Dig the stache? This is me only a few weeks out of college. It’s my work badge bearing a picture taken on the first day of my new career. Not in journalism, but building trucks for the Freightliner Corporation in the Swan Island industrial area of northeast Portland. I was twenty-four years old at the time.
And, yes, and they’d spelled my name wrong.
On my first day the foreman for my work station — Rough Chassis Build-Up Station 210 — sent me up the assembly line to retrieve a “Squeegee sharpener” borrowed by another crew. The crew in question spat in my wide eyes, swore at my stupidity and sent me to the station that supposedly had the sharpener. That next crew tore into me and sent me to a fourth crew, who tore me apart and sent me to a fifth. From Rough Chassis to Rough Cab Build-Up to Engine Build-Up to Radiator Hang to Finish Cab to Paint Booth to Off-Line, I spent that first eight hours trudging to every department where I might someday be assigned to work. Every foreman who might ever be my boss got a chance to needle me. And I learned that there’s no such thing… as a Squeegee sharpener.
Friends who worked at TGI Friday tell me that they spent their first day locating the “banana peeler”. At Target they search out the “shelf stretchers.” A student of mine who manages a Trader Joe’s tells me that he teaches newbies that if they ever have a free moment they should go to the salad dressing aisle. He says customers won’t buy dressing that’s separated so clerks must shake every bottle to put the solids back into suspension. Even today, my student sees those clerks earnestly shaking the Italian dressing, bottle after bottle, and setting it back on the shelf. This student still occasionally shakes an apple near his ear. When customers ask, he explains that if you can hear the seeds rattling inside then the apple is overripe. Now he sees several customers every day shaking apples and listening close. The joke never gets old.
Back in November 1986 I had a portfolio of newspaper stories I’d written: my “clippings.” I had thousands of dollars in student debt for an undergraduate degree in journalism. And my only asset was a 1977 Mercury Bobcat I’d bought in high school, with fifty thousand miles already on it.
In 1986 I’d wanted to become a writer — a fiction writer, but I wasn’t picky so I’d studied journalism in college. The only reporting job I could find paid five dollars an hour. My car was falling apart — damn four-cylinder, overhead-cam engines! — and my school loan payments were overdue. My last couple hundred dollars went to buy the Snap-on tools I was required to bring to work at the truck assembly plant. Just passing the drug test was a minor miracle. After a year — only one year! — of bolting trucks together, my plan was to move to Seattle or anywhere I might find a job in journalism.
I was at Freightliner for the next thirteen years1. My name misspelled the whole time.
While there I began writing bullshit in the greasy notebook I kept at my work station for recording fastener torque specifications. I wrote “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club…” Most days we had to roll out between seventeen and twenty-seven finished trucks, but on that slow afternoon I managed to write a short story that became Chapter Six in a novel eventually called….
That’s how fast your life can change. One minute you’re a bossed-around, spat-on pissant, and the next… You’re inside your own wildest dream.
I was at Freightliner for the next thirteen years. My name misspelled the whole time.
Not that everything got better. Take for example the bold, glossy cover of the first Italian edition of the book. The publishers flew to Portland and took me to dinner to present me with a copy. And my name was misspelled “Palahnjuk.” They were mortified. Yeah, right on the cover.
It made me laugh out loud. At the time my roof leaked; that’s how poor I was. The book was ruined, and I tossed it. Soggy as it was, I wish I had not. You should see it.
I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t get here alone. The novelist Tom Spanbauer taught me loads about writing, but the first thing he said was, “In New York City people seek out the people who can teach and mentor them, and those students pay anything to learn the skills.” At the time I was paying Tom twenty bucks a week for lessons. A week! In 1990 money! “In Portland,” Tom said, “people want to spend that twenty bucks on beer.”
I’ll never regret paying Tom any amount of money. If I hadn’t, I’d be spending much more on beer now, trying to forget I’d ever dreamed of becoming an author.
In an up-coming post I’ll tell you exactly how I plan to spend your money. Trust me, you’ll love it. Here, you’ll learn. You’ll be pushed and appalled and spat on (metaphorically). Welcome to what could be your new career.
Please note. For those thirteen years whenever any fresh-faced young person stepped up and asked me for a Squeegee sharpener, I didn’t dick with them. Well, not much.
This is your first day as well as mine.
Don’t get the idea I hated my job. My first and highest priority in every job is to find some way to enjoy it. Duh, this is my life. I mean, if you don’t make some effort then life turns into some long airplane flight where you’re just waiting for it to get OVER.
A few bitter, angry guys in the truck plant would do the minimum, then hide in the john pretending to take a crap while they were actually unrolling miles of toilet paper and carefully layering it into their lunch boxes. Yeah, they took their metal lunch boxes into the crapper. The rolls were locked in place so these walking grudges would spend hours unrolling the paper to steal it. That was their revenge, to steal a buck’s worth of TP from the evil company.
Pranks were a big part of staying sane at Freightliner. Think along the lines of M.A.S.H.. My favorite was to buy good quality stuffed animals. These I’d hide in hard-to-reach parts of a vehicle being built. The crew that routed wiring harnesses had to reach blindly into such places. Shoulder deep in some truck, nobody wanted to grab a rat. A scream meant someone had grabbed a stuffed bear or kitten. A moment later, they’d be charmed. Either they had kids at home who’d love the toy, or they were young enough that they loved it themselves, or they’d have a girlfriend to give it to. Whatever the case, what started as terror ended in sweetness. Always a good formula.
Among my favorite assembly line memories: on swing shift near midnight the day’s heat had soaked into everything metal and concrete. Smoke and welding sparks choked everyone, and the vaporized grease from the pneumatic tools coated bare skin. The line fell behind schedule so everyone was being dragged along by the conveyor chain, closer and closer to the ovens where the wet paint would be baked on. Midway in this late-night, sweat-soaked chaos a guy my age (25-ish) stood in the center of a vehicle frame, threw his head back and screamed, “Calgon, take me away!” At the time, that was the advertising tagline for Calgon Bubble Bath, and in the television commercials it was a pretty young mother harried by kids and housework who did the screaming. To see a fellow 20-something grease monkey scream it, well, it still makes me laugh.
Okay, maybe you had to be there.