Nobody Knows Who They Work For

Chronicles from Peak Season at [a major U.S. shipping company] as Package Handler

Boss gave me a three-page printout first thing. A list of the routes and the drivers. Intrigued. Skimmed it. Confused because the routes weren't attributed to single individuals, but instead, generic delivery companies. 

Example: Routes 201 through 253 and 280 through 296: "Dave Miller's San Diego Fast Delivery Services." 

Each day I stage packages on pallets behind the truck of a delivery driver I see and talk with. Have always thought that these hard-working, friendly people owned their routes. Have always known [major U.S. shipping company] delivery drivers are officially independent contractors, but had always believed each one of those friendly men (I have not seen one female driver my entire time there) owned their route. 

I took a double-look at those handouts. Disillusion confirmed. Boss took away the handouts half-hour later. 

Engaged Jose, a driver, in conversation during a lull. 

"Hey, do you own your route?" 
"No, I work for Dave."

Dave is a red-haired, tall man who is always talking to drivers in small huddles. Little did I know why. I had always presumed drivers simply gravitated towards him because was good at solving the types of problems that arise for drivers inside the dock.

"So do you get paid by the hour then?"
"After 120 stops [deliveries], we get paid $1 more per package. I take home about $650 per week. It ain't bad, considering that we're done with work at about 3:30[pm]." And he's there, at the dock, from about 6am. That's a nine and a half-hour day, not including the commute.
"How many guys own their own routes here?" I surmise about 120 drivers during peak season. 
"Oh, very few. Maybe 5." 

All of this makes sense now. Considering that you need to buy, or rent, a delivery truck, and that you need other commodities, like insurance, a person needs a decent sum of seed capital to get started. Many of the drivers are young bucks, many Latinos. Young bucks generally don't have seed capital. 
Later I'm talking with Ron, my buddy and co-worker. We're both stressing it because Chandra has already asked us twice if we want to go home yet at just under two hours of work. We tell her no, knowing that at some point she's just going to stop asking, and look for something to do. 

"Man, what happened to the good ol' days when you were guaranteed a certain number of hours!?" 
Ron is in his late fifties. 
"Those days are long gone! Today is all about "efficiency!" "the bottom line!"
"Man, I've been at jobs where even if things are slow, you just slow down. You don't get asked to leave!"
"And during the peak, we put out. Put out like a good hooker."
"Well even during the course of the day. I mean, just an hour ago, we were hustling and now that it's slow they just want us to leave!?"
"Hey! Did you know that all these drivers are Independent Contractors?" 
"Yeah. It sucks! My wife told me that I should try to get a full-time job as a driver, but she didn't know how things work around here. I told her that the drivers here are IC's. They are not guaranteed anything, they're not guaranteed hours, they have no benefits. If one of them gets hurt, they don't have anything! It's rough!" 
"I knew from the beginning that they were IC's but today I found out that most of these drivers don't even own their own routes."
Ron looked at me interested. Curious. 
"I talked to Jose about it. Man! I thought it was bad enough to do this as an IC,  but to be the employee of an IC? How much must that suck?" 

Almost one hour later (Ron had long ago been "asked to leave") I clocked out and joined a small crowd of other package handlers (many of them in their late late teens and early twenties). 

 Bo, a young, energetic Latino was happy about the size of his paycheck. 
"Yeah, $237 dollars! Too bad this is going to be the last fat paycheck. Next week's gonna be like $100 again."
His co-worker showed him his paycheck which was $250. 
"Dang! You rollin!" exclaimed Bo. 
"But it's because I'm earning $13 per hour." 
"You know, I'm almost at 1000 hours. As soon as I get it I'm applying for benefits. They take it out of your paycheck, a dollar something for dental, two dollars and a bit for health. Dat's good!" said Bo, while dragging on a Marlboro. 
Just as he did this, a driver in glamorous pearl white Lexus sedan with completely tinted windows and designer wheels made its way out of the large [major U.S. shipping company] driveway. 

