|Tell the truth and run – 16th Century Czechoslovakian proverb
CANANDAIGUA, NY :::
A tale of life and labor follows.
It's a story about work, and the people who do it. Is work always just a means to an end, or is it something more? Times are tough lately, especially if you don't have a job and can't find anyone willing to hire you. For some folks, that means more time to hang out on sites like this one.
Our exercise in free speech continually surprises me, and most of the time gratifies me immensely. Our online community at the forum part of this site keeps growing and is read on a daily basis by quite a few people.
Thanks for joining us here, thanks for your support, and be sure to check back once in a while.
Will you be glad you did? A lot depends on your attitude, I guess.
Up Next at The Ordinary Citizen:
Our family’s battle against drugs... a tale of anguish, loss and hope
The King of Despair comes to Canandaigua, and lives in our house. We'll tell you what we found, what we learned, and how we came out on the other side.
If you do nothing, the King of Despair will always win.
Did we ever have a Freak Show at the Ontario County Fair? I may not be able to find enough info for a story, but if I do, you’ll see it here, not in the Messenger or the D&C. Not mainstream enough, I guess. You’re curious though, aren’t you? C’mon... admit it.
Blue Collar Tourism
We hear a lot about how important the Tourism Industry is to Ontario County. What about people who work in the tourism biz, or maybe volunteer in it? The Ordinary Citizen would like to talk to some of our tourism workers... do you get paid enough? Do you need a union? e-mail us and let us know what it’s like to work behind the smile.
by Jeff Marinelli :::
“There’s no such thing as menial work… there’s only menial wages.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m a graphic designer. It’s tough times for people like me when the economy’s bad. Come to think of it, it’s been bad for most of us lately.
As the economy steadily worsened and began its downhill slide, I began to have less and less work. Pretty soon I had almost no work, along with many of the people employed in my profession. I decided I’d get on the list at a temporary agency… when I started my business 14 years ago, that’s what I did the first year. If I had work of my own, I’d do that. If I didn’t, I’d take temp work.
I drive to one of the temporary service agencies to register. Before you sign up as a temp, you have to take a test. They sit you in a little classroom and give you a multi-page examination. Some of this is fairly obvious… they need to be sure you can read and follow instructions. Partway through, however, the questions take on a tone that is decidedly strange, at least to me. They want to know ‘if I’ve ever stolen anything from an employer more expensive than a ball-point pen’ and ‘how much money is it acceptable to steal from an employer?’ Besides ‘none’, it lists varying amounts from one dollar to five hundred dollars.
Somehow I think if you really needed work, honesty might not be the best policy. I finish the test and fill out all the forms, which takes about 45 minutes. The lady at the desk doesn’t even check over my answers to see if I’ve done it properly, but stuffs it in a pile. She asks me, “Can you measure?” Designers work with measurements all day, so I tell her yes. She gives me another test, a photocopy of a ruler. I have to circle various measurements, nothing more precise than one half to one-quarter inch.
I give her the paper and again, it goes in the pile with nary a glance. “We have an assignment that starts tomorrow”, she says. I’ll be working in a machine shop. “OK”, I tell her, “I’ll take it.” She tells me where the job is and to be sure I have steel-toed shoes. I do. She says the field supervisor will be around to check the safety environment.
I report to the shop in the morning. It’s all I can do not to stare outright at the working conditions. There’s junk and trash everywhere, and more safety and code violations than I can count. Chunks of metal are strewn across the floor. Regardless of the no smoking law, most of the workers smoke on the job. The floor is littered with cigarette butts. I’m told to spray paint some iron. The paint they use is highly carcinogenic, and the label is laden with warnings. I am not offered a respirator, although the foreman has one. I find a dust mask and wear that.
There is no exhaust fan, so I open the door and set up a portable fan. I get yelled at for ‘heating the outdoors’. My co-workers and I glance at each other. Except for the foreman and the manager, no one has been here more than four months, which is not a good sign.
