Monday, October 06, 2008

Sometimes the Little Things are Too Big.

Sometimes in this life, not often, but sometimes, we are pleased or interested in strange things. Like this morning, for instance, while I was putting on my Clark Kent get up, when I took notice of how well I tied my tie. Now, I've been tying a piece of cloth around my neck since I was 6 or so, and in that time I've been guilty of a few half assed half windsors, but this one... it was magnificent. I just remarked to Inky the other day how amazing Brian Williams' tie looked on the NBC Nightly News, and I think this one would have gone toe to toe with Brian's any day. The knot was perfectly symmetrical. The length was just right, with the point resting just above my belt, and perhaps most importantly the folds of the cloth exiting the knot formed a perfect teardrop. Quite simply, it was the Mona Lisa of neckties. I was really happy with my handy work, which in turn, made me sad at the state of my life. We all have something like this in our lives, like granite counter tops for XL, or putting bills in the right order for Inky. I've certainly had this feeling before.

When I was in college I spent my summers working in a can factory. It meant long hours, in 120 degree heat and ridiculously monotonous work, but I also made more than $30 an hour to do it, so I had 15,000 reasons a summer to put up with it all. It was oddly enjoyable work, despite the tedium and physical discomfort, in that it was perfectly straightforward. My job was to stack the cans on pallets, using a very cool, yet simple piece of equipment. Along the way I had to check the cans for defects, and in the end, I was really good at it. Maybe it was because I was 20 and in the best shape of my life, or maybe it was because I hadn't been beeten down by 20 years of work, but I would run up and down the line, pulling bad cans from the conveyor belt and shooting them into the recycling hopper like a basketball. When there was a "blank" or a missing can in the pattern, we had to replace them. This was accomplished by simply putting a can in the hole if it was close to you, or by using a long stick to reach a void on the far side. I excelled at this task, often doing three and four at a time. In the second and third summers, I graduated to using the stick behind my back with my left arm while placing cans with my right.

In short, I was the Michael Jordan of can palletizing. But, I kept telling myself that I could never be a lifer in that place like so many of the guys I worked with. I was in College for a good reason, and I had better, more rewarding days ahead. All that aside, I bought-in to my work more in those three summers then I ever have at a job since, and that was all driven home for me in my last summer there.

During the summer of '97, I worked the night shift from 6 PM to 6 AM, four days a week. In that year the company I worked for was contracted by Del Monte foods to make a new can that would better show of their product, namely, canned tomatoes. To that end, someone, either at Del Monte or my employer thought: "hey, why not coat the inside of the can with white rather than clear or gray, to make the red of the tomato really jump out." And that's what we did.

We ran the first batch of test cans on one of my shifts, and since I was the rock star summer worker, the Foreman put me on the QC for the job. I stood with him in front of the huge oven that sealed the freshly painted cans. As the first dozen or so began to trickle out, it was like nothing either of us had ever seen before, and he had been on the job 30 plus years. I held one up and shook my head with a whistle, saying: "Now that's a pretty can" to which he responded, "OK Tony, I think it's time for you to be getting back to College, you've been here too long."

Sometimes, while looking at the whisper marks on the bottom of Progresso Soup cans to tell if they were made on my old line, at my old plant, I wonder if he was right.


1 comment:

XL said...

Sounds like you're where I was last week. I'll say it again, one of us has to hit the lottery...