When I first moved to Greensboro in 1990, I picked up jobs through temp agencies. It was a lot easier to get a manual labor position in those days; there were no assessments, no “Where do you see yourself in five years?” — as if you were going to make working in a factory your life’s passion. We were warm bodies, and showing up on time and not skipping out after lunch made you Employee of the Month. Training, if there was any, was minimal and provided when you arrived at the worksite. Wages, needless to say, were quite low.
My first assignment was at a furniture factory, though I use the term “furniture” loosely. It was ready-to-assemble stuff, chipboard finished with vinyl veneers, nothing that required any woodworking skills. In the entire time I worked there, I never figured out what the name of the company was. The large metal letters on the outside of the nondescript building said “Metco,” and that’s generally what we workers called it, but they were left over from a previous occupant. The name on the boxes said “Case-Casard,” but that was just the furniture brand. The real identity of our overlords remained largely unknown.
Everyday I would leave my apartment on the outskirts of the city and drive into its industrial heartland to the plant. My comrades were a motley crew; blacks from the surrounding neighborhoods, drifters who had moved in from other states, four guys from India who kept to themselves and never spoke to anyone else. I got the feeling that no one there really knew each other that well, and most preferred it that way.
My morning routine consisted of arriving early, putting my bag lunch in the break room refrigerator and reading the newspaper until it was time to start work. Almost immediately a strange habit began. A co-worker would ask me to see the stock market page every day, usually just glancing at it before stalking off, cursing. I found it hard to believe that he owned any stock, since none of us looked like we had more than two nickels to rub together, let alone money to invest in anything. Later I found out he was playing the local numbers racket, and the winning number was based the previous day’s Dow Jones Industrial Average. Judging from his reactions, I don’t think he ever won.
The work took place on a packing line. Big Eric was the boxman. He sat at the head of the line, making the boxes that the parts would go in. He weighed about 300 pounds and lived with his mother. His love life, as he told to everyone within earshot, consisted of taking Polaroids of prostitutes in lingerie and writing down their vital statistics on the back of the photos, like a baseball-card collection. Anywhere else this might have been considered a hostile work environment, but here he was just another run-of-the-mill weirdo, like the guy who wore the same “Death Before Disco” T-shirt day after day.
The rest of us manned positions down the line, dropping in parts as the boxes went past. Four of part A, five of part B, a bag of screws… if any of you bought a ready-to-assemble bookcase or entertainment center circa 1990-’91 and found a part missing, it was probably my fault. It was a tedious job, the monotony only broken when we ran short of parts and had to stand around waiting for another pallet to emerge from the bowels of the factory.
Dan Bayer is a musician and writer who lives in Greensboro. Part 2 of this story will run next week.