One of the metal saws runs on 220 volts. An extension cord to power the thing snakes across the floor, which is highly illegal. The plug is cracked from being stepped on so many times. A makeshift repair job has been done to it by wrapping it with several layers of duct tape. I help a co-worker carry some metal and step on it accidentally. It’s live, and I feel the cracked parts grate under my shoe as they move around. They have a storehouse in the back, connected to the workshop, where the metal extrusions are kept. It has one exit door, the fire exit. The forklift is parked there, sitting in a pool of oil, pressed tight against the door. The door is padlocked on the outside of the building. If there’s a fire, no escape will happen that way. I map out an exit strategy in my mind.
We operate the crane to move the bundles of extrusions around. One of my co-workers has a stack of metal fall on his leg. The foreman ignores it. Another of my coworkers was injured a few months ago with a bad cut to his hand. The company paid him outright so he wouldn’t report it to workman’s comp. I ask if there’s ever been a union there. The shop foreman tells me: “The owner hates unions and he’d fire the lot of you if you tried that.” The atmosphere of indifference, animosity and danger here is tangible. I wonder how they can stay in business.
I look up and stare. The shop foreman is running one of the huge metal cutting saws. He’s wearing a pair of bedroom slippers. He may as well have been barefoot for all the protection those gave him.
In the time I worked there, the field supervisor from the temp agency never showed up. They had their money, so I guess it wasn’t important. A temp agency brokers hours, not workers, and if they lose one, there’ll be two more to take his place, especially when times are tough.
When I write these articles, the focus is on people, not companies or businesses, so there’s a certain ethical consideration that keeps me from naming the places where I worked, but in this case, it’s a strain.
My assignment ends with a call from the temporary agency. “You want something else?” the lady asks. “Call me if something turns up” I tell her. I’ve got some work in my studio… just not enough. A week goes by before she calls. “I have a job over in Geneva if you’re interested,” she says. “What is it?” I ask. “You’ll be shoveling grain into sacks all day” she tells me. “It’s $7.50 an hour, you have to start tomorrow and they want a commitment.” (A commitment? Why is it called temporary work? I think to myself.)
“No, thanks”, I tell her. “I’ll wait till something turns up in Canandaigua.” (Mental image of her rolling her eyes and asking herself “Jeez. What more does he want?”)
Another week goes by before a call comes. Today is Friday, and the assignment starts on Monday at one of the biggest employers around here. I tell them I’ll do it.
Monday comes… my first morning here. The supervisor tells me: “Watch out for the forklift drivers. Most of ‘em are senile and don’t drive too good and they’ll run you over.” I’m not sure if he’s joking or not, so I take it seriously. I’m assigned to work with a guy who will train me. We introduce ourselves as he asks: “You do any fishing? I did a lot of ice fishing this weekend.” He launches into a detailed account of his exploits. Enthusiasts of any sort are appealing, but like most hobbies, this one is full of mysterious Arcanum that’s incomprehensible to someone not in the know. He rambles on at length about fishing, ice fishing, and fishing in general, as well as fishing. Enthusiasts are appealing, all right… up to a point.
I say: “Hey… you drink any of this stuff?” He says: “No. I don’t drink whisky, I don’t drink wine, and I don’t drink beer.” He leans over and says in a conspiratorial manner: “Fishin’s my only vice.”
An alarm light goes off on one of the machines. The machine shuts down while the mechanics fix it. “That’s the fuckup alarm,” he tells me. He notices the look on my face and obviously feels he hasn’t explained himself clearly enough. He offers a more lucid, technical explanation: “It’s fucked up around here when things get fucked up.” I ponder this revelation with silent astonishment before opining: “I guess it must be at that.”
“You’re all right,” he tells me.
Production work in a factory setting is a combination of hard physical labor and mind-numbing boredom. A good imagination and a sense of humor are important if you’re going to be able to do it. One thing that gets my highest admiration is this company’s regard for worker safety. A large sign in the factory announces: ‘Safety is No Accident’. They mean it here, too. Everyone is issued a hard hat, gloves, safety glasses, and ear protection. If you don’t use them, they’ll want to know why. I don’t see this as wanting to avoid liability, either, but genuine concern for their workers. The chance of injury in factory work is very real. My arms become covered with scrapes and bruises, and I have an 8-inch gash on my right forearm where my skin got caught on a nail head sticking out of a pallet.
