Remains of an Industrial Day
5:00 a.m. Wipe the shleep out of your eyes; shave and shower. And shove that weary body out the door.
In the dim light of the streetlamps, walk, don't shuffle, down Geneva Avenue. Trot if you can. Keep your ears alert for the train in the distance. There one comes, brakes screeching as it swings round the bend. Scramble up the ramp, but by the time you show the man your pass, slip past the gate, it's too late; the doors slam and the car rolls out the station. It's officially springtime in Boston, but it's still cold and you shiver while you wait for the next train. When it comes, you shiver inside. Too early in the day for the car to be warm. So you huddle, like the other scattered passengers, folded into yourself, half asleep. There, in the corner nods one man, full sleep ahead.
Savin Hill. Columbia. Andrew. Broadway. South Station. Washington. Out, then switch to the Orange Line, heading north. To the very last stop: Oak Grove. Walk over to Main Street in the town called Melrose.
7:28 a.m. Khttng! Stamp your yellow time card. You're ready to start another day at the factory. Once this place made car radios but it now makes bug zappers.
It is 1979 and this is your fifth factory job. It's been four years since you finished college with a BA in sociology. You didn't want to go to graduate school because you'd developed an allergy to academia. For three years you coded surveys for a think tank but while the flexibility was nice -- at lunchtime you could read newspapers in the library -- there wasn't much to the work. Though you'd survived a war -- perhaps even because you'd lived through such tumultuous times -- you craved grit and challenge.
Your then wife, your closest friends and schoolmates sought work in factories, some of them because they didn't care for office work, some because they had visions of organizing the unorganised, and sometimes goals even grander than that. You follow their example, out of solidarity -- and curiosity. In the factories where you seek work -- small, lowly capitalized, with high labour turnover -- there would not be room for grand visions.
You did not enter an unfamiliar world. In college you'd worked with unions in support of striking garment and farm workers. You spent a summer as a community organizer working alongside longshoremen and other blue-collar workers. Even if the world of production was new to you, the lives of producers was not.
7:35. The machine room is humming. Place your barrels in place, the one on the left containing eight-inch long strips of steel, the other to hold the processed strips. Sit yourself down before the punch press that towers over you like a 12-foot giant. Fish a strip out of the left barrel, feed it inside the jaws of the press, make sure it's straight on the die, remove both hands, remove both hands, press the two buttons at once, WHAM! Hammer on the anvil, down and then up again. Take the strip out that now looks like a hat, toss it into the right barrel.
Fish, feed, withdraw, press: WHAM! Lift and toss.
There's a shadow behind you. No time to look. No time to waste. You must press at least 90 strips an hour.
Fisssh, ffeeed, withdrawww, presss: WHAMMM! Lift and toss. Don't let him distract you. Fishfeedwithdrawpress: WHAM! Liftandtosss. Fishfeedwithdrawpress: WHAM! Liftandtoss.
Owner moves on to shadow a different victim.
One day, Foreman will show you a barrel of strips, the bend you pressed on the wrong side. A waste of good metal. Better not let it happen again. You are grateful that you're not in Tsarist Russia where you'd have been fined. Or that you're not a servant in your mother's employ in Bangladesh where if you broke a glass, you'd get your wages cut.
You overhear Foreman question your co-worker, can he hack it? Seems too frail to me. While you resent the doubt about your physical abilities, you are pleased that he didn't question your ability to put in the time. You had succeeded in shedding the well-known disdain of the Bengali middle class for manual labour. Perhaps that's because you grew up around a father who didn't mind grease under his fingernails since he spent much of his time tinkering inside the engine of his car. And as a teenager you joined Service Civil International, a group that organized work camps and instilled in you the notion that manual labour was healthy.
9:00 a.m. Brrrrng. Break time. Jump off the stool, rush outside, jostling your ten co-workers from the machine room, reach the canteen truck, order a coffee and a donut. Return inside, mingle with the nearest group. Billy, the Vietnam vet who works next to you. Matt and Dave, younger boys who get stoned every day at lunch. In the corner, the man they call the pervert -- did ya hear, Foreman found a magazine with photos of naked men at his station -- drinks his coffee alone. Matt asks, hear you live in Dorchester, where the nig... he tries again... where the blacks live? Yes. Foreman comes by, "No mingling. Break time's a privilege. No mingling." Everyone shuffles to their stations where we drain the last dregs of our coffee.
10:45 a.m. The right barrel is full. Dolly that one out, roll an empty one in.
Fish, feed, withdraw, press: WHAM! Lift and toss.
12:00 noon. Brrrrng. Join the rest of the factory in the cafeteria. French onion soup today. Some days it's chicken chow mein or chicken fried steak. You've learned to look forward to the days of onion soup. By the time you get your food, there's fifteen minutes to swallow it down and return to the machine. Still, you're grateful for the cafeteria.
1:45 a.m. The bin to your left is empty. You rummage out back, but there are no more strips for your die. Come into my office, Foreman says. He has you use the tabletop drill press to bore holes in a stack of small plates. At his desk, he smokes while he looks up from time to time to scan the press room through his large window. A whiff of perfume breaks through the odour of smoke. A young, blonde woman wearing a t-shirt and tight jeans enters, gives him some order sheets, sticks around to make a mean joke about the pervert. You find her fragrance intoxicating, a welcome break from the smell of grease, metal, and cigarettes. But there's one more reason. It whips you to the memory of another moment, the same fragrance, that time on a close friend, suddenly needy in a moment of vulnerability. You did the right thing, respecting the friendship. Yet the perfume soaked into your brain cells.
