Warehouse Days and Nights

helpwantedPart One of Two

I’ve worked in a lot of warehouses. In fact, I spent six years working in warehouses—five days a week, double and sometimes triple shifts, if I could find them—to pay for a largely useless bachelor of arts degree in English literature from a state university.

From April of 1982 to May 2nd, 1988, I worked at a UPS hub in Edison, New Jersey, loading trucks, unloading trucks, and sorting packages on conveyor belts. The pay was good—thirteen bucks an hour, plus double-time for anything over an 8-hour shift—and it bought a lot of college credits derived from courses like Literature of the Medieval Courts and American Realism and Naturalism. This era, the early- to mid-80s, was certainly the last in which it was possible for a student to “work his way through school.” That particular achievement has now joined “hopping a freight out of town” and “living off the land” in the Big Book of Quaint Outdated Customs of Yore.

I wish I could tell you why I was hauling 50-lb boxes in wretched conditions (scorching heat in summer, withering cold in winter, an omnipresent haze of truck exhaust and noxious airborne chemicals) in order to gain a passing familiarity with Ode on a Grecian Urn. But I really can’t.

No one would even consider such an undertaking today, and I don’t remember anyone who was doing it then, either. The other students in my classes at Rutgers were somber, earnest Jewish girls who wore little or no makeup and were deeply concerned about apartheid, campus date rape, and nuclear weapons proliferation. The guys I met in the trucks were studying Finance & Accounting at Fairleigh Dickinson or Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Repair at DeVry Technical Institute. I was the only guy in the warehouse sneaking peaks at a worn paperback copy of Sister Carrie in the brief lulls between deluges of packages.

I didn’t go to Rutgers to study English and American literature. I enrolled with the intention of pursuing a degree in journalism. But I discovered, fairly swiftly, that I wasn’t cut out for journalism. I didn’t like asking people questions. I possessed no skill whatsoever at networking. I had no “nose for news.” I had a self-consciously weary disdain for both popular culture and consensus wisdom. I could, however, write. This last quality, more than any other, propelled my gradual crossover to an English lit curriculum.

Journalism, by the way, has one key defining characteristic in common with literary study: the only way to make any money at it is to get paid to teach the skill to someone else. Everyone in the literary field had long taken this state of affairs for granted, but journalists were just discovering this dismal fact of life in 1984. My journalism professors used to complain bitterly about USA Today and Rupert Murdoch. Little did they know that Matt Drudge, Google, and Blogger were coming along to sweep them all into the desktop trash folder of history.

When the money I made at UPS wasn’t enough, which was fairly often, I supplemented my income with other temporary jobs in crappier, quasi-legal warehouse operations. I’d sign up with an employment agency, which in turn would send me out to a ladies shoe shipper in Metuchen or a paper goods distributor in Woodbridge. These fly-by-night business entities paid little, offered no benefits, and weren’t too particular about worker safety.

The absolute nadir of this period of my life came in 1985, when I dropped out of school for a fall semester to save money for the last leg of my quixotic pursuit of a college education. A temp agency sent me out to a warehouse in Perth Amboy, an anonymous shipper of cheap trinkets and novelty items destined for inner-city variety stores in time for the Christmas season. The place had some perplexing name, something like Amalgamated Universal General Businessing & Co.

You couldn’t really get a sense of the enormousness of the place from the street outside, but once through the front gate and inside you saw that the building was as big as an airplane hangar, as big as five or six football fields in area. The air in this place was an abrasive fuzz, literally greenish with truck exhaust. You could feel it seeking purchase on your skin as you traveled through it. The warehouse was unheated and exposed to the November weather by virtue of dozens of wide open truck bays along the front and back walls.

The main office was located in an aluminum-sided bunker suspended high off the warehouse floor in the back of the building, accessible via a single flight of metal steps. Its location was a moot point, however, since Rule #1 was that no hourly employee was to enter the main office. All directions were issued via radio from the main office to a floor manager who sat at a wooden desk in the midst of a vast empty section of floor between the general stock area (rows upon rows of pallets laden with boxes) and a low-roofed cinderblock enclosure about a hundred yards away. Rule #2 was that you had to ask permission from the floor manager to use the bathroom, which was in the cinderblock shed.

Every morning, all the hourly workers assembled around the floor manager’s desk and got their first assignments of the day. After that, they were managed by foremen who had radios but were also hourlies and thus prohibited from entering the main office. Rule #3 was that you got two fifteen minute breaks, one at 10 am and one at 3pm, and a half-hour for lunch, at 12 noon. You could use the bathroom during these periods without requesting permission.

After the workers were dismissed to the trucks on my first day, the floor manager called me aside. “How’s your English?” he said.

“Pretty good,” I replied. “I’ve been using it for a while.”

“Great.” He plucked a clipboard up off his desk. “Congratulations, you’ve just been promoted to foreman.”

Look at that, I thought. I’m on the management fast track. “Do I get a raise?” I think they were paying us about $4.25 an hour.

“No, you don’t. But you don’t have to hump freight unless we’re really shorthanded. You ever drive a forklift?”

I had to admit I hadn’t.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s easy.” He handed me a radio. “You finish one truck, call me, I’ll send you to another. That’s all you gotta know.”

End. Part One of Two.

Related: Warehouse Days And Nights, Part Two: The Secret Break Room

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