When Bo took stock of the car he began a sort of celebration of this fellow person's luxury car. The two other young men around him agreed and joined him. They all looked at the speeding car with lustful eyes, likely hoping to one day own one just like it. 

"That's Dave there. Dat man owns trucks, dat man owns contracts, dat man has monay!"


United Statesians

As a matter of fact, Latin Americans the world over take issue with the United States' appropriation of "American" as the generic term to describe themselves. A superficial skimming of Spanish-language newspaper articles about the United States will show a trend toward the shifting of calling citizens of the United States the specific "Unitedstatesian" ("estadunidense" in Spanish) and not the generic "American." The same goes for Unitedstatesians' habit of referring to their country not as "the United States," but as "America."

The fact of the matter is that continental America consists of three major land masses known as South, Central, and North America. As any updated Atlas will verify, the United States is in North America, sharing its space with Canada (to the north) and Mexico (to the South).

Spanish-speakers, by the way, spell "America" with an accent on the "e," forcing a different pronunciation of it as well. In the Spanish utterance of "America," the "e" is extended, thereby liberating a different musicality to the beloved and highly-symbolic word, "America." Because, let's face it, from the beginning when the European explorers ran into this continent, "America" has meant a lot. It's meant opportunity, freedom, equality, and democracy. 

The United States, however, was not the only country to fight for and win freedom from its former colonial oppressors. The United States, shares with all of its neighbors, above and below, a historical process of developing a new national identity, fighting wars to win independence from European colonial powers, and aiming to establish new nations under democratic government.

Some may argue, initially convincingly, that the United States was the first to do so and has been the most successful, and therefore, has the right to claim the symbolic identifier of "American" for its own citizens. Non-Unitedstatesian Americans, though, would beg to differ though, on many points. For starters, after the United States (as the Thirteen Colonies) won independence for Britain, its government rampaged westward taking the land from Native-Americans under the dubious policy and mantra of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, respectively. As if this alone were not enough to disqualify any valid claim to "American" as an exclusive descriptor for United States citizens, in 1973 the United States government helped the Chilean military to topple a democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende. 

In the meantime, citizens of Latin America have fought long and hard to establish democratic countries, usually in defiance of United Statesian corporate interests which have always actively undermined these efforts.

So, no. The United States does not win rights to "America" or "American," these words which erstwhile have meant "opportunity, freedom, equality, and democracy" just because it was the first to win independence from Europe, and definitely not only because it's the most powerful country in continental America and in the whole world.

Any right to that, non-United Statesian Americans would argue, would need to be won by actions to enhance opportunity, freedom, equality, and democracy for everybody, and not just citizens of the United States. For example, end the silly embargo against Cuba (another citizen of America) which has done nothing to promote political liberty on the island and has only secured conservative Cuban-American votes in Florida for any pandering political party.

Each citizen of America, from Alaska to Cape Horn, is an American. "American" should not be exclusive to citizens of the United States. United States citizens should call themselves United Statesians, without feeling like their any less "American" for it, and without forgetting that they share the American Dream of opportunity, freedom, equality, and democracy with their northern and southern neighbors. 

And as the most privileged citizens of the world (still, in spite of the recession) are responsible to ensure that others enjoy it, even if they have to challenge their own government.


Workplace Lessons

Chronicles from Peak Season as Package Handler at FedEx Ground
Week 8

This is my second to last week as a seasonal worker at FedEx Ground in San Diego. It has felt to be longer than it has actually been. I attribute this sensation to the facts that I was forced to lose sleep, that it was very, very cold in the mornings, that the holidaze (<-----not a spelling mistake) were in the middle of the work period, and that I was injured in early December.

I am close to accomplishing one important goal, not to get fired before the end of the season. In two recent jobs this is exactly what happened. Neither of those occasions was I fired for incompetence or unethical behavior.

