One week after I was officially hired, I returned to the same warehouse at 2PM, ready to take on my new career.
Two in the afternoon was my new workday’s “morning.”
And unlike a typical 9-5, there wasn’t an official end to a day’s shift. The load team stopped only for one reason:
We loaded all the trucks.
Maybe we finished at midnight. Usually not.
More likely, it was 1AM… and sometimes 3AM
We got one break for “lunch” which was – as I recall – at 7PM. And sometimes, when we worked past 1AM, we sat in the breakroom for about fifteen minutes, to recover.
During the few months I worked there, two guys out of a crew of less than ten, got injured. One required surgery. It’s fortunate no one died – and our supervisor Ted almost did meet a gruesome fate.
I had no clue about any of this, as I stood in the waiting room, thinking I was ready to begin.
Salvador showed up just a couple minutes after me. But, after a short visit to Bob’s office, he barged his way back outside again, his face twisted in fear and anger.
“I’ll probably never see him again,” I thought
I never did.
(My best guess is, he failed the drug test but didn’t realize it, until Bob delivered the bad news, in person.)
Ted lead me back to the same mat-folding station where he tested me before. This time, it was the real deal.
In a blur, he showed me what to do.
Turns out, there was much more to learn. One of the toughest parts of the job was working through the brutal conditions while still assimilating new information. Describing everything this textile company did, would require a book (and people passionate about business operations would probably love every painstakingly-detailed page). But I’ll cover the basics.
Throughout my ten-hour shift, someone from the giant laundry room would push a cart of freshly-washed mats my way. The cart was about half the size of a four-door sedan (so, the same size as your average Subaru).
It was loaded to the brim with perhaps a couple thousand pounds of mats
My job was to push this cart onto a hydraulic lift, which would hoist it into the air, and partially spill the mats onto a station.
Then I’d grab, fold, and wipe them over an electronic scanner, before tossing them onto the appropriate section of a rack. Each mat weighed between five and twenty-five pounds.
Then, when the rack was full (it would typically end up weighing 400+ pounds, by my estimation), I’d drag it to another part of the warehouse, for loading onto trucks. As I recall, I did fifteen racks per shift.
The mats were usually still a bit wet and stuck together. The carts and racks were warped and I had to grapple them to get anywhere. And during a single shift I folded thousands of mats. From what I heard, sometimes the hydraulic lift shut down in the bitter cold of winter, necessitating the use of a forklift.
Then I understood why the company tested people before hiring them.
Nobody with an average build – or mentality – could do this
So I began. Soon, Ted walked away to let me learn the ropes by trial and error.
Carts kept getting wheeled in. Soon, I was two behind. As fast as my body was capable, I plowed forward, folding and folding and folding. Every time I dragged a full rack to the trucks, my shoulders and back were pushed to the limit.
Over time, I learned the finesse required with the job. Sometimes the mats were so tangled in the cart (especially the 10-footers) that if I couldn’t easily yank them out, tugging and tugging would only tighten the knot they were stuck in. Wasted effort. Instead, it was smarter to test different mats, and “unfold” the massive pile like a snaky version of pick-up-sticks.
Frequently, I pondered how much this was like unravelling a personal issue.
Folding the mats had a technique as well. Tossing them into the rack had a technique. Guiding the load across the warehouse did too. Every task had a three-dimensional path-of-least-resistance that could be learned only through practice. It’s how my co-workers made everything look easy… while I struggled and sputtered, exhausted.
Hours flew by…
… until our “lunch” break came at 7PM.
I took maximum advantage of the hour, first stumbling to the oasis of my car to do an Inner Smile meditation. Then I wolfed down the meal I brought in.
Just before the break ended, I chugged some more coffee, and limped back to my station…
… to gain a new appreciation for the myth of Sisyphus. Except, instead of rolling a boulder up a hill, I was folding endless carts of mats.
As the minutes crawled by, nighttime descended on the warehouse, which only grew louder and more chaotic. And I discovered I was only halfway through the shift’s mats.
“No way… that can’t be true…”
They brought in another worker to speed things up. Together, we paced in an odd circle, each of us grabbing, folding, and tossing a mat before doubling back to do it again.
My exhaustion seeped deeper and deeper, until I was floating in a stupor.
Finally, it ended. Except then we had to sweep things up, close down the doors, and grab our stuff as fast as we could before Ted locked the place down.
My hands trembled from the shock
Ted said I exceeded his expectations for the first day. A shallow wave of relief washed over me when I took the news in. Because mixed in my mental and physical exhaustion, was the pulsating fear that I would fail. And get fired.
So I felt a little safer, at least for the time being…
I didn’t realize it as I drove home, but a certain hormone was going haywire in my body, driving me towards partial insanity. And the suffering would linger for the next few months…