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Volume 40 Issue 5 • June 3-9, 2010
now in our 40th season

It’s Not What You Do

by Robert P.Barsanti

The help wanteds have started to swell to their summer size.  The Juice Bar needs scoopers, Young’s needs bicycle clerks, and Henry’s needs sandwich assembly professionals.  In a sign of a growing economy, restaurants and stores have put the “Help Wanted” signs up in their windows and have been building a file folder for those willing to lie, in writing, about staying to Labor Day.

Not too many summers ago, many of these jobs went to foreign nationals.  They came in before Daffy Day, stayed past Columbus Day, and didn’t mess up the staff housing.  In our most recent contraction, when summer lost his shoulders, the visa workers stopped coming and the teenagers decided that they needed the money after all.

Everyone needs a high school job.  Harvard may say they would prefer you to take an internship building a hospital in Liberia, but the rest of the world knows that a summer swinging a weed-whacker and riding a mower is a valuable time.  For Jane or Johnny Snowflake, this is the first brush with life beyond the penumbra of their parents.  Reality remains a rumor.  Most of the boys that I teach feel that they can finish college after a pro career and a bust in Cooperstown, Springfield, or Canton.   The girls plan on going the same college Gossip Girl is going to.  At seventeen, they touch, ever so lightly, the adult world of bosses, evaluations, estimates, and paychecks.  They clean dishes.  They mow lawns.  They sell t-shirts.  If they are lucky, they watch beaches or children. 

At seventeen, I made swizzlesticks.

I also made steak sticks, coffee stirrers and little plastic swords that would gore olives.  And I worked on the night shift.

At 10:30 most nights, I showed up at the back door at the Spir-It corporation, punched my timecard, dropped off my lunch in the fridge, and took my place at the end of a conveyor belt.  For the next eight hours, the truck sized machine in front of me would slam its presses together, form a hot plastic branch of coffee stirrers, then heave it out onto a conveyor belt.  When the belt brought the cooling plastic to me, I snapped the drink stirrers off, dropped them in a bag making machine, sealed them up and filled a box. And that was it until various breaks and seven o’ clock came around.  Then, with the birds of Robert J. Lurtsema, I took my empty lunch box home.

The work was neither hard nor painful, other than a few burns from the plastic.  It was loud; the factory floor had sixteen machines that were grinding, melting, slamming, and blowing at full roar.  It was so loud that I carried a boombox with me to work.  I set it up at my machine, turned it as loud as it could go, and could hear it clearly three feet away.  Five feet away, Beethoven’s Ninth sunk under the sea of grinding and slamming plastic.

Like all factory jobs, “Plastic Extrusion Engineer” or “Coffee Stirrer Artisan” was automatic and dull.  For the first half hour, I was racing to keep up with the machine.  The unsorted and unsealed trays would build up on the desk in front of me until I could surreptitiously grind the good ones up with the waste.  But, soon enough, I was able to dance with my partner.

I picked up the timing of the moves, the grace of the conveyor belt, and I became as efficient at crafting “America West” drink-stirrers as any other part of the machine.  As soon as my body learned its dance, I would prop up a book and read. In two hours, someone would tap me on the shoulder, and I would sit for ten minutes in the break room.  Two hours after that, near three in the morning, I would get twenty minutes for lunch; then, near five, I would get my final ten minute coffee break, and then push on until dawn. 

At the end of that summer, the owner of the plant met me at seven in the morning, shook my hand, and presented me with a letter thanking me for my service (at $4.85 an hour) as well as a $100 bonus check for not missing a day. 

I never went back.

But I never forgot the summer either.  I have had dozens of jobs since my time on the night shift.  I have worked in a deli, in a museum, and in a radio station.  I have lifeguarded and prison guarded.  Mostly, I have taught.  But the older I get, the more I look back on those nights on the factory floor.
I would like to claim that my summer among the swizzlesticks prodded me out of my teenage torpor and propelled me to a life of accomplishment and achievement.  I would dearly like to claim that I shook the little plastic bits from my hair and vowed I would never stamp plastic again.  Then I proceeded to be a Master of the Universe, either from a mountain on Wall Street or a tower in Tibet.  Alas Not.

Instead, I think of Steve, the young bearded foreman and I think of Annie and Maria G who had long since mastered the machines that so easily mastered me.  I would think of them while I was lying in my dorm room at Middlebury, then I thought of them while I was laboring through my first few years of teaching out here.

At night, when I was pushing through some nasty bit of planning or grading, I would imagine them at the “Red Lobster” machine, smoking and stamping out thousands and thousands of red plastic claws for gin and tonics.  If they could continue to push through the bone-sapping, mind-drying monotony of their work, I could grade another set of vocabulary quizzes before I went to sleep.

Work, I learned, is seldom as rewarding, enriching, or meaningful as the graduation speakers lay out. Instead, it plops out on the conveyor belt one bunch of coffee stirrers at a time.  Coffee stirrers don’t make the world a better place; in fact the ones that I made will outlast all of us and will litter the earth until Wall-E compacts them into little cubes. You don’t always mend the world, sometimes you just get paid.

Today, as a teacher, my career shapes a future more positive than one littered by steak sticks..  But I still find myself caught in the soul-deadening traps of standardized testing and time-tested curricula.  Principals and administrators are often annoyed at my inability to be a “team player”; they seek to go “in a different direction.”  On many Wednesdays, I think that the only difference between standing at the McDonald’s Coffee Stirrer machine and at my teacher’s desk is the boombox and the grinder. What you do won’t make you happy.

But who you touch, might.  The work might be soul-deadening, but they people aren’t.  They have children and parents and hobbies.  Humanity scribbles on the boxes, offers cigarettes, and dances to the red headed stranger.  Art is what you do when you should be working.  Each night, I helped complete a crossword on the break tables.  I was never sure who else worked on it (besides Steve, the foreman) but there were always two or three different hands forming letters.  We were there and we were helping.

Moreover, I also learned that you are not what you do.  No one wound up on the night shift at the plastic factory because it had been her life ambition.  We all had other plans and other passions.  For Annie, it was a little girl at home.  For Steve, it was coursework that he completed during the day.  And for me, it was tuition to a college with oriental rugs in the library and mountains on the horizon. My time in the factory bought my time in college; work was the bill we paid to eat the meal we loved.
Most Nantucketers are familiar with this calculus.  Waitresses become bartenders then accountants before selling real estate before returning to being a waitress.  Jobs never quite become careers, and passions only rarely print a paycheck.  Instead the surfer teaches so that he can spend the summer at Nobadeer, and the painter runs a lawnmower to keep her in oils and orange juice.  As the costs have increased, the old joke acquires a new urgency:  “What do you call an islander with two jobs?  Lazy.”

When I think back on the people I spent the nights with 25 years ago, I don’t chide their mistakes or recoil at the memory of the time creeping drudgery.  I marvel, instead, at the courage of the people who came back, night after night, month after month, year after year to buy the time for someone or something else.  At seventeen, I learned it was not the work that you did or the goals you achieved, but the people you touched.


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