Warehouse Days and Nights, Part Two: The Secret Break Room

closed_area_poster-p228868388143288493tdar_210Part Two of Two

My job at Amalgamated Whatever & Co. was to tell a team of three or four hourlies what truck to unload, make sure they worked quickly (which they always did, with no urging from me), and then forklift out the pallets of boxes they heaped up. For some reason, packages arrived at the warehouse in trucks without pallets. Sometimes they arrived strewn all over the floor of the truck, as if they had been pitched in from a distance; sometimes they were packed so tightly floor to ceiling that they had to be pried loose with great effort.

I asked the floor manager once, “Why doesn’t this stuff arrive on pallets?”

“Because it doesn’t,” he replied.

The boxes had to be separated by type and destination, then stacked onto pallets to be transported to the warehouse floor. Later, those palleted boxes could be moved to other trucks for delivery to stores. There was no other way to do it. It was brute, stupid, back-breaking work. In the short time I was employed there, a matter of several weeks, I don’t believe I ever heard anybody complain about it.

The workers were mostly Hispanics—Mexicans, Columbians, Puerto Ricans—and Chinese, many of whom had little practical grasp of English. The Chinese worked hard and were generally, preposterously, cheerful. At lunch time, they would go outside and sit in a tight circle on empty crates, chatter among themselves and eat unrecognizable foods from paper bags. The Hispanics worked just as hard, were less cheerful, and were much more likely to go off to lunch and not come back. Especially on Tuesday, which was payday.

After a short time I came to realize that if you walked out to the street in front of the warehouse, you could turn left, then right up a cross street and find a 24-hour diner and takeout deli. Or you could go out to the street, turn right, and walk two blocks over and find a 24-hour bar called, I think, El Corazon. The Heart. Or Sweetheart. One more block up, on the main street through Perth Amboy’s warehouse district, there was a check-cashing storefront, one of those establishments that would cash payroll checks for a “processing fee.”

I also quickly learned that the goal each day was to get as many trucks emptied, bays cleared, and containers switched as possible before lunch, because the container switcher, a sour, sullen little gargoyle of some Eastern European descent, would be relatively sober before lunch and drunk as a monkey after lunch. I once watched him completely miss a truck bay, jam two trailers together lengthwise, locking the ribs along the sides of the containers, and then rock back and forth, hard forward and hard back, refusing to give up, until he had peeled open one of the containers like a sardine can.

If the switcher didn’t line up the rear of the container with the truck bay correctly, it was very hard for me to forklift loaded pallets out of the container. Frankly, it was very hard to operate the forklift under the best of circumstances. The forklift was a tall, narrow, top-heavy machine with a high seat and a powerful engine that bucked alarmingly between its only two gears (forward and reverse) and constantly farted enormous volumes of carbon monoxide. If you hesitated or missed the up-over-and-up gearshift motion necessary to go from neutral to forward, you were very likely to jerk backwards at a good rate of speed.

The bathroom at Amalgamated Something & Co was another hazard. It was the most disgusting room I have ever encountered in my life. The warehouse had been in operation for a few months when I arrived there, and the bathroom had quite clearly never been cleaned even once in all that time. The company simply never employed anyone to do it. The sinks, the toilets, the urinals, the floor, the ceiling, everything, were covered in a thick film of grayish-yellowish grime. The toilets were virtually useless, and as the urinals failed, the men simply starting pissing in the sinks. The reek of that room defied description.

In the week before I drove the forklift through a wall at the back of the warehouse, I was using a bathroom at a Burger King out on the main road. The thirty minutes allotted for lunch was just enough time to go out to my car, drive to the Burger King, use the bathroom, purchase a large soda to go with the sandwich I’d brought from home, and return to the warehouse. It wasn’t the best of arrangements (and the Burger King bathroom was no pleasant experience either), but it was the least horrible alternative at hand. And then I drove the forklift through the wall.

