I crossed the dusty gravel parking lot as the sun rose. It was almost five in the morning, but I was wide-awake and nervous for my first day of full-time work. Winding the excess fabric at the hem of my father's oversized tee shirt around my index finger, I walked past the towering silos, with the Oroweat logo splayed across the front, towards the door marked "Employee Entrance." The florescent light above the doorway illuminated hundreds of cigarette butts strewn across the gravel, despite the ashtray that was less than a foot away. Flipping over my orange hard hat, I peered inside to see where I had written the key code in sharpie: "3145." I pulled open the heavy metal door and climbed the grimy stairs as slowly as possible. At the top I inhaled deeply and pushed past the swinging door to the supervisor’s office. The woman at human resources told me to meet Josh there at five, but the office was empty and locked.
After waiting for a couple minutes it seemed that Josh had forgotten, so I wandered down the hall to the break room. I stood nervously in the corner, awkwardly holding my hat and watching the people. There were few conversations going on, and most people were watching a poker tournament on the miniature television in the corner. This side of the room was bordered with a crusty window that looked down on the factory floor below. Everyone was dressed in white uniforms and aprons, and to me they looked uniformly tired and old. One of the women walked over to me and asked if I was looking for someone.
"Yes," I responded, "I'm supposed to meet Josh, but he's not in the office."
"Of course he's not," she said sarcastically. "I'll page him for you."
She picked up the receiver hanging next to my head and said, "Josh Harris to break room, Josh Harris to break room." I could hear her voice coming out over the intercom on the other side of the glass.
The woman waited and talked with me until Josh arrived. He was a tall and muscular man, probably in his thirties, who without wasting time on chitchat handed me a pair of earplugs and a hair net. As I placed my hat on top of the hair net, he led me out of the break room and onto the factory floor. The heat and the droning noise of the machinery washed over me like a wave, and I don't think I would have been able to hear Josh if he had tried to talk to me. He led me down an aisle through the machinery and took a left at the last machine. A hunched old woman was standing in front of a conveyor belt fiddling with something on the computer next to it. A tiny Mexican woman stood on a platform behind her bending over something. Josh walked up to the woman at the conveyor belt and tapped her on the shoulder. He turned to me and said, "This is Sherry, she’ll show you what to do." He gave Sherry a smile and walked away.
Sherry's face was wrinkled but tight, as if she were clenching every muscle in it, she was able to bark at me with lips still pursed, "What's your name?"
"Kirsten." I tried to yell back several times before she finally heard me.
The other woman descended from the platform and looked me up and down before turning to Sherry, "If she is here, then I am going to run to the bathroom," She said as she walked away.
Sherry nodded at her and turned to me and yelled, "Grab those baskets." Her finger was pointing towards a shelf that had several types of both empty and full plastic baskets.
"Which one?" I tried to call back.
"Grab those baskets!" she yelled back louder.
I moved towards a stack of empty red plastic crates and quizzically picked one up.
"Not those!" she exclaimed with frustration, "The ones on top!"
I reached for a similar crate that was sitting on the second shelf behind the metal platform.
"No!" She yelled again, clearly upset by my stupidity, "Go up there." she pointed an exasperated finger at the platform.
Once I was on the platform, Sherry told me to take the baskets from the top shelf and, "keep dumping them." I lifted a red basket full of cinnamon raisin English muffins and dumped it on the table on the other side of me. I later learned that this was called a "shaker table" because it vibrates so that the muffins move from one end to the other, where they fill up slots that then release them to be bagged. After throwing one basket on I turned to look at Sherry to make sure I was doing it right. She just glared at me and yelled, "Keep dumping them!"
I felt uneasy as I kept dumping the muffins, but Sherry had told me to. When I had thrown on several baskets and there was a big pile in the center of the table I heard Sherry yelling again.
"That's too much! You jammed it!" she snarled at me, pushing me aside.
She told me to grab some empty baskets, and started to fill them with the muffins I had thrown on the table. Her yelling had attracted one of the foremen who came to help. My eyes started to water as Sherry berated me. It felt like a nightmare, and I was helpless. When the crisis was over, the foreman, who introduced himself as Hal, told Sherry that he was going to take me with him. Sherry seemed all too pleased to get rid of me, and Hal, who could tell that I was upset, decided to give me a tour of the floor.
"Don't pay any attention to Sherry,” he said. "She's going to retire in about a year and doesn't have any patience for training new people."
