Q: How long did you work at the crayon-pigment factory?
A: I started in the summer of 2001 and did it that summer and the following summer, so I guess it was for a total of about six months.
Q How did you get the job?
A: My buddy—his father is the CEO, his grandfather and great-grandfather owned the company, and they thought they were doing me a favor. It was a family business—the uncle was the plant foreman.
Q: Where was the factory?
A: It was in far-southwest Virginia. Closer to West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee. A lot of people worked in West Virginia in coal mines and this was a step up.
Q: What was the place like?
A: It was a big company with five buildings. The factory was probably close to 100 years old and the buildings were wooden with tin roofs.
Twelve people were in my building. They made all the pigment for all the Crayola crayons made in the U.S.
Q: How does the process work?
A: We were doing raw color. We packaged it into bags and sent it to Easton, Pennsylvania, where they added the wax.
Basically, a 25-pound bag of brown makes 10,000 crayons. Ten pounds of white makes the same, 8 pounds of navy blue, 2.5 for cerulean.
We did lots of brown—huge runs of like 6,200 pounds at a time. We’d always joke that kids need to stop eating all of their brown crayons, it seemed like we made so much.
Q: How did they ship all this liquid?
A: It’s actually a dry powder. It’s inert mineral matter. For example, ochre, sienna, and amber come from mining for dirt and then setting the pigment on fire. There were these iron oxide deposits nearby where they mined for the material to make brown. Basically, they filter it, heat it, and it changes colors.
You can’t imagine what it’s like to stare at a 500-pound barrel of color, like green. It’s so fine that it feels and acts like a liquid. You put your hand in there and it’s cold—it’s a very strange substance.
Q: So what was your job, specifically?
A: The first summer I started in Packaging. There was a chute that came through the floor, and the person on the first floor had a foot control that opened the chute. They filled a bag until it was the right weight and then closed the chute. I did the top half, on the second floor, opening barrels of pigment and scooping it into the hopper. I never saw my partner on the first floor.
That summer was upsetting. I was isolated; it was like working in solitary confinement. I was up there by myself; I had to take my lunch when the people downstairs did, and I didn’t know any of them because they weren’t on the same floor.
The second summer, I moved up into Mixing. There was a bin up there that was like a small freight car. It had a big bar and paddles in the middle and it churned up the mixture. Then they drained it off and put the mixture into barrels. I had to climb in and clean out the bin between colors. I was 18 and smaller than a lot of people there, so they had me crawling in there to clean.
Q: That doesn’t sound like a pleasant job.
A: Yeah. Yellow is made out of sulfur and it stinks. They ground it to 2 microns and each particle is smaller than the pores in your skin. It was like 120 degrees in the plant and you’re sweating a lot …
I was in a band and I’d start sweating yellow out of my skin. It looked like I was wearing mascara and eyeliner sometimes.
When we started as kids out of high school we looked like freaks. But you get tired of scrubbing your eyelids.
I remember I started the first day of college with green under my fingernails.
Q: Did they have uniforms or any kind of safety wear?
A: They were kind of flexible with what you wore. You had to wear steel-toed boots and a hard hat. But, other than that … One guy wore cotton shorts and a T-shirt; he left them there and just wore them every day.
All of the colors go through cotton clothing. You could get a uniform, though, and they took money out of your paycheck so that you could have people wash it there. It had your name on it and everything.
The pants were always a little too tight, and it was laundered with a heavy starch …
We tried different strategies to stay clean. They had these Tyvek suits that were a cross between paper and plastic. It’s like a thin, tight mesh that rips like paper—it’s kind of hard to explain. It was a one-piece that zips up.
You’d tape the legs of your pants with masking tape, wear thick rubber gloves and tape the wrists to your uniform sleeves. It didn’t work. You’re moving around too much and sweating …
Red-violet is the worst color there is. It stains your skin and you can’t scrub it off. I used to have pink ankles from it.
Q: Was it dangerous to play with these minerals?
A: The pigment is so dry it eats your skin. Your calluses get wet and break open … Well, I’ll just stop there; let’s just say it’s kind of gross.
Q: What were the other people like who worked there?
A: In the mixing area there was one mixer that was a lot smaller than the others. Like I said, it doesn’t take a lot of blue to make crayons, so we’d always do smaller runs of blue. There was a guy named Billy who was really small—he was like a dwarf from Lord of the Rings—he was 5 feet tall and built like a bodybuilder. He was incredibly strong; I would see him moving 500-pound barrels by himself. He was always blue.
JC ran the reds and browns, so he was always covered in red. He looked like a vampire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was kind of a dick, too, so it made sense that he looked like a devil.
Q: Was it a good company?
A: They paid solid wages and they never laid anybody off. The Volvo plant was nearby and they paid more but they had layoffs. And it was better than being a coal miner.
Q: Would you ever do this job again?
It’s a soul-sucking thing to do—a 12-hour repetitive task. It was an hour from where I lived and there was no time to do anything else. Every hour after 8 hours was time and a half. On some level, that helps take the sting out of it.
The last day I was there I was saying goodbye to everyone and the guy that wore the shorts—he was one of their best workers and ended up getting carpal tunnel in both of his wrists—he said, “No offense, but I hope I never see you again.”