The time that I was working for Linear Corporation, I was fired for being assertive. I was working in an assembly-type setting and I insisted on making a minor change in our procedure that would make my own job easier as well as increase productivity a little bit. My error was to do this on my third day of work. When I was let go, the official reason was, "Employee does not follow directions."

Another time I was working for Ambius Corporation as a decorator of Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths. That time, I had been working a few weeks when a light bulb burst near my face. A few moments after it happened, I began to feel a light itch on my cornea, so I went to the doctor. Fortunately, it was nothing, but on the first Monday after it happened, I was let go because, "volume is down." This meant that there was not enough demand of Christmas ornaments to justify my employment. This news, though, was contrary to what we decorators saw in the warehouse and the fact that the week before all the talk was how we were going to fill all of the orders by early December. So I figured that letting me go was retribution for reporting the injury.

There was another possibility. My co-worker David and I had become pretty close. He was the lead singer of a local rock band. We talked about many things, including music and politics. Well, one day I lent him a copy of the Naomi Wolf's The End of America. In this book, Wolf, a mainstream American author (at least before that book), described in full detail, how democracies are subverted and open societies are closed and transformed into totalitarian regimes. While she was at it, she showed how the United States was slipping into becoming a closed society.

In a later conversation about the whole situation, a friend of mine familiar with Wolf said to me,

"Choleric, you DO NOT share books by Wolf at work!!!"

So at Ambius I learned not to share Wolf  books and at Linear I learned to just shut up, and now I've almost finished my stint at FedEx Ground without being suspiciously laid off.



Chronicles from Peak Season as Package Handler at FedEx Ground
Day 39

It's almost forty days since I began at FedEx Ground as seasonal package handler. It's been interesting, instructive, and financially relieving (I've bought the first two pieces of new clothing in at least one year, maybe two.)

Now it's been nine days since I sprained my back and had to file a workman's compensation claim. After going to the doctor and been given a treatment plan consisting of drugs, ointments, and chiropractic, I was promptly put on modified duty. 


My schedule was changed to work from noon onward in the Quality Assessment (QA) department. My new supervisor is Ruiz Higuain and my co-workers include a bunch of early twenty-somethings, Dave, Billy, Joey, Jeremiah, and Jerry. 

In QA, I am no longer handling packages at a fast pace. My new duty is to investigate and correct, or complete, physical addresses of packages held at the dock due to being labeled with inadequate information.

It's detective work. Our tools are the phone and the web. On the web, our sub-tools are the people searching websites: PIPL, Metrosearch, Zaba, Google, the White Pages, Facebook, and any other site that can help us track a person down. 

One common situation is the resident of Rancho Santa Fe who uses a P.O. Box address as their delivery address. RSF residents do this almost uniformly. Obviously, you can't deliver a package to a POB. In this situation, usually a couple of phone calls, and a period of a day, or two, gets us in touch with the recipient and we can correct. 


Once I find a good address, I use the FedEx Pocket PC (a tool I did not use back at the belts) to create and print a new label. I've learned to scan: you point the scanner (built into the Pocket PC) at the bar code at a 45 degree angle and hold it about a hand's length away. 

As QA assistant, I talk to customers, to inform them of the problem and receive corrected information. I know this customer service experience will help me at peak season's end, when I'll need to look for a new job. 

The management is wary of the hours they give me. Their goal is to give me approximately the same number I got as a package handler. So at about the three hour mark, Ruiz starts getting fidgety and asks me repeatedly,

"What time did you clock in?" 

After about three hours, they ask me to leave...even though there is clearly more work to do. 

Ruiz is an unmarried fair-skinned Latino in middle age. He's overweight and keeps his hair short, and his hair is completely silver all along the sides. He is ambivalent about his Latino identity. I know because when I arrived he made a point of me knowing that he was Latino and that he speaks Spanish (at least some). But he also sidesteps the Spanish pronounciation and spelling of his surname. The proper Spanish spelling of it is Higuaiin ("ii"=accent on the "i"), but his name plaques don't have the the accent. And he uses the Anglicized pronounciation, "Eegain," rather than the Spanish, "Ee-gah-een."

a light-skinned Mexican, this one being Francisco I Madero (no relation to Higuaiin) [latinamericanstudies.org]

His job takes up too much of his life. I know because in passing I heard him mention to Dave how late one night on the weekend he looked up a name, searching for an address. 