It was at the end of a long day, most of the hourlies had already left, and I was forklifting loaded pallets out to trucks waiting at the outgoing bays. I was in a tight corner, trying to get the prongs of the lift centered under a heavy pallet. The pallet was broken and I was having a hard time lifting it in a way that would distribute the load equally. So I was going forward, backward, forward, backward, until I mishandled the gearshift, missed the forward, and zipped back several feet, plowing into the sheetrock wall behind me.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Usually I’d knock over a pallet behind me or bounce off a support beam, with predictable neck-snapping, bone-jarring consequences. Once, I’d hit nothing at all and had traveled backwards a good twenty feet, almost upending the damned thing on myself. This time, however, I’d buckled an entire section of sheetrock four or five feet in width. I disengaged the machine from the wall, shut it off, and dismounted to discover that I had punched a portal into another room.

It was dark in there, but not so dark that I couldn’t distinguish some kind of big empty room beyond. The room was dimly lit by daylight falling through a row of transom windows near the ceiling in the wall opposite the one I’d just breached. I squeezed through the ragged hole and found myself standing in some kind of office. Several desks were pushed together in the center of the floor and a row of filing cabinets occupied the left-hand wall. The floor was covered with discarded office litter. Order forms, sales records, brochures, expense forms. I picked one up and then another and another. I never found one dated more recently than 1968. I was in the office of a long-defunct distributor of office equipment, walled off and forgotten as many as seventeen years before.

Oh, look, I thought, my new break room. I pulled up a straightbacked wooden chair and sat down, surveying my surroundings. And then I leaped back up again. There was a door in the back right corner of the room. The simple, unadorned wooden door probably gave onto a closet, I thought. Unless it didn’t.

I went to the door, turned the knob, and pushed it open. I was looking at a bathroom. A musty, dusty bathroom, to be sure, but a bathroom with a toilet and sink nonetheless. I reached over to the sink and twisted a spigot. Nothing. The toilet was dry and produced only a rattle and thump of the chain and flapper valve when I tugged the handle. There was a towel dispenser—one of the old-style, revolving cloth models—on the wall. I flicked the light switch. Nothing again.

I got down on one knee and peered beneath the toilet tank. There, near the wall, was the shut-off valve for the toilet water. What were the chances? Slim and none, I thought. I reached down and twisted the valve. The tank began to fill, just as if someone had turned off the water a few hours before instead of seventeen years ago. The water was bright orange, but even that corrected itself after a few flushes. I had a toilet and a sink and a big old breakroom in which to catch up on my reading. To this day, I still associate Emma and Pride and Prejudice with the weak winter daylight falling through those transoms and the crisp, sharp smell of decaying office paperwork.

Hiding my secret lair was easy enough. I simply left a full pallet of boxes in front of the hole in the wall every day. I was careful, at first, to slip away unnoticed, but I soon came to realize that no one much cared what I was doing over breaks and lunches. As the weeks went by, fewer and fewer trucks arrived at the warehouse and more and more of the warehouse floor was emptied as trucks carried away much of the remaining outgoing merchandise. Many of the hourlies were let go, or simply not replaced after they disappeared. In the second week of December, the jig was essentially up. The rows upon rows of laden pallets had been reduced to an island of maybe one hundred pallets clustered around the outgoing truck bays. I no longer had enough cover to slip away to the back of the warehouse unseen. Surely, I thought, someone in the mysterious main office, high above the warehouse floor, must be watching me escape. Still, though, I couldn’t resist slipping away, and no one bothered with me.

The next week, I found out why. On Monday, two weeks before Christmas, I arrived at the warehouse to find we were all out of a job. The front gate was chained and padlocked, and a cardboard sign was tucked into the chain links of the perimeter fence. The sign didn’t offer a lot of explanation. It said, simply, CLOSED.

Amalgamated Whatever & Co. had closed up shop and taken our last week’s paychecks with them. My few remaining co-workers didn’t seem all that surprised or angry at this turn of events. They milled around the entrance for a bit and then started drifting away to the diner up the street, the bar the other way, and the street corners of Perth Amboy. I waited a full hour or so, slouched against the fence, my nose in a copy of the Collected Thoreau or A Tale of Two Cities, and then I gave up, too. I had eight hours to kill before my usual 5pm-to-10pm shift at UPS.

I still dream of that secret break room, sometimes.

End, Part Two of Two

Related: Warehouse Days And Nights, Part One

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