The women here, a hundred perhaps, work out front, as assemblers. They start at 3.00 dollars an hour, fifty cents less than the men on the presses. You're part of the machine men, the aristocracy of labour. What a joke. Any of the women you know could do a better job at the press than you.
You came in off the street answering an ad for 'machine operator.' It helped that you told them you'd operated complicated machines before: a glass lathe, a clicker, and your pride and pain, the machine that glued posters on chipboard for jigsaw puzzles but broke down every ten minutes.
2:00. p.m. Brrrrng. Afternoon break. The choreography resumes. Out the door, grab another coffee, swing back inside, gather around a machine, continue the morning conversation. So how long does it take you to get here from Dorchester? Just over an hour and a half. Foreman comes by, "No congregating. Break time's a privilege. Might have to take it away from you guys." By the time you're done with this job, Matt might know where Dorchester is in relation to Malden or Melrose. You could talk about Bangladesh, but when some of these guys haven't even been to downtown Boston, there's not much curiosity about some place on the other side of the planet.
Fish, feed, withdraw, press, WHAM!
Then: NOOOOOOOOOOOO! A scream that tumbles your insides, freezes your heart. You look left, and Billy's gaping at his right hand, four fingers gone. Gone.
The machines all stop.
Foreman runs over. Leads Billy away.
Someone else fishes Billy's fingers out of the press, takes them, wraps them up.
Foreman comes back.
Fish, feed, withdraw, press, WHAM! Lift and toss.
Fish, feed, withdraw, press, WHAM! Lift and toss.
Fishittt! You cannot pretend. You go into the office, tell Foreman you're leaving. He nods. You punch your time card, and slam your body out that heavy iron door. You stroll, you think about finding a bar, but you're not the type that often buries your blues in liquor, so you keep walking until you arrive at the station. Catch the next train waiting to leave. But your eyes remain glazed and all you can see is Billy's hand, the fingers gone. A body slumps down next to you. It's the man they call the pervert. He confesses to you, he couldn't take it either. The two of you sit, side by side, in silence, your bodies swaying when the train sways, pulling themselves into place when the train jerks to a stop. When the train reaches Park Street Station, he gets off to catch the Green Line towards the South End. Neither of you say, see you tomorrow. That will be for sunup to decide.
Billy was in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne. Came back, his body in one piece, though not his head. Too often he drowned his memories in drink. In a mimeographed flyer handed outside the plant the next week, a leftist group will write, "What the imperialist war could not accomplish, the class war finished." In this war, they choppered Billy to Mass General, but the hospital could not sew his fingers back.
Back on the Red Line: South Station, Broadway, Andrew, Columbia, Savin Hill, Fields Corner. Make sure you wake up. Out the sliding car doors, down the ramp, you trudge back home up Geneva Avenue.
6:30 p.m. Home, where, with intact fingers on both your hands, you cook dinner, eat, and tumble into bed, sleeping long this night.
You consider quitting, but when tomorrow comes, you will return for another day at the factory. You will return because there's rent and the heating oil bill to be paid. You will return because you can still remember a recent month when a job eluded you and you found yourself pawning a ring someone left in your hands. You will return because you cannot afford the luxury of quitting simply because you are too frail to handle realism on the factory floor.
In a week, a new man will be at Billy's press. Towards the end of summer, a new man will also sit at your station. Before you leave, you will join the company picnic where the owner treats all workers and their guests to lobsters. There, everyone will relish the lobster. Even you. If there is a perversity to eating a lobster in this crowd, pulling apart claws from body, you block that thought. You will migrate to a different factory, you will make a statement before a labour investigator, and when you last speak with Billy, he will tell you the company is still resisting his claim to decent compensation.
Within the next dozen years, factories like this one will vanish from the greater Boston landscape, the task of making car radios and bug zappers, if such things are still made, outsourced to distant shores, and you will sometimes find yourself wondering how Billy, Matt, Dave, Joe the foreman, the gay worker in the corner, the woman with the perfume, and all the others made it past the dislocation. In another dozen years, Massachusetts will legalize gay marriages, and you will hope there are fewer situations where people are pegged as perverts simply because they are drawn to their own gender.
As for you writing this story, twenty-eight years from that day, you will sometimes notice that the shadows of real people you knew back then offer to become characters in your fiction. You retain a high tolerance for 'boring work,' and you did three years of data entry work while starting to write fiction on the side. The moments of manual labour, now limited to housecleaning, provide meditative interludes. When offered the chance, you still thrill to the challenge of conquering obstinacy, though these days it doesn't come from industrial machines but from contemporary tools like computers and otherwise from rough stretches in your writing. When you finish a story, you look for it to hum like a smoothly working machine, the language and story out front, the cogs and wheels obscured.
Mahmud Rahman spent two years working in what he often misremembers as "every sweatshop in the Boston area."
Artwork by Apurba