Thursday, January 24, 2013

Episode VI: Package Handler

I was a runner for a law firm for a couple of years in my early twenties. It was the best job I ever had. I liked the people, and I loved that I could drive around by myself all day long listening to whatever I wanted to listen to, visiting new places and new people every day. Unfortunately, it didn't pay so well, so I had to move on, but this post isn't about my runner job.

I spent a year as a corporate paralegal for a small pharmaceutical start-up, which I'm still not entirely sure was a legitimate business. It mostly consisted of menial tasks and getting talked down to by people who underestimated my intelligence and thought it was cute that I was a Mormon and didn't drink alcohol. I did make a couple of good friends there, but all in all I felt it was getting me nowhere. Besides, the stock price of the company had gone from $10/share when I arrived down to about $.05/share, so I had a feeling I had better get out while I still could on my own terms. I left after a year and decided to move my family up to Idaho so we could move in with my parents and I could pursue a degree in music, which is what I really wanted to do. I came to find out that a few months after I left, the pharmaceutical company ran out of money and actually missed a payroll. This was one instance where my flakiness actually served me well. 

I was 100% positive I had made the right decision when I started school in the fall of 2007 (don't ask me why), but 6 months of Idaho winter (it's winter there about 9 months out of the year) has a way of changing your perspective on things. So does having a pregnant wife while living in your parents' basement. The decision to quit was difficult, and it still haunts me. I still feel terrible about leaving the program, where people were planning on having me stick around for 3 or 4 years, after I told them I was in for the long haul. But when you're broke with your second baby on the way,  and your wife is showing unmistakable signs of year-round seasonal depression, you wake up to the fact that you're never going to make a living as a musician, and menial labor doesn't seem so bad. 

Then there was the job I had at the time. While I went to school, I worked part-time at the performing arts center on campus. I was hired as an assistant sound and lighting technician. The job posting said I would operate sound and lighting equipment, which I did on a few occasions. What it should have said was that there really wasn't enough work to go around, so you'll spend most of your time setting up chairs and tables and doing general maintenance of the building. 

The guy in charge was, well...remember that saying about if you can't say something nice? I'm afraid there's not much I can say here. The job only paid about $7/hour anyway. We'll just pretend it was the low pay that led me to quit. 

After some soul-searching, I decided the best thing for me to do would be to find a position similar to the runner job I used to love. If I could just do something that allowed me to not be in an office all day with people looking over my shoulder, I would be able to tough it out and at least enable my family to live somewhere above ground and see the sunlight every now and then.

I scoured the internet for job postings in the Pocatello area. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were some. Among them was a posting for a driver position with FedEx. That's right, a DRIVER POSITION. I seemed to meet the qualifications they had listed, so I applied and was promptly contacted for an interview. I was excited at the prospect of driving around all day at work, like the good old days when I was a runner. What followed was an interesting little routine I've encountered at least a couple more times after searching for a job on one of those well-known job sites. I went in and they asked me to fill out an application. Of course I had already filled out an application online, but apparently they wanted another. Who was I to argue?

After filling out the application, I sat down with the interviewer who asked me, "Now, which position are you applying for?"

To which I replied, "Driver."

"I'm afraid we don't have any openings for drivers," she explained, "and those are typically positions we give to people who start out as package handlers. Would you be interested in a package handling position?"

At this point I was trying in vain to understand why they posted an opening for a driver position if there was no such position available, but not wanting to ruin my chances for a future career, I quickly replied "Of course!"

No big deal. I'm a hard worker. I could just put in a year or so as a package handler, and then I would be promoted. I was older, wiser and more responsible than most of the employees they hired at that position, so my chances of getting promoted to driver would probably be fairly good. We finished the interview, and a couple of days later they called me back and asked when I could start.

My first day started very early in the morning, but knowing I would soon adjust to waking up early, I eagerly arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule. I was given the run-down on how they sort packages. It seemed simple enough, but of course I would have to start at the bottom.

The bottom is the guy who gets the packages out of the truck that arrived over night and puts them on the conveyor belt. Over time you move up to taking packages off of the conveyor belt and placing them inside the trucks. Somewhere down the line (it wasn't clear exactly when, but I think I remember another employee telling me that he had been handling packages for about four years) you get to be a driver. As I expected, there was going to be some heavy lifting, but it was only a four-hour shift. I had previous experience unloading semi-trailers full of large bags of animal feed, so I was confident that I would be able to handle it.

The truck was packed from floor to ceiling, front to back. There were packages as small as Chinese take-out boxes to packages large enough to accommodate a family of immigrants, their grandmother and their chickens. The floor wasn't flat, because that would make package-handling too easy. There was a large recess in the floor of the trailer, which required me to lift packages up and out before putting them onto the conveyor belt. I went as fast as I could, but I could tell that I would have to get faster as time went on. It was obviously a challenge, but I wasn't too worried. I pressed on and completed my shift.

A strange sensation came over me later that evening. The muscles in my arms began to stiffen. "Of course they are a little stiff," I thought. "This will just take a little time, that's all."

I wanted to remain optimistic that night as I went to bed, but deep down I knew that the feeling I had not yet experienced up until that moment (the feeling that my arms had just spent half the day being pounded mercilessly with the pointy end of a meat tenderizer) was all too real and was going to present a serious problem the next morning.

I awoke with a pretty hefty amount of soreness, but I was determined not to let it get to me. I got dressed and drove to work. After a bit of careful stretching, I jumped right in and started lifting boxes. It went okay for about twenty minutes. The next hour or so I spent trying desperately to keep lifting, focusing mainly on the lighter boxes just to keep the line moving, and trying to think of how I could get someone to help me with the heavier items without looking like a complete waste of space.

Then it hit me. I was down in the recessed part of the trailer. I lifted what was probably about a 15-pound box from the ground and held it at waist level. By this time the pain was excruciating, but I wasn't going to quit. As I attempted to lift the box up and out of the recess, my arms completely gave out, as if they were attached to a Muppet with no strings, and the box fell to the floor. I paused for a moment, and then I tried to bend my elbows and lift my arms up a few inches. I couldn't. I found that if I concentrated really hard, I could make the muscles at my shoulders twitch slightly, which would cause my arms to sway a bit, but lifting them at all was completely out of the question. I paused again, giving myself one last chance to think of some way to keep working. Defeated, I wiggled my way out of the truck, walked past the Package Handler Of The Month plaque on the wall (which included a few names of women manlier than I), and into the office, where I sheepishly explained that I could not move my arms. The supervisor didn't look the least bit surprised. I hung my head in shame and walked out.

As I drove home (very slowly, because I was steering with my chin), I thought of how I was going to explain it all to my poor wife without looking like a complete pansy. There was no way. I am what I am, and a package handler I am not.

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