Monday, June 30, 2008

I Had A Job Folding Paper Sacks: Des Moines 1987

After high school--once I went off to Iowa City for college--I had a transient relationship with Des Moines. I guess you could say I've had a transient relationship with everywhere in my life (in fact everyone's life is a transient relationship, when it comes down to it) but this is how I've always framed it in my mind, that both Des Moines and the state of Iowa were "home" yet they were home in the sense that it was a place where I stopped in to get fed, to do my laundry, to put away some coin and feel safe and secure for a while; a place to reorganize, re-energize, a place to contemplate and do some work. Iowa is good for that. And, except for a couple of stints back in Iowa City, Des Moines was the city in Iowa where it was best for me to reload.
My parents lived in Des Moines then (my mother still does), I had a brother there, I had friends from Urbandale High who I sometimes stayed with, who I hung out with when I was in town (there are only two left now, in DM, that I can think of). I could always freeload in the city, or pay a nominal fee for a spare bedroom, couch, floor, and I could usually find a job.
Twice I worked full time at Younkers Department Store at the Merle Hay Mall. Once I worked full time for Younkers at the Ninth Street Warehouse. I worked mowing lawns for Tru-Green in Johnston, I worked a little concrete construction, I worked unloading trucks from 6pm to 2am at the UPS hub, I briefly worked in a factory that made sacks and bags and plastics (my job was to tend a machine that made these giant rolls of industrial plastic--I mean long and heavy, forklift-heavy--and it would take one or two days to make the roll; I was supposed to watch it till it hit a certain weight and size, make a cut by hand, stop the machine and then start a new roll, but mainly I stood and watched the machine spin the plastic like clear thin carpeting onto a giant spool). I also had many sporadic temp jobs, usually for Manpower, in Des Moines.
I had a temp job on the east side of town for a business that made inflatable buildings. They would create these things per each specific order and I think some of them could be sprayed with concrete to form a lasting structure. But it involved heavy plastic, vinyl, that they cut into large sheets by hand with extremely sharp scissors, hand sewed the small parts, grommet-punched doors and windows, and then they would take these big, cut vinyl sheets and seal them together. To do this they had invented this strange machine that heated and glued the long sheets. A man rode in the machine, operated it as it moved backwards along the concrete floor inside the shop (the machine was like something from Dr. Seuss, not huge but full of parts), my job was to walk with the man and machine and watch the markers on the two sheets to see how the seam matched up, and I'd call out by how much they were missing: "Quarter inch." "Half inch" "One inch". The operator would make adjustments as he slowly rolled backwards towards a wall. The guy employed to run the machine was a Nam Vet and ex-motorcycle gang member. Nice guy, really. He told me that he had lost part of his intestine in the war and so could not control his flatulence--to excuse him if he farted. I did not know if this was true or if it was only an excuse to let him pass gas in front of people. He also told me how, in Iowa, he and some biker pals had gotten so drunk and stoned on pills that they had taken off and ridden all the way to Chattanooga and he could not recall a single moment of the ride, just that he had been partying in Des Moines and later found himself riding through the mountains of Tennessee.
I had a temp job where I tested lawn mowers for AMF. I don't think the AMF company even exists anymore. The way they tested lawn mowers was simply to mow lawns, using the same riding mower again and again. I guess it was a longevity test for the machines. There was a supervisor who had a office and desk and, as best I could tell, he spent all his time there behind the desk, where he looked at dirty magazines (I caught him twice and I was let go not long after the second time). Then there was the foreman--really the full time lawn mower tester--and he was a very nice person, wife and kids and a stupid job he accepted with little complaint (but I felt more sorry for the supervisor). So he and I would go out each day and mow these lawns for free. We'd mow the AMF Company lawns, we'd mow these cascading lawns for some Polk County offices, City offices, places like that. Big lawns. We'd simply ride back and forth in the heavy sun on these mowers, back and forth, stop for break, stop for lunch, stop for break, stop to go home. Sure, there was the loading and unloading, gas and oil, the driving to a few different locations, but mainly it was back and forth on AMF lawnmowers over huge swaths of green Iowa grass. The foreman was a Mormon. I saw him reading his literature and bible during breaks and I talked to him a bit about it, no big deal. I was, and am, pretty non-religious but it's certainly okay if other people are religious as long as they're not crazy about it (just like it's okay to be non-religious as long as you aren't crazy about it) (who gets to define "crazy" you ask? . . . I do). He told me he used to be a security guard for AMF but switched to a day job to be with his family, he told me he liked me because most people laughed at him when they found out he had switched jobs and that he was a committed Mormon.
I had many other temp jobs in Des Moines, outdoors and in offices and in warehouses. I had jobs that lasted only a few hours, one's that lasted weeks, had offers of full time work, got fired from a lumberyard job for sneaking off at lunch with another temp and coming back late, had a job downtown moving furniture where I showed up so hungover that the buildings swayed, the morning clouds bubbled, every time I looked upwards. I had a job folding paper sacks.
This particular job was an advertising promotion for Younkers. It was long after I had been a full time employee of the company and it was only a coincidence that I ended up working for them, sort of, one last time. This job was in an upstairs room in a dusty warehouse downtown (but not the 9th Street one where I used to work). It was a fluorescent lit room full of big flat tables where about two dozen of us temps stood and folded smallish paper sacks with the Younkers logo and stacked them, then these sacks would be put in the mail or in the Sunday newspaper or something as a promotion to shop at Younkers. It was very strange: a bunch of people standing around in a hot airless room folding brown paper bags. But even there, among these unknown people, there were little dramas and sense of social orders. A lot of the temp workers knew each other--they were mostly high school drop outs, or underachievers, from the same southside neighborhood. I worked next to a small, roundish young guy who, though not outright retarded by any means, was obviously a little slow or simple-minded. But we talked. There was also the one tough guy working there--brash and strutting--but the guy next to me told me how the tough guy tried to fight him once and my guy just jumped him and beat him and now the tough guy would have nothing to do with him. On the next day, the small guy told me a story how he had inherited his uncle's car and a friend and his girlfriend talked him into driving them out to Colorado. When they got out to the mountains, the friend and his girl stole his car and left him. Now, this guy told me he had brought his dog with him, a German Shepherd named King. So it was him and King moneyless and carless in Colorado. And he started walking. Down the highway, man and dog, walking back to Iowa. He told me how eventually a woman stopped--as much out of concern for the dog, it sounded like, because she was a vet--who put him up and treated his dog whose feet were torn up from walking. She found them both a way to get back home. It was an interesting story. But after that, the lady who was the supervisor for the sack folding separated the two of us. She didn't like us talking. Hmmm. Here we were, folding sacks in Des Moines for a few dollars an hour in a hot dusty poorly-lit room, and we couldn't even tell stories to each other.
What good is a lousy job if you can't even tell stories?

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