Factory Rats

Factory smokestack with cloud of smoke coming out of it.
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

“Looks like rain.”

I stared down the line at this older gentleman as he methodically shot screws into the over- engineered, electromechanical widget in front of him. His name was Dale and I never did understand why he would say such a thing; after all, we worked indoors. He stood a burly six foot, two inches tall and wore his silver-grey beard down to the northernmost precipice of his beer gut. In fact, his gut, for what I had come to know of this man over the course of the last two years, could very well have not been sourced from beer at all, rather, made entirely from the crushed spirits of those who dared query him in any way. Strike him with a question of generality or even one which carried with it inherently serious undertones, the outcome of a matter hanging in the balance, and he would drop what he was doing and argue his point until you were at an absolute loss for words, left marveling at the sheer unabashed conviction of the man. Then, to really hammer it home, proceed to belittle, berate, and shame you into submission, leaving you with only a meager sense of self-worth, an overwhelming feeling of indignity, and a side order of bitter self-loathing for even asking such a question of this man. I had witnessed it first hand, thereby knowing all too well to tread lightly and not provoke the sleeping beast within. Dale was tough as nails, telling stories of herding cattle and wrestling bulls bare handed into a trailer headed to auction. He had a gaunt face, weathered from years of exposure to the elements, smoking upwards of forty thousand cigarettes, emotional strife, and above all the factory life.

Working at the factory is intolerably mundane. One becomes part of the assembly line after a while. The jobs are easy, in general, but the sheer repetition is enough to drive one to blinding madness. I had always sort of admired the people who have been working this life for twenty-five to thirty years and are still at it. I mean, how can one really just cash in all of one’s dreams and aspirations for a mind- numbing feeling of absolute alienation from oneself and the rest of the working class? It seems to me as if being a greeter at the local Mega-Mart would hold more value both physically and intrinsically than doing a job that not only could be done by a robot, but actually is in most non-union shops. What value and sense of self-worth did I really have by making sure that the red screw gets driven into the copper colored clip fourteen times a minute for a solid eight hours? For me, it was the mediocrity of it all, I just wanted some action! Something for which to feel responsible when coming in to work for the company that chose to hire me, not shoot screws between shuffling through my IPod in search of something that got swept under the rug and hasn’t been given a listen in a while. The line stopped. I looked down a ways at Dale. It appeared that he was the culprit. While he fumbled with some screws in his apron, the red light lit furiously above his station indicating that he had exceeded the allotted cycle time before finishing the operation. With my youthful gusto and knowing full well that he would almost half-appreciate some razzing to break the monotony, I yelled,

“What the hell’s the hold-up old man?!?”

What I expected to be a glance became a full on stare as he slowly, somewhat methodically lifted his head, screws and drill in hand, peering through two haystacks for eyebrows, throwing my way the very same look I’m sure has burned a hole through some poor, unfortunate soul before my time, and hollered back, “What’s it to ya pecker-head? Mind your own business before I come down there and show ya what a real ol’-fashioned ass-whoopin’ feels like!”

“Well played, Dale,” I thought. I knew I could have come back at him with any number of age- related one-liners or some type of senility centered banter, but I will always stick to a single, solitary quip. He had lived something along the lines of three of my lives and, if anything, I owed it to the generations of smart-asses that came before me to bow before him in that respect. After all, I usually get two or three in per shift, so who really wants to press the issue in close quarters with a man that looks like the villain in every bad dream anyone has ever had in the entire history of human consciousness? Not I, I assure you. Instead, the lunch bell rang and I shuffled outside with my co-workers to squeeze in a smoke, smash half a sandwich, smoke one more, then get back on the line in twenty minutes.

I made my way down the aisle, passing a veritable cornucopia of mechanized this-and-that’s, cut through another area that assembled doohickeys that plugged into megaphones to enable them to make a noise that I can only describe as sounding purple, and finally through a side door to the smoke shack. A nicer May afternoon than I remembered it to be on the way into work, I decided to forgo crowding into the pre-designated smoking section and opted instead to round the corner of the building and have a seat on a grassy spot with an ancient silver maple tree adjacent coils of steel seemingly stacked to the sky. Walking around the corner of the building, however, I found that Dale had already beaten me there.

He looked up at me as I made the turn. I froze with contempt, as I was still not sure how our work relationship that consisted entirely of wisecracks, toilet humor, terribly placed yet impeccably poignant insults, stink-eyes, stare downs, and delicately worded “your ma-ma” jokes here and there, would fare in a real world, more intimate situation like sharing a coveted smoke break. The moment of pause and careful consideration that had me awash with the same feeling I used to get making the elementary school trudge to the principal’s office lapsed as his typically low growl hinted at being slightly, well...inviting.

He said in an affable grumble, “What’s up pencil-dick?”

I smiled, somewhat relieved, and replied “ Nothin’ Old-man, how about you?”

I stood there and lit my cigarette waiting for a reply but instead watched his eyes narrow as he smacked his lips and took a long, deliberate drag off of the Marlborough pinched between his index finger and thumb.

Exhaling he replied, “Thinkin’.” An enormous cloud of smoke erupting from his mouth, partially obscuring the silver beard that, just before losing sight of it in the swirling smoke, I now noticed had just a few strands of deep black holding on to the sweet, sweet youth they once knew.

If there is one thing I can respect, it is a man in thought. Battles have been won, ideas forged, decisions made, all in good faith and conscience, all by men and their thoughts. My mind is where I go to subdue the toxicity that surrounds us in our daily lives, it is where I go to drown the distinct futility of a factory job, and I was not going to rob him of that precious twenty minutes that I, myself, hold so dear.

