“These are the towels they wipe baby’s asses with!” Jesus said, with an impish smile on his face.
I perched atop the lift gate of a truck, grabbing little, wet towels by hand from a giant basket and tossing them into a bag a few feet below. They stunk of hospital disinfectant.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I replied
He laughed at his attempt to freak me out. Nice try.
Jesus had been working the load team longer than any of the other guys. He was from Mexico, married with the last of his kids going to college, and well past 40 years old. Yet he could still power through the trucks while the rest of us dragged our feet.
That day, he helped me out with my new position: Unloading.
By far, the dirtiest job in the entire warehouse
Unloading was done in teams of two. My partner backed the truck into the bay. Then I pushed open the rear door, grabbed pile after pile of dirty shirts, turned, and dumped them onto a conveyor belt. When enough were on their way, I ran to the other end of the belt, where the shirts fell into a bag. Once it was full, I pushed the bag to the guy working the sling.
Same with dirty pants.
The conveyor belt also acted as a scanning device, and every once in a while, it stopped scanning without warning. Depending on when – or if – we noticed, we’d have to drag all the clothes back to the start, and throw them in again.
Sometimes a single truck took almost ten bags – well over a literal ton of dirty clothes.
Most trucks, from what I could tell, transported clothes from construction crews, automotive shops… and the best by far was from the spice factory. Those shirts smelled like pizza.
The worst… by far… was from the dog food factory
My partner and I took turns throwing those shirts onto the conveyor belt, always holding our breath as best we could. Sometimes retching when we caught a whiff – and, one time, my partner threw up on the spot.
Every truck also contained dirty floor mats. Piles of them so huge, they’d reach the roof. Sometimes they were soaked from rain. My partner and I bearhugged as many as we could at a time, running from inside the truck to the edge, to throw them into the bags.
Before my first day unloading, Ted pointed to the metal roof of a truck, with pipes jutting out.
“You will hit your head when you’re unloading. You will draw blood. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’”
He was right. I’d have to hunch my back inside the truck for hours as I worked. And when I forgot for just a split-second (which happened many times) … BAM. My head would smack into some metal outcropping. Once, I fell to my knees in pain.
“Watch your head!” my partner chastised me
Finally, every truck had dirty broom brushes. We tossed them all in a bucket, and then stripped the brushes from the underwire at the end of the day, so they could be washed.
So much dust got kicked up in the process, we wore surgical masks while we separated them.
Fifteen trucks per shift. Then a big trailer full of clothes from Fort Collins. One break for lunch.
I still remember one night after we finished. I stumbled into the bathroom, and began washing the dirt and grime off my arms. Then, as I worked over my neck and face, I stared into the mirror… and decided I was going through a spiritual baptism.
Every bad thing I’d ever done… everyone I’d stiffed in my bankruptcy… every mean thing I’d ever said… was now forgiven
I just needed a ritual disgusting enough… and to suffer physically enough… to justify it. To make things official.
That was what I decided. At least it got a laugh out of me, sometime past 1AM in a warehouse bathroom in Lakewood, Colorado.
As the weeks went by, I realized that even though unloading was the nastiest position on the load team, it was also the simplest. You just had to work like a dog, as fast as you could.
One of the guys and I set the unofficial record, as far as I know, for the most number of trucks unloaded before the lunch break. Thirteen. That earned us a double-thumbs-up from Ted.
I also noticed the company burned through temp worker after temp worker in the unloading position. During lunch, I got to talking with one, and found out he’d recently gotten out of prison. Five years for punching a cop while getting arrested.
Five years of his life… gone…
After getting out, he’d settled in Fort Collins and took welding classes.
“Then I went on a bender and ended up in Denver,” he told me.
Must have been one heck of a drinking binge to end up in a city over an hour south, and quit school to boot. The man even admitted his teacher had called to ask where he went.
The teacher didn’t get an answer and, come to think of it, I didn’t get much of one when I asked.
The man had an ex-wife and a kid, too.
“The state keeps taking money out of my paycheck for child support. Between that and how little I’m getting from the temp work, there’s no way I can support myself. The only thing I can do is quit and hope the paycheck where I work next doesn’t get child support taken out of it.”
He went on…
“I’ll find out tomorrow if this place takes it out. If they do, you’ll know because you won’t see me here again.”
That was the last I ever saw him.
As the weeks went on, I slogged through my workdays, sometimes until two in the morning. One night, I stayed until past 3:30AM to help load the last of the trucks. The moment we finished, everyone scattered like they’d just robbed a bank. I ran to my car, turned the key…
… to hear only a sickening little click, and nothing else.
I jumped back out to see the taillights of the last remaining cars disappear as the rest of the load team drove into the night. All was quiet.
So what was it going to be? Sleeping the rest of the night in the breakroom? I sure as heck wasn’t going to pay for a taxi (this was before Uber… and I wouldn’t have paid for that either). Then an idea occurred to me.
I ran back inside the warehouse
Only one person was inside – the first worker of the early morning shift. Because he spoke only a little English, I mimed how I needed a wrench. He gave me one, which I used to tighten my battery cables and…
… started my car.
I drove home, collapsed into sleep… and started the whole process over again… for weeks and weeks…
Right when I thought I had a prayer of getting used to the job, my fears of getting fired started coming true…