I don't remember very much from my private tour with Hal. I was thinking about the training I had gone to the day before. Most of my training for other jobs took only a few hours at most, but this training started at six in the morning and went all day. I was one of three new employees training that day. One was a large blonde girl with about my age whose mother worked at the bakery. She played softball for the local community college on a scholarship and had lots of piercings on her face. The other hardly spoke English. All I ever learned about him was that he had just quit his job as a dishwasher at Tony Roma’s.
We watched videos most of the day that talked about personal safety in the workplace. They made sure that one particular film was given a couple hours distance from lunchtime. That video was all about hand safety. It was one of the shorter videos of the day, and consisted of limbs, lots of fingers, that had been severed or mutilated in factories. The narration repeated a mantra of, "These hands…" followed by something dramatic like, "These hands…feed the ones you love." Then one of the supervisors had come in to tell us about the time he had to pull a finger out of the slicer. He told us to never wear rings to work, they got caught on machinery really easily and he didn’t want to pick up any more fingers. Actually being in the factory made these dangers seem more realistic, and I kept my hands close to my body, afraid to touch anything. When I first heard about the job from one of my friends, I reacted like a greedy character from a cartoon with dollar signs in my eyes, and I didn’t hear anything besides how much money I was going to make. Now, faced with the reality, my thoughts drifted back instead to every Charles Dickens novel I had ever read.
I also thought about what the woman from Human Resources had said, as we were about to leave training: "If when you get here you find that this isn't the job for you, tell someone. We have a lot of people who just take off on their lunch break and don't come back, and then we have to go look for them."
Now I knew why; I wanted to leave too. I wasn’t sure which was more terrifying: telling someone that I couldn’t handle it or sticking it out. But Hal’s tour was ending and he dropped me off with another foreman named Ruben. Ruben brought me over to another row of machinery where I helped him flip over hot dog buns as they came down a metal chute. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the bun, “Look at this. This is easy money!” he said jokingly.
I spent the rest of the day working on the bun line. Nothing as bad as my first couple minutes happened, but the day seemed to last forever. I got a half hour lunch break and two short fifteen-minute breaks where I sat in the locker room or a bathroom stall and stared at the wall. I finished work at three in the afternoon, rushed home, and collapsed on my bed.
The first week I seemed to spend most of my time outside of work crying. I begged my parents for some excuse to quit and broke down as I thought about returning to the shock of the noise and heat. I half expected my parents to let me quit when they saw how miserable I was, but a month had already passed since coming back to Portland from my first year of college in Utah and they wanted me to take some responsibility. They tried to calm me down, and told me I should go to sleep; they said things would be better in the morning. I followed their advice, and day by day I cried less until I adjusted-- or at least came to grips with the fact that the only way I would get out of working at the factory was by getting fired, and I couldn’t purposely fail.
I worked the day shift the first week, and was given some basic tasks, such as dumping barrels, rewrapping, and making boxes. In the factory, all the product that came down the line burnt, misshapen, or imperfect in any way was tossed in a barrel, a large grey garbage can on wheels. And when the barrel was full it had to be taken out back where the bad product was thrown in a dumpster. At first, working the machinery that lifted the barrel into and out of the dumpster was intimidating, but I came to relish this chore because it was outside in the quiet and fresh air. I also enjoyed working the box-making machine because it was right next to a loading dock, and on hot days they would just cover the opening with a screen so I had cool air blowing at my back as I worked. Rewrapping, on the other hand, I did not enjoy as much. Rewrapping means hand-packaging the product if there’s something wrong with it, and sometimes we had to do this a lot.
One of the first things I noticed, as I became accustomed to my environment, was how strange it was that there was a strong but sweet smell like honey that always hung around the outside of the factory parking lot, but there was no trace of this scent inside. Contrary to what one might expect, the inside of the factory never had that wonderful fresh-baked bread smell unless they were making cinnamon swirl breakfast bread. Everything smelled like metal or flour, which I always thought to be a neutral smell, devoid of a distinct odor unless mixed with something. But after months of wearing the same pair of worn jeans, the flour mixed with my sweat and produced an unpleasant stale smell that I could never wash out.
