I have had the usual run of jobs to support my real life. I have driven tractors, forklifts, and trucks—dump trucks, delivery trucks, garbage trucks. I have done farm work and construction work and warehouse work. I’m not averse to physical labor, but when my grown-up job, teaching, finally became my career, I welcomed that development. What I’m writing about here is the worst job I ever had, the job from hell.
You are probably imagining stoop labor, something like that. Picking chile, row upon row in the blistering sun. Yes, that would be the absolute pits. The point is moot, however, because before the sun reached its zenith that first day, I’d have quit or died. But on with the story.
In the early ‘70s, having finished my coursework for the PhD, I girded my loins to attack the dissertation,* probably a year’s worth of research and writing. I was working for a local delivery outfit at the time and Diana was working for a title company. I did not want Diana to be our sole support, so I looked around and found a job which was half-time but paid twice as much as MPX was paying me. Five bucks an hour! That was serious money in Albuquerque in 1974. This was a union job (Teamsters) with a worldwide delivery service that is familiar to you all. But because I so loathed the job, perhaps an alias is in order. Let’s call it EMD for “Easy Money Delivery.”
It was night work, ten to two, or sometimes three, in the morning, so I could be up by noon every day and get in some serious writing. I never did get used to working nights, but that was the least of it.
I was what they called a pre-loader, one of the guys loading the local delivery trucks for the next day. There were about a dozen of us, each responsible for two trucks. The trailer that had come in from Denver or Phoenix or wherever would be backed up to the big door that opened onto the conveyor belt. The local trucks, inside the warehouse, would be backed up to the belt like piglets on a sow. I was responsible for two neighboring areas in the southeastern part of the city. The pre-loader would stand poised—I think “braced” is a better word—at the back of his two trucks, waiting for the packages to come down the belt. Above his head, for each truck, was a list/chart of the streets according to the preset route the driver took every day. The pre-loader would grab whatever package was addressed to his areas—remember, two trucks, not just one—scrawl a number on it with crayon, run into the appropriate truck and stash it where the number indicated on the shelves that lined the cargo area. If he had not screwed up—and if he had, he’d hear about it—the driver would not have to search for his deliveries at all. They would be lined up in order, down one side of the cargo box and up the other. EMD was nothing if not efficient.
At ten on the dot somebody would hit a switch somewhere and the belt would rumble to life and not stop until the night’s work was done. (I think it was stopped once so we could pull a guy’s foot out of the mechanism; he was reprimanded and hobbled home in disgrace.) If you are thinking of the classic scenes in Modern Times or of Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with an assembly line, you have the idea. But it was worse. Much worse.
Here you are and the belt is rolling inexorably on. You are grabbing packages, horsing them around to see which ones are yours and you see one and then another, one for each truck and you pull them both off the belt, look up, scrawl the right code number on the one and run it into the truck but meanwhile not only is the other package not yet shelved but the belt is still moving and more packages for your area are scooting by and you lunge at one that is inches from being out of your reach and maybe the guy next to you down the line has spotted a couple of yours and tossed them back to you...or at you (thanks). Remember, the belt never stops. And you are always running, you never stop running in and out of those trucks. Within 20 minutes on a busy night you will have packages stacked up around you like some humiliating rampart, and you will never catch up until they shut off that damned belt at two in the morning. You just pray that you don’t lose even more ground, that you are not buried behind your rampart, never to be seen again.
The union contract stated that they could work you an extra hour if need be, but if it went a minute over five hours they had to pay you for eight. In my fourteen months at EMD, I think that management caved just twice (as you’ve guessed, it was during the Christmas rush). And if the foreman was getting nervous about that deadline, there was a very simple remedy.
Speed up the belt.
I’m sorry. The memories are getting just too vivid. See you back here next week and we’ll put paid to this thing.
*Sherwood Anderson, Charles Burchfield, and the American Small Town (UNM, 1975) in case you missed it the first time.
Meet Your Macinstructor
Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is email@example.com.