The physical demands of this kind of work start taking their toll on me. I’m pretty sore the first week. As a former weightlifter, I’m familiar with the changes taking place. My arms and shoulders start to bulk up daily from the constant lifting. Almost no one asks my last name. There are a lot of Southerners here, and I quickly become “Jeffy”. “Hey, Jeffy!” “There’s old Jeffy!" “How you doin’, Jeffy?” I haven’t heard this many Southern accents outside of a movie. Jeffy, that’s me.
Like most factories, this one is a huge gloomy labyrinth of a place, with aerial conveyor belts everywhere in constant motion, and all kinds of production machines. I still have a boyish fascination for wheels and gears and the engineering thought that goes into making things like this, so it’s interesting to me to see the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff that goes into producing products that people take for granted when they pick it off the shelf.
The people I work with make no distinction about me being a temporary worker. There are a lot of temps here. I become as one with my blue-collar brothers and sisters. There are a lot of women working here. The women used to do everything the men did, but kept getting injured from the lifting, so now they run the machines. The first few weeks I’m there people are curious to see if I’ll stick it out. More than one person tells me about the temps who ask permission to go to the bathroom 2 hours into their first day and get in their cars and leave and never come back. They must like their bathrooms at home a lot better, I guess.
They have a good system here. You do one job for the first 4 hours with one partner, and in the afternoon you’ll do something different with someone else. This helps a little to alleviate the monotony and repetitive strain of doing the exact same thing for eight hours at a stretch. Various stratagems evolve to deal with the boredom. There are lots of boom boxes, all running at top volume to be heard over the machines. One thing I see a lot of is people singing as they do their jobs. A song comes on that they know, and they’ll sing along as they work.
Another day dawns down in the mines. I’m paired with a new fellow this morning. He owns the boom box, so he picks the station. He likes Country/Western. He’s one of the workers who sings, and appears to know the lyrics to every Country/Western tune ever written. This leads to some strange dénouements.
I ask him: “Am I supposed to do those boxes over there?”
"I'm gonna' hire a wino to decorate our home,
So you'll feel more at ease here, and you won't have to roam,” he informs me at the top of his lungs.
"We'll take out the dining room table, and put a bar along that wall.
"And a neon sign, to point the way, to our bathroom down the hall."
“Do these go with those over there, too?” I inquire.
“You'll get friendly service, and for added atmosphere.
"I'll slip on something sexy, and I'll cut it clear to here,” he trills coquettishly.
"Then you can slap my bottom, every time you tell a joke.
"Just as long as you keep tipping, well, I'll laugh until you're broke."
“Where’s the forklift guy?” I wonder out loud.
"Instead of family quarrels, we'll have a bar-room brawl,
"When the Hamm's bear say's its closing time, you won't have far to crawl,” he sings loudly as he does a bump-and-grind.
"And when you run out of money, you'll have me to thank."
"You can sleep it off next morning, when I'm putting it in the bank."
I decide not to ask any more questions.
One of the first things I do when I evaluate a company is to look at the tenure of the workers. A whole lot of people have been here longer that 5 years, and there’s a surprising number of people who’ve passed the 10 and 20-year mark, too. They almost all tell me: “The money’s not too good here, but the company takes good care of you.” That must be so. Workers vote with their feet. If they’re not happy, they’ll find work someplace else. Just about everyone I work with tells me they work a second job to make ends meet.
The day is half over. I have a new partner. The supervisor introduces us and tells me in an aside: “This guy’s OK, but he’s a little weird.” Being of a sociable turn, I introduce myself and make some small talk. This guy’s other job is delivering pizzas at night. “I used to deliver pizzas when I was younger”, I tell him, “until I figured out that women don’t really answer the door in negligees.”
I’m looking for interviews with people who live and work here. Citizens great and small, visible and invisible, every one an Ordinary.
Jump on the bandwagon, baby.