Although I had accepted that I was at the factory to stay, I still developed a work routine that kept me disconnected with the other factory workers. I would put on my work clothes at home so I could clock in as soon as I got there instead of taking the time to change in the employee locker room. After my first week I was switched to roll wrap on the graveyard shift, which was where I spent most of the rest of my summer. During my half hour lunch break, at about 2 a.m., I would go sit in my car in the dark parking lot. My parents tried to convince me that it was dangerous, but I wouldn’t listen. It was sometimes a little frightening to cross the parking lot in the dark night, startling to see faces illuminated solely by the glow of their cigarettes. But once I got into my car I locked the doors and would stare up at the sky as I ate my lunch. The moon and the stars entranced me. I could also see the pinpoints of red light shining from the TV towers that were near my house. I remember a friend telling me that those red TV tower lights reminded him of a chorus from a song, “Lights will guide you home.” I now also associated these lights with home, and found comfort in their light as I tried to survive in a world so different from my own.
All my friends pitied me having to work at night, but in the factory that seemed preferable. In the dead of the night the factory floor easily heat got up to over one hundred degrees with the ovens on. I didn’t want to know what that felt like when the sun was glaring down outside as well. I also set myself apart from the other workers by wearing my own clothes to work instead of the all-white uniforms. One of the day-shift foreman, Brenda, a fat blond woman with long acrylic fingernails was always reminding me that I needed to be wearing the uniform, but no one else seemed to care. I wore an old pair of jeans with a white shirt. I also wore some old leather boots that I found in the back of my closet with thick socks. These shoes showed how hot it was because after a few weeks the soles, which were glued on, melted and fell off, leaving me to work the last hour of my shift without them. I bought a new pair of nicer boots and my feet began to smell like the leather. My brown hair that hung all the way down to my waist was tucked inside my neon orange hard hat that signified I was new.
The rest of the summer I worked very closely with the girls on bun and roll wrap during the graveyard shift. Jolan was the operator of our line and was one of the best. She was a tiny girl, probably no more than five years older than me, who had a very kind heart. An operator oversees all the machinery on the line and is responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly. Many of the other operators got really upset and took out problems with the machinery on their coworkers, but Jolan was always calm. She had bought a house with her now ex-boyfriend that she was trying to sell, loved her Dalmatians, and was trying to save enough money to go back to nursing school. And when I finally saw her with her hat off I was surprised to see her black hair streaked with red.
Laura was the tail-off, and a close friend of Jolan’s. The tail-off stands next to the computer where the buns come out completely wrapped. She makes sure all the bags have enough buns in them and then stacks them, usually six at a time, on a plastic tray that she then shoves forward onto a conveyor belt that carries them to the loading docks. She always had a pocketful of butterum lifesavers that she shared with Jolan and me. They usually didn’t share or talk much with the feeder Evelyn. Part of this was practical because the operator and tail-off work at opposite ends of the machine from the feeder. But Jolan and Laura also found Evelyn cranky and avoided her. The feeder is responsible for feeding the bread that comes out of the oven into the machine so it can be packaged properly.
There was also a girl named Heather who sometimes worked with us, other times she worked on muffin wrap. Since all got off work about the same time I usually saw everyone I worked with in the break room for a couple minutes. One day when I got there everyone else was getting ready to leave, but Heather was just sitting on a bench playing with her phone. Jolan asked her what she was doing that day, and Heather responded that she needed to wait for her paycheck to be deposited because she didn’t have enough money to buy food or to fill up her car with enough gas to make it to the store. Heather had two kids.
My official title at the factory was utility, which meant that I was to do anything the people on my line needed done. This included learning all of the different jobs so that I could help give other people their breaks. If J. Alfred Prufrock counted his days in cups of coffee and spoonfuls of sugar, then I must have counted mine in potato rolls. Potato rolls are popular in the summer, and as the utility I had to spend many nights standing in one spot, watching potato rolls go by the whole night.
Once I had learned more about how things worked in the factory my foreman, Aimee, wanted me to learn to feed so I could help Evelyn. The feeder in the bread line next to ours told me, “Especially once you get to feed the dreams don’t stop. When I first started I saw bread flying by every time I closed my eyes, whether I was asleep or not.” And I did dream about bread all the time. My room was too light and hot to sleep in during the day so I moved into a dark, cave-like room in the basement and as soon as I closed my eyes I could see rolls moving on the conveyor belt.
The stress of feeding for the first time was only intensified by the wait. I watched the warm rolls come out of the ovens and slowly work their way down the maze of conveyor belts, my stomach in knots, until they came over the horizon and cascaded down the chute towards me. I rocked back and forth on the grated metal box next to the shaker table, which made my whole body as well as the rolls vibrate. The bread seemed to have a life of its own as the rolls toppled on top of each other and jostled for position in the lanes that I had to flip and sort. I would make sure that all the rolls were lined up single file in the lanes and weren’t crushing each other. Each lane had a glowing red “eye” sensor that would determine when there were enough rolls to make up one bag. It would then release those rolls that would then go through the slicers and bagging machine.
