One of my friends, one of my princesses, is having a sad time at the moment and I am reminded of this post about the place we both used to work.
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.’
I worked in a factory for nearly ten years. It was, and remained for a long time, a foreign and confusing place for me. Factories have reputations for being hot beds of bitching, gossip and dissension. Within any factory one area will view the workers in another area as the very citizens of hell. During those years I would sometimes see myself as if from afar and wonder what I had done to be landed in this fluorescent, screeching Hades.
‘Surely I am a Princess?’…I would think, as machinery clattered around me…‘Surely this cannot be happening to me?’
…and 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, 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. Though perhaps that could have been sarcastic.
People everywhere can be annoying but in a factory your movements are restricted, your breaks coordinated. Being confined for 12 hours with a rag-tag selection of people, especially overnight, can really 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. An extraordinary number of 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 because of any actual talent or universal magic but because, as I learned, managers are always on the look out for new people to blame things on. Soon she was 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. 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 to stay abreast of regulations. At 6am when you’re so tired you crave to lie down and die, it smacked of torture. The first time someone told me I was to be tested at this time, I cracked up laughing. I thought it was a joke…
“You want me to do a test?Now?At 6am?”
“Don’t you know I am a Princess?”
But it wasn’t all bad and sometimes it was even a tiny bit magical. There was that time I 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. Or when the books from the book club were brought in. When I 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 me to sit down while they dealt with the 100th alarm on my machine because my legs were aching so badly I literally couldn’t stand any more. There were the conversations about philosophy, hair, sociology, war, cake, culture, the nature of inspiration and poo. And entire shifts spent laughing.
I found out the good places to get my hair done, buy clothes, make up and heating oil. One of the technicians designed and machined some brackets for me, told me more than once what was wrong with my car and advised me what to invest in. Another told me how to fix the light in my bathroom and which web host was the best. Cheap DVDs made the rounds along with the Avon catalogue. There were duck eggs for sale, a weekly lottery and take out meals organised on a bank holiday when the canteen was closed. I was once given a tomato plant in the car park.
My colleagues went to a constant cycle of concerts and weekend breaks, holidays, christenings, parties, meals, birthdays and funerals. There were the shift nights out and foreign trips which I never went on and now wonder why. The whip rounds, which so annoyed me with the constant request for money for the relatives of people I had never laid eyes on, I see now, were part of something necessary. I 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, new businesses, new cars, escaping a war zone. I glimpsed other lives, other ways of being, from having a mortally sick child to growing up around lions. And when I screwed up there was always someone there to help.
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 somewhere else. Getting to know fellow travellers was no longer necessary. Everyone I had worked with had asked how I slept, how my week was, how my life was, over and over and over again. In college no one even asked how the weekend was. Some students didn’t even acknowledge the existence of those outside their own circle. They just didn’t have to.
I look back at the people I worked with now and see them tearing into life, determined not to miss a beat. I miss this urgency, the ‘nowness’ that hummed below the surface. I miss the way someone would always find a way to connect even though they thought you were weird, or cantankerous, or a bitch (and I was). 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 silkiness topped by the gauzy 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. Through eyes blurred with tiredness I might imagine us in a ballroom, lit by the blaze of a thousand chandeliers, about to step out, me and my fellow Princesses, to finally dance.