When the arrows on the boxes pointed down instead of up as the shipping supervisor had ordered, I heard an angry, disgusted voice demanding with a throaty kind of diction, “I told you, point them down. Do you know what that means?”
I felt like that young man in a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, who was lured into a pact with the devil, only to regret it later. It is left to the great Lawyer Daniel Webster to deliver a stirring speech that wins sympathy from a jury of spirits, thus saving the young man’s soul. I did not have a lawyer when I agreed to work in the Zellers shipping department. I certainly was not lured: I needed money, fast.
Call it the downside of being desperate, but off to the local employment agency I went. For minimum wage, they sent me to work at the Zellers shipping department. At first, I didn’t mind. One week earlier, I was happily employed. This week I had been downsized. I was suddenly unemployed. Anyone who has experienced that stress can understand what finding employment -any employment- means. Being a student and actually having money meant that one has to suppress feelings of pending doom.
But it was quickly replaced with feelings of real dread and despair.
Thump. Ka-thump. Thump. That’s the sound that each cardboard box made as it slide from the upper conveyor to the lower trailer belt that led to me waiting in the stomach of the trailer. Now comes my job description. My job, as loader number eight on doors nine and ten, was to place each box in the trailer, arrows up. Just do that 2,000 times a night. There, your training is over.
The first thing I learned was that everyone knew who the agency workers were. An agency worker had a special parking area away from the regular employees. Not many of us owned a car so that management decision was mute. We did not enter the warehouse until the regular workers, or the Zells, as we called them, went in. Once inside, we were given a yellow vest and an orange sticker was placed on the sleeve. Our breaks were scheduled after the Zells, and at the end of the shift, we left five minutes after them.
The second thing I learned was that those arrows on the boxes had to be pointing up, not down. The trailers had to be stacked from top to bottom, front to back, otherwise the company would be losing money. I need not have worried. Three times a night, a regular Zellers employee inspected your wall of boxes; arrows up, heavy boxes on the bottom, light ones on top, liquids on the bottom.
I also discovered that Big Brother Zell was always watching. Hovering over each conveyor belt, attached to a long pole hanging from the ceiling was a small security camera. I often wondered where the supervisor disappeared to every 30 minutes. He was in the reception area watching the three monitors. I learned quickly to never stand in one place too long, or to lean against the trailer wall, or take a seat on the belt, or to come out of the trailer five seconds before the break horn sounded. Those more interested in letting the grass grow under their feet disappeared. I never made a friend there.
I had never worked in a warehouse and I soon learned the consequences. The warehouse was dusty, and it looked like it was lightly snowing on some nights. The floors were so sticky you could hear its sucking sound on the souls of your shoes as you walked. You did your best to avoid the bathrooms. I guess when there are 200 men working in one area you get what you expect. The noise from the metal rollers on the belts was deafening. I did the math one night: 27 belts, 400 feet each, and no space between the rollers equaled 7, 210. Imagine that many all rolling against each other at the same time?
After one week, my nose became congested and my breathing was difficult. By the second week, my ears began to hurt and I wore ear plugs until a supervisor told me to take them out. As he explained, yelling in my ear over the belts, “I would not be able to hear the intercom calling for me to work faster.” Week four was the most difficult. I had difficulty bending my fingers and I hurt my back.
No union. No sick days. Every night I felt sick. During the day I slept for ten hours.
After five weeks I was semi-promoted to light buster, a roving loader on the look out for flashing yellow lights, the dreadful signal for a blocked or full belt. My job was to help a loader clear the belt and stop the flashing. A light would flash again and I would hear a voice direct me to the next light. Did I mention that there are 27 conveyors at this warehouse?
After one night of busting lights, I understood the work ethic of my co-workers; wait until the buster comes and then go to the bathroom. My visits seemed to trigger their laziness and they would take their late evening siestas.
I guess you could say my Daniel Webster was my 10-year-old daughter. One day she asked if she would become one of those cranky warehouse women wearing hairnets and working for next to nothing. It is hard to conceive of a more shaming question. I realized it was time to get out.
I turned in my yellow vest and orange sticker and for the heck of it on my last night I parked where all the Zells parked. You should have seen the faces on the Zells that night as I left when they did. I would have loved to see the face of my supervisor when he discovered that I had placed all the arrows down in the trailer parked at door number nine.