The Wonderful World of Food Distribution

Allow me to apologize in advance for the following wall of text. I didn’t want to publish any photos or drawings that might compromise the anonymity of the company so liberally written about below. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting. If not, don’t worry – this is a one-time indulgence.

Inspired by Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line – a self-proclaimed shoprat’s cynical, beer-soaked romp through the final “glory days” of Flint’s automotive industry – I decided it was high time I chronicled my own short trip through the industrial bowels of Metro Detroit. I only lasted maybe 4 months, but what a 4 months it was.

Unlike Hamper, I didn’t help make SUVs or wield ungainly power tools. No, in fact, we didn’t make anything where I worked – we just repackaged prepackaged food onto pallets and sent ’em off to restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores. And to top it off, I was a janitor, the lowest form of life in the mammoth, refrigerated food distribution warehouse we regrettably called home.

Every day, starting at 7:00 PM sharp, I wheeled my little garbage bin up and down the warehouse’s massive aisles of racks as “pullers” drove their pallet trucks around me and – occasionally – straight at me. Since they were paid according to many orders they could fill in a night, my presence was a nuisance at best. They were here to rip plastic wrap and toss cardboard boxes and other items onto pallets as fast as possible, and I was a human obstacle.They steered their small trucks with reckless abandon, smashing whatever errant jello salad container got in their way without a second thought and keeping their palms firmly pressed on their horns the entire shift.

There were big diesel trucks waiting to hit the road, you know.

Sometimes the pullers would go at it for 12 hours or more, especially on Thursday nights when businesses stocked up for the weekend. A relentless computerized voice told the pullers through their headsets what to grab. I later learned that the pullers could choose how masculine or feminine the voice was – most apparently opted for a soft, maternal sound. Sometimes I’d imagine that we were inside the womb of some giant industrial demon goddess, that the airplane roar of the air conditioning units that kept my corner of the warehouse damn near freezing was the beast breathing. We were but unfortunate wandering blood cells, here to feed the deformed, bloated fetus we lovingly called America. How lucky.

It wasn’t a job for the old, that’s for sure. Almost everyone was in their twenties, and if you were over thirty, you probably drove a forklift, moving pallets from the top racks to the bottom rocks so the pullers could get at the product. We were all run ragged but overpaid, abusing our unskilled bodies and minds for a chance to be respectable, middle class citizens. Hell, I was making $11 an hour as a janitor, and I had no experience to speak of.

Certainly, no one was here because they loved their job. Most had kids or probation departments to pay. That was the bottom line.

On a good day, I probably collected enough plastic, cardboard, and wood chips from busted pallets to put in motion two more Great Pacific Garbage Patches. It never ceased. The second I left an aisle, it was if Richard Wagner’s Valkyries descended upon it with a cruel vengeance. The mayhem, the carnage! Yes, we recycled if you’re wondering, but only – ONLY! – if made the company money. If you couldn’t squeeze another penny out of that piece of trash for the manager’s bonus, then you could stuff the gills of endangered fish with it for all they cared.

Money, of course, was all that mattered to the higher-ups. Did the nozzle on your $1 plastic spray bottle break? You’d better pony up for a new one, you irresponsible twit. I always told the pullers not to swerve or slow down if they thought they were about to hit me, but to accelerate and make a clean hit, like I was a deer caught in their headlights. A clean hit meant less damage to the product and/or equipment, and that’s what was truly important. Nobody wants to get written up, right?

Now, in Hamper’s day, we could’ve at least gone to our cars on our breaks and got loaded to take the edge off. Not in the 21st century, my friend. You couldn’t leave the premises until your shift was done, and there were cameras everywhere. Employees lived in constant fear of the random drug tests. The only way to get fucked up on the job was to go on the company health plan and get prescribed pain killers or stimulants. Then you could pop as much Vicodin or Adderall as you wanted, and many did.

Oh, the break room. How many drug deals must go down there. The janitors always sat together at a table near the back; we didn’t have the cachet to hang out with the pullers at their tables or join their card games. Besides, it was hard to act chummy with the same guy that had nearly run you over an hour ago. Consequently, our conversations generally revolved around four topics: 1. sports; 2. the cold; 3. how much the pullers sucked; and 4. how long it’d be before our kindly overseer saw how hard we worked and promoted us to pullers so we too could pick on the janitors. Pullers could easily make over $20 an hour if they busted ass. It sounded like a king’s ransom to us, a far-off but attainable dream that kept us eating shit with a grin.

And believe me, there was a lot of shit to eat. The pullers were a cranky, irritable lot, but good at heart. I could handle that. Our bosses, however, were like the perfect distillation of George Orwell’s Big Brother.  “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. We control life, Winston, at all its levels.” One had even dunked his head in a blood on TV! A couple times a week, a supervisor mounted his trusted pallet jack to find you and bust your balls, usually in response to an e-mail from some bigwig that happened to find that one thing you’d missed.

“Look between those two pallets, George. What do you see?”

“Um… it looks like there’s some wood chips there.”

“Exactly! What the fuck do you guys do all day? Do you think is acceptable? Do you think you’re doing a good job?”

“I guess not.”

“I guess not, either. I shouldn’t have to point this shit out to you. You should be sweeping this up already. This is bullshit. You guys aren’t doing your fucking job. I am not happy, George. We’re going to have to have another meeting so you guys know what you’re supposed to do.”

It didn’t matter how hard you worked. You were always an aisle late, a cardboard box short, and your was mop water was laughably flat and lifeless.

One night, I finally lost my cool and quit, snapping after one complaint too many. I couldn’t hack it anymore. My very blood boiled at the sight of a supervisor. I had to get out. Few janitors lasted for more than 6 months, and I proudly joined the swollen ranks of failed sanitation practitioners. Fate had made its decision. It was off to Jimmy John’s with my sorry ass.

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7 thoughts on “The Wonderful World of Food Distribution

  1. Great post, dude. I worked at a factory for a while during college, and I remember thinking that my managers were sub-human. You’d think that someone would inform people in those kinds of positions that psychological abuse leads to decreased performance, high turnover, and less money for their company.

  2. I enjoyed it. It’s like Thompson-style gonzo journalism delivered by a witty alcoholic autoworker with a surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary. You can easily finish the book in a sitting or two – there’s nothing too heavy here. It’s just a quick, vivid, and accurate look into the life of your average Flint grunt. Some say it gets repetitive or that the bits about Hamper’s childhood weren’t that interesting, but I didn’t mind.

  3. Also, I just read Them by Joyce Carol – a book about a perpetually broke white family in Detroit from the ’40s up to the riots – and I’d recommend that book to anyone that wants to get a better picture of what living in Detroit was really like (and, by extension, almost any industrial city in Michigan). Some of the romantic subplots (if “romance” is even the right word…) are thoroughly overcooked, but it’s worth stomaching for the main courses. And be prepared – Oates is a lot heavier than Hamper.

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