Collars and jobs

Factory work. I went into it with really absurd expectations. Indirectly, I have experienced factory work throughout all of my life, but directly, I knew nothing of it up until last winter. My grandpa and my father both worked in factories—my father was a part-time assembly worker to help pay tuition and my grandpa was a full-time worker who spent long shifts earning the money to support his five children. 

Last winter, my dad decided the few odd jobs I do while off from college were not sufficient to help pay for Lawrence. In case you have not noticed, this school is freaking expensive. Of course he was right. 

I will admit when he “strongly suggested” that I work as a seasonal temp at a factory job, I was pretty surprised. My work experiences up until last winter consisted mainly of food service like waitressing and cooking and simple jobs like babysitting and tutoring. I thought of how tired my grandpa looked and the long hours he worked doing hard manual labor at his job, and I felt very intimidated. I could not picture myself leaving a job where I wore aprons with cheerful sunflowers on them and served fruit pancakes loaded with whipped cream to my regulars for a job in a warehouse. 

Before I started working at Broan, I had an image of factory workers as rough, tired folks who were sturdy and hardened by the kind of work they had to do. I pictured my workplace as a giant abandoned airplane hangar with various mechanical instruments and wires strewn about in a dingy and dimly lit cement tomb. There would be one giant assembly line upon which everyone would be intently focused as they constructed the various parts of the engine fans Broan makes. In the corner would be a surveyor, alert to anyone who might be slacking off, yelling out harsh reprimands. At the lunch break, everyone would stare sadly at their white bread with peanut butter and jelly and be almost too tired to eat their meager meals. 

Thankfully, this was not my experience while working at Broan. I walked in on my first day to a clean and brightly lit warehouse with visibly labeled sections where different workers did jobs ranging from simple assembly work to skilled jobs such as welding. There were assembly lines and we did have surveyors who helped make sure we were not slacking off, but they were not scary or overly harsh with their comments. The lunch break was a much-needed 30 minutes after over five hours of standing in exactly one spot, and it was filled with the chatter and bustle of any regular cafeteria. Unfortunately, I did not find that factory food was any better than the sad PB&J I had dreamed up. 

Working at Broan was an extremely eye-opening experience and I think one of the most important revelations I have had so far. I met multiple people on my first day who had various face tattoos and missing fingers, hands and especially toes. It’s a running joke at Broan that you can see how many years someone has worked there by counting how many toes they are missing. A good number of the workers were either ex-convicts or on parole. But I met many wonderful people there who were kind enough to share their life experiences with me, and I ended up finding some similarities between them and me. 

One man I met while at Broan was a welder who was easily over 6’3”, had a giant black beard, various tattoos and I believe, in total, seven fingers. He had gotten in yet another bar fight the week before I started and had injured his hand so badly that he could not go back to welding for at least two months. So, therefore, the supervisor put him on the easiest job: assembly line. He stuck out quite obviously from the short, middle-aged women who normally worked assembly. His welder friends often came by on breaks to tease him, which was quite amusing. I learned from him as we worked together that he had dropped out of high school due to a family death, then was forced into factory work because he needed money. He was engaged to a former Broan worker, but after finding out she had an affair with his friend, he went “off the deep end,” to put it in his words. He vandalized both her car and the car of his friend after drinking heavily and got pulled over and arrested when trying to leave. Since then, he has been struggling to stay off parole and out of jail. 

One thing he said stuck with me so strongly I can still quote him saying it. “Imagine waking up, let’s say, two hours before work. You are tired, but you need to eat so you get up, heat up some leftovers and sit in your empty living room watching the news. Then you go grab the mail, look at all the bills and curse a bit, shower and then it’s time for work. After work, you are so tired you go straight home and crash, just to wake up and do it all over again. This is your life. This is every single day of your life. Maybe on the weekends you drink to forget how shitty your life is, but you still have to wake up the next day for work, and now with a hangover. It never ends. There is no release, no joy in life.” 

He explained to me that once you have a criminal record, applying for jobs outside of the factory is almost impossible, not to mention throwing the lack of a high school diploma in the mix. His feeling of isolation, suffering and entrapment within a job and a lifestyle that he felt he could never leave left me greatly affected. He had to work in order to survive, but he did not feel like he was truly living. 

Another truly remarkable character I met at Broan was a woman I will call Kathy. She told me as we worked together how she raised two daughters on her own and got them into good colleges. When I asked how she could afford such expensive universities, she proudly stated that she works two other jobs outside of Broan as a gas station attendant and a substitute teacher. When I asked her when she sleeps, she stated she usually has about four hours every day after her teaching job ends to sleep in her car before her job starts at Broan as a second-shifter. This kind of extreme dedication of pushing yourself to the maximum every single day for the sake of others truly amazed me, until I remembered that was exactly what my grandpa did his entire life for my family. For me.

Factory jobs may not be glamorous and glitzy, but they certainly build character and teach a person to respect the world around them and the diverse and wonderful people they find within it.