Sorting It Out
Scenes From My Worst Job Ever

“The good ones go over here, the bad ones go over there.”

And that pretty much encapsulates the sum total of instruction needed to sort plastic parts for a living. For the past four days, I’ve been doing little else – thanks to Manpower Temporary Services, I’ve been hooked up with an incredibly tedious temp job at a plastic molding factory, one which will pay all my bills through the end of April, I hope. I’ve had no luck as of yet finding a job more suited to my skills and boredom threshold, so for now this will have to do.

The plant itself is a noisy, flat gray thud of a place that contains about 30 injection molding machines. These huge piston-like contraptions take printed plastic parts and connect them with other plastic parts, the end result being those trim sections on the inside doors of some cars. Thing is, these parts have to be perfect, and in order for that to happen, the component sections also have to be free of defects. Lately, machine operators at this plant have been discovering a defect rate of about 20 to 25 percent, which naturally cuts into their mandated quotas of finished parts.

That’s where I come in. My job for the past week has been to stand at a nondescript little desk and examine every one of these printed parts for small imperfections. And when I say small, I mean it – the glitches I’m looking for can be measured in millimeters. The parts themselves are about three feet long and one foot wide. The printed pattern is called silver micro-weave, and it’s the bane of my existence at the moment. It’s a criss-crossing design of tiny silver lines, designed to look like woven straw, but it truly resembles those hidden picture posters at the mall. You know the ones – if you relax your eyes, a picture appears beneath the pattern. Say, a sailboat, perhaps.

The end result of staring at this pattern for eight hours is a near-total disconnect of your optic nerve from reality. The pattern ends up superimposed on pretty much everything, including other people. But that’s not the worst part of it. That honor goes to the sheer mind-crushing boredom that sets in after only a few minutes. After a few hours, it’s all I can do to keep from hurling the little plastic bastards at any semi-stationary target, and I often resorted to meditative techniques, like repeating a mantra, to remain focused.

The good ones go over here, the bad ones go over there.

I would love to keep entertaining songs running through my head, but that’s impossible, since working in this plant is akin to working in a karaoke bar. The machine operators nearest me are both in their late 40s, I would guess, but I’d bet they’ve been drinking and dancing in the same bar since they were teenagers. These two women have at their disposal a fairly powerful stereo system, and they only like a few songs. But boy, do they like them. Both of them sing along, although I’m tempted to put the word “sing” in ironic quotes, at the top of their lungs. To say that they come within a reasonable vicinity of the notes they’re trying to hit would be uncharacteristically kind of me.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad if they wouldn’t shout along with the same few songs repeatedly all damn day. I have heard Shania Twain’s “Gonna Getcha Good” 11 times since Monday. No joke. I have also heard Pink’s “Get This Party Started” more than half a dozen times. Our beloved aging revelers know only a few of the words to that one – the chorus lyrics (“I’m coming up so you’d better get this party started”) and the line, “You’ll be kissing my ass.” That they don’t have much clue about the rest, no matter how many times they repeat the song, doesn’t prevent them from screaming along anyway.

Oh, and one more. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.” Has to be a dozen times I’ve heard that one since Monday as well, but I really hate it, so it feels like more.

My partner in this sorting endeavor has been Randy. He’s what you might charitably call a big guy, with what he no doubt believes is a withering intelligence. Randy is a recreational drug user, a fact he announced within minutes of our meeting. He occasionally will regale me with tales of his various adventures on coke, grass, acid, Percocet, Vicodin, morphine, or whatever else he has lying around the house, it seems. He’s also politically active, and guess what his big cause is? Two words: “legalize it.”

But I ended up kind of admiring Randy, because he’s a born sorter. His life process already separates everything – people included – into good and bad. Drugs? Good. Stupid people? Bad. Ralph Nader? Good. Republicans of any stripe? Bad. He’s a laid-back, black-and-white kind of guy, readily willing to assign anything that comes along to one of two boxes.

The good ones go over here, the bad ones go over there.

