In the summer of my sophomore year in college, I worked in a canning factory. I’d like to say I was working undercover for the ACLU on graveyard shift employee abuse, or for ‘Nation’ on a Marxist writing assignment to inquire why so many Polish women worked the worst hours on a graveyard shift.
The truth was I needed money. I needed to work sixteen hours a day to keep a roof over my head. I needed forty hours at night, something sweeping up the floor at a pizza parlour and washing tables that reeked of spilled beer could not provide, though a few pieces of cold pizza were a good perk.
Now when I say Polish women, I don’t want you to think these are like World War II women, with economic poverty written like a shawl over their bony bodies, their cheeks sunken, eyes circled by darkness.
These women were chunky and large. When they sat at the conveyor, I noticed two things very quickly. First, how much of a person could hang over a stool. Second, they picked faster than ants on the eye of a dead bird.
When I reported for work the first night, they laughed at seeing a young skinny man, and spoke Polish about me, and laughed some more. I didn’t know I had to wear a hair net, and at first refused. But they showed me the pictures of the rules, no text, and I succumbed. I thought that I would look dumb.
When I got on the line, I acted dumb. The women had me at the first station, the station meant to pick up the grossest elements of peas, the smush and the bush debris, conveyed toward the steam bath. Basically, this was peas without pods, but with plenty of pod and a little bit of bush left on the conveyor belt.
I discovered that my hands were not actually connected to anything I looked at, missing everything that I should have picked and crushing a great number of peas in the process. Hand-eye coordination proved the lack thereof.
All of the women loved my beard for good reason. They all had warts with hairs coming out of them or faint incomplete moustaches, and in one case, a thick set of sideburns.
The aroma of peas, which I had always liked, turned in two hours to the odour of garden compost. And when I went outside on break, the fresh air turned the wretched smell into just plain retching. The ladies cackled. Apparently, it happened to everyone new. Not comforting information, but at least it mitigated my humiliation.
My Dad told me that up north he had worked for a short time at a pea factory that had Luftwaffe officers from a German POW camp. The officers loved northern Wisconsin, loved the imprisonment, and many would relocate to Wisconsin after the war. Except for one prisoner. They found him shortly before the war ended, a skeleton stuck to the bottom of a steam vat. Often that image would come to mind when my legs tired at the end of the shift, and it helped steady me.
We are what we do, I told myself. This was my meaning, my obdurate intrusion into the world, one pea at a time. This was Being. All else – books, ideas, rhetoric, was nothingness. The working class was not better off in Russia. It sucked there. Power was power everywhere. It didn’t matter if a corporate board owned the canning factory or a communal board. Pea jobs sucked. Victory was keeping vomit off your shoes.