Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chapter Three: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope



Call me cruel, or maybe a little vindictive but I left the Pancake Palace emotionally buoyant after throwing a huge monkey wrench into my ex-wife's social standing. Yes, her new hunky hubby's past relationships with all manner of Quincy women, both single and married, had long been one of those small town open secrets. But my mentioning it loudly, and in a very public place was just a bit too much for folks to ignore. And like blood dropped into water filled with hungry sharks, everyone within hearing range of my words would forego social convention and immediately begin blabbing to others. I chuckled to myself as I drove towards my employer wondering just how in the hell I could top that performance.

Anyone driving by the Tightlock factory would be correct in thinking the business was long past its prime. The color of the huge main building housing the office folks up front and factory in the rear had long since faded to a sick, pale yellow from years of neglect. Every year the management and senior bosses have a little corporate pep rally where they break out the stale vending machine snacks, weak iced tea, and gifts like beer cozies and actually brag about how not painting the building was a bold cost saving measure. That having the building repainted the original dark beige just wasn't cost effective.

The same could be said for the grass in front of the building since the duties of mowing had been turned over to the maintenance people. Back when those pep rallies meant something everyone would go outside for the annual company picnic, a truly grand affair that the company catered with steaks, BBQ chicken, along with the normal burgers and hot dogs. Afterwards with everyone still in good moods and about to fall to the ground unconscious from overeating, both management and the lowly hourly types would have a group picture taken on the professionally manicured grounds. Now, management refuses to even mention those picnics and as for the grass, there are so many thin and outright bare spots from lack of proper care the group pictures are taken inside the plant.

Then there were the flags. If anything should upset the fiercely patriotic and proudly conservative men and women of Quincy, South Carolina you would think it would be the condition of the flags flying on the property. Old Glory had long since faded past the point it was presentable and was showing visible fraying on the ends. The state flag of South Carolina was in a similar condition but where as the palmetto tree and crescent moon were still white, the field of blue they were on had become more purple. Curiously enough though, no one ever noticed that the Tightlock corporate banner was always replaced whenever weathering began to take a toil on its appearance.

But for me personally it was the parking lot that suggested far more about the true condition of the place that I had worked since graduating from the local community college with my technical degree. When Tightlock first opened it employed well over a thousand people. Back then the parking lot was so full with the cars of employees that management eventually had to assign spaces to prevent confusion. Now with the work force around two hundred people and with everyone naturally parking close to the plant entrance huge cracks in the asphalt of the unused sections have appeared. These cracks would look like sinister, monster-like vanes if it wasn't for the grass and even small saplings now growing from them. I tend to think of it as Life saying “screw you” to mankind and its attempt to smother the planet.

I actually got in trouble with management once when I quipped to the wrong person that if the Tightlock Corporate suits wanted to earn extra money they should rent out the factory campus to movie producers looking for some dystopic wasteland. A few days later my supervisor, an otherwise decent guy named Bill Phillips, pulled me aside and gave one of those standard lectures taught at corporate leadership development seminars telling me that such an attitude didn't show the proper teamwork skills. Bill was obviously just going through the required motions, to the point he slightly rolled his own eyes reciting official policy on how keeping the plant open required everyone to be all motivated and upbeat. And that everyone should refrain from saying or thinking anything that might undermine that philosophy.

Because I liked and respected Bill, I wholeheartedly agreed so I wouldn't cause him anymore issues. But I walked away from the episode convinced that a similar occurrence involving religion happening a few hundred years in the past would have meant a trip down into a dark section of a castle and me then becoming acquainted with a red hot piece of metal.

Even though I stopped for breakfast, I pulled into the Tightlock employee parking lot for the last time a few minutes before the 7:00am shift change. A few employees running late caught sight of me in my civvies walking towards the entrance both the production and maintenance folks used. I could tell from the confused but experienced look on their faces that they instinctively understood something different was going to happen. In a place that literally hadn't change in decades anything out of the ordinary was instantly noticed.

“Hey Jason,” one of the ladies from quality control whose name I could never remember yelled out. “You maintenance guys change uniforms?” She asked about my Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals.

I just waved and followed her inside. For the last time, I took a deep breath taking in all the scents associated with the factory like burned plastic, old hydraulic oil, sweat, and unfortunately despair.

Despite it all, Tightlock Corporation was once a fantastic place to work. Makers of all manner of plastic storage containers from large residential trash cans to something no bigger than a shot glass. To get hired on there in its Golden Age meant that a guy would make enough money to get married, eventually buy a house, and begin the long slow slog to a comfortable retirement. For a woman Tightlock was one of the few places that paid them equally and allowed them just as much opportunity as a man, even if they were single. Historically, healthcare benefits were so good that if a spouse or child took gravely ill they didn't have to worry about going bankrupt. All that changed when Tightlock got the exclusive contract to supply Megamart with all types of plastic storage containers.

