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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Still There (from 2007)

Ever work in a factory?

If you’re reading this page, the answer is likely no. I remember reading that if you are at a gathering of college educated persons, not one of them will know personally anyone who is not. They can cast around for the name of the plumber or something to make their working class bona fides, but it’s not the same thing. With a few exceptions, educated persons don’t know people who are not, and vice versa.

I am not fixing to hold myself up as any sort of example of anything. I don’t fit in anywhere and so am useless as any sort of ruler to measure such things. I drift along through many sets of people, and belong to none, really. Maybe I should be a writer. I have no fixed perspective.

I have worked in a factory. More than one. A big old brick building with tall windows and a punch clock and battered formica tables and two vending machines in a break room. Union, some of them, too. I know what it’s like. A lot of people who have never known work talk about the loss of belching smokestack factories like it’s a plague of locusts or something. If they ever worked in one they might feel differently. I can’t properly describe the sensation of eating your lunch out of a paper sack and reading an inexpertly printed missive from personnel (they used to call it that without shame) telling me, just 19 years old, that all I had to do is work another 49 years putting the same tiny screws into some holes while looking at a gauge, and I could retire with a little pension.

They never understood why I left. My fellow workers, grown old and crabby in the traces, tried to get me to explain, which I could not do without insulting them, and then, frustrated, barked at me that I’d be sorry. I never was. The factory has been shuttered and dark for decades now, and they all lost their jobs. The world is a shark and must always swim. I recognize the charlatans that say the shark must stand still no matter how they tart up the presentation. Numbskull Canutes want to rule the world.

There can be dignity there, in a factory. If there is work that is not dignified I have not seen it. You must bring the dignity with you, as in all things. It will not be supplied to you. It cannot be taken from you if you will keep it.

That picture is taken in 1940. There is certainly dignity in that picture, along with hard work and danger and a wage, and it shines right through. Old Kenyon’s Johnnycake Mill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island. I used to visit the towns around there often in the summer. And the place is still there.

Kenyon’s Corn Meal Company

It’s marvelous it’s still there after centuries. The shark must swim. It does not devour all its young, though.

11 Responses

  1. Ya got a point. I got the degree, but don't know any factory workers. I do know a school janitor (did some of that myself over about 7 years). Didn't work in a factory, but ran an egg-candling machine a few summers, and headed up the dropping-pit shoveling team one summer.

  2. I've got a degree, and I know a few who don't.

    I have a friend who when I met him was not college educated. He was a considerable autodidact though, and could talk philosophy at a masters level, except he wouldn't because most people at that level were navel gazing morons. He also was a cop and has shot a few people who needed it. Although not when he wa a cop.

    He's a nurse now (RN), which required a college education, but is more like factory work than not (shifts, unions, crummy break rooms, getting stuff on your hands you'd rather not) but not quite as mind numbing as factory work appears to be.

    I've got a cousin who never started college much less finished it. Lives down in Oklahoma out in the country miles from a paved road (at least last time I was there, 20 years ago). He's happy as if he had good sense, which given that he's got a brick house with a roof means he's got better sense than some (did you finish the story about jacking up your house? I can't remember).

    Another couple cousins are in nursing. Mostly LPNs. I guess technically it's college, but not that I'd recognize it.

    Most of my friends have a college education, but at least one of htem blew that off to go back in the military (as an NCO, which is what he left at). He carries a gun for a living now, which is unlike factory work in that "troubleshooting" has a completely different result for the trouble.

  3. Been there, done that too. Tobacco factories, electronic components, paper tubes where I was on the books. Fertilizer and food where I was off the books. These made me durn careful to get my degree so I wouldn't have to go back. My degree in Chemistry has served me well.

    When I talk to people who've never had to break a sweat to put food on the table, I despair.

    Jim Bowb.

  4. Yep. Steel mill back in the 70s. First as a short order cook in the cafeteria, then in facilities. Meaning one put on a set of coveralls and crawled around on piping with seventy years of dirt and oil on them looking for leaks. Still better than losing fingers when the coiled steel slipped off its rollers.

    When I mentioned thinking about leaving the mill to join the Navy, every man in the place urged me to sign up – even the plant manager's secretary (and she'd worked her way up from the shop floor.)

  5. Does a sawmill count? Did a bit of everything, green chain, boiler room, millwright and sawyer.

    One of my buddies quit teaching high school to take a janitors job at the same school, he did sub. though.

  6. Might not.have worked in a factory, but I've driven an 18 wheeler into and out of a bunch,.loaded and.unloaded in temps ranging from 125*F to -35F. I've heaved boxes,.wrapped pallets, and.laid in snow and.slush to put on chains. I've also gone to college, and will finally earn my degree this May. In Culinary Arts. I know lots of people on both ends of the Spectrum.

  7. "… You must bring the dignity with you, as in all things …"
    Yes, it is an Inside Job.

    I've worked in factories, the biggest was at EMD in La Grange IL, they had bays where cranes would hoist a whole locomotive and move it down the bay. Small places, a couple foundries, assembly plants. Never went to college but got into an apprenticeship and became an electrician. So, skilled trade and got my hands dirty all the time.

    God bless the working man.

  8. First off: Thank you, once again, for what you do here on the Innertoobs. It's always interesting, and sometimes more fun than I can have most anywhere else (at least simply while reading), plus, often enough, edifying in various ways.

    Second: In this specific case, thank you kindly for reminding me yet again just where I came from and mostly-escaped by dint of persistent application of the intelligence I received as a gift of birth and considerable fortune in being born where, when and to whom I was. Namely, having mostly departed the realm of the factory after only enough of a brush-block with it to provide incentive to move on, move up and never voluntarily go back. There is, indeed, dignity in all labor – but when you are sweating into your workshoes at some near-endless set of tasks that tax your endurance physically while sorely trying your tolerance for stupefaction, said dignity can be pret' near impossible to detect.

    Factory work I did to make my way financially to a college degree also served as the prime motivator to make sure i completed that degree, then utilized it to leverage myself onward and permanently off that factory floor.

    Finally: "The world is a shark and must always swim." Boy, howdy, that really says it all, when it comes to the progression of the human condition, does it not? Thank you, therefore, for a highly-useful phrase, one I shall shamelessly re-use wherever applicable.

    Be Well (Oh, and get back to jacking up that house-wall, will you?…)

  9. Here I am, the prodigal blog reader. Life being what it is, I've slid away from reading many blogs I used never to miss.

    Now that I've read this post, I realize — quite sharply, actually — the error of my ways. This is a wonderful post.

    I've never worked in a factory, but you might enjoy seeing this photo of my office. What's not to like?

  10. I doubt the statistic that begins the article — rather a lot of college types are first-generation. My Ph.D adviser, the guy I post-doced with, and I are all "blue-collar scholars" from working-class families. Only about half of my friends have degrees.

    Then again, I left academia after 20 years to go build machines for a living, so maybe I'm not exactly typical. 🙂

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