- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)

"the humble pallet jack..."

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Nashville, TN, March 23, 2002
Rocketing up Interstate 65 at six-thirty a.m. in a dangerous bucket
of bolts with bad tires that bottoms out at every bump and which
should have been junked ten years ago, I am sitting on the hump
in the back between two other guys fortunate enough to have
work today. Today I will work in a huge warehouse in
Portland, TN, near the Kentucky border, "picking" (an
ironic term to me) orders for Kroger supermarkets
throughout the two states, loading them onto a pallet, and
then pulling the pallet, which will ultimately weigh over a
thousand pounds, to a dock where they will be loaded onto
trucks for subsequent distribution. It is backbreaking

Lately I've been being a day laborer, a phrase which makes
many genteel people shudder, and which I've noticed causes
many of my friends to stare at me in apprehension and
alarm. Most people imagine day laborers to be
ex-convicts, cheap alcoholics and crack addicts. And many
of us are. But most day laborers, I've learned, are simply
people who have fallen into the crevasse; slipped through
the holes and rents in the fabric that is American social
structure. And one journalist.

There are other things I could be doing for money between
gigs. I have some specialized training. But, mostly
because of a need for non-commitment and something
approaching disdain for actual employment I guess, along
with what is probably an unhealthy dose of masochism, I've
been getting up at four in the morning and showing up in
the dark at the Labor Ready office in East Nashville, the
undesirable side of town, at five.

There is not much money to be had at Labor Ready, usually
only five-fifteen per hour, which after taxes comes out to
about 4.75. And the work can only be described as either
physically grueling or mind-numbingly boring. And
sometimes both. Getting up at four a.m. for a job which
begins at 7:30 and usually ends at four p.m., followed by a
trek back to the office to get paid at five means an
investment of thirteen hours' time for eight hours' pay.
Eight hours at the usual Labor Ready rate means a net pay
of $38.05, which after the Labor Ready cash machine has
taken its dollar plus whatever change is left over for
dispensing your money, means $37.00.

Another characteristic of the work is its unsteady
nature...sometimes I show up at five in the morning and
wait in the labor pool until eight a.m., which is when any
calls for day labor usually stop coming in. I come back
home unemployed for the day, having spent three hours
watching the local morning television's endless loops of
alternately perky or solemn talking heads' semi-news: the
birth of triplets, Tipper and Al looking for new digs in
Nashville, the usual house fire, the run-of-the-mill child
abuse case, the current traffic pileups on the three
Interstates which trisect the city, tomorrow's forecast
coupled with today's actual weather, which invariably is
different from what was promised yesterday. We day
laborers, despite any other insensitivities we may have,
are intensely aware of the weather because those of us
lucky enough to be employed for the day are quite often out
in it.

Since my sojourns into the Labor Ready office began I have
done a number of jobs. Once, I was strongly cautioned that
if anyone were to ask I was to say that I worked for Top Of
The Line, a Nashville catering firm, but NOT Labor Ready. I
was sent to help prepare food for a gathering of disc
jockeys and radio execs at the Nashville Convention Center.
The point of this, as I immediately figured out, was to
avoid any problems with the Health Department, since none
of the Labor Ready crew had been screened for communicable
diseases like, oh, say, Hepatitis C. I put my nurse's
education to the side and comforted myself with the thought
that, except for politicians, I couldn't think of any
more-deserving potential victims than the people
responsible for spoonfeeding the pap cranked out here in
Nashburg to the Proctor&Gamble demographic spread across
the continent.
But the gig was tough. Handling literally a ton of
barbecued turkey and pork, digging packets of Sysco mashed
potatoes out of boiling water and slitting them open and
dumping them into steam table pans is not only hard but
painful work, and I was so sick of the sight of food that,
though I was drained of energy by the end of the ten-hour
day, I couldn't bring myself to eat.

"HI, BABY..."
Not all of the jobs have been unpleasant. I worked for a
week on what was basically a landscaping job thirty miles
outside of town in Lebanon, raking and shoveling dirt, and
then smoothing it, seeding it with new grass seed, and
finally covering the seed with straw to hold the moisture
in until the little guys could germinate and sink their
roots into the topsoil. It was hard, sweaty work, but not
without its compensations: One day I was raking and
shoveling and a black chick in a new shiny red GM kinda
ride came up the street, slowed down, and cooed out sweetly
and seductively to me, "Hi, Baby". "Hi Sugar," I responded
and with a flash of teeth and a wave of a braceleted hand,
nails painted to match the car, she floored it and was
gone. I don't think she was attracted to me because of my
tremendous upper-body physique. Maybe she dug my rake.
The point, though, is that it did indeed make my day: all
afternoon long I was saying "Hi, Baby" to myself and
chuckling.But, mostly, the jobs are demanding, demeaning or
downright dangerous.

Out West End Avenue on Highway 100 there is a construction
site where dozens of McMansions are being built: an
executive ghetto consisting of brick edifices whose outside
dimensions belie the lack of usable living space within.
These cheeseballs are being built by a company called
CenTex, whose headquarters are in Central Texas, thus the
name. I have been a carpenter on some actual
million-dollar houses in Florida, and the differences are
immediately obvious. Probably the mortgages for these
McMansions have an option for "Fries with That?".
The entire project is being built by imported Mexican
labor: formers, framers, roofers, sheetrockers and
bricklayers, with the electricity and plumbing farmed out
to Tennessee guys because of their familiarity with the
local codes. But when this job is over the Mexes will move
on to the next CenTex project in a different state, where
they will once again stamp out the same 12 designs for
cheap brick boxes at a quarter million a pop. Over and
over and over.