The main job of the QA area where I work is to "get the packages out of the dock." 

Next to our open-air office is a cage the size of a large bedroom with a high ceiling. Difficult packages are stored in here. I think a man like Higuaiin is vulnerable to measuring his self-esteem by the number of packages in "the cage." 
Yesterday, it was 55 and he was getting lighthearted flak about it. 

Some other tools of my new trade: tape gun, pen, blade, printer. 



Chronicles from Peak Season as Seasonal Package Handler at FedEx Ground

Yesterday, us package handlers were in the middle of a rush, working very hard and quickly to stage packages on the pallets. One of those instances, I moved a large, long, moderately heavy package. I moved to set it down on the pallet, and as I lowered it, I felt a muscle in my back ache startlingly and acutely.

"Ouch," I said, as I finished settling the package on the pallet, and I frowned. 

For a moment, I thought about what to do, but finally I figured it wasn't serious enough to consider it an injury. I mean, aches and pains come with the job. So I continued working through the shift. When I clocked out around 8 am, I figured I had done the right thing because I didn't feel any pain. In hindsight, this was due only to the fact that my body was warm, and when I first felt the pain, I was caught up in the frenzy of clearing the belts of packages. 

Once I had cooled down, the pain returned. It felt like the stabbing of a knife into the sensitive tissue just below my ribcage area on my back. The more I cooled down, the more clear were the messages of pain. By the early afternoon, it hurt to turn to see my blind spots on the road while I was driving. Sitting down hurt. Shifting while I stood hurt. 

I texted Chandra before the end of the work day. She asked me some standard questions, "Did you tell anyone?" "Did anyone see you?" After answering them, both in the negative, she texted back, "I'll get back to you," but she never did. In the evening, I received the usual text about the next day's starting times, "first wave 4:40, second wave 4:45, third wave, 5:00." 

I laid down to bed very early and fell asleep for good. Sleep was the best elixir to combat the pain. The next morning, naturally, I did not get up to go to work and just texted Chandra, 

"I'm sorry I cannot report to work today. I think it's a better idea if I rest my back." 

Five in the morning came along and I remained in bed. But by six, I was in the shower, and for one moment, I thought the pain was gone for good. Just like yesterday, though, once my body cooled down, the pain returned redoubled. 

Still with no word from Chandra or anyone at FedEx, I got in the car to drive down there. The entire ride was painful (lots of looking over my head at blind spots). 

I arrived at 9 am and stood in crucifix pose to be scanned by the private security officer. 

"Why you late?" he asked me (used to seeing me first thing in the morning). 

"Cuz' I'm getting ready to be boss of this place, and I'm going to put you up for promotion, captain," I replied back. The guard chuckled. 

Once inside the dock, I learned that Chandra had not come in that day, and so eventually met with Barker, the other floor manager. 

"Hi Barker, did Chandra tell you I got injured yesterday?" I asked
"Yes, what happened?" he asked. I explained, and said, 

"I need to file a workman's compensation claim," expecting him to lead me to a room with a desk and to give me the standard forms to fill out. But I guess FedEx Ground does things different than I expected. 

Barker said, "If it's that serious, you need to go to a doctor." 

"Yeah, but aren't I supposed to fill something out here and take it to the doctor?"

"No" he said.

"Ok, well you know a good doctor in the area?"

"Health Works. It's just down the road. But you should know that we're going to write you up for not telling anyone when it first happened." 

Ten minutes later, I was at California Health Works clinic, which specializes in work-related injuries. 

"I work at FedEx Ground and I was injured there yesterday. I am here today to be looked at," I said. 

