I plod in an endless circle. One short step behind the person in front of me, I pace through the night piecing together pages of a medical brochure along with 17 other bored temps. I am working a graveyard shift at a printing plant in Research Triangle Park in Durham and wondering why I majored in English in college. At this point, it feels like I majored in undecided. The person collating in front of me is slow. This is like waiting in line for bread in Russia, only without the bread.
Did you know it’s possible to screw up collating? Seems impossible, but it happens around 4 a.m. when you’re about to lose consciousness. Everyone in the line must stop when I miss a page, and I have to back up and rearrange. This is not even the worst job I’ll ever have, though it’s easily in the top five. They say working the graveyard shift takes a year off the end of your life. We all talk about how we can see that is possible. But we are all still relatively young, even though you cannot tell from how slowly we are moving at the moment.
The last year of our lives was probably going to be a pretty boring year anyway, we have decided. Spent in a wheelchair or pushing around a walker with tennis balls embedded in its legs. We were going to cough a lot. And spit. I hate it when people spit to clear their throats, but old people seem to do this a lot. We might even be in pain and have to remember to take a ton of pills. I’m not good at remembering to take pills and I hate pain, so I feel losing this last year of my life is no great loss.
As a loud buzzer signals 7 a.m. I finish the last bit of papers I am collating and walk to the parking lot to get in the car. I would like to crawl in the back seat and sleep there. I’d wake up around 3 p.m. with the imprint of the back seat on my face. Wipe off some drool. Eat a late lunch at a Waffle House nearby. I’d have plenty of time to kill before my shift started again at 11 p.m. Perfect day.
Instead of sleeping in the back seat of the car, I drive home. I have a Master’s level English class at 10 a.m. on the beautiful campus at UNC through the Evening College program. Taking classes at the break of day through the Evening College program seems impossible, but that’s what’s happening. If I go to bed the moment I get home, I can get exactly two hours of sleep before rushing out the door to class. This is just enough sleep to make you angry you didn’t get more sleep. Class is not working out so well in any case. I used to think I was a pretty smart guy. It’s possible that falling asleep constantly in class is making me feel and look foolish. It’s something to consider if I could stay awake long enough to explore alternatives.
The classes are dull. I love literature, but I don’t love dissecting literature in this fashion. It’s dry and dusty stuff. Partly it’s the professor. He is in his last year teaching at the university. He is dry and dusty himself. Someone else with more zest for life could have breathed life into Chaucer and Spenser. He is killing them. They are already long dead, but he is murdering their memory. And this hard life of graveyard shift work and college by day is killing me.
The answer is obvious. Something has to give. So, I give up on my back door entry to graduate school to focus on my career in collating. Bringing renewed zest to collating has its rewards. I’ve been doing the collating work through a temp agency. Now the printing plant has noticed my new found zeal and wants to hire me.
It was easy to get a job in those days. You showed up with clean clothes and a fresh haircut and were polite. The old white guy looked you over. If the old white guy wasn’t the one hiring you, he was lingering in the background somewhere. When whoever was interviewing you was done, the old white guy in charge might stop in to check you out. He just likes to look new hires in the eye once before giving the final go-ahead which consists of a quick wink to the Human Resources manager. No visible tattoos and no nose rings. You’ll do. Wink.
Years later, I was in a store in Florence, Alabama, and I wasn’t happy with the customer service I was getting at the counter. I’d already appealed to a higher authority and gotten no satisfaction from the assistant manager, a polite but clueless young woman. I was really about livid in public, which only happens maybe every ten years. I said to the assistant manager, “I’d like to see the old white guy who runs things around here. Wake him up and bring him here to me. Now.” The assistant manager gave me a look and slouched off to get the old white guy. When he waddled over – he happened to be an old fat white guy – he quickly fixed the problem as I knew he would.
I’m not proud of myself for assuming correctly an old white guy was in charge. I just knew instinctively he was back there somewhere eating a doughnut or snoozing lightly in his comfy chair. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain really running things. He is great and powerful and doesn’t have to wear a name tag like everyone else. His name is Fred. But you will only learn that if he chooses to tell you. He can fix all your problems if you can find him. But he is not easily found. Like most old white guys, he takes awfully long lunch breaks. Old white guys in charge eat slowly in my experience, lingering over their meals like Winnie the Pooh.
So, I’m working full time for the printing place now. This is a pretty horrible job that involves standing in front of a machine that is collating things quicker than lightening. The machine makes a deafening roar. You can almost hear yourself think, but not quite. If you shout into the ear of a co-worker, it’s barely possible to be understood.
Years later, things will make more sense. I will write for newspapers. I will do a prison interview with a guy who murdered another man with a hammer over a woman. This is a story about love and blunt instruments, a plot to kill and sweet nothings. Can life get any better than that? I’ll interview the infamous and weird Eddie Hatcher who once held a newspaper hostage for a day, and the resulting story will travel around the country through the AP wire into distant places I’ve only dreamed of seeing. I’ll interview a girl who just scored 42 points in a high school basketball game. She doesn’t give great quotes and likes to answer politely yes and no to everything. You always hope for more from great athletes and never get it. But that’s not the point.
Things are not clear yet. I am going deaf and losing a year of my life by working the graveyard shift for an old white man in charge somewhere in a sound-proof office, safe from all the clanging machinery and dull work. He can hear nothing but the sound of money being made.
This is the slow march of the English major toward enlightenment in all its horrible glory. English majors all want to save the world. But first they have to work out their own issues and save themselves. One slow step in a circle at a time.