September

1999

Manual Labor

So I got laid off from the bakery, which was really pretty sad, because I liked it a lot there. I had been promoted from shipping drone, working next to two Vietnamese guys who made fun of me in Vietnamese, to assistant baker where I got made fun of by two cute girls for wearing pants with a big open flap in the ass, to head cheesecake baker, where I got made fun of by just about everybody in the bakery and had to clean out the walk-in-freezer. I made some good cheesecakes, though; a little messy, but good.

Then the holiday rush ended and nobody wanted cheesecakes anymore so I got let go. Tom had me back in to help him pack a couple nights, but the gravy train had derailed. No more job.

I scurried around trying to make money; my landlord, remarkably sanguine about the whole thing, cut me a good deal of slack in exchange for me ripping up a whole bunch of linoleum off a floor and other domestic favors. I had to find some money. I began scanning the classifieds, and my eye was drawn to the “Work Today-Paid Today” ads in the “G” section, for General Labor. I needed money; I had gone to get food stamps, but there were some things food stamps couldn’t buy. I called a couple of the places, and was told to show up at 5:00 AM if I wanted work, and to wear work boots.

The place was down in Georgetown, far past the decaying industrial district south of Seattle. No buses ran that early, so I resigned myself to walking.

Waking at 2:30, I pulled on my worst clothes and started walking. The city was eerily quiet; the only sounds were the hum of streetlights and an occasional passing car.

I found the office, on a bleak highway strip lit only by the sign of a nearby restaurant, and waited in line with a group of homeless people, dregs and rejects. I was easily the youngest person there, and I jockeyed for a place with sufficient light, as I was trying to work my way through “Ada” by Vladimir Nabokov. I gave up and bundled myself up in my coat, insulating myself against the cold Spring morning and the comments of my new co-workers, who were calling me “Professor” by this point.

They let us in, and I filled out the required forms absolving Labor Ready of all liability if I became injured on the job, and agreeing to a drug and alcohol test if I were to become injured. I lookedover and saw a sign on the wall that read “This Labor Ready branch has gone 0 days without an injury.” I felt cheered. They asked me if I could lift a hundred pounds; I lied and said yes. I retired to a bench, the only person in the room facing away from the television hung in a corner. I had finally sunk to the ultimate low; waiting in a room with drunks, bums and creeps to go work on a construction site somewhere for less than minimum wage. I overheard two guys talking about the best place to work; watching them unload oil barrels from a tanker down at the pier. “All you have to do is watch,” one said, “and pull this alarm thing if a fire breaks out.” Nobody bothered to point out to them that if a fire broke out in that situation they’d probably all die.

So they called my name, and told me that myself and two other fellows would be heading out to West Seattle to assist a contracting company in covering a fiber-optic cable off Alki Point. We piled into a car and sped off. My compatriots were two African-American men in their mid-thirties, grizzled and disheveled by life. One talked incessantly about going to electrician’s school, and about how when he finished it would change his life. I mostly kept silent, piping up only to politely decline food when we stopped at a local McDonalds. They don’t take food stamps there.

We made it to the worksite and were greeted by our new bosses, whoexplained the project to us; we would take concrete, pour it into burlap sacks, and dump those sacks into Puget Sound off of Alki Beach to protect this cable in the point before it entered the sea-floor. It made sense to me. The electrician’s school guy went into some sort of discourse about fiber-optic cables, getting most of his facts muddled, but the bossman quickly cut him off.

“Okay,” he said, “here’s what we do.” He lifted a 60 pound bag of concrete.

“These burlap sacks will hold 100 pounds, so we’re gonna empty one of these bags into them, then a little more to top it off.” He cut the concrete sack open with a carving knife. I realized immediately that the dry concrete would sift right through the burlap, but kept it to myself. Nobody likes a smart guy. And, just like I thought, the concrete whooshed right through the sack.

“Okay,” the boss said. “Let me think about this a minute.” Since we were being paid by the hour, I had absolutely no problem with him thinking as long as he wanted. Unfortunately, the problem was not too difficult for him. We started simply loading the 60lb. concrete sacks into the burlap sacks, to be split open once underwater by one of us with a pickaxe. The three of us filled sacks for four hours, one holding them open while the others loaded, closed and threw in the truck. I’ve done my share of manual labor in the past, but this was far beyond slave work. All the while, my coworkers kept up a constant banter about sports, women, and the like. Attempts to engage me in conversation were, for the most part, futile. I was tired, cranky, in pain. I couldn’t lift 100 pounds. I barely weighed 100 pounds. I wanted it all to be over and to get my check so I could pay part of my rent. That’s all.

So we finally filled the back of the truck up with burlap and the bossmonster told us that two of us would go unload the truck and one would stay behind. I chose to stay behind, hoping at least to get a little reading in. Alas, that was not the case, as I was quickly recruited to clean up the scrapyard, dragging large pieces of rotting wood, rusty sheet metal and dissolving oil drums to a huge dumpster.

“D’you know how to drive a forklift?” the foreman asked. Thankfully, the answer was no.

Anyway, finally we headed out to the beach to finish the job. For the next three hours, we hauled the bags to the shore and threw them in, pausing only when the electrical-school guy, shirtless and bloated in the hot afternoon sun, attempted to hit on passing beach-bunnies who inquired what we were doing.

“Yeah, this takes a real strong man,” he bragged, right before I spindled by, nearly collapsing under the weight of two bags. The girl looked askance at my collapsing figure. I staunchly refused to remove my shirt.

Eventually we finished, and I staggered back to the office, to find that out of my $5 an hour they had deducted transportation, fees for gloves and boots, and other mysterious pay cuts.

My check came to $31 for ten hours of work. I sold blood for the rest of the month.