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A Paint-Factory Education


ISSUE:  Fall 2014

The summer after my first year in college, I worked in a paint factory. Packard Paint was a small operation—no more than thirty people worked there—tucked away in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a city of about thirty thousand. Chelsea was known for its rank corruption, its crummy schools, and its overall status as the most down-on-its-heels city north of Boston. From what I could see, there were no “good parts” of Chelsea. It was all three-deckers and pawnshops, thrown beside liquor stores, bargain-bin joints, and grim-faced factories like Packard Paint. But Chelsea and Packard gave me something invaluable, something I dearly wish my students now had a shot at: They gave me a paint-factory education.


When I signed on at the Packard Paint factory, I needed money for school. Student loans may have been available then, but my family and I knew nothing about them. To my mind, I had to come up with my own cash to pay tuition and room and board at the University of Massachusetts. My father didn’t have it, and my mother didn’t either. And though my younger brother stashed oodles of coins in his steel bank, breaking into it—as I’d done before—wasn’t going to pay my tuition bill. It was Packard Paint or no school—and I dearly loved school. And in the 1970s, a good blue-collar summer job paid enough money to pay college tuition.

At the time, I thought Packard would be a means to an education, not an education in itself. But the situation turned out to be a little like the one Henry David Thoreau created by cutting his own firewood. It warmed him twice. Packard sent me off to college, yes. But it educated me in its own ways as well. The paint factory schooled me twice.

I wasn’t certain what the paint manufactured at Packard was for, and none of the workers at Packard Paint knew that for sure either. Some thought that the paint, which was thick and industrial strength, was used to insulate the bottom of ships and that the place did a brisk business with the US Navy. Others thought that we were simply making various types of paint that were going to various uses: Occasionally someone claimed to have seen—or to know someone who had seen—a can or two of Packard Paint in a supply store out by Mattapan. 

But the presiding theory among the workers at Packard Paint was that the factory was owned by a large conglomerate (large, that is, for 1971). Most of the guys who worked at Packard mixing the paint, canning it, cleaning out the mixing bins, and then starting all over were persuaded that the conglomerate was using Packard to create tax losses. So the paint never got sold but simply ended up in a warehouse somewhere in Chelsea (and there were plenty of warehouses in Chelsea). Others, the more rebellious of the Packard gang, said that the paint that we spent long days producing was taken every month and dumped to the bottom of the sea. This was what the bosses meant when they informed us that we were mixing “maritime” paint.

In 1971 there were no internships, or none that I’d heard of, and everyone I knew who was home from college tried to pick up summer work of any kind. Viewed from one angle, Packard Paint was an especially good summer job. It was a union job: The International Chemical Workers Union (I think that’s what it was called) extracted a significant piece of my first check and solid hits from all the rest. But the union ensured that I made good money, at least three times minimum wage. I also had access to overtime, for which I was paid time and a half: outrageously good money.

But for this money I and everyone else at Packard Paint worked. The day started at seven; there was an hour break for lunch at noon; then we went on till four o’clock when the whistle blew. Whether the paint was going to the hulls of ships or straight to the bottom of the sea to coat rocks in Boston Harbor or coral formations off Fiji, I couldn’t tell you, but my cohorts and I at Packard Paint worked like fiends to produce it.

Sal, whose workstation abutted mine for a while, liked to look over in my direction and sing out, “Are ya busy, Mark?” “Mark” had no r in it, being that we were from around Boston. It didn’t for my mother or father or brother or anyone else I knew: “Ah ya busy, Mahhk?” Sal must have said it a dozen times a day. The answer was always affirmative. “Working hard, Sal. How about you?” “You know I am,” Sal said.

From the time we got off the elevator that took us to one of the two production floors, we denizens of Packard Paint went at it. I sometimes worked alongside a buddy from the University of Massachusetts, Mike, who copped me the job. Mike got there first and found his way to a permanent place at the biggest mixer. I got there a week after and became the guy who filled in for whoever was on vacation. That meant that in twelve weeks I did almost every job at Packard Paint that did not involve telling someone else what to do. 

