Santa's Little Helper
ORANGE bags come in, full of mail, orange bags go out, full of mail. The basic unit of transportation in the United States Postal Service is the "OTR," aluminum and steel containers six feet high and long, about four feet deep, riding on four well-oiled five-inch wheels. They weigh about 500 pounds empty; perhaps a ton when full. Momentum transcends the classroom when you are moving these across a warehouse floor. According to postal service apocrypha, OTR stands for "Over The Road"but no one seems to know for sure.
I spent my holiday season as a "Christmas Casual" for the USPS, slinging priority mail. Hundreds of such temporary worker are hired each season to deal with the hugely increased volume, and I ended up on the night owl shift, working about 10 hours a night, seven days a week, for 21 straight days. Being that I have generally made my living by typing words, not in warehouse work, I had grave doubts about whether I would make it. As it was, I got lucky-instead of being assigned to the main warehouse with hundreds of others, I was offered a chance to work on a smaller crew that handled only mail going to military bases and ships in the Pacific, plus the state of Alaska. We were only about 20 people, with two "lead men," and though we had to work harder, we also had a fixed purpose.
It only took a few nights for the group to split into friendly cliques. I found buddies in Paul, a post-hippie guy in his late thirties, wavy blond hair, and a rough, sexist, but funny outlook on life; and also in Bethany, professionally a safety consultant, who picked up spare cash as a bartender and, as were we all, a mail slinger. The three of us were about the same age and culturally white. But other groups also formed. Three 20-year-old young men who met in a church group in the rather rural, lily-white community of Covington and decided to earn some extra cash quickly picked up the nickname "The Three Musketeers." Several older women, at least two of them grandmothers, tended to hang around together. Perhaps the most cohesive group were the Samoans, two men and three women, who had worked with the service for a while. They were large, heavy-set people-strong and experienced. They seemed settled, down-to-earth, and content.
These groupings remained coherent through our term of service, but we all slowly got to know each other, and there was virtually no conflict. Each night we arrived at midnight at a warehouse in Kent, amid square miles of similar warehouses, drank our coffee, and then got to the business of sorting the mail. After two hours, we took a 15-minute break; after five, a half-hour lunch. The Samoans often ate together, one person providing prepared chicken and rice for all five. I munched a tuna-salad sandwich. Eight, or ten, or 12 hours later, we emerged into the morning light and went home, hoping to catch some sleep before we did it all again.
Because our operation was separated from the main Priority Mail center, and was a small subset of all the mail that had to be worked each night, it was possible for me to get a grasp of all parts of the operation. Each night, trucks would arrive and back into the warehouse bays. At first I was assigned, alongside the Three Musketeers, as "dock help." Each truck contained up to 20 OTRs, which we pulled into the warehouse. Then began the hashing-opening the orange sacks by hand and dumping the contents into another OTR. The hashed mail was then wheeled over to the giant yellow "Dumpmaster," where the dumpers would pour it onto a sixty-foot assembly of conveyor belts. At the far end of the belt stood between two and four "throwers," who picked up each package, read the zip code, and then hucked it into the appropriate placeeither a cloth "hamper" or another OTR. This was the primary sort, where only the first three numbers of the zip code were important. After about four days of hashing, I developed tendonitis in my right arm, and asked my boss to become a thrower for a while, a job that was as close to my true calling as I would find.
The throwers were surrounded by four hampers for different military zip codes, seven for different Alaska zips, and OTRs for mail that never should have reached us to begin with, such as packages going to other U.S. states and foreign addresses. The packages varied from itty-bitty boxes smaller than a cassette tape to 30-pound monsters. Hint: if your package can't stand a 20-foot drop, don't send it. The most difficult to throw were not the heavy items, however, but the very light ones, which tended to catch the air and drift off into the wrong hamper. Off to the side was a hamper labeled "rewrap," into which went the torn and damaged packages, suffering from leaks, lack of labels, or complete destruction. The most pathetic were those that sat at the bottom of a wet OTR in the rain-the first sign would be a piece of wet corrugated cardboard; the rest of the container and its contents would follow over the next twenty feet of belt.
