Q: You worked in the candy section of a warehouse. How did it start?
A: I started off working on the line. It was a family-owned company that supplied gas stations all over the Midwest. The warehouse had everything for a gas station—soda pop, candy, condoms, batteries.
It was basically a job that could be done by a robot except that it required the dexterity of human hands. People were very much instruments of production. You could train somebody to do it in 5 to 10 minutes.
You take a warehouse picker placement exam; it’s an exam for being a warehouse meat claw.
Q: What was the job itself like?
A: The employees raced down the rows with cardboard boxes. They wore headsets that gave coordinates and you called back the confirmation number and quantity. You’d be on this headset all night and you’d sort of trance out—get into this weird fugue state. It would be regular to see people sleeping standing up or in some weird zone.
Q: There was a voice in the headset that gave instructions?
A: Yes. The robot’s name was Jennifer and people would curse her out. You’d hear people screaming, “Fucking Jennifer!” or “Goddamn bitch Jennifer!” She took a fair amount of abuse.
I remember being super tired after a midnight shift, and when I got home, at some point when my girlfriend was talking, I kind of zoned out and said, “Jennifer repeat.”
It sounds contrived if you try to explain it in the heat of a fight but I had to try to explain that the other woman was a robot. I was telling a robot named Jennifer to repeat something.
Q: It’s good that your name was not Jennifer.
A: One time we had a Jen that worked there. There weren’t many women, and she was probably there for a week, which was only a week shorter than the average person. But imagine having your name called out every seven seconds.
Q: How did you become the supervisor?
A: Attrition. I was there on time every single day. At that point I was eligible for a board seat.
I was a 19-year-old managing ten people who were probably ten years my senior or more. I was going to community college but I spent more time at work than at school.
Q: What were the other workers like?
A: You could tell who was in which department by the way they looked. For example, in the juice department they had insane equestrian-level leg strength. You’d see somebody and say, “There’s a juice guy.” They carried the heavy boxes of Slushies, which were like Franzia-bags of syrup in a box.
The bulk department was for bigger people. Wider lanes. The bosses had no problem typecasting.
The candy department was for smaller people because it was a smaller area and you might need to hold each other’s hips as you squeezed by. Guys in deep freezers were bearded…
Q: What was the warehouse like?
A: There was cardboard flying all around. It had a Martian-like quality to it. You could run your finger over everything. At the end of the day you would have a tennis-player-tan of dust.
Q: Was it loud?
A: The squeal from the roller lines was incredible. At the end of the night you would hit a big red kill switch. I would be agitated all night and I couldn’t pin it down. But then I would turn it off and realize how loud it had been.
The lines were motorized and sensors would shut them off if something got stuck, and you’d have something like an explosion of tortilla chip bags all over the place. The smallest person, or at least the one who was least aware of OSHA laws, would crawl up the lines, which were two or three floors up, and unstick them with a broom handle.
Labor laws were casually enforced and there was no union. Not all warehouses are like that.
Q: So you’re saying you’d be up at the top of a conveyor belt, trying to un-jam it? Would you come down before they turned it back on?
A: The lines had little railings so the boxes would not fall off, but the railings were like three inches high. I would straddle the line and they would turn it back on while I’d grab the asbestos rafters.
Q: You should call your mom and tell her you’re glad to be alive.
A: She still doesn’t know that I did that.
Q: Any other safety violations?
A: If you told your supervisor that you saw an OSHA violation you would get an extra $50 in your paycheck. But you worked closely with people and no one wanted to throw anyone under the bus.
That said, I saw people lifting a forklift with a forklift. I saw them doing forklift jousting, where there are these large industrial tubes and you hold them and come at each other.
If this comes across as negative, it’s because I have three years of perspective… It was dangerous, and dumb, and I loved it.
Q: Anything else you remember about the job?
A: Any candy holiday was the bane of my existence. We got hundreds of orders for candy holidays, like Valentine’s Day, Halloween, or Easter. You have to move like 120-pound boxes of Reese’s. You got relatively fit.
Q: Why did you stop working there?
A: Shift work can be hard on the rest of your life. There was nothing more sublime than driving home at 5:30 AM when the streets were empty, but there is a sheer physical pleasure that comes with sleeping eight hours a night, and you miss it.
One day I thought, “I’m gonna get 10 hours of sleep and not go back to that place.”
Q: That doesn’t sound like you.
A: I know! I hadn’t missed a single day in like two to three years.
Q: Did you get paid?
A: I may not have gotten my last paycheck. I still have my company box cutter.
Q: It sounds like it was a good job for a while.
A: There was something about it. Those people are still my people.