I mixed paint in the machines upstairs, pouring bags of fine-grained pigment on top of liquids in the mixers and creating a smell so foul that I almost passed out once or twice. In another stint I winched the big drums up high in the air with a pulley and lowered them down onto a stabilizing contraption. From there I opened the valve and let the paint pour into individual cans. When I had a caseload of cans—about a dozen—I brought them over to the lidding machine, placed the lids softly on the top of the cans, stepped on the lever, and popped them into place. 

In certain ways I was terrible at the work. My natural disposition is dreamy, bordering on distracted, and if there’s one thing you need to do in a paint factory—or any factory—it is to pay attention. Of course this led to problems, one of them having to do with gaskets. When you mixed paint in a big vat, you were supposed to insert a gasket before you closed the top of the vat and turned on the machine and got it all pitching and shaking. On at least two occasions I neglected to affix the gasket or didn’t get it on tightly enough. If you think that milk goes a long way and hits everything and stains and stinks when you make the mistake of busting open a bottle, I recommend that you try paint. 

When I was pouring the paint into cans, I tended to space out and let the stuff keep coming even when the top had been well reached. This, too, made for a merry mess, though nothing quite so Fourth of July explosive as leaving a gasket off the mixing vat. There were other problems as well: piling more cartons of paint on the hand truck than the hand truck could reasonably hold and then, feeling that the elevator was too slow, deciding to bump the whole mess down two flights of stairs to get the paint to the shipping dock and along toward its probable under-sea destination.

It didn’t help that the guy I worked with for the first three weeks hated my guts. His name was Tommy Grimes (or that’s the name I’ll use for him), and I had known him in a past life. Tommy was about five-two with a Humpty Dumpty head, dense enlisted-GI-style glasses, and a skin condition that his doctors had told him was unprecedented. It involved periodic breakouts of white, scab-like items all over his body, though not on his face. They didn’t hurt, he said; they didn’t itch, he said. But cosmetically they were nothing to celebrate. Tommy was about thirty years old; he lived with his mother; he went to church every morning and took the sacrament. The factory consensus was that Tommy was a virgin and that it would take more than just one sack of gold doubloons to change his condition. 

I had known Tommy when I was a Boy Scout. He wasn’t the scoutmaster; he wasn’t even the assistant scoutmaster. He was just a guy who showed up at our Thursday night meetings from time to time wearing a sash covered with patches from various Scout jamborees he had attended when he was part of the group. He was not a Star or Life Scout, nor was he an Eagle Scout, Scouting’s highest rank. He was simply a veteran Scout who made himself look important with the sash. Now he had taken on a similar role as a wizened veteran at Packard Paint.

On my first day at Packard, the boss—an ex-Marine named Brown—told Tommy to get me to speed up my canning. This Tommy did, using grunts and sign language as well as the occasionally derisive remark. On the afternoon of day one I had my first spill, minor league I suppose—but then given the nature of paint there really is no such thing as a small-time spill. The stuff was international orange, as I recall. I ran off to get the sawdust to soak up the paint; in turn, Tommy ran off to tell the rest of the factory what a mess I’d made. We did renditions of this number at least two more times, with Tommy dancing off each time like an evil elf to spread the bad news. 

I was puzzled—and also pissed. Yeah, I’d spilled paint or set a few tops on wrong, but did we need a factory-wide broadcast? In time I pieced it together. Tommy it turned out had a reputation at Packard as a ten-thumbs guy. This was clear the first time I heard someone call him “Spills” rather than Tommy. He was no doubt hoping that someone would take over the title of factory klutz, at least for the summer. Surely he had a break coming. There was also the fact—unspoken between us—that I had known him in his glory. He had descended upon us Scouts wearing the sash and booming orders and walking around scrutinizing us as though there were a perpetual military inspection underway. Now he was no longer the George Patton of Scouting but a loin-clothed slave at a factory in Chelsea. 

