A not-so-tough guy in a tough economy

I recently finished a temporary job working in a warehouse.  It was tough.  Not what I expected to be doing at (almost) 59.  Methinks warehouse work is best left in the hands of men and women in their 20s and 30s who possess more of the agility, the strength, and the endurance of youth.

In this economy, however, all kinds of assumptions and choices have gone out the window.  Education, skills, and experience don’t necessarily add up to better opportunities – at least not like they have in years past.  I worked side by side with architects, engineers, truck drivers, graduate students, carpenters, housewives, farmers, and biologists.  One lovely woman my age has taught college art classes.  For me, the warehouse put new faces on the fact that millions of Americans are really struggling to make ends meet.

I picked orders, packed boxes, wrapped gifts, unloaded trucks, applied labels, stacked pallets, re-racked chill packs, and cleaned bags and totes.  Some of these jobs were physically exhausting.  The first 50-hour work week didn’t allow much recovery time; the 60-hour week that followed was grueling.

Every night after dinner with Susan and the kids I took a hot bath; sometimes I was in bed by 8 o’clock.  On evenings when I could stay awake a little longer, I’d catch up with more family news, go through the snail mail, or chip away at backlogged email.  Susan packed a lunch for me every day that sometimes included a note 🙂 and she took on even more of the household workload.  Lauren made a banner to welcome me home from my first day on the job.  A couple of times Zack worked on my back to help soothe sore muscles.

* * * * * * * * * *

The job I least enjoyed was cleaning silver bags.  Refrigerated or frozen food items are delivered to customers inside insulated bags to keep them cold.  In a moment of insight, I realized it’s probably no coincidence that the bags look like those thin, shiny, silver space blankets.  Empty totes and bags came back in the delivery trucks.  Those of us on bag cleaning duty that day retrieved them, sprayed them with Simple Green, and wiped and dried them with paper towels.  I’ll recognize the smell of Simple Green for the rest of my life.

We used a lot of paper towels.  One time we ran out of them, which is to say that no paper towels could be found in the warehouse — in this gigantic warehouse that ships all kinds of groceries and household goods.  Surely someone could make a quick trip to the nearest grocery store…  Hmm.  Perhaps no one with a company credit card wanted to run to Safeway or QFC to pick up a case or two of paper towels for the warehouse where you can get everything.  It could happen.

There are tens of thousands of these bags.  Many, many of them were cleaned and dried by me.  In fact, if you order groceries from this company, you might receive them in a bag that I once cleaned.  (Or if I didn’t clean it personally, I might know the person who did.)  If you receive your groceries in a bag that I cleaned, you may be assured that I cleaned it well.  Unfortunately, I cannot attest to the cleanliness of bags that have been reused since I cleaned them.

* * * * * * * * * *

This experience was eye-opening, hard, sobering, enjoyable, and unforgettable.  I met people from all over the world and became a part of the workforce that has been hidden from my view.  I heard stories about hardships and resilience that I can’t begin to understand.  I saw people throw themselves wholeheartedly into difficult work, and some did their best to make it fun for themselves and others.

The men and women who do these jobs for the long haul deserve our respect; they are tough.  I’m grateful that I was strong and healthy enough to do the work, at least for a short time.  It’s been almost two weeks since the job ended, and I’m still recovering from aches and pains.  I’ve added a few more items to the list of things I can no longer take for granted.  And while I hope that the economy improves, and that I can find opportunities to use my other skills, I wonder if I might see more silver bags in my golden years.


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