"Sure, do you have your forms?" the receptionist said. 

"No, I don't have any forms. My manager said I should just come," I answered. 

"OK, well then I need you to call FedEx Ground and tell them to cal me so I can verify it."

So I went to my phone, and called Chandra, then Barker, then General Mallorie. Mallorie's receptionist bounced me back to  Barker, who had not picked up my call earlier. 

But once I retrieved Barker on the phone, the receptionist got the authorization she needed. I filled out my paperwork and sat down to wait. 

And just before I was called in, Fed Ex Ground tried a last minute effort to postpone my doctor's examination in exchange for being moved to "light duty." 

I thought about it, I was tempted, and finally declined it and went in to see the doctor after all. I called General Mallorie back to inform her. 

I was examined and my back was X-rayed. The results were a relief. No serious injury, just a sprained back muscle. And as the physician finished inputting his notes into the computer, I thought I'd chat him up about "Obamacare." 

"Hey doctor, in your days here as a doctor since health care reform was passed, do you think it's helped anyone who might not have been helped otherwise?" I asked. 

He thought about it and responded, "It's certainly going to change things. Carl's Junior, who has 12,000 employees is going to be forced to make all of their full-time employees into part-time employees and they are going to lose their benefits. The new law is going to put that kind of pressure on companies [like Carl's Jr.]"

I didn't really understand how the new law was going to "force" the Carl's Jrs. of the world do this but I didn't ask him how the law was going to do this because I knew that our little time together was running out. So I asked him the original question again, and he said, 

"Well, some college students are going to be able to stay on their parents' health insurance until they're 26." 

After he finished taking his notes, he left and the medical technician returned with pills, ointments, and rehabilitation equipment for me, including a lumbar brace, and an ice, and heat pad, for my recovery. I'm also going to be sent to a chiropractor for two weeks. 


After I left the doctor's office, I was wondering if I should report to work tomorrow, so I called my general. She told me to come into the office so we could make a modified work plan. 

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be doing office work at FedEx Ground instead of handling packages. I'll also be starting at noon, instead of in the wee hours of the morning. I am not guaranteed though, the regular three to four hours that I'd been clocking as package handler lately. 

After talking with General Mallorie and Barker in their office about my new job duties, I went to use the bathroom. Then, when I left the office, I saw General Mallorie in the parking lot. 

She was taking a smoking break (smoking is pandemic among my co-workers) while talking on her cell phone. I caught a snippet of her conversation, 

"I'm about to have a heart attack," she said, obviously exaggerating some kind of stressful situation. As she said this, she also blew out a cloud of tobacco smoke, tinging her statement with a hint if irony. 

I decided to put my previous claim, made in my previous post "General Mallorie), that, surely, Mallorie had one day been a package handler like us. So I struck up a conversation with her.

"Hey Mallorie!" I said. 

"Yes Tomas?" she answered. She was already done talking on the phone. 

"Did you start out here as a package handler?" 

She smiled and said, "Yes, I did. I know what I'm doing. I been doing this for 25 years. I started off at UPS. Was there for 17 years."

"I figured that you had. You have not struck me as the type of manager that started off as a manager. On the contrary, something about you told me that you had started off at the bottom." 

"Yes, dat's why I don't spend all of my time in my office. If you notice, I like to spend a lot of time out on the dock, with my people. I want people to know that I can do everything they are doing. This is a job that takes a lot of stamina and endurance...."

(In a funny way, now these words seemed keenly relevant to me)
"...If you are not used to this work, it can take its toll on you but this is also a work that has a lot of rewards and opportunities." 

She smiled widely, she was also wearing sunglasses, and the ends of her cornrows were curling in the wind, and based on her smile, it was very obvious that one of those rewards was excellent dental coverage. Her teeth were straight, clean, and preponderant. 

"I want to get you healthy!" she said.

I want to get healthy too. This is why I'm going to do everything the doctor instructed me too.


