Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Shipping News

The other day, I thought of something that happened decades ago.  I was 18 and a college Freshman, working a minimum wage job for barely a dollar an hour.  Summer...Southern air conditioning and bottom of the totem pole.  The distributorship for Sony tape recorders had recently opened a plant in my home town of Sun Valley.  Cassettes were just coming within reach, video tape was a few years away, but reel to reel stereo recorders were the thing and this business was growing daily.
I packed small electronic parts and weighed them for either United Parcel or the U.S. Postal Service.  I ran errands which could be anything from picking up food orders for the executives when they worked overtime to taking their Cadillacs to be washed and gassed.
By 4:00 in the afternoon we'd load a VW van and whoever was working with me that day and I would take a truckload of small parcels to the post office.  Clean up and one last interoffice mail delivery and that was the day.
I got two 10 min. breaks and a 40 min. lunch break daily.  Sometimes during those breaks I'd wander over to the shipping department where guys loaded big semis with tape recorders for orders that included large department stores or electronics retailers.  Lots of heavy lifting there.  A silver-steel conveyor belt with what looked like roller skate wheels often led into an immense truck backed up to the shipping dock.  The shipping guys were tough.  They worked hard and at the end of each day, most went across the street to a small bar for a few beers before going home and doing it all over again.  Sometimes they fought, sometimes they joked with one another, sometimes they sat with me and talked about baseball, or politics, or what assholes the owners of the company were.

I learned how to swear in Spanish from those breaks.  I saw first hand how most of those guys were trapped in a situation where their labor, non-unionized, was all that they had and there was really no room for discussion of their conditions or rate of pay.  The trucks rolled in and out.  Recorder parts were transformed into units and large lots rolled out.  A couple of beers and it started all over again until one day someone didn't return and someone else was hired.
That's where I met Charlie.  Charlie worked on the shipping dock.  Just one look and you knew immediately here was a guy with a back story.  About 55 or 60, Charlie had been well-built.  His biceps were still outstanding, but when he took off his shirt, not uncommon during the hot afternoons, you could see that the elasticity of his skin was beginning to diminish.  Charlie had been a stunt man in Hollywood.  One of the guys called Gypsy had told me that at one time he'd done very well playing a heavy in films of the 40s.  It was evident; he'd had the body of a body builder.
This was before Arnold's "Pumping Iron."  Charlie was more in the mold of Charles Atlas.  In fact, one day Charlie told me that he'd prefer I use his whole name, Charles Treadwell.
Over the months from June until October, we talked about all manner of things.  Charles was fascinated that I was taking philosophy in college.  When I'd show up for an afternoon shift he was often eager to ask me what philosopher I was currently studying.  From the Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and Heraclitus, to Kant and Shopenour, Charles was enthralled.  One day I happened to mention Spinoza, saying that he called emotions "confused ideas."
The weeks turned into months and the guys in shipping came and went.  One day, I wandered back to the shipping dock after running an errand.  Dickie, the leader of the men there ran up to me and asked if I'd seen Charlie.  "Not yet," I replied.

 "He's been asking about you all day, wants to show you something."
I looked around but couldn't find him so I went back to the mail room.  Two hours later, on my last break of the day I made my way over to shipping.  There was a huge semi backed up and a gang of guys, Charles included, working feverishly.  I didn't want to disturb them so I decided to creep closer hugging the wall.  The conveyor belt was rolling full tilt.  A portable stairway on wheels was just off to the side.  That's where the foreman perched with his clipboard as the units entered the truck. As I neared this scene I could see some letters painted on the side of the stairway.  In dripping royal blue letters I read, "Emotions are but confused ideas"

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