When a hamper was brimming with packages, a "runner" would exchange it for an empty one, and then wheel the full one to the appropriate section in "secondary," where the final sort was done, by the last two digits of the zip. Five orange pouches hung from a single rack, made of welded steel tubes; here the "pouchers" would stand in a square of the wheeled racks, pick up a package from a hamper, find the appropriate pouch, and put it in. When the pouches were full, a label was placed in a slot at the top of the pouch, it was pulled off the rack, the leather and aluminum clasp assembly sealed, and then it was thrown into another OTR. A new, empty sack would then be hung in its place. The dock help wheeled the OTRs full of sorted mail to the loading bays, and then onto a truck that took them away. This was our routine, every day. Our workload usually was measured in the number of trucks or the number of unhashed OTRs; in December, we were told, we sorted some 300,000 pieces of mail.
In the social order of this process, the hashers had the most physically demanding task, the throwers the most complex, the runners the most thankless, and the pouchers existed within an all-deadening dungeon of slow, repetitive motion. I found throwing mail to be the best job, but, when I wasn't on the belt, I found I would rather hash than pouch.
Paul quickly taught me to throw mail like a maniac, and Bethany became an expert runner. The ethos was "no misthrows"which we often yelled at the top of our lungs, in between verbal jibes at each other, the runners, and the untouchable pouchers. The conglomerate sluice came down the belt constantly, sometimes two feet high, big and small, bulky, flat and tubular. Another ethos was "no stopping the belt," but that was harder to enforce, because it was difficult to keep up without stopping it by slapping a red button every minute or so. But, with three good throwers, it was sometimes possible to keep up for minutes at a time, spinning each box between the fingertips until the label appeared, judging the weight and aerodynamics, and throwing it accurately. One night I threw for ten hours straight. Though the tendonitis has receded, the middle three fingers of my right hand still feel numb and tingly all the time. On the rare occasions that there was a pause in the flow, we would shut the belt off and sit on it while we waited for the hashers and dumpers to get their acts together. But such sitting isn't encouraged in the Postal Servicecaught once by Carlos the lead man, he ordered the belt shut down, and we were relegated to hashing the orange sacks. Of course, we were the only throwers, and 20 minutes later, Carlos came back through the maze of OTRs and yelled, "What are you guys doing here? You're supposed to be on the belt!"
At breaks we went out into the night, foggy, cold, and rainy, smoked cigarettes and chatted about how much overtime we'd earned, and how we would get paid on the 22nd and would have to run out to the malls to buy Christmas presents at the last minute. And we talked about other things too, and I ended up several times going to a local tavern that opened at 9 a.m. with Paul and Bethany to sink a few cool ones before driving home to pass out. Our supervisors did not stand off; Carlos once took Paul, Bethany and myself out for drinks, and the other lead man had a habit of coming up to the belt while I was furiously throwing, and asking questions like, "So, what do you think is the best novel in the English language?" fully expecting an intelligent conversation.
A foggy night before Christmas, at the end of our lunch break, Bethany and I came back from a short walk around the back parking lot and found the Samoans sitting in their usual spot, on some steps set apart from the entrance. An 18-wheeler rumbled on idle across the lot, waiting to be called to an empty bay; Paul was resting in his old Chevy pickup, and the sounds of 70s rock drifted from his radio. Above us, searchlight piercing the wet air, the King County Police helicopter searched for fugitives with a distant whock-whock. The Samoan women sang a version of Silent Night in their native tongue, beautifully.
A few days later, on the last night before Christmas, we held a potluckeveryone contributed to the feast, and we were given an unprecedented hour to enjoy it. The Samoan women, who brought a lot of the food, also set up the spread, and the rest of us eagerly grabbed plates and started to dig in. When I took my meal into the lunchroom to eat, I heard two of the Samoan women telling the supervisors to go ahead. The supervisors protested stronglythe potluck was mainly for the employees, and they would wait. But the Samoan women insistedthey had set it up, they said, and they would eat last, just as it was supposed to be. The supervisors gave up and got in line.
I detest sappy endings, and rarely descend to moralistic ones. But for me, this month of temporary work was a fall from grace. Not only the grace of unemployment, but the grace of work with words, which I've spent the last ten years learning and doing. But I feel that it has been a good education in the deeper meaning of it all, for work is usually a measure to ensure material well-being and little more, but community still endures; and despite all the complaints I've had about jobs in the past, I've never worked as hard as I've worked this month. As I realized, personally, "If you sit on the belt, you end up hashing."