Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Winter Work: Champaign 1988

When I drove up to Champaign, Illinois from Florida to live with Fru it was January. She lived in a soft warm pleasant duplex on Ivy Court, but outside of her shelter it was a dark bleak cold winter and I had to find me a job. I'd been painting houses in Seaside and was tired of it and, anyway, it was the dead of winter and there was no painting jobs advertised in the Champaign newspaper. So I found some factory work.
I got the jobs through a temp agency--two different ones--and both were in a town about twenty miles north called Rantoul, where there was an Air Force base that was in the process of closing. In Rantoul there were two factories right off I-57, one on the east side of the highway, another on the west side. At first I worked on the east side. This factory made things like oil filters for Catarpillar tractors and construction equipment, they made car parts and also did car assembly. My job was to put together dashboards for Chrysler Jeeps and then those dashboards were shipped to Canada for the eventual full assembly of the vehicle (and then I guess they shipped the vehicle back to the U.S. for sale). The dashboards would come along on an assembly line, semi-naked and steering-wheel-less, and I had a drill and would drill the plastic-fake leather cover onto the aluminum and plastic frame and then send it on down for the next part of assembly. It was silly work, but it was work (and not nearly as silly as what I did at the second factory.) . . . I'd worked in factories before, in warehouses and such, and I never much cared for it. It's noisy and repetitive and sunless work, and even if it had windows, this was in the winter and there wasn't much natural light anyway. I had become used to warmish winters, of the sun rising over the ocean and getting high in the sky and staying there for long hours--even in January--so it was a bit of an adjustment to not see much sun, to wake up at five in the morn and go out into below zero temps and start my dreary car and use the heater and drive up through snow flurries in black flat bitter hard landscapes to some ugly factory in some strange ex-Air Force blue-collar town like Rantoul, Illinois.
But I did it.
I recall one time during lunch, the guy I worked with--some youngish local fellow, nice enough--watched me eat. I had a sandwich made out of dark German rye bread. He stared at my sandwich, as if he'd never seen black bread before, then looked at me and said, "Aren't you the wrong color to be eating that?" It was meant as a joke, a racial one. But I thought, man, what a small world you must live in.
When that job played out I got another one across the Interstate at a factory that made toothpaste and powders and cheap medicines. They didn't really make the products but, rather, packaged them. It was very odd. Right up there with a job I had folding paper sacks in Des Moines once. I only worked there for a few weeks but during that time I stood at an assembly line where these bottles were filled with generic bright pink Pepto-Bismol anti-diarrhea liquid. I can't remember what I did exactly, maybe made sure the labels went on correctly or move them to some other line after they were filled or something. But I also worked in the baby powder room. This white baby or bath powder--cornstarch or talc, I guess--was in a separate room and you had to wear plastic booties and hair covers and such and there were big thick plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling--dividers--trying to keep the run-off residue from escaping too far. The room was full of escaped powder, it smelled of it and was smogged with it as the plastic bottle/containers went through a machine and were filled with powder. I'd load the empty bottles onto a conveyer and they'd go through the machine to get filled and capped and then I'd unload them. Weird. Then I worked the eye drop line--or was it the nasal spray line?--and with this job I'd stand at the conveyer line as the sprays came out of the machine and my job was to tighten the screw-on lids as they went down the line. Yes, for eight hours a day, using both left and right plastic-gloved hands, I'd screw down tiny cone-shaped lids on small bottles of generic nose sprays (or eye drops). I briefly was in the toothpaste production line where minty fresh toothpaste was squeezed into the tube. Interesting. I also worked the packing line where all I did was open and construct cardboard boxes for the final shipping of these products.
Both jobs lasted a little over a month, I think. And as I said, it was winter in Champaign and it was a cold one and I had spent my previous winters in Florida and Seattle. It's not like I wasn't used to long cold winters--I was born in South Dakota, grew up mainly in Iowa--but I was in a new town and a new state and a new temp job, I only really knew Fru (and, really, despite our intimacy, I didn't know her that well) and I knew Margaret (from Iowa City) (who now lived in Champaign and worked at the bank where Fru worked--it was Margaret who introduced me to Fru) and was just meeting other people. But in East Central Illinois, where it's flat out flat and almost treeless outside of the towns, square mile after square mile of corn and soybean fields, where the wind came blasting unstopped across the plowed prairie, it was honestly below zero almost that whole first two months I was there, definitely not above freezing, and I was up early and driving to Rantoul in the dark each working day.
I specifically recall one morning when I was working at the packaging factory. I drove up to Rantoul and parked my Ford in the big lot. There were no lights in the lot, just the stark lights of the factory, the lights of truck traffic on the Interstate, and I sat there in my car for a bit, down, wondering what the hell I was really doing there--here--in this bleak world (besides being with Fru). I had parked right in front of a barrel--a rusty oil drum--and on the barrel was a beat-up bent sign that said USED OIL. I have no idea why it was out there, other than as some kind of marker for the parking scheme of the lot, and to hold used oil. And as I sat there, dreading the walk to the factory where I'd be screwing in caps of nasal spray, this big black raven/crow landed right on top of the snow-spackled sign. I guess it was only a crow, but it was big, tough, feathers puffed and hunched against the bitten wind and cold. It seemed to look at me, cawed loudly, loud enough for me to hear inside my car with the heater hopelessly blasting.
Man, that was depressing: this big black crow staring at me while sitting on top of a USED OIL sign in the dark five-thirty a.m. sub-zero air, in the parking lot of a toothpaste factory off the freeway in Rantoul, Illinois.
That week, Jimmy called me from Florida and asked if I wanted to meet him in New York City. He had a sublet in Queens.
I talked it over with Fru--assured her I wasn't leaving her.
I went to New York City. 
I came back to Fru in the Spring.

No comments: