Hard Labor

Ex-cons and ex-housewives. The highly trained and the unskilled. The nice, the nasty, and the downright crazy. All kinds of people come to the day-labor hiring hall, but they all come for the same thing.

"I know Clinton's created 14 million jobs. My brother's got four of them."

--Al Franken

It's quarter to 6 on a dark winter morning along University Avenue. A crowd is gathering at a sparse storefront office. Smokers huddle outside, blowing and stamping in the cold. Inside, two dozen people bunch up on five bare benches in a waiting room that faces a 7-foot plaster wall.

The 16A stops at the corner. A half dozen people get off, nod to the smokers, and head inside the storefront. They take a clipboard from the top of the wall, sign in on a tally sheet, and put the clipboard back on the wall; then they either find a place on the benches, stand along the side walls, or join the smokers outside.

The clipboard disappears behind the wall. Mary peers over the wall into the room and spots some of the newcomers.

"Where were you yesterday, Willie?"

"I had business."

"Don't we all."

Mary puts the clipboard down and sinks out of sight at her desk on a platform behind the wall. Conversation and catnaps resume on the benches among men and women in four or five colors, three or so languages, and all ages between 18 and 63. Some are skilled workers, some could be, others never will be. Some have habits or attitudes that don't wear well. Some are poverty veterans, others novices. All have come for work this morning. This is a day-labor hiring hall.

You won't read people's real names in this story and race is pretty much a side issue; being from Louisiana or Detroit carries as much, sometimes more weight, as the color of your skin. And it doesn't make much difference who you think you are. You walked into the same door as everybody else, and it wasn't because you just won the lottery.

All the same, nobody takes disrespect lightly. If you know somebody you make contact, otherwise you keep to yourself. Men who do rough work on the barges or scrap yards tend to cluster. So do women who share some history, or anybody who shares a language. Chicago people always seem to find some mutual link.

Behind the wall, Mary juggles the day's job list and her knowledge of who's made an appearance today. The phone rings. "What's the matter with you, for chrissake. You're late. Don't bother coming in." Bang goes the phone.

Mary looms again like a demon preacher. "Okay, listen up." She calls out five names. "You're riding with Charlie to Ajax Manufacturing. Now get going." The pit shuffles and sorts itself out. That crew leaves. Another crew is named. Then another. The good job tickets are leaving. Everybody knows it.

All the jobs so far are for light manual labor. Now comes manhandling 100-pound bags of granulated sugar that coat you until you become a sweaty bonbon. Or making pallets in noise that turns you into a stunned robot that smells like a soggy basswood log. Or tearing gas tanks off cars to be crushed and coming home a toxic mud ball.

Mary holds off the worst jobs until the end, when those remaining shout their need and willingness. That's when jobs call for cleaning out acid-coated barrels with work gloves already full of holes.

Then it's over. Those left in the pit are simply unlucky. Either that or newcomers who haven't served enough time on the benches, or old-timers who have earned too many DNRs--notations on job tickets that stand for "Do Not Return." Some of the losers rage and storm out into the streets. Others remain on the benches hoping for a last-minute call. A few stare empty-eyed at the wall.

Today I'm working second shift, 4:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. I will drive five people 38 miles north to an aluminum-sided warehouse that shares a freeway exit with a trailer park, a gas station, and a grocery. We've been working here all week, standing at conveyor belts packing Barbie dolls, Beanie Baby knockoffs, or Mr. Potato Heads made in China to send to Americans who mailed box tops to General Mills.

As a packager, wherever you are sent or whatever you handle, you can count on three things. You will be fully trained in two minutes, tops. The job will usually involve taking items from big boxes and putting combinations of them into little boxes. And nearly all the items will have been made in China, elsewhere in Asia, or in Mexico.

Four people will have handled each item during its global journey. The first assembled the item. The second packed it into cartons that went into containers to be transported around the globe by sea and rail. At the destination warehouse I open a carton, grab the item, and pack it into a mailing box. Finally, you or somebody else who spotted the item on, say, a cereal box, closes the cycle.

Today our packing line begins with Alonzo and two others who grab pieces of die-cut cardboard from a pallet. They bend the folds into a box, tape the bottom, and place the result on a conveyor belt. Alice and Leo stand on either side of the conveyor with piles of stuffed honeybees and put one in each empty box. Then come Ivor and Willie who cram stuffed baker dolls into the boxes.

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