You can endure a lot when you're a college student, eager (even aggressive) to sock away funds for the next academic year. So one summer when I had a chance to do my usual newspaper intern gig in the evening (hello again, creativity nurturer Southtown Economist) AND put make some serious bucks doing day shifts at a pipe factory (hello, new sugar daddy Star Pipe Supply), I jumped in with a what-the-hell attitude and visions of eating far less ramen and crappy fast food the next year at school.
Underlying my soon to be exhaustion was the premise that I could throw myself into physical effort during the day, sweating off some pounds and connecting with the working guys in the old neighborhood, then decompress physically and engage my mind with story writing, editing and headline conjuring at night before crashing after midnight and beginning the cycle at 7:30 the next morning. Mind and muscle. Yin and yang.
Young. Foolish. You know.
Two weeks in, I'd sweated, greased, spilled and otherwise abused a half-dozen old t-shirts at the day job, which involved general schlepping in aid of the busy production guys who molded, cut and otherwise prepped pipe fittings for industrial supply. I was oversee by the plant foreman, Ralph, who seemed determined to give me an education in working-stuff reality. The worst part aspect was manhandling, with aid of a winch, some sort of extraordinarily heavy metal basket to be aligned and then lifted into a steaming barrel of oil for lubrication, then dumped and sorted. Just moving the basket, which was about the size of an alley garbage can, routinely kicked my ass. But by four weeks in, I'd at least figured out the best ways to maneuver and dump without getting splashed with oil or dropping anything on my foot (yes, the place required steel-toed boots, for just such possibilities).
The quietest part of the gig was sorting various pipe fittings, nipples and connectors by size, then running them through a machine that applied a tape label if you were lucky, or gunked up and had to be unstuck if you weren't. Each piece. Dozens at a time. And then they had to be boxed and shelved.
I did lose about 8 pounds in those 10 weeks. I did really come to understand and appreciate what people working in industry endure every day, and the sheer physical toll that kind of work takes. And I spent every free moment thinking of stories, jokes and ideas to write in the passion part of my working summer: the journalism.
That was my lifeline. Because the exhaustion of hard lifting and carting and mindless sorting isn't just physical, it's psychological. Every quarter hour you're on the clock in that kind of gig (and, yes, I did punch a time clock that summer; you were docked pay for being 5 minutes late on any punch-in or punch-out) is spent just trying not to have something fall on you, to anticipate the next tedious task, to count down the minutes to the whistled work breaks and the freedom to stretch out on a shelf and close your eyes. And then to walk out the door, reeking of oil, grease, sweat and machinery, and just want nothing more to shower.
I paid my dues. My drive to use my mind was fixed. I aspired.