Joe New Hire’s First Night

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” he says. “Go get me a Pepsi.”

The Night Superintendent laughs and shakes his head and gives the worker a playful jab in the arm. “Don’t pay any attention,” he says to the New Hire.

The worker cocks his head and replies, “Don’t you think he oughta be properly trained if he’s gonna be my new helper?”

The Night Super cups his hand to his mouth and says in an aside to the perplexed New Hire, “He thinks everybody who gets hired on third shift is hired to be his new helper.”

Finally, the worker smiles in satisfied triumph, raising his chin, and he says to the Night Super, “That’s right, I forgot—you’re my chief helper; you go get me a Pepsi.”

The New Hire retreats into his list of rules and is relieved to find structure, terra firma: ALL employees MUST wear a hairnet when in the plant. ALL employees MUST wear the proper safety equipment whenever working with chemicals. A person could grab onto that, depend on it. NEVER, under ANY circumstances, mix acid with sodium hypochlorite sanitizer; doing so will result in the production of highly dangerous chlorine gas. Yes, yes, cue cards, masking tape on the stage, stand here, say this, the audience applauds politely, step one, step two, step three, yes, it’s all so clear. The New Hire holds the papers in both hands and squints and reads and licks his lips, while words bounce in from the hall outside. Pork ‘em. Quat. POMUTA. Bluehats. Turkey Bacon. QA. PDR. Tagged-up. Head Cheese. MSDS. Whitehats.

Where’s the goddamn glossary?

“Finished?” the Night Super asks at last.

The New Hire sits back with a weary sigh, and his new boss smiles.

“I know it’s a lot to try and take in right off the bat,” he says, “but it’ll come to you. Things will start to make sense, and it’ll all be second nature in no time.”

Bosses are paid to say things like that. This one takes the New Hire to a supply closet across the hall and begins to rummage through boxes on the shelves.

“Try on these boots. Good fit? Here’s your bumpcap—you can adjust the size on the inside there. One thing to keep in mind—it’s not a hardhat. Hardhat’s are heavy-duty, bumpcaps are lightweight, you can actually bend the plastic. This what I’ve got on is a hardhat. For what you’ll be doing, a bumpcap is all you need, but there are places in the plant where you’ve gotta wear a hardhat to go in. By the way, workers wear the white hats, in case you haven’t guessed already, and supervisors wear the blue. You need a supervisor, look for a blue hat. Okay, here’s your hairnet, your earplugs, cotton gloves, rubber gloves. Slicker suit—you look about a medium. Can’t forget the safety glasses. That should about do it.”

Bumpcapped and booted, arms outstretched and burdened with paraphernalia, the New Hire stands dazed, a newly-shorn recruit about to hand over any semblance of the life he knew.

“Let’s get you a locker,” the Night Super says.

Meanwhile, the night-shift workers in the cafeteria and break room collect their money from the tables, fold up the sports sections, down the last of their sodas and coffees, stub out their cigarettes. They push back their chairs and stretch.

“Well, I s’pose,” they say.

“Guess I’ll go see what the damage is.”

“‘Bout that time.”

“S’pose I oughta go do somethin’. I guess it ain’t gonna clean itself, huh?”

“Well, I can’t sit around here all night like some folks. Got work to do.”

They make their way down to their work areas, rooms identified either by the products run on the lines inside during the days or by the functions of those lines. Ham Slice. Bologna Stuff. Bacon Formers. Turkey-Bacon Slice. The Production workers of second shift’s final harmonious strains place their last slices of meat into packages and seal their last box and truck out their last pallet-load of supplies, then desert their lines to stand in wait at the time clocks, leaving way for the opening notes of third-shift chaotic discord. The Mechanics, in navy-blue, move in to tear down slicers, disassemble augurs, dismantle dicers. The Sanitation workers announce their arrival by the awful screech of stainless steel table legs scraping over brick floors, thus beginning their nightly ritual of reorganization, of setting up. Huge rubber floormats are hefted and hung on hooks, yellow tubs of inedible meat lifted with grunts and dumped into carts, stainless steel shields removed from machinery and set aside, all of this done gruffly, no regard given to gentleness, no considerations for levels of noise. Scrape! go the tables, bang! go the tubs, clang! the machinery parts, boom! the trash barrels. If there is one opinion all Production workers share about Sanitation workers, it is that they are excruciatingly loud. The second-shifters punch out, and every elevator in the plant is at once in service, and the changing of the guard is again complete.

The Night Super takes the New Hire to the career clothing lockers, the New Hire’s personal effects having been safely secured in a private storage locker.

“In the morning,” the Night Super says, “we’ll come back here and get you measured. In a couple months you’ll get your own career clothes. We call them your whites. White pants, white jacket—you wear your own T-shirt from home. You’ll get your own locker with your own whites in it. You’ll come in at night, pick up a set of whites from your locker, in the morning you throw the whites in the laundry. Get a new, clean set every night. In the meantime,” the Night Super says, “you wear a frock when you’re out in the plant.”