My first night feeding, all out orders were for buns, which went really smoothly, and all my co-workers were proud of my work. The second night I had to do hoagie rolls, which came out of the oven in a variety of sizes, making it hard for the eyes to detect them. I had never practiced feeding rolls, and the machinery wasn’t helping. Evelyn told me that feeding well involved learning the rhythm of the machine and knowing how to respond to it. After my second night of feeding I was afraid to do it again, but I was also the only one who could feed while Evelyn was gone because Laura and Jolan both got motion sick from the opposite movements of the blue conveyor belt and the rolls. I’m not sure how I avoided getting dizzy, but I would always watch for a tiny stick that had been stuck in one of the conveyor belt links.
I learned quickly when to use certain buttons and levers when feeding. First, there was what Ruben called the “shit stick.” The shit stick was a lever that protruded from the end of the shaker table. Ruben said you should pull it when you look up and see too many rolls coming down and think, “Oh, Shit!” This lever, when pulled, would release a piece of metal that would guide the rolls off of the chute and into baskets that could be packaged later. Next to the shit stick there was a black button that allowed me to force the machine to release the rolls if the eyes weren’t working. I probably used the red button the most. The red button was right next to the black one and would make a buzzing noise. This noise could mean two different things. If I pressed the button just once, lightly, then Jolan would know that the eyes had sent out too many or too few rolls and she could fix them before they were bagged. If I held down the red button it would let everyone know that I needed help. It was helpful since I could finally understand what the people around me were saying but still had a hard time talking loud enough to be heard.
Some varieties of rolls and buns were easier to process than others. Potato rolls and hamburger buns were pretty simple unless the bagging machine broke down. The bagging had to be timed precisely as the white plastic paddles swung around, scooting the buns into a bag just as a puff of air blew it open. If the paddle cycle was off the buns would hit the bag wrong and get smashed, but more often the air would blow the bags open too late so the buns would come out the other side in a messy heap. No one could predict how a shift was going to run, and there were nights that for no apparent reason nothing would bag. At first the tail off would toss the bread on the rewrapping table, but there were a couple nights when there were hundreds of buns that hadn’t been packaged or had been packaged wrong that covered the floor, waiting for rewrapping.
Once the buns were pushed into a neat stack inside a bag they went through the quick lock machine, which was like a large stapler full of plastic bag ties. Many times the locks would hit the bag at the wrong angle, biting and tearing at the bread inside.
I didn’t do very much outside of work. I worked six days a week, Sunday through Wednesday for eight hours, Thursday for seven hours, and on Friday I worked for ten hours. Usually with all the overtime, I ended up working about sixty hours a week. I slept from around seven in the morning to around three-thirty in the afternoon. This was fine until my sister’s finished school for the year. After that it seemed that at some point in the day I would end up being woken up and storming out of my room with my eyes scrunched almost shut to yell at them. Eventually I tacked a piece of printer paper to the door with “Shut Up!” scrawled on it in messy black sharpie to serve as a reminder. However, the sign didn’t seem to do much except embarrass me when my Grandmother came over and saw it.
I hated being hot all the time, and only did my hair and put on make-up for church on Sunday. I had small hives all over my hand from the gloves, a rash on my back from my bra and I couldn’t stand tight clothing that stuck to my body when it got warm. One evening my mom convinced me to come to a church garden party that was being held for the women. I slipped on a pair of baggy jeans, a floral tank top that my mom thought looked like a maternity shirt, and slouchy oatmeal colored cardigan. The party was held in the backyard of a church member who loved flowers. Colorful poesies surrounded the grove and lay on the tables. I was glad I had come until one of my mother’s friends came up and asked me what was going on with my “hobo outfit.”
My family loved to tease me about my new job. My older brother e-mailed me to say that he was proud that I was now the breadwinner of the family. One days as I was leaving the house I heard my eight year old sister squeal, “Kirsten is going to work on her buns!” She also liked to call the graveyard shift the “owl shift.” Even my favorite foreman nicknamed me “easy money” because I was just there for the summer to earn money. I think he eventually started only calling me by my nickname because he forgot what my real name was.
