Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Still There

Ever work in a factory?

If you're reading this page, the answer is likely no. I remember reading that if you are at a gathering of college educated persons, not one of them will know personally anyone who is not. They can cast around for the name of the plumber or something to make their working class bona fides, but it's not the same thing. With a few exceptions, educated persons don't know people who are not, and vice versa.

I am not fixing to hold myself up as any sort of example of anything. I don't fit in anywhere and so am useless as any sort of ruler to measure such things. I drift along through many sets of people, and belong to none, really. Maybe I should be a writer. I have no fixed perspective.

I have worked in a factory. More than one. A big old brick building with tall windows and a punch clock and battered formica tables and two vending machines in a break room. Union, some of them, too. I know what it's like. A lot of people who have never known work talk about the loss of belching smokestack factories like it's a plague of locusts or something. If they ever worked in one they might feel differently. I can't properly describe the sensation of eating your lunch out of a paper sack and reading an inexpertly printed missive from personnel (they used to call it that without shame) telling me, just 19 years old, that all I had to do is work another 49 years putting the same tiny screws into some holes while looking at a gauge, and I could retire with a little pension.

They never understood why I left. My fellow workers, grown old and crabby in the traces, tried to get me to explain, which I could not do without insulting them, and then, frustrated, barked at me that I'd be sorry. I never was. The factory has been shuttered and dark for decades now, and they all lost their jobs. The world is a shark and must always swim. I recognize the charlatans that say the shark must stand still no matter how they tart up the presentation. Numbskull Canutes want to rule the world.

There can be dignity there, in a factory. If there is work that is not dignified I have not seen it. You must bring the dignity with you, as in all things. It will not be supplied to you. It cannot be taken from you if you will keep it.

That picture is taken in 1940. There is certainly dignity in that picture, along with hard work and danger and a wage, and it shines right through. Old Kenyon's Johnnycake Mill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island. I used to visit the towns around there often in the summer. And the place is still there.

Kenyon's Corn Meal Company

It's marvelous it's still there after centuries. The shark must swim. It does not devour all its young, though.


Wolf Flywheel said...

The only time I have ever worked in a factory was as an employee of another company. We went to paper factories and crawled into giant pipes (supposedly for ventilation) and pulled out large chunks of paper shreds by hand to unclog them. We also crawled into large rooftop ducts in the summertime and scraped off chemical residue with hand scrapers. I think I had envy for the guys working in the factory during some of the hottest moments in those pipes. At the same time, I feel the factory employees may have had envy for me as I would not see that factory again for another year after I finished the job that day. Envy aside, I felt a mutual respect as we all ate lunch together on the dock in 100 + degrees. I was smart enough to leave those working conditions early like yourself. I feel sometimes though, that I jumped out of the pan and into the fire when I started in police work. There have been times in the wee hours of the morning when my wife and kids were home asleep and I'm holding a gun to someone's head as they hold their own wondering if they should take a chance or be smart. I don't really want to be in that situation for a number of different reasons, but somehow I have been there too many times. After the bad guy is safely locked away, the paperwork is done and I come home as the last of the adrenaline fades away I come home as my oldest boy is waking up and asking for some cereal and cartoons and I wish I could quit and go back to scraping scum out of a pipe in 100 degrees. At least there you have time to think before you make an important work-related decision. Now I'm doing my best to come up with funding to buy some property that surrounds an old cotton mill that is now filled with shops and eateries in order to prevent gross commercialization and put up my own creation of a village style shopping and living area that hearkens back to the era when this photo of yours was taken. I guess it's my way of trying to build an artificial haven for those of us looking for solace and respite in a time gone by where we can take our kids to enjoy themselves and look at that old mill and understand the hard work ahead of them and the importance of enjoying the time away from it. ---

***Apologizes for lengthy, meandering comment.***

***Takes breath and reaches for asthmatic relief device.***

J.C. Loophole said...

Don't let Wolf fool you... he's done many things.
He's been a veterinarian posing as a sanitarium doctor, an intrepid explorer, a lawyer, an agent working in an opera company, a producer of a failing play called "Hail and Farwell" and private detective. Not to mention the imported leader of a crazy eastern European country that shall remain nameless.
I do have it on good authority, however, that he has not been to Las Vegas.

PatHMV said...

A lawyer I know grew up in Pittsburgh, and so worked summers in a steel mill. On the whole, he says, he prefers the lawyer's air-conditioned life. But there are moments he thinks otherwise.

