Chain Gang

November 28th, 2020

“The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you”

from “Back on the Chain Gang” by The Pretenders (1982)

The young woman’s fiancé has a job interview on Monday afternoon. He’s excited about it, as he should be. His girl is seven months pregnant, and he is flat broke. Both of them live at our house, which is necessary at this point. They have no other options. The young man wants to be a good father and husband, which would require him to make a living to support his new family. So, this thirty-year-old is both excited, and nervous, about getting a new job. There is a lot riding on this.

I have been in a similar situation. It happened many years ago. I resigned my commission as an U.S. Army officer in August of 1986. Almost immediately thereafter, Karin and I found out that she was pregnant with our first son, Hans. I had hoped to transition quickly and smoothly from my military career (such as it was) to a job in civilian life. That was not to happen. I had been a rebel, malcontent, and ofttimes drunk in the Army, and that made me less than attractive to prospective employers. It took me five months to get a job that would take care of my wife and son-to-be. Those were five months of intense stress; months that I would wish on no other person.

The fiancé’s condition is a bit different. He is a recovering addict, and he is putting his all into getting his head straight. I admire him for that. In that sense, he is better man than I am. The young man has a history, and he already has responsibilities (he has three small children from two previous relationships). The man has baggage. He is digging himself out of a hole, and the hole is deep.

The fiancé’s job interview is with the same trucking company that employed me for almost 28 years. I joined CCX in 1988 as a supervisor, and I kept that position for my entire career there. CCX no longer exists. It eventually morphed into Con-Way Freight, and finally it was bought out by XPO Logistics, a soulless, global transportation conglomerate. The transition to XPO occurred just before I retired five years ago. I have not heard any good news from my old work place since that time.

In any case, the fiancé needs a job, and XPO is desperately looking for warm bodies. That corporation assumed that, with the pandemic, business would slow down. It didn’t. It’s booming instead. So, they have a huge shortage of people to do the work. This being true, the fiancé is in a very good position to find work.

Here is the rub: the young man is not necessarily well suited for this particular work environment. He has the right skill set. He knows how to drive a forklift and he has worked already in an factory setting. However, this guy is a sensitive and gentle soul. That is not good.

I don’t know how things are now at XPO. I don’t really want to know. However, when I left that organization, it was a truly heartless, vicious place to work. Part of that was my fault. I was a hard person to like.

Con-Way, or XPO, was always an example of capitalism in its purist and most ruthless form. Good enough was never good enough. There was never enough profit. Every workday was just another chance to squeeze blood from a stone. Con-Way followed the moral code of the cancer cell: growth is always good. We could never be as efficient as we could be. We were always lacking somehow , maybe just a little bit.

Even now, I look back with at those years with trepidation. I didn’t like who I was then. More to the point, other people didn’t like me either. If I ever meet with former coworkers, they say something like,

“Well, you really were an asshole, but you always got the job done.”

I guess that they can write that on my tombstone.

The fiancé is applying for a job on the loading/unloading dock. That will be interesting. He will be working on the dock during crunch time. There is a narrow window during the late afternoon when 1.5 million pounds of freight from pick ups in the city explodes on to the dock. It is busy beyond belief, and utter chaos reigns. All these shipments have to be loaded and sent to places far away, and it all has to happen right fucking now.

Working on the dock at a trucking company is brutal, in a variety of ways. First of all, there are the physical conditions to be considered. The dock is a concrete slab with only a roof above it. The doors for the trucks are all open, all the time. Whatever the temperature is outside is also the employee’s work environment. If it is negative five degrees outside, then that is where you live and work. Eight to ten hours is sub-zero weather takes a toll on a person. A dockworker slowly feels their life force ebb away during the shift, regardless of how many clothes they wear.

Dock work is also emotionally brutal. The main qualification for dock work is impatience. Everything has to be done quickly. Everybody is in a rush all the time. I guarantee that this young man will be under enormous stress. It won’t be long before somebody screams at him,

“What the fuck are you doing?!”

There really is no good answer to that question.

As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

The young man will need to understand that.

Dock work is dangerous. I know this from experience. I was run over by a forklift back in March of 2009. My entire right foot and ankle were completely crushed by a 8000 lbs. machine. I am lucky to be able to walk. It’s all kind of scary.

Well, I hope the guy gets the job. It will be trial by fire. but then most of life is like that.

Back to the chain gang.

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