- Working First Shift at the Progresso Soups Factory, and: Hounds
Working First Shift at the Progresso Soups Factory
For summer cash, I answered an ad at a work agencyto fill soup cans for three months and they assured methat if I'd only apply myself, there was a decent chanceat fulltime employment—You can really make it, but remember,it's temporary. I agreed. In September, I would walk [End Page 100]
from this calloused glance at another life into my junior yearof college. Steel pitchforks chipped frozen half-dollarsof carrots from a solid vegetable block and the cavernous bellyof the factory clanged even after the chiseling stopped,or so it seemed, as the third-shift workers we replaced
took their corners of the break room and ate leftover riceand beans, or bit at the quick of their thumbs or glumly staredat the television chained to its stand—miniature routines,habits, self-preserving practices of the body. When they stuffedtheir khaki work shirts and earplugs into their lockers,
climbed into their trucks to go home, still the rest of their daywould play out like this, mechanical. Empty. In high school,I tried to imagine what my life would be if I followed my fatherand became a ditch digger. Attended trade schooland installed burglar alarms for $2.65 an hour. Eventually
got a job loading coal at the power plant. That first week,with each buzzer or ingredients order from menlighting the cooking kettles, I hauled fifty-pound sacksof dried broth or shoveled pasta onto a conveyor belt and peekedat a book I kept in my back pocket about the supposed extinction
of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. After that, I didn'tread another word until the semester set in. I picked up smokingsimply because I could cross to the other side of the compoundand pace the razor-wired yard, spinning my fictional biographybetween drags, a history reserved for the unlucky.
Middle school educated. One of seven children. Petty thiefof snack cakes at the gas station counter. Why lie? I was a white boyfrom the other side of town: university taught, middle class,twenty years old with no rent due and no one else but meto feed off of my paycheck, me who would leave the packing line
for lines of poetry. I knew everyone there looked at every othertemp worker as someone who could pinch their benefits, [End Page 101] their paycheck, their tin-foiled pork carnitas in the communal fridge.Every morning, five am, they pinned the labor requisitionbeside the punch clock, how many shoulders and hands they needed.
Four for towing pallets. Twelve for sterilizing the boiling pots.A note penned in the bottom margin—Send the rest home.Every morning, there I was, donning my hardhat and reporting in.The factory still must have seemed like a machinated versionof an Old Testament enslavement to the workers
who made six dollars an hour inspecting labels glued to every can.When the foremen said Order up, all of us felt the strain.Palm blisters, back braces. Some shifts we hoped they wouldn'thave enough assignments so we could park at the bodegaon Chestnut Avenue. Those three months were a lifetime—
whether it was the persona I created, the rise and fallof a species of woodpecker in the book I carried, the stuck noteof the fluorescent bulbs' deafening hum, or how the lightingin the factory never changed. Yellow lanes marked out whereyou could and couldn't move, no straight path from one side
to the other. If you asked me to map out the facility,I could sketch every nook and staircase, but don't ask meto name any of the men I borrowed lighters from, the mento whom I gave my cigarettes at the close of August,who I told I had to quit. The ones who sucked on the cold beans
they bucketed and weighed for each recipe. Who hacked phlegminto the lavatory floor drain, penned women's namesinto...