His reasoning is summed up in The Vogues song, which became the Drew Carey Show theme song:

Well, it's a 5 O'clock World when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time.

With the factory job, he said, you punched in, you worked, and then you punched out. In between times, you just don't think too much about work. You don't keep going an extra two hours because you get more work done when the office is empty. You don't wake up in the middle of the night, hitting yourself on the head to realize that you should have put the screw in the hole this way instead of that way. You're not constantly second-guessing yourself, thinking of just the right way to word a brief, the right question to ask a witness, the right argument to make to the judge.

My friend says he sometimes misses that.

Anonymous said...

Spent three summers working in a shingle factory while in college. Dirty, dangerous and often demoralizing. Inspired me to finish college, though. No regrets, but no nostalgia. 48 hour week, $100.00 check.


Ruth Anne Adams said...

I worked in my father's warehouse mixing grass seed in a twin-spiral mixer. I had to mix, weigh, sew and throw the 50 pound bags of grass seed in the dustiest possible room, usually in Wisconsin January cold or June/July beastly hot. He made me do maintenance, too, which required crawling under the building with a grease gun and confronting my fears of rodents in an enclosed space.

My brother worked at the local paper products factory for a couple summers. I learned from him that it's not where I wanted to spend my life, even though the pay was enticing to me.

Now, I have the best of both worlds: a job that requires my advanced degree, but is really not mentally taxing [especially after years of doing it] enough for me to agonize over anything I have done. And, with my 6 hour day, it frees me up for that cherished-of-all jobs: wife and mother.

Class factotum said...

I worked in a factory for a year, but I was in the front office. I was thrilled to be working in an actual production environment without having to do the hard stuff. It was great to be employed by a company where we actually made things rather than one where all we did was move money around.

When I was in grad school (for an MBA), my operations professor had a cartoon on his door. It showed two students in B-school commenting on the professor trying to teach manufacturing strategy. "I don't want to make things," one of the students said. "I just want to make money."

PatHMV said...

Ruth Anne, my little brother worked that seed-bagging job for a couple of very hot, humid Louisiana summers. As my dad would put it, it builds character...

SippicanCottage said...

Interesting comments today. Sylvania will not remain nameless, though. And Ruth Anne sure is inneresting.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Never worked in a factory, but I've done a few manual labor jobs. As Pat alludes, there are days when the ability to leave it all behind at 5 PM seems preferable to salaried work. But I love what I do.

And Sippican is absolutely right -- not even modern HR departments can give you dignity. Wherever you work, you bring it with you.

SippicanCottage said...

I think all intellectual workers who have responsibilities that spill over the 9-5 day cast a longing glance at the man that punches out and never thinks about work until he punches back in.

Manual workers take a look at the stairs and the toolbox and wonder if they wouldn't mind putting their feet on a desk and thinking great thoughts for a while.

Generally, neither one has even the foggiest notion of what the other person's job actually entails.

PatHMV said...

Amen, Sippican... The grass is always greener.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Reminds me of a line you put in a cop's mouth a few months back when he was asked what he wanted: "I'd like a gold-plated Republican job."

The grass is always greener, even after you've been on both sides of the fence. There is no greener grass; there's only the grass right in front of you. The other guy has thistles and weeds of his own.

Pastor_Jeff said...

I remember reading that if you are at a gathering of college educated persons, not one of them will know personally anyone who is not.

One of the things I like about our congregation is the diversity. We have nurses, lawyers, factory workers and electricians; guys who won't buy from a non-union store and others who think unions are a bane and a curse; people with doctorates and people who didn't go past 8th grade; young people who love hymns and old folks who want more contemporary music.

How boring it is to be around people who are all like you!

SippicanCottage said...

Pastor Jeff- Your description of your congregation is gratifying. Doesn't everybody stand there equal in the most fundamental way? Isn't that the meaning of fellowship? I think it is.

And you are the cowboy at that rodeo. What a pleasant thing to be.

AJ Lynch said...

Novelty Cone Company on Sherman Avenue in Pennsauken, NJ. I worked there for two summers (1969 and 1971) during high school and college. Grew up with the owner's sons. Good family- they still own it.

I made ice cream cones and stacked in boxes as they came out of oven and up a shoot. I could tell what time it was by counting how many boxes I had filled. Had fun there- we busted each other's balls all day AND made $1.60 per hour before taxes!

SippicanCottage said...

AJ- That is as close to Kenyon's business as I could imagine hearing about. An old food factory.

I bet it smelled fantastic at Novelty Cone all day.