My two friends at the factory were Tom and Janey, a couple expatriates from Ohio who had come south looking for opportunity but found Metco instead. Tom had a “Magnum PI” mustache and always wore a baseball cap, while Janey was short, blond and bubbly. They were good people, despite Tom’s unrepentant racism. During lunch breaks we would sit in one of our cars and smoke joints, listening to a classic rock station.
“There’s a rock star, there’s a rock star…” said Tom, pointing out different people on the line. A “rock star” was a person who smoked crack, and they had a tendency to disappear after lunch on Fridays, after the paychecks were handed out. It got so bad, in fact, that eventually management started giving out checks at the end of the shift. Otherwise, the place would be half empty on Friday afternoons.
Periodically, someone would push in the window on the front of the snack machine in the break room and the contents would be looted, with no one making any effort to stop it. “Bunch of animals,” muttered Tom. The whole atmosphere was like The Jungle meets Lord of the Flies. For some odd reason I don’t have any memories of the sun shining when I was at the factory, though I’m sure it did at some point in the four months I was there.
After about a month, I went from temporary to permanent, with a corresponding 10-cent-per-hour cut in pay. “That’s because you’re now in your probationary period,” the plant manager told me.
Then what was the 30 days I just worked? I wondered. I’d gotten used to management double-talk during my time at a chicken processing plant, but these guys took it to a whole new level.
Shortly thereafter, Tom, Janey and I were moved to a new line, assembling stereo cabinets for a rent-to-own chain. “Only dumbasses shop at those places,” scoffed Tom. “After all the fees and interest, you wind up paying $500 for a VCR you can buy at Walmart for a hundred bucks.” The stereo cabinet line was easier than the packing line. You actually got to use some tools, and it was usually just the three of us. Management for the most part was busy elsewhere, so we were pretty much left alone.
“I wonder how many of these we could make in a day?” mused Tom on one particular morning. I don’t really know what got into us, but we went hell-bent-for-leather that day and cranked out 227 cabinets, just the three of us. Management was very happy, but they were less pleased the next day when our production fell back to the usual 100+ units.
“Where are all the cabinets?” asked the foreman. I shrugged.
“We were just trying to see if we could do it. We did, and we don’t have anything to prove to ourselves now.” The foreman stormed off in a huff, but I was right. We hadn’t done it for him.
A rumor had started going around that the plant had been bought and that a bunch of us would be laid off. Just before Christmas, the new management called a plant meeting to discuss the transition.
“I’m going to ask them why they won’t tell us if we’re going to be laid off. I’d like to start looking for another job,” I said.
“You’re not going to get a straight answer out of them,” sneered Tom. “Don’t waste your breath.”
I was undeterred, however. I don’t really remember much of what was said at the meeting, probably the usual “The company’s moving into a new era” crap, but finally we got to my big opportunity.
“Does anyone have any questions?” I stood up and raised my hand.
“How come you won’t tell us if we’re losing our jobs so we can start looking for other ones?” I asked.
“Because if we let you know that, you’d wreck all the equipment before you left… just like you broke into the snack machine. Who broke into the snack machine!?!”
I sat back down as Tom rolled his eyes and gave me a “Why did you bother?” look.
“See, I told you they’d just change the subject,” he said.
A few days later the much feared axe fell, and all of us who had gone permanent just a couple of months before were let go. I never saw Tom or Janey again.
Dan Bayer is a musician and writer who lives in Greensboro. Part 1 of this story ran last week and can be found at triad-city-beat.com.