Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Factory Tales 3

A few days ago, I watched a re-run of the American Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show. No excuses; when I slump down in front of the television, I'll watch anything. But, on this occasion, I'm glad I happened to be watching the show for it included an interesting contestant.

He was a big guy with very long hair tied in a ponytail and it was obvious, when Regis asked him what he did for a living, that he didn't really want to answer. Almost apologetically, he replied that he stacked shelves in a supermarket. Now, there's nothing unusual in that; plenty of people stack shelves at one time or another in their career. The reason for the guy's embarrassment became clear when Regis asked how long he'd been doing it: thirteen years.

I am as susceptible to preconceived notions as anyone else and I admit that I was surprised at this answer. Many of us would assume, no doubt, that the guy was a "loser" to have stayed so long in such a dead-end job. And this, no doubt, was what caused the man's discomfiture at his admission; he was used to others' reactions on hearing this.

The problem with the assumption was that he was articulate, intelligent and eventually went on to the point most contestants reach on the show - he walked away with $32,000 in his hand. I must suppose, therefore, that he had stayed a stacker because it suited his purposes, not because he was incapable of doing anything else.

How quick we are to define a person by his or her job. Males especially are used to being asked what they do and being classified according to their answer. Yet there are many who persist in menial jobs because it happens to fit with their life's goals; very often this is because what they really enjoy doing doesn't pay. I know this because I've done it myself often enough.

The period of five years in which I worked as a machinist in a car factory is the prime example of this. I accepted the job because I needed to find work as soon as possible on arriving in England; I stayed in it for so long because I liked it. It was very physical work but the body learns quickly and grows accustomed to the demands made on it. Operating any machine becomes second nature in a few days, thus freeing the mind to do whatever it fancies. The only mental requirement was counting each piece until one achieved the stated quota and even this became automatic in time.

So the job suited me in that it gave me plenty of time to think. If I have a vocation in life, it seems to be thinking, but I have yet to find anyone who will pay me to do so; working as a machinist is as close as I've come to that ideal situation.

The job had benefits beyond this, however. Most importantly, it provided me with the opportunity to come to know the English working class. Although both of my parents came from working class backgrounds (my mother would argue with this, stating that her father had a white collar job; but he was a clerk only, fitting into the complex English class structure at lower middle class at best), I was brought up in the colonies where the culture is uniformly middle class. My roots remain with the working class, however, and it was the factory that taught me this.

I am quite sure that I started the job with all the usual prejudices and assumptions of what my fellow machinists would be like. The work was classed as "semi-skilled", meaning that it did not take too much intelligence or training to learn, and it would be natural to think that those who stayed at this level did so because they could rise no higher (see how even the language predisposes us to think of some jobs as higher than others). I soon found that this was nonsense.

As I came to know my workmates and make friends amongst them, I became aware that they were no less intelligent than myself, indeed, that many of them could think far quicker than I could. The only real difference was in education; I had been privileged to receive an academic education, whereas they had been consigned by circumstances to the worst schools, where little was expected of them because they were, after all, working class. Society, their parents, their peers, all assumed that they would leave school at the age of sixteen and go directly into some blue collar job. Without any alternative, they complied without demur.

It was chess that was the most outstanding illustration of this and I stumbled upon it during my first night shift. Even more so than on days, the aim on nights was to churn out the quota as fast as possible and then do whatever we pleased. And what pleased some of them, I found, was to play chess.

In my early twenties I had become quite good at chess, having several friends who played it and eventually meeting someone who read books on it. This started me reading too and I arrived at a time when I knew that I could become very good at the game. But I also knew that, to reach the top flight of chess, it was necessary to devote one's life to it; I was not sure that I wanted to do that. The dilemma was decided for me when I met someone who lived and breathed chess. He lived in a bare apartment with only a television, a table and a chair, and he spent his nights in poring over a chessboard in the light from the TV. It was weird. I gave up all thought of ever playing chess seriously and allowed it to drop out of my life.

So I was pretty rusty when I discovered the little group of chess players in a corner of the factory. I watched for a while and, when they invited me to join in, I accepted, thinking that I would slaughter them easily. And so I did, at first. But they learned so quickly that very soon I was having to shake off the rust and get down to some real thinking. It seemed that, as fast as I could recall old opening strategies, they would catch on and make me work for a result. I was quite relieved when my two-week stint on nights came to an end and I could go back on days.

One of the chess players, a fellow called Malcolm, had become a friend during that night shift and, a few months later, he gave up night shifts and became a daytimer. He set up a chess group immediately and we began to play at lunchtimes. Malcolm was a great organizer (just one example of talent apparently wasted in the factory) and he introduced a series of chess tournaments with trophies for the winner. Suddenly everything became more serious.

When it comes to chess, I am extremely competitive. The game is a measure of intelligence and to lose is to feel humiliated. My pride insisted that I win those trophies. And I did win a few, although those guys made me work for it. Soon I was getting out my old chess books at night and studying to stay ahead. But they just kept on learning from me and remained hot on my heels. It got so bad that I can remember waking up one night with the solution to an adjourned game in my head. I was even thinking about it in my sleep!

It all came to an end when the factory closed down and I must admit to a feeling of relief. At last I could put chess back where it belonged and relax a bit. I had won a few tournaments but also, to my shame, lost a few. Malcolm could give you details; he kept records of every game played and rated the strength of the players.

But the whole story is a perfect example of the lesson I learned: never assume that a man's job is the measure of the man. And that guy on Millionaire brought this flooding back to me. We are all different and have different goals and ways to achieve them; who is to say that the millionaire stockbroker is any more successful than the man who mows his lawn?

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Oh so true! Some of the people I worked with in the catering industry: the waiters, the chefs, the kitchen porters etc are some of the most extraordinary people I've ever met.

As for that crap reaction people give you when you say you're doing something they consider menial I have to admit it's one of the reasons I began looking to retrain.
Date Added: 21/02/2006

Gone Away
You're right, Mad, we have both seen that reaction in people's eyes. And the enjoyment of surprising them with the fact that you have a brain does wear thin after a while, too.
Date Added: 21/02/2006

Broken Messenger
Beautifiul illustration, Clive.
Date Added: 23/02/2006

Gone Away
Thank you, Brad.
Date Added: 23/02/2006

It's a bit quiet over here isn't it?
Date Added: 24/02/2006

Gone Away
If you're good, I'll post today...
Date Added: 24/02/2006

I've been good and I'm still waiting...
Date Added: 25/02/2006

Gone Away
Started something but didn't like it...
Date Added: 25/02/2006

It's sad that people label someone based on an occupation I have had the liberty of meeting brillant gas station attendants and borderline moronic professors. I worked for a gas station myself first for my families business and then when I needed extra work I worked at another. Not because I didn't think I could be something else besides an attendant, but because I felt comfortable with the work, and it reminded me of my childhood. My brother is a self made millionare in Mortgage refinance, and sizes up people based on money, according to his standards I am a bum. It takes more than a paycheck and a desk to make success, I can go to bed at night and know that I did the most I could that day for myself, for God, and my family and I can rest easy. Sorry that comment was really long
Date Added: 13/03/2006

Gone Away
Don't apologize for long comments, Janus - I like em! And it seems to me that you have the right measures of success there.
Date Added: 14/03/2006

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