I always used to get annoyed at the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne singing the praises of the blue-collar worker…
‘Try working with some of these people,’
…I used to think….
‘Then you’d change your tune.’
Most of my ex-colleagues would agree. Factories have reputations for being hot beds of bitching and gossip and within any factory one area will view the denizens of another area as the very citizens of hell.
I worked in factories for over ten years. It was, and remained for a long time, a foreign confusing place for me. During those years I would sometimes see myself as if from afar and wonder what the hell had happened that I ended up in this explosively fluorescent, screeching Hades.
‘Surely I am a Princess?’
…I would think, as machinery clattered around me…
‘Surely this cannot be happening to me?’
I would imagine myself waking up on a heart-shaped bed in a mansion somewhere on a temperate coast, curtains ruffling in the warm breeze from the french windows, my heart rate slightly elevated after an unpleasant but half remembered nightmare, looking forward to a champagne breakfast served by a nice young man. It became a bit of a joke. Sometimes when my manager would ask me to do something I would say…
“Don’t you know I am a Princess?!”
When a chair appeared with a capital letter ‘P’ scrawled on it, it became my chair.’P’ for Princess. Sometimes I would be called Princess, a tad sarcastically I imagine…
People everywhere can be annoying but in a factory your movements are restricted, your breaks coordinated and being confined for 12 hours with a rag-tag selection of people, especially overnight can turn the screws. Some people can be combative or surly, weird or helpless, hysterical or worse-relentlessly cheerful. Some might smell bad. Others insist on playing thrash metal stations on the radio but by far the most annoying ones are the ones who will not pull their weight, leaving you exhausted and angry after every single shift.
I once worked on a team with a woman who, had she put the amount of effort into actual work that she put into avoiding work, would now be President of the World. I tied myself in knots to make sure that work got sent her way but only succeeded in increasing my own work load. Yet she always managed to look busy when a manager turned up.
Some people combined laziness with delusion. One of my co-workers decided she was our boss. So she stopped doing her work in favour of bustling around with pieces of paper and having loud conversations with managers. What she wanted quickly became reality, not in any new age ‘You’ll See it if You Believe It!‘ way but rather because managers are always on the look out for new people to blame things on. Soon she was actually authorized to bustle around with pieces of paper. She eventually bustled her way out of the company leaving a large swathe of annoyed and relieved people behind her.
The night shifts, so novel initially, were hell multiplied by ten. On a night shift everything you have ever learned, every adjustment you have ever made to your behaviour, every bit of personal growth is put to the test and fails and you find yourself back at your worst self; sulky, cranky, angry, impatient and more. Add some other people undergoing the same testing and you get something as close to unbearable as to make you insane.
On top of this there was incomprehensible training literature to be read, meetings to attend and re-training exercises to complete all to stay abreast of regulations. At 6am when you’re feeling so tired any sane person would just lie down and die, it smacked of torture. The first time this happened I cracked up laughing. I thought it was a joke…
“You want me to train/go to a meeting/do a test?Now?At 4am?”
“Don’t you know I am a Princess?”…
But it wasn’t all bad and sometimes it was even a tiny bit magical. That time you crashed a pallet truck and its load all over the floor at 5am and everyone abandoned their work to get down on their knees, laughing, to help. When the books from the book club were brought in. When you went to the toilet and ended up accidentally taking the door off its hinges and couldn’t get it back on for laughing. When someone came in soaked because they walked into a ‘puddle’ in the car park that turned out to be two foot deep. When cake or a tin of sweets made an appearance. When someone told you to sit down while they dealt with the 100th alarm on your machine because your legs were aching and you literally couldn’t stand any more. When you had conversations about philosophy, hair, sociology, war, cake, culture, the nature of inspiration and poo. When you spent a whole shift laughing.
When you found out the good places to get your hair done, buy clothes, make up or heating oil. When one of the technicians designed and machined some brackets for you, told you what was wrong with your car, what to invest in, how to fix the light in your bathroom or which web host was the best. When someone brought in DVDs, the Avon catalogue, duck eggs for sale, organised the weekly lottery or a take out meal on a bank holiday when the canteen was closed. When someone gave you a tomato plant in the car park. Even the whip rounds, which so annoyed me with the constant request for money for the relatives of people I had never laid eyes on, were part of something necessary .
You heard of concerts and weekend breaks and holidays, christenings and birthdays and funerals. There were the nights out and foreign trips you never went on and now wonder why. You learned of the different burdens people carried, the sicknesses, the losses, the griefs, borne lightly in many cases. And also the achievements, the college degrees, the babies, races run, the new businesses, the new cars, escaping a war zone. You got a glimpse into other lives, other ways of being from having a sick child to growing up around lions.
When you screwed up there was always someone there to help.And everyone you worked with asked how you slept, how was your week, how is your life, over and over and over again…
Leaving it all behind for college came as a shock. Suddenly I was among people, good people no doubt, but people for whom life was somewhere in the future or at least somewhere else. Getting to know fellow travellers was no longer necessary. No-one asks now how the weekend was, how life is. Some people don’t even acknowledge the existence of those outside their own circle. They just don’t have to.
I look back at the people I worked with, see them tearing into life, determined not to miss a beat, grabbing what they can in as many ways, admirable or other, that they can and I miss this urgency, the ‘nowness’ that hummed below the surface. I miss the way someone would always find a way to connect when they might have wanted to be with their friends instead, when they thought you were weird, or cantankerous, or a bitch (and I was, oh I was) and they would find something in you, some thread and they’d pull it, this thread, and somehow, like it or not, know it or not, you found yourself, over the years, woven into the fabric of something much bigger.
Sometimes in my last years, the best years, in the wee hours, hallucinating from weariness, numb and speechless, I would find myself surrounded by a clatter of co-workers snagged at some junction of machinery, gossiping, laughing, teasing, shoulder to shoulder, nylon coats crackling with electricity. Caught in this sea of undulating silkiness topped by the ephemeral, bobbing hair nets that crowned our shining heads it would occur to me that I wasn’t the only one who had thought they might end up somewhere else and through eyes blurred with tiredness I might imagine that I was in a ballroom, lit by the blaze of a thousand chandeliers, about to gather up my dress up to step out with my fellow Princesses and finally dance.