.  One of my friends told me, "5-Hour Energy may be your new best friend."  But does that stuff work? And mightn't it be dangerous?  Some "natural" supplements can do really screwy things to one's system, especially in concert with prescription medications.

I had a series of really bad dreams last night about all the things that could possibly go wrong with my work--from forgetting my boots to showing up late. It was actually sort of hilarious how my subconscious reviewed the litany of warnings that had been given to us during orientation on Friday. About the only think I didn't obsess over was the caution about dangerous critters that might accompany foreign-made parts--if we see spiderwebs in a components-shipment, we are to report this to a supervisor and not touch them, as apparently a while back an imported arachnid bit one guy on his hand and it swelled to the size of a grapefruit. The little joys of international commerce!

Speaking of nasty organisms, I was surprised and pleased to learn that we have a Level 4 isolation and treatment facility here in Georgia, which is now taking care of that poor missionary doctor stricken with Ebola in Liberia.  While I was in the BTAEID program at Georgetown, we made a pilgrimage to Fort Detrick's cramped and frankly dated patient-care quarters, and that there are newer, and hopefully larger ones closer to hand is encouraging.

What would be frustrating, were I not preoccupied with the novelty and physical challenge of beginning factory work, is that now, not only are there issues in the Russian-speaking world, which I studied for so long, there is also a major infectious disease outbreak, whose prevention and containment I have also studied, and the only job available to me is the relatively un-intellectual (though certainly respectable) work of assembling tractors!  But God is God and I am not--I cannot see the global or the eternal picture, and it seems that my becoming a skilled laborer is fundamentally more important at this moment than my possible contributions to any public policy process.  A lesson in humility, and in punctuality, precision and diligence--traits I certainly need to exercise to succeed, whether I stay at the factory long-term or am eventually called elsewhere to use more mental than physical strength.


Friday, August 01, 2014

Swords Into Plowshares

The orientation to my job lasted more than 12 hours today.  I arrived at the plant at 6:10 AM, and we weren't released until after 6:30 PM. It was paid training, though, and at the end I got a "bump cap" emblazoned with the company logo and a reflective vest marking me as a new hire.  It wasn't until the end of the day that we found out the hours for the line we'll be joining, and it's a tad more than I anticipated: 61 a week.  I am going to be too tired to think about continuing other job hunts!  But as confirmation that this is where I am supposed to be, at least for the short term, I've gotten three more emailed rejection letters in the past 36 hours from other applications I submitted.  And I passed the hands-on evaluation with a perfect score, though I began wrongly and had to go back to correct some mistakes.

I wrote a fellow Georgetown Russianist about this new opportunity, noting the irony that back in the early days of the Soviet Union, in order to be eligible for university-level education, you had to prove yourself to be "a peasant from the plow" or "a worker from the machine", and here I am almost a century later, with all my considerable graduate-level education, proceeding in reverse order, proving myself as a worker, making plowing machines.  He noted that at least I am hereby earning a trade--when his postdoctoral fellowship concludes in the spring, he has no idea where he'll find work, and his wife is expecting their second child.  Historians have a tough row to hoe to earn a livelihood these days...