Another of the CenTex jobs that is farmed out locally, and
here's where Labor Ready comes in, is that between each
stage of construction the houses must be cleaned, so that
the sheetrockers are not walking on the nails and cutoff
ends left by the framers, for example, and the electricians
and plumbers are not trying to finish their jobs in the
sheetrock waste after the rockers have moved on to the next
The guy who has the cleanup contract calls Labor Ready for
help. Nobody at Labor Ready likes working for this guy, at
least after the first time, and it takes true desperation
to make you want to repeat the experience. The guy's okay,
maybe, but the jobs he's given and passes down to the
laborers are, as I say, quite often dangerous and always
unpleasant. The last time I worked for him, I was in the
pouring rain on my knees in the mud installing tires on the
construction office trailers so that they could be moved
from the site where they were to another, and a new
McMansion could be started.

Lately I have moved up in the pecking order at Labor Ready,
which means the jobs I get lately are at least inside if
still grinding. So that I have come to be employed on an
on-demand basis in various factories and warehouses in a
fifty-mile radius around the city. Which is why I'm in
Portland Tennessee at seven a.m. this morning. I have
ridden up in a beater station wagon, but there is also a
Labor Ready bus, which, being driven by a Muslim guy, has
come to be known as "the Talivan." Despite the brutish
nature of our work, day laborers are not without a sense of


There are four basic warehouse machines: there is the
forklift of which you probably have seen at least one,
which is used to unload and load the trucks. Then there
are deep-reach machines, kind of a forklift, but capable of
plucking pallets from shelves as high as thirty feet, so as
to keep the floor space underneath the shelves stocked with
products. Then there are what are called in this factory
anyway "runners", machines which can carry two pallets in
tandem, upon which are stacked the items "picked" from the
floor, and which are capable of speeds up to twenty miles
an hour, which in a warehouse is very fast indeed.
And then there is the humble pallet jack, a non-motorized
heavy cart which carries one pallet, upon which products
are stacked. This is the only machine I am allowed to
operate, so as to lessen the chance of my killing anybody
other than myself. Like the others, it works by inserting
its forks into a pallet so that the pallet can be lifted,
loaded and then "dropped", and a new, empty pallet can be
picked up. Warehouses are not quiet places; they are
filled with the sounds of the horns of these machines as
they reach the intersections at the end of every aisle, and
with the stentorian requests and announcements from the
management over the loudspeakers.
My job, and that of those trusted to operate the runners,
is to pick up a list of orders from the desk, then go
through the aisles, stopping at the designated places and
picking up the requested amounts of merchandise. One list
can consist of more than a hundred boxes, each of different
dimensions, which must be stacked in such a way that they
do not fall off the pallet, and it can take up to two hours
and two miles of walking, adding to an ever-increasingly
heavy load, until the pallet stands over six feet tall and
weighs up to 1200 pounds and so gets very difficult to

The runners are mostly operated by women, whom I have,
predictably I know, come to refer to as "pallet babes'.
The pallet babes, mostly tattooed and pierced hillbilly
girls, fly by on their runners, their hair billowing out
behind them, leaning into the wind like mastheads of the
vessels they steer at blinding speeds through the ocean of
warehouse cacophony. Well, despite the florid nature of that last
sentence there, I have noticed, when I worked for a day at the
HewlettPackard repair center in Smyrna, Tennessee, and now
here in the Kroger warehouse, that there is a factory and
warehouse culture among these women, who all are made up
for these jobs which require no interaction with the
public, and I have wondered with no results about it. How
much of it is traceable to their identifying with the rich
people on "The Young and Restless", which is on the telly
in the lunchroom when they have lunch?
Burly dudes, black, white and one Samoan, load my pallet
with 6 swing sets weighing 200 pounds each, on E dock, and
I begin my trek back to C3, where I am to drop it, leaning
into my load like a mule. Black pallet babe comes by on
her runner, says, "Hey, old white dude, jest drop it there,
an' I'll take it down for you." "You'll take WHAT down for
him?" says one of the black Burly Dudes, which opens a
floodgate of laughter and catcalls from the palletbabe and
the other Burly Dudes.


I found out that some of these "temporary" employess have
been working in this one warehouse for over a year, for the
same reason other companies hire temps: no messy benefits
to pay, thus higher profits. No insurance to pay, no
retirement fund to pay into. More money for the CEO's and
the stockholders. If a temp employee gets sick or even
hurt on the job, he's on his own.
Income taxes are not much of a worry for these workers;
most earn below the official poverty level, but they DO pay
Social Security and FICA, they DO pay the eight percent
sales tax Tennessee charges on everything they buy, plus
the federal excise taxes on many of the same items. And
those of them who don't own a car pay someone else five
dollars a day for a ride to a job where they will earn less
than fifty.
Their work leaves them too tired to do more than bitch
among themselves, but being 'mere' day laborers doesn't
mean they don't know they're getting fucked here. They
just don't know what to do about it...except keep getting
up at four o'clock in the morning, keep going to bed at
eight p.m., keep not having a life until they've been
worked out and become what they are desperately trying to
avoid being: burdens on society.
I didn't go to the Labor Ready office this morning. I've
been able to write about this as an extraordinary
experience because I knew it would not last much longer,
that I'd be pulling stuff out of it that may turn up in a
song somewhere. And because tomorrow night I will be doing
my little show for more money in an hour than I could make
at Labor Ready in six days. I have a tour coming up in
Florida in May, and April's dates are filling in as well. I
have learned how blessed with good fortune I am.
There are vast numbers of citizens here in America who are
not being treated fairly, and who are aware of it.
Flag-waving to the contrary, they are giving more to their
country than they are getting back. And they know it. And
now you do, too.