Friday, February 21, 2014


Lately, I can't seem to help thinking about my last couple of years living in Massachusetts. Particularly the spring of '97. I had been working at a factory that made paper bags for two years. This company made several types of bags: potato bags with the plastic mesh in the front, "sew" bags with the string you pull to open the top, the kind of bag with the waxy seal (known as "hot melt" in the industry) that held the tops closed, and something called "pasted valve" bags. I was primarily involved in making the pasted valve variety. These bags are flat on the top and bottom, and are opened by ripping open whichever corner has the valve -- a strip of paper inserted into the bags just before their tops and bottoms are glued closed that both allows the customer ordering the bags to fill them with their product and prevents the contents from spilling out until the bags are ripped open by hand. You've seen these bags before: they contain cement, or fertilizer, or quick-dry, or some sort of polymer, and so on. They can be a bitch to make, believe me.
In fact, during the early part of '97, I was getting so fed up with making them, I signed up to be an apprentice operator in the press department of the same plant. Under union rules (some day I need to explain the concept of a union to the cell-phone-camera-and-body-piercing kids who are young enough to be my own), when the company posted a job opening, regardless of what it was with very few exceptions, the senior-most employee who signed up for that position got it for thirty days. If it was clear that he/she couldn't handle it after thirty days, he/she was moved back to his/her prior position in the factory. If things were working out, then it was up to the employee to decide whether to stick with it or go back to his/her earlier job. As it happened, I got the apprentice position. It meant taking a cut in pay, too. But with a few days left during my trial, I was asked by the vice president if I wanted to go back to my old job. I said no. He wasn't happy to lose an operator, but hey, union rules are union rules.
All of the guys in the press department had more seniority than I did, and they were very much into the male bonding scene. The ringleader of this circus was Jerry. Everyone loved Jerry -- even me. Or, I should say, especially me. Every morning -- and I mean every morning -- when he got his press up and running, he'd take an air hose, aim it at a small recess in the press' frame, and squeeze the handle. This made a loud piercing noise similar to that of a steam train's whistle. "All aboard!" It was his way of letting the entire plant know that the train had left the station. You have no idea how much this annoyed people in some of the other departments.
Then there was Juan, a guy from Spain. Juan had a hard-headed demeanor which always kept me on edge. He could make me wonder whether he was about to slit my throat for the hell of it, although he would never do such a thing to anyone. That was just the way he was wired up. I noticed one thing about him early on: He could see everything. I'd go to inspect the print as it was running, and I'd focus on the larger stuff -- print registration, image crispness, and the like. Juan would see a yellow speck on white paper that I would never have caught, stop the press, clean the plate, and start back up. I witnessed shit like that dozerns of times. I'm a press operator nine years later and six hundred miles away, and I still marvel at his powers of observation.
On the other end of that spectrum was John, an Irishman. John was a wonderful guy to be around. I liked him more than anyone else in the department. But he was no pressman. A two-color job he could handle. Three or more, and he was lost, for some reason I never understood. Jerry once told me, "Most guys, Pauly, they don't know shit when they come to the press, but over time, they learn and they get better as they go. Not John." I think John's staying power was due to the fact that everyone liked him -- he was just that kind of guy. I still miss him. And I have no idea what's become of him.
Wayne, on the other hand, was a stinking asshole. He was intelligent, he was articulate, he knew how to do his job, and he did have a heart. And he had a vicious sense of humor -- which I've learned to appreciate over the years. But he was chiefly an asshole, and he didn't care who knew it. So many times, I wanted to belt him. However, he knew one thing I didn't: karate. So I let it all go.
And Wilson. He was in charge of the ink room. If there is one m'fug I would never dare tangle with, it's Wilson. He wasn't mean, his eyes weren't black as coal, he didn't have a bloody mouth, nothing like that. He just seemed indifferent to what is known as the "finer things," but in a threatening way; it's hard to describe. There was nothing fancy or hip about Wilson. He was who he was, and that was good enough for him. Your first impression of Wilson upon seeing him is, this dude's a motherfuckin' moron. And your first impression is totally wrong. Wilson was smart the way local yokels all over the country are smart. Maybe that's the threatening part about him. You meet him, and you instinctively start trying to fleece him; next thing you know, your head is mounted on a wooden plaque hanging on his wall. You don't screw with a guy like that.
And I'll never forget Chris. They called him Eddie Munster, which was funny, because Chris wasn't much more than five feet tall. Funnier still, all the other guys in the press department were average to extra-large in size, including me. And that holds true today. Confession: I'm about 6' 2", about 220 pounds. I'm bigger than most guys. But at the print shop I currently work in, I'm probably slightly over average. I was around average at the bag plant nine years ago. Printing and bigger-than-average people seem to go together -- hell if I know why. But regarding Chris... At some point, a roster of the members of the press department utilizing images of the Jolly Green Giant was put on display. Every member of the pressroom was represented by the Giant except Chris, who was represented by a silly cartoonish eagle. Chris had no problem with it. For all I know, it was yet another male bonding thing.
It was the last day of June. I was working second shift that day. Entering the plant, I noticed people were surlier and more withdrawn than normal.
"Oh, hey, Mimus," John said.
"Hi, John," I replied. He looked upset.
"Haven't you heard the news?"
"What news?" I wondered.
"They're shuttin' the plant down."
* * *
There was no set date. But it didn't matter. The place visibly went to hell in the two and a half months I remained there. My last day was in September. On the eleventh, believe it or not -- nowadays the date September 11 always brings two things to my mind.
Jerry quit before I did, in spite of more than twenty years of service and a considerable severance package waiting for him if he chose to stay. He lasted two weeks at his next job. I don't know where he went from there.
Juan was still working at the bag plant after I'd left. But I knew he was looking for a new job -- I'd ridden with him to one interview. Lord knows what he's up to now.
John remained at the plant for a while, too. I don't know where he is now.
Wayne told me he intended to stay to the end. Afterward, he planned to go back to college. And that's all I know.
Wilson left to work at some place in Gardner, Massachusetts. And that's the last I heard of him.
Chris stayed at the plant. I have no idea what he's up to, but I have this feeling that he's doing okay. Men who have what's known as "Little Man Syndrome" tend to excel at getting by, if not getting ahead.
And that's all the reminiscing I can do for now.