The night-shift workers come in at the last minute. Their cars and pickup trucks tear across the vast openness of empty parking spots to avoid the driveway speed bumps, headlights jumping up and down over the dips and rises as if to say: That’s right, here we are, and everything is different now. Your rules do not apply. The lights go out, car doors shut in staccato bursts. The workers approach the building solo or in small groups, mostly quiet and quick—sneaking up on the towering brick walls and upended-cannon-barrel smokestacks, red flashing warning lights, high fences. They come in from all directions, and they acknowledge each other with their eyes and the slightest of head motions, and they don’t say much, because this is not the time, this is serious business, they are moving in, they are infiltrating, they are taking over.
Inside the guard shack, they flash access cards and ram through the turnstiles and move on towards the plant. A New Hire stands off to the side, fidgety. He has no access card.
“Sanitation,” he tells the Security Guard, “I’m supposed to report to Sanitation.”
A man, short and portly but imposing nonetheless, enters the shack and looks the New Hire over with mild contempt and says, “You couldn’t even open the door for me, standing there with nothing better to do? You’re fired. Go home.”
The Guard comes out, stone-faced, and the other man turns up his nose and pushes through the turnstile and the corner of his mouth catches a smirk. The New Hire barks one awkward laugh, his face flushed, and he doesn’t get any of it: What’s my cue, what’s my line, am I in the right scene, am I in the right play? The Guard opens a side door and beckons without a word and the curtain has opened, the music begun, the players are playing, and the New Hire, poor soul, has been plucked out of the audience and positioned center stage for their amusement.
The night-shift workers sweep through the halls, past weary, sighing second-shifters who mosey along toward the end of their turn, toward bar time, toward back-slapping and slow-grind jukebox tunes and shots of Jack and close calls on the drive home.
“You guys done downstairs?” the night-shifters ask, passing by in a blur.
“It’s all yours,” the second-shifters yawn.
At the time clock, greetings are exchanged to the intermittent punching of time cards, and the workers slip into practiced nonchalance.
“What do ya know, Bookworm?
“Not enough—I’m still here.”
“How’s it hangin’, Haw?”
“High and firm, lots of sperm.”
“What’s shakin’, bake?”
“What’s swingin’, Howie?”
“Hey, Prophet, what are the locks?”
“Houston and Seattle, guaranteed!”
“How’s it goin’, Chopper?”
“My age, ya don’t give a damn how, you just hope it keeps goin’.”
And they move off to pick up their work clothes, then head to the lockers to change and call to each other over the rows. They shout out football picks and gossip and jokes, they pimp each other and laugh, some whistle, some sing doo-wops in exaggerated baritones, and then the jungle bird calls start. The second-shifters, sitting hunched over with their palms on their knees and waiting for the clock-hands to move, roll their eyes at each other and shake their heads.
“It’s the Crazy Crew again.”
“It’s the loons.”
“Goddamn maniacs, every last one.”
The New Hire is brought to the Sanitation office and the first sounds he hears are the bird calls echoing from the locker room. He thinks: There are people who didn’t get this job because they didn’t pass the drug test. He is introduced to a tall, thin man who wears a blue hardhat and a white lab coat with the company’s patch over one breast and a nametag over the other. The man smiles, shakes the New Hire’s hand, offers a chair. “Welcome to the Sanitation department,” he says, and he gives his name. “I’m the Night Superintendent.”
He hands over a list of rules that takes up fifteen pages.
“Read these,” he says. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
The New Hire dives in, while night-shifters pass by in their work clothes, intent on a preliminary break, coffee and a cigarette, a quick card game, a look at the sports page. Employees shall have two one-half-hour breaks in an eight-hour shift, the first to be taken after two hours of work, and the second after five hours. Thus quoth the list of rules.
His earlier trips to the plant did nothing to prepare him. He stopped in once to submit his application; once to stick out his tongue, get hit on the knee, pee in a cup; once for an orientation meeting where the Personnel people told him the general plant rules and made him fill out more forms and enthusiastically ran down their lists of slogans:
Safety begins here.
We are here for a common goal.
Top quality thru teamwork.
Personnel people: friendly and helpful and slick as bacon grease, but not sly. The short man from the guard shack steps into the Sanitation office, also dressed in work clothes now—white pants tucked into brown rubber boots, a black T-shirt with EXCUSE ME? printed across the chest, a white, lightweight hardhat—and he stops next to the New Hire.