I sat down next to him, the great maple before us singing a song as the wind negotiated the crowded thickets of leaves. I took a drag on my cigarette, long and slow, trying to mimic Dale’s sultry style, nearly coughing as the carcinogens lapped at my younger, less calloused throat. My eyes bulged out of my head and I felt my stomach and lungs lurch in agony as if they were tasting the chemicals for the first time. But somehow I held it together, knowing full well any weakness would be pounced upon with the verbal equivalent of a visceral, sixteenth century lashing, long before the time of “cruel and unusual” punishment. He sensed my discomfort and I felt his gaze settle upon me. I immediately knew that I, at all costs, had to avoid arousing contempt in Dale’s lightning-quick insult dispensing brain receptors. I kept staring at the maple’s branches dancing in the late spring breeze, trying to simultaneously maintain and regain my composure.

“It’s a silver maple,” he said.

I looked at him and said half-coughing, motioning with a slight wave through the air in front of me as if I had swallowed a gnat or other insect of equivalent insignificance, “Yeah, it looks like someone drew the thing, man, it’s perfect.”

He nodded, apparently in agreement with what I just said. This is probably the only time I’m going to get to talk to the real Dale, so I decided to pique his brain, tapping into years upon years of insight and experiences, the likes of which I may never again get the chance to unearth.

“How’d you do it Dale?”

“Do what?”

“You’ve been here for twenty-some-odd years, doing the same boring stuff. I’ve been here for two and it’s driving me out of my damn mind. I just run out of things to think about after a while, you know? Then I think of the life choices I’ve made that brought me to this crap-hole factory and think, ‘What the hell am I even doing here?’ Some of these people we work with can barely speak English, most of them are more concerned with what the other one is doing, whether or not their job is easier or if they are being treated unfair. They have bad attitudes, most of them are rude, and I can’t help but ask myself whether or not I am on their same level.”

I took another drag off of my cigarette and we simultaneously extinguished them in the grass, palming the butts.

He sat for a moment looking at the maple swaying back and forth then reaches in his shirt pocket removing a half-full soft-pack of Marlborough Reds. Effortlessly he lights another smoke and places the first butt back in the pack.

He looks at me and asks, “You litter your spent smokes?”

I reached in my pants’ pocket and pulled out my pack, three loose cigarette butts falling out onto the ground.


He tells me through another cloud of smoke hiding the grey eyes behind his glasses, “You’re not like them then.”

I lit another smoke as well. We sat there in silence for another few minutes watching the silver maple loll about in the midday sun until break was nearly over. I felt we were both lost in thought when he broke the silence as I started to get up.

“Kid,” the word almost slithering off of his tongue.

I had never heard this tone in his voice. It was as if the maple tree itself was speaking to me. I paused in my ascent, looking down at him sitting there; lacking the now commonplace snarl I had grown to know so well. Instead his brow smoothed, eyebrows no longer in a scowl. I slumped back down into the grass beside him, suddenly hyper-aware of each individual blade that supported my frame.

“You gotta learn that in this life, no matter what you happen to be doing at the time, you gotta be happy. You gotta see the good in things, no matter how bad or crazy it seems. Some of those people in there aren’t here by choice and they know it, they’re stuck because they can’t shut it down and see the good in themselves enough to change their outlook toward life, themselves, and those around them. That’s why they get in each other’s business and try to make it just a little more miserable for everyone else than they feel they got it.”

He looks over at the maple, the wind stopped; the prehistoric looking tree now silent and still as a lake at dawn.

“I raise cattle and keep up on two hundred acres of hay. I work here because it’s the least strenuous thing in my life, and by Gawd I actually like watching all these crazy bastards screw with each other. Its like a damn science experiment!”

He smiles; I’ve never seen him smile. I’ve only bore witness to him flashing a sneer if I happen to say something witty that he doesn’t have to call me a “nit-wit” for saying.

“It hasn’t always been easy, I mean, the damn benefits are the only thing that kept me here through the nineties. But what you do for a living doesn’t define you as a person. What you think about during your down time does. This here maple tree and myself, we’ve shared quite a few thoughts over the years. It’s helped me through some bad years. But at the end of the day, it’s really just giving me something to focus on while all this crazy shit is going on around me.It’s the aesthetics in life, Kid, don’t take em’ for granted. Live your life the way you want and don’t worry about this stuff. Just do the damn thing.”

Dale stood up and stretched in the sun, letting out a loud yawn that I am sure the maple felt. He began walking back inside leaving me staring deep into the maple’s growth. “Just do the damn thing, “ I thought. In two cigarette’s time I felt the entirety of my world suddenly stirred up right before me. I didn’t see just me anymore; I saw me and my place in this world. My place isn’t in this factory; the factory was merely the space I am in right now. I thought out loud, somewhat cynically, “Crotchety old man? No way! He’s a damn crotchety old-man sage!” But Dale didn’t hear it and I quickly shook that thought out of my head, finding what he said slightly poetic. Just before walking around the corner he turned back and hollered, “Now get your ass in here so we can get out a little early. See those maple leaves turned up? It’s tellin’ us it looks like rain.”

I stood up and looked one more time at the maple. It stood majestic and proud despite the overwhelming depravity of the factory scene that surrounded it. Its leaves were, in fact, belly up. I looked west to the horizon and noticed the looming, grey clouds just beginning to appear in the distance. Chuckling, I looked over at Dale who was giving me an “any day now” type look, and knew he didn’t see those clouds, his trust was in the maple, in the world around us. I jogged over and we walked side-by-side back into the factory to finish out the shift.