A Close Call

Chronicles from Peak Season as Package Handler at Fed Ex 

Back while working at the belts, a convoy of four yellow-carts, pulled by an electric-powered cart, pulled up periodically. Each cart was filled with IC’s, kept inside and from tumbling over, by wire ropes. 

On arrival the driver, invariably Little Mo, or GQ Davey, unloaded the ICs, one by one, onto the rollers. ICs are always the heaviest and most difficult packages to carry and stage on the pallets, because of their unorthodox shapes, sizes, and weights. 

Before I worked in the UZone today, I harbored a small dose of envy for Little Mo and GQ Davey whose job, except of the unloading part, seemed not just relatively easy, but fun. But all I had seen until now was them driving the cart, honking for safety during their commute, and then getting off to unload. 

When not making the rounds, I thought they waited somewhere sitting in their electric cart while someone else loaded the IC’s onto the carts, and then drove around the dock, unloading, before doing it all over again. 

How naïve. 

In reality, both Mo and Davey alternate between unloading packages from the trucks, loading IC’s onto the caravan, and driving them to the belts, and unloading them.

Mo and I had been recruited to the UZ to help load ICs onto the convoy. I was cold (the UZone has two bays that are kept open. Outside it was still dark and frigid fog floated inside), I was intimidated (some packages were well over one hundred pounds, and long and bulky) and I was unsure of myself (because I had forgotten my work boots at home and was wearing a pair of totally fresa Nike sneakers more apt for walking at home on carpet), but, accompanied by Mo, I went forth.

The cyborgs were working at a frenzied pace, the conveyor belts (which like time, don’t stop) were full of packages, and all the chutes, feeding packages to the five different belts were overflowing with metric cube after metric cube of packages tumbling down, indifferent to human limitations of eyesight, strength, agility, know-how; simply wanting to be sorted, en route to where they were going: Point Loma, Downtown, Chula Vista, Escondido, east, north, west, south, wherever!

It was chaos and each hand was on deck, including a good portion of the office staff, and Mallorie, head-head honcho.

Mallorie is a woman with coal-black skin, in middle age, in decent shape. She wears her hair in cornrows and uses prescription eyeglasses.

She’s in charge of the entire dock. She probably meets regularly with regional managers and upper level executives, having to answer questions about volume, profit, profit-margin, workplace injuries, etcetera; and so you better believe that she is going to be out there, like a general in the midst of battle, to assure that shit gets done.

That’s a lot of responsibility: 18,000 packages today, the Purple Promise, the FedEx brand, worker safety.

Things were on the verge of spilling out of control at the “smalls” sorting area. "Smalls" are small boxes and large envelopes packages. The zone looked like a cruel God had taken a tote box full of "smalls" the size of a full-size dumpster and dumped it on top and around the packages sorters. 

It’s not like they weren’t trying. Each one of them had the look on their faces of a first grader who had been punished and was now doing penance by writing “I will never forget my homework again,” as fast as possible. But it was just too much. Like tidal waves hitting a coastal area incessantly. And more were coming!

In the middle of my IC loading assignment, in an enviroment muffled by the noise of running belts, shouting, moving rollers, the honking of the electric carts and the FedEx trucks, and idling engines, I heard Mallorie give me new instructions.

“Grab these clear bags and carry them over to “smalls.” Just dump them, dump them however they fall. Tear them open down the middle, don’t try it at the top. And see these white packaged bags? When you see a bag full of these, dump them at the southern work table. Go! Go! Go!” she yelled, as her radio crackled and spoke with indistinct voices from Chandra, Barker, and other managers, who were all in different parts of the dock, running, delegating, moving people around. 

I did as I was told for fifteen minutes, sweat dripping from my forehead, my fingertips sore from carrying the heavy plastic bags, struggling to find more surface space where to dump the “smalls” before remembering Mallorie’s ‘just dump them’ imperative and doing so, even if it didn’t feel right.

Then came another instruction from her.