During the first weeks at the plant, I didn’t have much time or inclination to ponder Tommy’s existential reasons for hating me, though pondering his sorry lot now makes me sad enough. Most of the time, I was prey to an exhaustion unlike anything I’d experienced before. The first day of work I came back to my parents’ house with my hands, arms, and neck covered in paint: I hadn’t cleaned off before I left the factory. It took me an hour using our weak household paint thinner to get the congealed gunk off of me and then, too tired to eat dinner, I fell into bed and slept ten hours of dreamless sleep. When my father woke me up at six o’clock to drive me to work, it felt like major injustice. I’d done something extraordinary by showing up at Packard and putting in eight hours, and now it was time to salve my tired muscles, take a bath, watch some TV, maybe pick up a book, and reflect with melancholy satisfaction on my time as a factory worker. But it was Tuesday—four more days before the weekend. 

I let my father know how I was feeling about the Packard Paint enterprise and he said something to me that I then felt ranked among the cruelest of his admonitions (and there was plenty of competition). “You’ll get used to it,” he said. “You’ll get used to it.” 

It is impossible to express how miserable I felt that first week. I was always exhausted; I was always dirty—and not just caked with grunge or grime but covered in foul-smelling noxious paint that made my skin break out. The factory was tropically hot, a vicious microclimate, so I went around in a sweat all the time. The machines pounded and screamed all day, and you had to holler to make yourself heard—and of course people were always hollering at you. 

Plus, I was awful at the job, spilling paint, knocking pallets over, forgetting how to balance crates on the hand truck. Every new snafu sent Tommy Grimes roaring through the factory like the town crier, announcing my latest. When the whistle blew on Friday, I nearly fell to the ground and said a prayer of thanksgiving. As I left I looked at the soot-stained brick walls of Packard Paint and at the high chain-link fence topped with razor wire and told myself that I would not be coming back again.

But early Monday morning, I was down in the changing room pulling on my factory uniform—it had arrived that morning. I’d be docked for it on my next check. There was my name across the top pocket: mark. At least they hadn’t fired me. At least I still had a job—a rope, hand-ripping as it was, to climb back to college. But my satisfaction didn’t last: Soon we were tromping up the stairs to the factory floor, ready to fill whatever orders Lord Neptune had sent in for paint to coat the bottom of his ocean.

“Are you busy, Mark?” I was, and I told Sal as much.

I had come to learn a few things about Sal. Sal was a heavy-set Sicilian, and in a photograph he might have looked like a collection man for Ray Patriarca, the guy who ran the New England mob from his compound in Providence, Rhode Island, an hour away. But Sal was soft and genial, always whistling, often smiling. He was working beside his son, who was also summer help, doing for Sal what I was supposed to be doing for Tommy, though with far better results. When Sal poured the paint into the cans, it ran down from the vat like velvet; he touched the canning machine with his toes, no more than that, and the can closed up like a clam. He had been at Packard doing much the same job for fifteen years.

He asked me how my weekend was, and I told him the truth. I pretty much slept through it—I was so exhausted from what I’d done (and failed to do) at the factory. I asked him if he’d slept late on Saturday—maybe stayed between the sheets until noon.

He signaled to his son to pick up the pouring and canning operation and he came up close to me. I can remember what he said almost word for word.

“No, Mark, no. On Saturday, I get up early. I get up at five o’clock. I go out and see my birds. I love to watch the birds. Do you have bird feeders at your house? You should.

“Then I water my tomatoes before the sun gets too hot. Saturday is my only real free day, and I want it to last as long as it can.” Then he said: “Sunday’s not so good. Sunday I start thinking that I have to go back to this.” 

Sal returned to his station, motioned his son aside, and started back to pouring paint. 

“You’ll get used to it,” my father had said. Would I? As guys went on vacation, I traveled from job to job, trying to learn them, trying to do them half right and almost always making a mess, at least at the start. I came home at night feeling that I’d been kicked and punched and shoved and then sent off to run four or five miles. The only experience that I could compare it to was high-school football, from which I came home feeling like I’d been forced into a sack and rolled down a flight of iron stairs. But there was something slightly glorious about football: It took courage; it made you stronger; it gave you confidence. Packard Paint was football in reverse, or at least so I thought at the time. The job wore you out without making you stronger; it took desperation, not courage, to go to work; and screwing up and being upbraided by Tommy Grimes did not, I could readily testify, add to my quotient of self-confidence.