Anyone who works in manufacturing is well acquainted with the boom and bust cycles associated with the industry. One month things can be balls to the wall, all vacations and off time canceled, and mandatory overtime. Have a contract fall though and the next month you can have some productions lines shut down and managers freaking out if someone accidentally stays five minutes over their twelve hour shift. If the business doesn't recover the following month that's when things can get really bad with reduced hours, if the workers are lucky, and if they're not, it means layoffs.

So everyone with Tightlock thought they had entered the promise land when word about the Megamart contract went public. Thousands of giant stores across the country should have meant a steady production level. Steady production levels meant no more boom and bust cycles with workers juggling the normal demands of their families and the requirements of their jobs. But just as quickly as the level of optimism reached orbit, it came crashing down as the details became known.

The first was that Megamart had let it be know that buying from an American company was just a ruse so that the down home suckers in flyover country would think they gave a damn about them. Megamart was upfront to the Tightlock corporate suits in saying that it would be more cost effective for them to buy from a country overseas where the workers were paid cents on the dollar. Public perception and the whining by certain politicians who controlled their ample federal tax breaks were the only things forcing them to “Buy American.” That being said, Megamart wouldn't think of letting their own profits take a hit by having any of their suppliers charge them anything more than the absolute minimum. What that meant for the workers at Tightlock were an immediate reductions in benefits, a smaller work force, longer hours, and no pay raises. Overnight Tightlock went from one of the best companies to work, to a semi-police state with disturbing cultist overtones.

In what is sure to amaze future historians and social scientists who examine human behavior the workers of Tightlock, along with thousands of other factory employees across the country during the same time period, did not live up to the living in the land of the free and home of the brave creed. Instead of getting really pissed off at what amounted to the reinstatement of draconian working conditions reminiscent of the worst aspects of the early industrial age, they meekly bowed their heads and accepted the situation. Even worse, in what amounted to a form of Stockholm Syndrome some openly embraced their serf-like state and desired nothing but to make their overlords happy, even at the expense of their own lives and family.

Of course, the question as to why anyone stays at such jobs is unfortunately easy to answer. Sidestepping the abstract fact humans love stability, on a personal level it's easier for modern working class Americans to adapt to harsh conditions than to possibly risk bankruptcy and homelessness by searching for a new job with a totally unknown future. When I was first hired onto Tightlock, the Golden Age had just ended but there was still the hope that things might someday return to their original glory. While hope is a beautiful thing, it is a sad fact of life that it can grow stale and become an addicting delusion.

The reason I stayed boiled down to the fact that when it became apparent the situation at Tightlock was only going to get worse Emily and I had been married for a couple of years with our first son, Wilson, a toddler. If I had lived in a different state with bigger cities and more opportunity, I might have risked it and taken a new job with an uncertain future. But like far too many other people, I played it safe and stayed with a company only a fool would believe wouldn't eventually padlock the doors and reopen in a country that had something a little closer to actual slave labor.

Luckily, all that worrying and uncertainty was now behind me. And while I had wrecked my personal life showing a combination of fear and unrequited dedication that had ultimately cost me my family, I could give another soul a chance to avoid my fate.

Sure enough, as I walked further inside the factory I saw the night shift people pooling around the time clock while their daytime counterparts were quickly swiping their ID cards through the device and rushing off to their work stations. The night shift folks naturally looked tired while their counterparts showed the standard grim determination to get through another day. It was then that I spotted Michael Carter.

“Hey Mikey,” I said walking up to the kid. “You got a minute, need to talk with about something important.”

“Sure,” he responded a little puzzled while stepping out of the line leading to the time clock.

“What are you doing around three o'clock this afternoon? If it doesn't involve saving a life or inventing something akin to the light bulb you need to meet with me.”

“Hell Jason, you know the drill at three I'll be trying to sleep.” Mikey said slightly irritated as anyone would be after working a twelve hour shift.

“Listen, I can't say anything inside the plant but you're going to have to trust me here. If you meet me in the Credit Union parking lot at three you won't worry about the sleep you're missing.” I told him just as the seven o'clock horn sounded inside the plant.

Mikey didn't say anything else but only nodded before walking back towards the time clock an exit.

***

Maybe I was just getting use to my new situation, but I walked into the office section of the plant feeling a confidence that seemed limitless. Stepping through the door I glanced over to my right and saw what looked like an endless number of cubicles that stretched down the open office area. It occurred to me at that moment that in many ways the scores of unused cubicles were more depressing than the slower dying production area. However, I was only concerned with the section that was actually used by the Human Resources lady, Jill Miller.

I found her settling into her uniquely decorate cubicle with a cup of coffee. “Hello Jill,” I said feeling far too chipper for my own good taking notice of the latest plant she had brought to work. Jill's cubicle looked less than an office work space dealing with personnel and more like a small indoor jungle.