“Young man! Now start taking those bags up there and feed those funnels!” she ordered, pointing at large heavy metal industrial stairs, with a half-funnel opened above them like the spread wings of a butterfly, behind which were three more cyborgs. 

After another fifteen of this and I was moved again.

This time to the 100 belt, where my only job was to keep the packages moving down the rollers. I was placed across Jamaica, a young black man who moonlights at Jack-in-the-Box. Above, to my right, and his left, was a wide chute slide that resembled the giant ear of an elephant bent over into a funnel, a giant, metal, burnished ear.

Behind the ear/chute was many meters of flat conveyor belt carrying packages. I watched the tilted elephant ear and the packages wouldn’t stop. It was like a regular waterfall of packages, and their steadiness gave the eternal aura of a real waterfall, where the water really never stops. 

The sorters down the belt just barely kept up and, out of empathy, it was hard for me to keep pushing packages down. But then I looked at the elephant’s ear, which quickly waxed up unless I kept them moving.

And then, quite miraculously I escaped an accident. 

I was facing the belt, using my right arm to push packages along. In front of me was Jamaica, more experienced here, helping me. I was standing near a post two meters to the left of the elephant’s ear. There was still more work to do here, but then, merely on a whim, I stepped twice to my right to pull more packages from the ear, and almost in synchronization, a fully staged pallet keeled over, like an avalanche, towards the belt, ramming a fully loaded cart, pushing it into motion against the belt, or my back, had I not just do-zee-doed two steps to my right half-a-second before. I had just secured my new position when the cart crashed into the post, and a mountain of packages behind it collapsed like a deck of cards.

“You almost got hurt,” said Jamaica, with a mixture of disbelief and nonchalance, before we swiftly forgot about it, and concentrated on keeping the packages moving.

(It doesn't count unless it actually happens.)

And in the background, I could imagine General Mallorie standing on a perch in the middle of it all, perusing the battlefield. Controlling everything, and nothing, at the same time.

The UZone

Chronicles from Peak Season as Package Handler at Fed Ex

The UZone

King Kong Zeb, Seth my Boy, Joseph Eagle Eye, Bo Black Knuckles, and I, Choleric Serpent on the Left, were busy (well, except for KK Zeb) moving packages on the 200 belt in our usual, dysfunctional, but ultimately sufficiently efficient way, when Chandra pulled Bo and I aside and asked nonchalantly and merrily, “So, do you want to work in the Unloading Zone (Uzone) today?”

We both said, “Sure.” 

Chandra gave us directions and we walked northbound, excited about our new adventure. First we cleared the 200 belt pallets and trucks. Then the 100 belt area. After that, we walked west a few meters, past Quality Assurance (where they take all packages damaged-beyond-repair), and neared the UZone. 

Even as we approached, the goose bumps on my chest and arms told me that there was a stark difference between the belts and this new zone: colder, louder, crazier, and more dangerous. At that precise moment, the dock was being slammed the hardest and the Uzone was Ground Zero. 

In context, the belts, even with their frenetic package handlers, its constantly falling packages, its teetering mountains of staged packages, felt quaint in comparison to what I saw now.

Before us were six open docks, for of them backed into by eighteen-wheeler box trucks. These truck boxes resembled cold, cavernous, rectangular, gaping mouths. The packages swiftly being unlined from their surfaces were like small and large teeth, and chips of teeth, being indifferently removed by drone-like dentists (the package handlers deep inside of the boxes). I thought of the Biblical story of Noah (Or was it Jeremiah?) inside of the mouth of the whale.

There was something about the package handlers (two of them deep inside, one of them in the center of the entrance to the boxes) who inside of the box looked small and fragile. You could not clearly see their facial profiles because the surfaces of their bodies were covered in the dark shadows of the enclosed compartments. They could have been miners inside of dark shafts.

