There wasn’t a painting of a Coco-Cola can by Andy Warhol in the breakroom at the plant in Needham, MA, but it would have been a good idea. It might have provided a sense of context for the workers, that they were part of a larger conversation about mass production. When one worked the third shift from eight pm to 4:30 am, some context could be comforting.
There were different strata of people working at the plant during the summer. People like me, who were going to college in the fall; the union guys, who made a living at the plant; and then the guys who drifted from job to job, no real plans for the future.
The cans of soda in the machines in the breakroom were only 25 cents. Seemed like a pretty good perk at the time; not something that I would necessarily bring up at a dinner party to impress the other guests but not too bad. This was back in 1992 so they probably cost more now.
This was my fiorst real job with real working men. Guys who paid their mortgages and fed their families on the salaries they earned stacking cases of soda eight, ten, twelve hours a night. They drank and smoked generic brand cigarettes and gambled on sports. I gambled for the first time that summer on a Mike Tyson fight and lost twenty bucks.
“Fuckin’ lost twenty bucks on that shit.” I told the guys at lunch.
They grunted sympathetically and said, “That fuckin’ sucks.”
It made me feel like a man.
The younger guys who didn’t have wives or kids yet put their money into their cars. After meeting someone often the first question he asked was, “What kind of car do you drive?”
One guy named Paul told the group at the lunch table that he drove a GTA. They were all pretty impressed by that. I felt embarrassed because I didn't know what that was.
I drove my mother’s station wagon.
It wasn’t glamorous work. Pick up an order slip, get a pallet jack, walk around the warehouse and stack crates of soda. Fifty cases of Coke Classic, fifty cases of Sprite, thirty cases of A&W Root Beer, twenty five cases of Shweppes Ginger Ale. Finish that order, wrap it in plastic sheeting, put it on the loading dock and go get another slip. Wash, rinse, repeat.
(It did make me feel tough to work at a place with a loading dock. Before that I had worked at an Au Bon Pain and worn a beret.)
My trainer for the first two weeks was a guy named Ed McSweeney. He was a former Marine who was usually a truck driver but had gotten busted for a DUI and his commercial driver’s license had been revoked. He’d confided all this to me like I was someone who would know about that shit. That was pretty fucking cool.
After I’d been there for about two weeks a guy named Sylvester felt comfortable enough to invite me to have a beer at his car after our shift and look at naked pictures of his girlfriends. Five o’clock in the morning, drinking beer in a parking lot and looking at a variety Polaroids (this was way before iPhones) of women in various poses, wondering why they would agree to do that, why Sylvester wanted to show them to me and where I could meet such women.
It was all pretty romantic.
There was a whole contingent of guys from Southie, straight out of central casting for The Town or gone Baby Gone. They all drove to work in the same type of car, a large, beat up Coup De Ville of sorts. It sounds condescending, but they did have a certain down to earth wisdom. One of them had been fired for mouthing off to the manager. His friend told him, “If I were you, I’d be getting my dick sucked in the back of my car.”
I over heard a guy from Dorchester giving his friend relationship advice. Apparently, his friend’s girlfriend was out at the movies that night.
“You better find out who she with.”
“She just with some bitches.”
There are more books about “grit” than one could possibly read. Every commencement speech is a treatise on character and determination and what it takes to succeed. It really isn’t that complicated. Show up, do your job, try not to complain too much. The guys in the union, the ones with families to support, had reached that conclusion without watching a TED Talk. Fulfillment and job satisfaction didn't really factor into the equation. They stacked the cases of soda and earned their pay check.
For some people though, the message does not resonate.
Edgar was a muscle bound guy from Brockton, as was his friend Warren. They both looked like they could bench press four hundred pounds. Edgar asked me how it was working in the warehouse. I told him that it wasn’t too bad but it could get tiring after eight hours.
“Well, if you can do it, I guess I can do it.” He said.
I assumed so.
Edgar did nothing but complain about how tired he was. I couldn’t understand how a guy that big could not handle physical labor without practically crying. Warren talked a big game at first about how he liked hard work and that he had promised his kid a bike for his birthday.
They were both gone in less than a month. I wondered what Warren told his son about the bike.
Maybe a painting by Andy Warhol would have shown Edgar and Warren that Workthey were part of the larger picture of consumerism that connects, for better or worse, the citizens of the world. A can of soda that one of them prepared for shipment might be drunk in Florida, or California, or even a different country like Japan (they love American products over there). That idea might have given them a whole new perspective on how their jobs fit into a larger context.
And Warren’s son would have gotten his bike.