[Several weeks ago, a small gathering of volunteers spent an afternoon stickering copies of the new book by Sheila Heti. Two of those volunteers wrote short dispatches about their trip to the warehouse, which were then edited together. We are currently looking for more volunteers who will be available next Thursday, November 21.]
I drove right past Fulfillment America at first, because I was distracted by a conversation about James Bond on the radio. It’s a pretty unassuming place . . . mustardy-khaki colored office building attached to a huge warehouse. I was 15 minutes early anyway.
When I walked in the door, I told the receptionist that I was there for “the McSweeney’s stickering”, and she made a quick phone call and asked me to sign in. I did so and looked around the lobby. It was filled with elephants. There was a huge painting of a family of elephants on the wall, and a table covered with elephant statues of all sorts. I later found out that they were a favorite of the CEO of Fulfillment America and good luck as long as their trunks were up and pointing at the door.
A woman named Mary greeted me and told me to follow her. She led me into the warehouse while I joked with her about the company name. I had always thought it was amusing getting packages from them, and it was even more amusing once I saw that most of the items they were using to fulfill people, so to speak, were large posters of hamburgers to be hung on wall at Arby’s and phone books. I asked her, “What do you do with all the huge posters of donuts and stuff once the promotions are over?”
“We destroy them,” she replied. Destroy seemed like such a strong word.
Fulfillment America is a vast and wondrous place. Mary, who was very kind and helpful, showed us to a corner of the warehouse where pallets contained stacks of boxes bearing the Oddi logo, each box containing 108 copies of The Middle Stories. There were a lot of books. And we were very few people. It was a somewhat daunting task, but we were up for the challenge. Neither Dehlia nor I really had any idea what was supposed to be going on‹how many people to expect or explicit instructions on our task. Dehlia had gotten an e-mail right before she left but it didn’t reveal much more than what we already knew, so Mary called McSweeney’s to ask them for specifics. She chatted with Eli and then passed the phone to me. I was apparently the team leader.
Dehlia and I went to the room where we’d be stickering, and set up a sort of efficiency plan. There were five stickers, and each had been custom-defaced by someone somewhere. We had 2 theories as to whose art this was. 1) The people at McSweeney’s made the students at 826 Valencia do it. 2) Canadians. The second theory was reinforced by the prevalence of Canadian flags, and not a single American flag, although since the author is Canadian perhaps that was being taken into account.
The process became hypnotic, as we affixed (and affixed) many fascinating stickers. Some of them caused us to pause in wonder. There were wild-eyed men with ink-drawn pig noses, and a contemplative adolescent at a dance, lost in that quagmire of slow-dance-inspired confusion that we all remember maybe too well, thinking thought-bubble images of many intriguing things. Two young men whirled euphorically on a beach beneath a variety of objects poised to fall on them from the sky, while other things lurked in the water behind them. I knew that I would dream of these things that night.
Dehlia and I were joined by Toby while we were still in the middle of our first box of books. Apparently it was an extended lunch break for him. He opened up a box and started in on the process. While we worked, the music kept changing. At first there was just some Cuban music. Then, someone turned on hip-hop over the Cuban music. The Cuban music changed to soft rock . . . Bryan Adams, Roxette, Rod Stewart, Tiffany. Sometimes different kinds of music at once, a collage of sound, echoing from different corners of the warehouse. High point: Aretha Franklin.
As the afternoon progressed, we acquired speed, artistic precision, and skill. We learned things. Sara described her PhD research on horseshoe crabs. Toby told how he worked for Puma and was going to be sent to Germany for a couple of years. He also told us the legend of the feuding German brothers and the establishment of their respective sportswear companies. Rudolph and Adi Dasler both wanted sportswear companies but didn’t get along, so Rudolph founded Puma, and Adi founded Adidas. Adi-Das(ler). The legend portion of the story is that they built factories on opposite sides of a river, and Toby said he expected to find warring factions walking down the sidewalks of town dressed in Adidas and Puma tracksuits. Dehlia said she was looking for a job, preferably in a bookstore. She had interviewed at a few places but hadn’t heard anything yet. A few hours later, her cell phone rang and she got a job at the Brookline Booksmith right then and there.
Toby had to leave early, but Sara and I stayed on until nearly 5:30. We both got to the point where we were dazed, and just working as automatons. Whereas at noon there was laughter and “Hey, look at this one! It’s awesome!” and holding up different stickers, at 5:00 they were sort of muttering and saying things like “Look. This person did, like, six of the same thing. Way to be boring.” Then again, the people who drew with the Sharpies must have gotten pretty worn out too. At 5:30 or so, Mary came in and said that the stickering adventure must come to an end, as all good things inevitably do. We looked around in amazement at the many open, re-packed boxes containing stickered copies of The Middle Stories, and could only hope that we had done justice in our small way to Sheila Heti’s work, placing the stickers just so, in a way that would communicate to intrigued readers, Here is the gateway to the realm of The Middle Stories . . . Enter here, if you dare.
Both of us expressed a desire to come back and finish the job at some point in the future though. For tedious work, it was quite a lot of fun and as most random experiences tend to be, filled with peculiarities.
I’ve already finished the book. My cover was the only one written in blue Sharpie, is on the picture of the two guys on the beach, and has the tail end of a fish in the water and the words "Come back . . . "