The summer I graduated from high school, I worked in a plastics factory before I headed off to college. I spent the first part of the summer on an extended backpacking trip with a school group that was phenomenal. The remainder I spent in this miserable factory job.
I was a gate jockey. My job was to take parts out of a plastic injection molding machine and put them into a box. The machine was about the size of a van, and about as hot as a an engine at high RPM. There were often tasks to do between each cycle; if a part needed internal threading, the thread mold, that looked like a heavy bolt without a head on it, had to be inserted into the main mold between each cycle, and the other thread mold removed from the part before it was packed. The safety gate, a sliding plexiglass door, had to be opened in between each cycle, hence the name “gate jockey.”
The job was easy enough, but the working conditions were awful. I worked through a temp agency, so I could be let go at any minute. The hours were brutal. We worked a four-and-four shift, which meant we worked for twelve hours a day for four days in a row and then had four days off. The machines had to run constantly because they had molten plastic flowing through them and would have to go through elaborate shut down and start up procedures in order to work properly, so there was no pause button. Because of this requirement, we had only a ten minute break every two hours, and no other time off for meals or anything. There were only two shifts: day and night. The floor supervisors staggered our breaks, subbing in for us when we were on break, so the gate jockeys were always alone during breaks. I worked there for more than a month and didn’t get to know anyone.
On one rare occasion when my machine was being changed over, the shop foreman Mike sent me over to another room, “Production,” to work. This room was filled with folding tables and folding chairs with piles of plastic parts and rows of gossipy older women chatting away, using nippers and box cutters to separate and trim plastic parts. I thought I would finally get to talk to someone, but although their conversation was continuous and reeling not one of these women said a word to me. They spoke of husbands and children and grandchildren and gall bladder surgeries and I never had a way into that conversation. In fact, at five o’clock, when their shift ended, two hours before mine, they simultaneously all got up and left me sitting there alone. The last woman out shut off the lights and left me in the dark.
I did get to know the maintenance fellow, Joe, a bit. When he found out I was going off to college he told me that he had planned to go to Olivett College on a scholarship for music but his paperwork had hit a snag and it didn’t work out. He seemed interested in my interest in going into engineering and said that he considered that too in high school. I later suspected his life story was a lie because he also told me when he found out my interest in cycling that he was about to go pro as a cyclist until he blew out his knee. He also said at another time that he was a paratrooper, but wasn’t clear about whether that was before or after the career-ending knee injury and lost paperwork.
So I worked this job; twelve hours at a stretch, almost no interaction with anyone. In fact, one part of my job for awhile was to watch a newfangled robot do its work to make sure it didn’t mess up. Cruelly, my station faced a clock. Other gate jockeys brought Walkman cassette players to work, but my mother thought that would be too unprofessional of me, so I had nothing but my own thoughts. The trouble was, if my attention drifted, I could really mess things up.
One day I was really tired from staying up too late the night before and ended up leaning too hard on the parts as I put them on the drill to remove the inserts. Five boxes of parts had to be ground up and re-cast because I ruined too many of the threads.
If my door was open too long, my production rate slowed, and I got a lesson on how to speed up. I clipped open the pad of my thumb with a pair of nippers during one of my stints in production. I have the scar still more than twenty years later. You could burn yourself on the hot parts too if you weren’t careful; we wore thick gloves and green gauze tape on our fingertips to protect us. One guy dumped a bunch of window handles in the grinder with metal tabs still attached and ruined the grinder. Mike apparently grew angry at these infractions. I say apparently, because Joyce, the QC supervisor would tell us and would say “Mike’s pissed and he won’t ask you back if you keep messing up.” Mike himself seemed a bit harried but otherwise genial. It was like being told “your father is really angry at you” but having no actual emotion from dad in person.
So I messed up here and there, but kept getting asked back.
The hours would drag by, getting slower the more tired I felt. It was an odd existence during my on days. I would wake up at six, get to work a few minutes before seven, take the place of the cranky twentysomething at my machine, work twelve hours that seemed like twenty, and then a few seconds before seven at night, Mr. Cranky would show up at my machine. I’d get home about seven thirty for a couple of hours of downtime, then sleep, and then at seven the next morning I’d take Mr. Cranky’s place again.
What I couldn’t figure out at this job is why I was so tired. It’s true the day was long, but the actual labor wasn’t hard. Some of the shifts I got to sit down the whole time. One machine I got put on, for example, had a one minute and twenty second cycle. I could do my part in about twelve seconds. That meant that most of the day I actually did nothing. Mike laughed at me because he caught me falling asleep at that station for about thirty seconds at a time.
What I know now is that sustained concentration on something that doesn’t have intrinsic interest for me is mentally taxing, and the longer I have to do it, the more taxing it is and the less well I perform. It’s a downward spiral; I have to try harder and harder to keep focusing, but that makes me more tired and less able to focus. I know this both from my own cognitive testing and from brain-scan research. I could sit and read a good book and often have read entire books in one sitting, but if I had to sort pipe fittings for the same amount of time I would make dozens of mistakes and feel like I had just finished a marathon.
I’ve noticed recently that my brain works against me when I have to face a round of tedious work, like grading a bunch of papers by myself. (It’s easy if I’m with someone else, even better if that someone else is the student). I have an automatic resistance to getting started, and once I do start, my body goes tired. For most of my life, I could not figure this reaction out, or even notice it. I would overcome it by bearing down or loading up on caffeine until that became unsustainable, the immediate effect of which was spending hours locked away in a dark room trying to sleep. I spent many years theorizing these feelings and reactions away in therapy and reading and journals, trying to attach it to some complicated anxiety model, when it turned out the answer is simple: if I don’t like to do something, then I really don’t like to do it. I just have a stronger resistance than average. If something is boring or tedious or uninterestingly complicated, or if it requires multitasking or lots of working memory, then I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to get started, I have trouble keeping with it, and I have trouble finishing it. If something is novel, engaging, or challenging in a fresh way, if it piques my curiosity in any way at all, then that’s much easier. I could even pay my bills on time if someone made a video game interface for Quicken.