This chapter look at my time in a glass factory. It shows the the frustration of trying to make a production quota on a meaningless job while better qualified colleagues were getting laid-off just in time for Christmas. After slashing my wrists on a double-paned company window, I began my life as a traveler.
There was a specific fork in the road that, if I only turned right when I came to it, I might have become domesticated house owner rather than a migrating rubber tramp. I was 21 years old and living in my own apartment. For the first time, I did not have to deal with roommates. I invested in my rental: buying kitchenware, painting the bedroom, laying linoleum in the bathroom, and purchasing curtains. I even bought spare light bulbs and a back up supply of batteries. I did not own a suitcase or portable supplies. I meant to stay put for a while. I even had pet cats which I spoiled like children. They were the first and only pets I have ever owned. I thought about long term goals. I had a wayward lesbian girlfriend. I boasted a nice mullet hairstyle. Life was good.
This path of upward mobility began as a seasonal construction job. My friend Da-ru persuaded me to apply for this new job before he got fired for getting drunk on Jack Spaniel® whiskey and not showing up for shift. I was interviewed by a man called “The Pope” who was missing a handful of front teeth. I knew I could trust him even though his bad habit of spitting chewing tobacco directly onto the floor might have suggested otherwise. The Pope hired me to drive a tractor at an university construction site for $5 per hour. My job was to remove big rocks and garbage from a dirt pile, so that we could make fine soil for campus flower beds. I loaded dirt into a tractor and dumped it onto a huge conveyer belt, where coworkers would frantically fling garbage and stones towards a separate corner of the yard. At the end of the day I scooped the debris into the tractor and carried it away. I had my first full time schedule with eight hour shifts. As a bonus, I was able to experience college life vicariously through the students that worked in construction part time. For the most part, the students were lazy employees who studied on the job. Occasionally, some would hide and sleep in the bushes. However, I tolerated their slacking because we could talk about books and politics. This education by osmosis was a satisfying bonus to my job. I was content and felt that I had a decent future.
I quit this job, however, to climb up the social ladder. As my summer employment came to an end I left construction to enter a glass factory. A friend’s father had worked for a window manufacturing company for twenty years, ever since he immigrated from Germany, and he could recommend my hire. My second generation Germanic friend, Klaus, used his father’s connection to get me hired as an apprentice at the factory for $7 per hour. That was the best deal around for an uneducated, working class, male living in Salt Lake, Utah. I had fantasies about rolling naked on a mound of money, I had goals about buying a queen sized bed, and I had the desire to watch a bank account grow to a personal record of over $1,000. I imagined that I would no longer need to survive from paycheck to paycheck. My new career was working in a glass factory. My job title was “Satcher”. For those of you who don’t know what this is, look at the window nearest to you. There should be a piece of rubber between the glass and its frame. I am probably the one who wrapped that rubber around the glass and stuffed it into a frame.
Each morning my kind friend would pick me up for work on his motorcycle. The factory was located on the west side of town in an industrial section just past the railroad tracks. The people who lived in this area were either Hispanic, Black, or Asian. Salt Lake is split into two parts. The white people usually live east of Main Street, and they spread out toward the mountains depending on how wealthy they are. The richest perch their homes high on the Wasatch Mountain range, so they can look at us mice from above. The minority groups live on the west side in a flat plain that is a corral of highways and railroad tracks. My parents were raised on the west side. Although my maternal grandfather denied it, he was of Hispanic descent. He tried to melt in by refusing to speak Spanish and changing his family name to one that sounded more white. His family stock came as sheepherders. I even remember sheep in their backyard as a child. My grandfather dipped into agricultural labor on the side. He once sliced off several of his fingers while harvesting sugar beets for a local company. They made him walk to the hospital by himself. He died while I was young and I only remember him by his missing fingers. But, I digress.
Although we made windows the factory was built out of solid cement. The company refused to add windows to the factory because we might get distracted and stare outside too much. The sight of the blue sky might entice us into daydreaming. We were there to work. If we wanted sunlight we had to wait until the lunch bell rang, and then we could dash salivating for a look outside. In the meantime, we stood in the limited range of our work stations until we could leave. Since I had no seniority I could not select the radio station. I stood in the same spot for eight hours each day, listening to Country music, while I wrapped gray rubber straps along the side of windows, then pounded on a metal frame with a wooden hammer. In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like career material, but at the time I was eager to develop this skill.
The factory had a quota system. I had to satch 150 windows each shift. The problem was that I wasn’t any good at it. I had gaps and folds in my rubber wrap. My German friend could finish the task perfectly in seconds. I often coaxed my friend for tips about improving my work, so I wouldn’t get fired if for not making the quota. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend or his father by failing. Therefore, I would sneak defective products past the assembly line before my bosses found out. I found tricks like crushing the rubber so that it fit correctly or stuffing mistakes under the frame so they couldn’t be seen. I also improved my skills a little each day. Each work day was like a race. If I met my quota I loved my job and felt great accomplishment. If I failed to produce the goods, I would torment myself with my failure, and even dream at night of satching rubber around windows. When I finally developed to the point of 150 windows a day they raised my quota to 200. The manager hinted that I better reach this new quota since the company was planning a series of future layoffs.