Occasionally, the sheer monotony would be broken by one of our two supervisors informing us that we were not sorting fast enough for the production line. After the third such tongue-lashing on Wednesday, I asked for raw numbers to define “fast enough.” If I’d had these numbers on Monday, I probably could have saved these people a bunch of money. All it took was a few quick calculations in my head to determine that their pace was impossible.

Randy and I were expected to each end up with 3000 good parts a day. 3000 parts in an eight-hour day comes out to 375 parts an hour, or roughly six parts a minute, or approximately one part per 10 seconds. That’s pretty impossible anyway, since at my best I’d been spending 20 to 30 seconds per part, but that’s not the right figure either, since that rate assumes we won’t find any defects at all. Somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the parts we see are defective, and each time we find a defect, circle it and catalog it, that eats into our time. That also assumes we don’t do anything else all day, like move boxes of parts, or label finished boxes, or breathe. At best, their expected result would require no more than four seconds per part.

And when I presented these numbers to our supervisor, she acted like she’d never even considered them. By that time I’d seen enough random disorganization from the higher-ups that it didn’t even surprise me. They obviously weren’t paying me to think, however. Just to sort.

The good ones go over here, the bad ones go over there.

At least some of the people were entertaining, but mostly in a scary way. One girl, who looked about 20 years old, had such a morose, despondent manner about her that it was almost hilarious. She dressed in all black, had one lazy eye, and was the mother of a four-year-old, she said. She would gloomily wander back and forth from the break room to her machine as if trying out her Eyeore impression. Once someone noticed a large swath of black grease on the back of her neck, and pointed it out to her. “I know,” she said with a heavy sigh, and made no move to clean it, as if the energy required would be too enormous to contemplate.

The most frightening person I encountered was also a young girl, this one probably 19 or younger. She had tattooed her own name on the back of her neck, presumably just in case she gets knocked unconscious, like the stars of bad ’80s television shows did all the time, and wakes up with amnesia, with all of her identifications missing. At the very least, she can get someone to read the back of her neck, and she will know her own name. But how will she know that’s her name, if she doesn’t remember putting it there? What if she thinks it’s someone else’s name? The logic really breaks down after a few minutes’ thought.

Anyway, this girl was also visibly pregnant, and when I encountered her, she was arguing vehemently, sometimes in proper English, that smoking pot while pregnant would not hurt the baby. “I mean it’s bad for the baby, but it won’t hurt it,” she said. Several times she made the point that none of her opponents in this argument were mothers themselves. “This is my second baby, so I think I know more than you,” she said, before lighting up a cigarette.

The coup de grace of her argument silenced all opposition. “My mother smoked pot when she was pregnant with me,” she said, “and she drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes and did heroin, and I turned out fine.” I mean, what do you say to that?

I couldn’t help feeling for this girl, and how she’d already, at such a young age, pretty much destroyed her entire life. Such feelings were not to be found within Randy, however, who later railed endlessly about how some people shouldn’t be allowed to speak, and how he couldn’t believe that he had turned out so smart and that nearly everyone else had turned out so stupid. I’m trying not to think this way, though I will admit the simplicity of simply rejecting most people has its charm for me. Wouldn’t it be easier if one’s filter evenly divided all people and experiences into two piles, one to embrace and one to ignore?

The good ones go over here, the bad ones go over there.

In the end, Randy and I were sent over there, with the bad ones. Our pace just wasn’t quick enough, our productivity not high enough. I admit I was insulted when I got the news that our services would no longer be required. Wasn’t I too good for this job? Didn’t I have dimensions and skills these people hadn’t even tried to see? I thought for a few seconds about arguing our strengths, standing up for our dignity, but it was no use. We had been given a cursory examination, and we had been sorted. And we left, a couple of rejects, stumbling home in the rain.

* * * * *

I received a lot of nice comments on last week’s piece, so thanks to everyone who wrote me. I’ve been too busy (see above) to get back to people, but I appreciate the kind words.

Next week, back to music, I hope, with Ani DiFranco and Ministry.

See you in line Tuesday morning.