The teasing only intensified after my sister’s baptism. She was to be baptized on a Saturday afternoon in July. This particular week I had been switched to the swing shift to help out while someone used their vacation time. This meant that I would finish my shift about the same time the baptism was supposed to start. The chapel was only about a minute away from the factory and so I put a dress in the back of my mother’s car where it wouldn’t get dirty and planned to hurry over after work and change quickly before the baptism. But when I arrived at the chapel after work, the car doors were locked and I didn’t have a key. I went inside and peered through the rectangular window in the door to the baptismal room. I tried to catch my mother’s eye inconspicuously but Grandma was at the pulpit giving a talk and spotted me first.
“Come on in, Kirstie,” she said as she put down her lesson and the whole room turned to look at me. I shook my head violently.
“No,” I mouthed quietly.
“Come on in sweetie!” she said, beckoning me with her hands.
“No, I’m disgusting.” We had run potato rolls that day.
Then I saw Grandpa get up from the first row and come out into the hallway. He took me gently by the elbow and led me towards a chair in the front of the room right next to him. I wasn’t even allowed to change before they took pictures so I am dressed like that in all of the family pictures.
While worked I would count down how many days of work I had left. Everyday was one day less, and yet it felt like eternity until my very last day. Aimee told everyone it was my last week, and on my last night everyone surprised me with a gift. Laura brought cupcakes, and after I got off she gave me a card that everyone had signed and a gift. The gift bag contained the stuffed grey lion.
“Remember that time you tried to tell me something, but you were so quiet and I thought you said, ‘I like to kill cats!’ I couldn’t find any stuffed cats at the store, but I thought this was close enough.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate it.” I said as I lifted out the rest of the gift. It was the same kind of Lifesaver candies she always had in her pocket at work: wintergreen and butter rum. “You really didn’t have to do all of this.” I felt guilty for how little I would miss them.
“Of course I did,” Laura responded, “It’s not very often we get summer workers like you; everyone’s always saying, ‘She works so hard, but she’s so quiet.’”
After I said good-bye to everyone I hurried out to my car in the crisp morning air. I drove off as fast as I could, and as I pulled out of the parking lot the exciting realization hit me—I was done.
A couple days later I came back to the factory. My mom had insisted that I get the reimbursement check for my boots before I went back to school so there I was, back in the familiar parking lot. The day before I had cut my waist-long hair so it now sat at my shoulders and had gone out school shopping. Instead of the baggy jeans and flip-flops I had donned all summer I was wearing chocolate brown leather flats, fitted jeans, and a green button-up shirt. I got out of my car and walked through the office building to the HR cubicle. The woman issuing the check had a daughter my age and we talked about college while she entered all my information. In the middle of the conversation one of the factory workers poked his head into the cubicle. His white hat indicated that he worked with shipping, and when I saw his gap-toothed smile I realized I knew him. Sometimes the stores wanted the bread to arrive in plastic crates instead of the usual trays. These crates didn’t fit on the conveyor belt, so someone from shipping would have to come and help move the crates.
I specifically remembered him because of his teeth. When I saw the large gap in his front teeth I assumed that he had probably come to the bread factory straight out of High school. I was tailing off for Laura and he started asking me about myself. When I told him that I was in college he told me about how he had worked his way through nursing school at the bread factory and how he would be leaving the factory in a couple months to start working at a hospital. At first I wondered if he was joking: he looked and acted like everyone else in the factory.
“How are you doing today?” he asked Cathy, the human resources associate I was talking to.
Cathy responded jovially and they joked around for a minute. Then he said good-bye to Cathy and gave me polite kind of half-smile that you only give perfect strangers. I left the factory again feeling a strange mixture of joy and sadness. I was still happy to be leaving and hoped I would never come back, but it was confusing to suddenly be a stranger in this new world that I was just beginning to understand.
When I got home, I went to my room and took a red greeting card from off my bulletin board. I flopped down on my twin bed and started to read the card Laura had given me. I’ve read the different comments so many times now I have some of them memorized.
It was great working witcha. Hope this was enough incentive to stay in school! – Heather
We will miss you a lot! Stay in touch. – Jolan
Hope you have a great semester. See you in December? – Aimee
Come back soon! – Joel
No one wrote anything profound, but for some reason I couldn’t help re-reading the card over and over again. There was something about it that touched me; something I could never quite figure out. I folded the card back into its envelope, pinned it back on the bulletin board, and started to pack.