The lay offs began to spread like a fungus during Christmas time, as I struggled to produce 200 windows per day. A few older men were given their final paycheck and let go without notice as they punched out their time card. They would vanish thereafter without a trace. At first the layoffs took place in other departments so we didn’t worry about it. But, each day the fungus spread further. Soon some of my colleagues lost their jobs. They had been around for years and were satching over 250 windows per day. I thought that I would be next to go for sure. In my mind I calculated how much money I needed to save in order to cover rent and heating bills through winter. I also had to save money for utilities, cat food, and Christmas presents. Instead of concentrating on my job I could only focus on my dire financial situation. For the first time, I began to sell recreational drugs to supplement my income. Other workers started ingesting speed or snorting crank to work faster. It was good business to supply panicking employees. These discreet transaction provided security in case I lost my job. The distraction of possible layoffs had its repercussion. I started busting glass in fear of not reaching my quota. I would hurry too fast and split a crack down the side of the window. If the boss was away I would hide the shattered merchandise in another room. I sliced fingers many times in effort to finish 200 windows. The frames and rubber satching were stained with my blood.
Still I was not released from work. In the reflections of cracked windows I could see bosses fire other employees. It was low profile, but you caught glimpses every now and then – like a grown man crying in the bathroom, like jokes about which disgruntled workers were most likely to “go postal” and bring guns to work to shoot everybody (an actual trend at federal post offices during this time). The factory was letting good workers go. They released staff that were much more talented than myself. Men with families – with several children – were dismissed during the month of Christmas. It didn’t seem right how they lost jobs while I remained. They had better skills than me. Eventually, I asked a few workers about this. I feared that I remained employed only because of my friend’s influence. A Hispanic employee at the factory, a former repossession worker, explained to me what was going on. He accurately predicted, “They will keep us because we only earn $7, while they will dismiss the older workers that earn $10. The company needs to please its stock holders by demonstrating end of the year profit”. He had seen it done many times before. The factory worried about taxes, inventory, and stock margins since the year was coming to its close. Labor is always the first thing to get trimmed. But, it was the senior employees with higher wages that were losing their jobs more quickly. The employees that worked for several years at the factory had been given gradual wage increases, so even with our mistakes rookies were considered more cost-efficient as low-paid trainees.
I felt a great deal of guilt with each round of lay offs. However, I needed money badly enough not to protest. I also had a sincere work ethic to produce my 200 window quota. I pushed myself harder each day. I would leave work with a hand full of gashes and bandaged fingers. I would pick glass and metal splinters out of my fingers and continue to work. Finally, one day an employee with seniority was let go at my work station, the one that had been placed in charge of training me. He was the one who controlled the radio. Rock and Roll played over the airwaves at work once again. I had a burst of energy. I pushed myself harder than ever before. I went back to work early from lunch break. I paid little attention to mistakes. Satching material was twisted and cut prematurely. Metal window frames had dents. Paint was scraped off around the corners. I didn’t care. The test was for me to reach my 200 quota for the first time. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Finally, with minutes left on the clock I slid my last window onto the work bench. I made my quota as the Dead Kennedy’s, “Holiday in Cambodia”, blared over the radio. The boss looked at my work briefly for a minute or two. She smiled in appreciation and informed me that starting tomorrow my quota would be 225. A bell rang in the factory to announce that the work day was over.
I never reached my quota of 225, in fact, afterward, I never satched more than 170 windows in one day. The next day I was trying to put a window together when a screw got caught on the window frame, which twisted my hand through the glass. It slit my wrist two inches vertically. It was one of those cuts in which you cover it and apply pressure immediately. I didn’t want to look at it. I raced to the bathroom for first aid. I could hear my boss shouting that I didn’t ask for permission to leave my work station. A tide of blood rose between my white fingers as my boss admonished me for not waiting until break. It was a bad wound that has since left a scar. I went back to work that same day. I never asked for workman compensation. I remained employed for another month, although I was much slower by then. I was afraid of the glass. I became certain that my employment would be lost in the imminent future. I didn’t care any more. The thought strongest on my mind was my grandfather’s missing fingers. I thought about them whenever I brushed against the bloody wound on my wrist.
When I eventually confessed my injury to the manager, I was delegated the task of window machine cleaner. In the factory there was a giant roller machine used to wash glass before turning them into double pane windows. It built up water deposits every now and then. My job was to climb into the jaws of the machine with a electric sander to remove mineral deposits and rust. The machine was like a dark horizontal closet. I needed a lantern to see inside. Now, for eight hours per day I scraped out the crusted white leftovers from the machine. It was rather peaceful resting in its jaws. It was dark and quiet. Once inside the tightly confined dark space of the machine I began to daydream about blue skies. It was easy for my mind to wander while clutched by the mandible of the machine. I imagined being crushed to death if the machine collapsed on me. I dwelled on being masticated and spit out of its cold metal jaws or coughed out of the belly of the beast. I thought about travel, about getting in a car and driving to another city. I wanted to live high in the mountains, even if I wasn’t wealthy enough to afford housing. I visualized a place of freedom, a strength in nature, maybe even a new opportunity for education. I knew this paradise by name. It’s called Wyoming. All I had to do was migrate. And that is how I became a traveling man.