“Jason,” she responded, “I see here you called in sick last night. What was that about and did you go see a doctor and get an excuse?”

Jill was another victim of the crappy economic trends affecting the working class. Her situation made worse by a shit for brains husband who ran out on her and their baby daughter about the same time Emily and I were divorced. Jill didn't have the time to mope and become a semi-hermit like me. Jill had a daughter to cloth and feed which she went about with the determination of a mother bear naturally out to protect her offspring. Already working at Tightlock, she quickly became a master at office politics and stabbing people in the back not just to protect her job but move up the available ladder of advancement. It wasn't just the factory workers that were cut as the plastic container business went to shit, the office boys and girls suffered worse in some ways, all those empty cubicles being a testament to that fact.

The only problem though was that those actions took a toll on Jill's soul. Cold and calculating to the extreme, absolutely no one working for Tightlock wanted to get on her bad side. In fact, even though I had forty-two million sitting in the bank, I found myself more than a little nervous just getting ready to tell the woman I was quitting.

“I'm sorry Jill, I don't need an excuse because as of this very minute I am quitting my job.” I said fishing the ring with all the keys I kept related to the factory out of my left pant's pocket. Jill just stared at me as I laid the keys on her desk followed by the fancy ID/timecard card I wore around my neck.

“This is quite sudden,” was all she could say before turning to her computer and started typing. “You won the lottery didn't you, Jason?” She said in an offhand manner that could have either been her attempt at humor or a straight out insight worthy of a cop.

I just nervously laughed with the intention of giving here the same spiel I told my ex-wife at the Pancake Palace about the job on the island in the Pacific.

“I really don't care Jason,” she said while typing on her keyboard. “So save whatever story you made up for the suckers. I'm actually happy for you but one word of advice. Don't let the money go to your head, you could easily wind up broke and coming back here which would be a fate worse than death.”

Whatever Jill's faults she didn't really know me, except as one of the night shift maintenance bozos and in less than a minute she had correctly guessed the situation. What I found really curious though was that Jill didn't pull some stunt trying to weasel a monetary prize out of me for figuring out the truth. Call me slow, but at that moment I realized the assumption that Jill was just a remorseless bitch was totally wrong. Yes, she was still a victim of a dying industry and way of life but instead of retreating into a form of hopelessness, she had learned to play the game most men think reserved for themselves.

Realizing all this, an idea began forming in my head. I opened my mouth to say something but Jill turned away from her computer and looked at me with eyes that made it instantly clear to me she was far smarter than I could comprehend.

“What are you going to do, offer me some of your money because you feel sorry for me?” Jill said about to laugh. “You think I haven't already figured several courses of action when this place is finally closed. Don't insult me Jason, I've lived through more shit that you could possibly understand.

“Truthfully Jason,” she continued handing me a sheet of paper from her printer confirming I was free and clear of anything to do with Tightlock Corporation. “Up until this very moment if anyone working for this company needed to be felt sorry for, it was your dumb ass. Just go, save whatever stunt your little mind had conceived as a parting gift for the company for another time.”

Feeling both chastised and enlightened, I walked out of the building that up until last Monday had dominated my life, got in my truck and drove away without looking back. I had a couple of more errands to run, then have that talk with Mikey but after that I would be hitting the road.

5 comments:

Harry Hamid said...

Another great chapter.

I think there comes an age at which people can sort of see how things are going to ride out for them. I saw it in my dad, right around the time he started buying lottery tickets, actually. He knew only dumb, random luck would change the path his life was on.

It didn't happen.

This captures that well, and the company history is right on. Great stuff.

Jimmy said...

You have a winner here, I love the way that you introduce and develop the characters, Jill came across calculating and cunning like everyone in that exact position have grown to be, and Mikey just his brief appearance makes him a likable character so far.

Jason has the potential for being a complete series of books in my opinion. Again nice job with this chapter also.

The Bug said...

We used to buy lottery tickets every week while we lived in Ohio. Sometimes we missed a week or two, but I’d say we bought a ticket every week for nearly 15 years at least. How much money is that? I don’t want to know! Now we talk about it, but we don’t have the desperate desire for an influx of cash that we had in Ohio.

I’m still really enjoying the story!

Beach Bum said...

Harry: The Tightlock backstory is actually quite true. The late Joe Bageant wrote about how a certain real life version of Megamart forced a plastic storage container company to screw over their workers because the retail giant would in no way cut into their profits by allowing a supplier to properly pay their employees.

As far as the lottery goes, I myself occasionally buy a ticket with multiple draws.

Jimmy: Yeah, I felt I had to tone down my description of Jill. Circumstances can easily make us into monsters.

The Bug: I see lottery tickets as more of a stress reliever and day dream material. Given the level of crap we all have to endure these days, a little potential for a sudden change in our lifestyles can't hurt.

Teresa said...

Great read....waiting for next chapter!