All of these young men inside of the boxes, working furiously (they are expected to move out well upwards of 1000 packages per hour) to “unload” (can such an activity be truly called unloading) the truck boxes looked completely and utterly devoted to their task. Not a day at the picnic. It was evident in their expressionless, sweat-drenched bodies that there was room for nothing else except for the prescribed, repetitive, nonstop movements to do the job. One felt that to enter and interrupt the process in any way (a “hello,” for example) would not be tolerated and even be despised. They, we, really, were like water treaders attempting not to drown.

The single package handlers at the open end of the truck boxes wore prosthetic scanners on top of their forearms and hands. Their job is to scan each package coming down the rolling belt. Immediately after the scan, a label is printed and stuck on the package. Once labeled, the package went up a moving ramp.  

Jules, a tall kid with a beard (and dock racquetball champion) was working at this post. His prosthetic scanner, together with his gaze of unrelenting focus, gave him, and his peers, the appearance of cyborgs.

 In front of Jules was the industrial-sized ascending conveyor belt made of heavy metal painted in blue; about one meter in width, and climbing to about eight feet creating a minor overpass under which people traveled. This whole structure repeated itself four times across the open dock bays. 

Four truck boxes were being unloaded at the same pace, with four conveyor belts running at one time, all of them creating a small jungle of blue heavy metal around which other package handlers negotiated space and movement.

In scanning and pushing packages up the ramp, these handlers did two more tasks. Some packages simply didn’t scan and so they were slid onto a table with rollers, attached to the side of the ramp, to be registered in manually. Then there were packages whose size and shape made them incompatible to rolling smoothly along the usual course ways. These are called, simply, IC’s, or “Incompatibles.” 

And these were why Bo and I had been summoned to the UZone...



I needed a nap after work today. I started at 04:30 and, except for a ten-minute break, worked non stop until 08:30. 18,000 packages came through the dock. Up from 16,000 yesterday, and 11,000 on my first day of work. It was about 07:00 when I felt something akin to battle fatigue.

During orientation, Chandra, a manager and trainer, warned us about this. She said:

“Guys, when you need a drink of water, take it. If you need to take a break, take it. There will be times when you will have had enough (the packages will be coming and coming non-stop), believe me. Just tell me ‘I have had enough,’ and then take a break.” 

Today I saw a glimmer of that kind of fatigue. I don’t know what I will do next time that happens. I do not know that I will not just take myself out of the human and machine sorting machine. No amount of hustle or sorting shrewdness will stop the packages coming down the chutes and onto the roller belts and bunching into temporary pyramids before falling to the floor. 

I am tired. 


Tired of going to bed at 20:00. Tired of getting up at 02:00. Tired of commuting forty five minutes to work. Tired of dainty co-workers, especially when they are built like linebackers. Tired of the meddling drivers. Tired of the dropping boxes, the way they crunch into each other, forcing some of them open. 

Tired of the constant running pace. Tired of how we are not afforded lumbar braces or gloves. Tired of the disorganization, the arbitrarily added new routes. Tired of carrying packages.

Thousands and thousands of packages of all sizes, in all kinds of shape, with all kinds of shit in them: wine, bikes, bullets, paper, monitors, Cox paraphernalia, plastic jungle gyms.

Incompatible packages. 100 lb packages. 150 lb packages. Tired of lost tape guns and rolls.


This sense of fatigue held my hand this morning at 02:00 and said,

“Ask for the day off, please?”

It nagged me during the entire commute. Meanwhile, I veered from my lane thrice as I struggled to stay awake. By then it was no longer holding my hand. It was resting its hand on a shoulder, in a cold, clunky car, saying:

“Call Chandra. Tell her you are depressed and that you want the day off.” 


It isn’t just work. It’s everything. Kelly stating in no uncertain terms that we could never be anything else than friends, the threat of my car breaking down, the constant loss of quality time to do things I really want to do, the pain in my mouth that may, or may not, be an abscess, and so forth. 

Still, I’m glad I didn’t listen to my cry for rest today. It would have been the wrong day to ask for time off: 18,000 packages.