Q: When did you start working at the potato-chip factory?
A: In May of 1989, when I was nineteen years old.
Q: How did you find the job?
A: Through a temp agency. My first job that summer was actually at a glass factory, but I saw someone lose their finger and I decided I didn’t want to do that after all.
Q: Someone lost a finger?
A: Yeah. I knew that the glass thing was going to be bad when I got there on the first day and they gave me protective goggles and this protective chain mail stuff that I had to wear over my shoulders. The supervisor had been in the Army, stationed in Germany. He would mess with us by shouting obscenities at us in German. Anyway, I was in the shipping department and we had to lift these huge panes of glass. They tell you, “If you lose your grip, just drop it and make sure your feet are out of the way.” This guy’s glass slipped and he tried to hold onto it and it landed on his finger and cut it off. They had to rush him to the hospital to re-attach it.
Q: And so you went back to the agency to find a different job?
A: Yes. They offered me two or three different jobs, but the potato chip factory paid the best.
Q: Tell me about the place. What was it like?
A: When you show up, they escort you into the cooking room. It’s like ninety degrees in there with ninety percent humidity. There are these huge vats that are three feet off the ground and full of peanut oil. Then there is a conveyor belt on one side that drops the sliced potatoes into the vat. You use a big rake to spread out the chips so they don’t stick together.
Q: Your job was to rake the chips?
A: Yes. They dump the potatoes into the vat and the potatoes sink. Then, as the potatoes cook, the water is released and they float to the surface. You have to continually pat them so they don’t clump together. Then a timer goes off and you drag them over to another conveyor belt that takes them away to a place where they salt them, pack them, or add seasonings, that kind of thing.
Q: Did you wear any protective clothing, like at the glass factory?
A: No. In fact, I wore short sleeves for the first few days and invariably the oil would splash. I got second-degree burns on my hands — look, you can see I still have the scars.
Q: What were the other people like who worked there?
A: Many people who worked there were either in a motorcycle gang or trying to get into a motorcycle gang. They drove Harleys with their sleeping bags attached to them. They either lived or camped near their Harleys. They were unshaven and unbathed. I felt lucky, though, that we all had to wear shower caps.
Q: Did you ever get free chips?
A: I met the owner once — he was very friendly and offered me a bag of chips. On occasion, we’d get to eat a bag of chips if it had sprung open or had one hard clump of chips.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble for having your chips clumped together?
A: I was lectured many times for not raking properly. I burned two or three batches and when the foreman saw them on the conveyor belt, he said, “What the fuck are you doing? Don’t you know how to rake?” I profusely apologized and eventually I got the hang of it. The foreman seemed to know how to rake really well.
Q: Did the job teach you any important lessons?
A: I think it taught me something about finesse, and critical thinking skills. I lost twenty pounds by the end of the summer from standing up raking for seven and a half hours a day and from the extreme heat of the place.
Q: Anything else that was memorable about the job?
A: Every night when I came home, my pants would be saturated with peanut oil and they remained slick even with frequent washing. My girlfriend at the time, who I’ve since married, was allergic to peanuts. I would take off the jeans and she would make me scrub down like a scene out of Silkwood or something.
Q: What did you end up doing with those pants?
A: I had borrowed a few pairs of jeans from my roommate and at the end of the summer I went to him and said, “Hey, here are your jeans back.” Before I could give them to him, he said, “That’s okay, you can keep them.”