Christmas was all my fault

If your Christmas packages didn’t get delivered on time this year, you can blame me – I quit the job that might have put that box on a truck for you and gotten it to your house in time.

For a few weeks this fall I shuffled into a concrete and metal building with a handful of other scruffy-looking people tossing their cigarettes aside, everyone in workboots and hooded sweatshirts. First we got a safety talk, then sheets showing how many hundreds of packages would come down the belt to our assigned trucks and how to distribute them on shelves and floor space. After that, loud classic rock music blared through the building, the belt started rolling and the noisy, expletive-laden mayhem began.

My shifts started at 1 a.m. in a freezing cold warehouse near Cape Cod. It was three weeks before Christmas and in my first hour on the job I vowed I would never order anything online again.

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Each shift, I watched thousands of packages coming down a conveyor belt, grabbing a few hundred with my trucks’ assigned numbers stamped on them. Some proceeded laying flat as they should while others tumbled dangerously from a chute above in a sick cascade of cardboard and corners, splashing onto the lower belt in an unpredictable, noisy, chaotic jumble that would thrill a six-year-old boy. “Cardboard hell,” one of my coworkers called it.

Packing trucks for a company known as much by its earthy signature color as its three-letter acronym, I realized that I held much power over other peoples’ holidays on this job. Who would open a new flat-screen television on Christmas morning and find it was the one that had tumbled off the belt, damaging delicate components? What store would open a massive box of perfumes and find half broken? Whose precious QVC find would arrive in a crushed package?

 As monotonous as the work was at its core, watching the clock was never really an issue. I never felt tired or hungry either, there just wasn’t time. The cold was kept at bay by hefting boxes, scrambling in and out of trucks, readying quickly for the next batch. And singing. But the singing was only to keep us sane as the volume of packages increased by a ridiculous amount every day as Christmas approached.

Early on, before Thanksgiving, you might be able to walk through a “full” truck at the end of a shift. By early December we were devising ways of filling them, floor to ceiling, so that the rear doors could just close. Sometimes there just wasn’t enough space for everything slated for a particular truck – then you’d get the hairy eyeball from the boss: are the shelves triple-stacked? Is every ounce of oxygen squeezed out of every possible corner?

Imagine my joy when they replaced one of my “regular size” brown cargo trucks with a 10-wheel rental truck about double the size. Yay, more room for heavy tires, computer equipment, furniture – just about anything you could slap a label on. Getting the stuff up a few steps into the cargo bay was another issue altogether.

So, we sang our frustrations. Fortunately the roar of boxes slamming, the conveyor belt rolling, people swearing, and more trucks outside dulled the sounds of our voices. Everyone groaned when Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffet songs played, but they sang along, substituting bawdy lyrics about the company. Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” was a favorite, a capella, when the volume on the belt was too high for us to keep up or one of us was wrestling something oversized or extra-heavy. We caught each other’s boxes when possible, but the more seasoned loaders assured me that letting a few go didn’t matter; thousands more would come down the line to fill all available spaces on the trucks and then some.

It was at the bottom of that conveyor belt waterfall of crashing, tumbling cardboard that I decided I would rather live poor and ration my $40 tanks of gasoline until more freelance work came my way than get hurt on this job and give up doing the things I love. I’m in the best physical shape of my life and I sought out this work because I liked the physical aspect of it, but the pay was not worth suffering a back injury, torn rotator or blown knee. Believe me, all of those were daily concerns and then some. Their safety videos and warnings all went out the window when the belt started.

Those around me clearly wondered about my being there in my Boston Marathon jacket. My arrival bumped the number of females loading trucks to 3. “What’s your story, what are you doing here?” they’d ask openly. “You went to college.”

Unfortunately a college degree is no guarantee of steady work, particularly for a freelance journalist who will have three kids in college in January. And as unusual as it was to be a 47-year-old woman hefting boxes into trucks, everyone here had his own story. Eric, the guy on my right, had been a studio musician, Rick, on my left, liked the early hours that allowed him to golf to his heart’s content during the day. Both sang the praises of union membership and benefits but it was hard to see beyond the sore muscles and the next day’s alarm going off at midnight.

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A bundle of pipes shot down from the upper chute, scattering smaller parcels off the sides of the belt and skewering the logjammed boxes ahead of them. “Wonderful,” said John, the guy across the belt from me. He has five young kids and a Christmas tree business on the side. He bellowed at our supervisor to keep “heavies” off the top belt in very colorful language, then sighed and turned back to his trucks; he’d been worrying about his twin toddler sons having pneumonia and was probably up with them during the night.

Believe it or not, the people were the part of the job I enjoyed and regret missing. But I still can’t get my mind around the idea that a package of shoes or child’s toy is worth someone on the line losing a finger or twisting an ankle trying to load it on a truck. And it wasn’t going to be me.

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