At the end of each week, I expected to get fired. When I saw Brown on Friday, I tried to stay out of his way. Though getting fired would have come as some relief, it would also have meant that I probably couldn’t make it back to school. But Brown said almost nothing to me—until the last day of the job. Early on someone overheard him turn to Rufus, the shop steward, and ask, “Where the heck did we get that kid?” Yet Friday came and there was no pink slip, assuming they did use pink slips at Packard. Instead, they probably just told you to get out and not come back. And every other Friday or so, there was a new job assignment. Brown walked his stiff-as-a-board Marine Corps walk in my direction, jerked his head at me, got me to follow him to this or that new workstation, and, using as few words as possible—he seemed to have roughly the vocabulary of a parrot—told the guy at the station to break me in so I could take over the following Monday.

Every Monday the mixers began to boom and the belts began to whirl and horrifying smells took over the air. The atmosphere was truly rank. It was as though someone had put meat on the barbecue and left it burning all night. And the creature who’d been scampering inside the wall was decomposing double-time. And a stack of ancient truck tires was burning slowly down to black pudding. The stench was always different; it was always worse than it had been the day before. Guys hollered loudly at each other and quietly cursed themselves. Packard Paint was up and slugging again like an old club fighter. 

After a few weeks, I began to pick up on the rhythm of the factory. I actually learned to listen when someone told me how a machine worked or how a job got done, rather than deciding I could more or less ignore him and proceed on my own with the trial-and-error method. Trial and error sent paint all over the room, and if there is something harder to clean up than spilt paint, I have not yet discovered it. It’s perhaps not worth crying over spilt milk, though the stuff does raise a horrid stink after a while, but paint is another matter altogether. Instead of crying over a quart or so of spilt paint, I saved my tears for later: I went after the sawdust; I waited for it to soak up what it would. Next I shoveled, and then I swept. To finish, I got a can of paint remover that would have taken the paint off your car in a second and I went to work. The rule was that you had to make the paint spill disappear. Completely. It took some time, but I made my spills go away; the process was so labor intensive that it was a wonderful inducement never to spill again. Alas, it took a long time before I was fully induced.

As the summer went on, I began to gather some allies and even some friends. My buddy Mike, the guy who got me the job, was amiable, but he was an efficient worker who’d been given one job, manning the giant vat. He was good-natured, but he surely didn’t want to have his lot thrown in with the plant loser. Once you were part of a duo at a factory or at school, your identity could get stuck there, and you’d have to perpetually taste the results of the other guy’s misfortunes and failures. Mike wasn’t having any of that.

As soon as I was fully installed in the union, about three weeks into the game, Rufus, the steward, began to watch out for me a little. Rufus was a black man in his forties, with a gold tooth up front. By far, he was the most respected guy in the place, management included. He worked eight hours a day at Packard, then he went off to Logan Airport in Boston, where he worked eight hours through the night, cleaning out airplanes. I knew this was possible because my father had worked a similar schedule when I was a very young boy: He had done eight hours at a sit-down restaurant and then eight at a drive-in joint that sold burgers and fries. When my father said, “You’ll get used to it,” he may have been a touch callous, but he was speaking from experience. 

Unlike my colleagues, I brought a book to work every day, sometimes Hemingway, sometimes Faulkner, and Rufus took an interest in them. He seemed to know who the writers were but not to have read much of them. But Rufus did read. At lunch, he sat down against the stained brick wall and read a page that he had scissored out of the dictionary. “I love words,” he told me. And he did. He spoke beautifully, and with none of the autodidact’s affectation. He never said “ersatz” where “fake” (or “bullshit”) would do. 

Rufus had a wife and five or six children, and some of the children had children. From what I could gather, Rufus was almost everyone’s main means of support. At Packard he had his hands full. Besides doing the most demanding jobs on the factory floor, repairing all the equipment, he had to represent the working guys in their beefs with management and management’s beefs with them. Of course, there were plenty. A cousin of Rufus’s, a lazy-eyed, slow-talking guy of about twenty-five, came to work about as often as he didn’t. Rufus was forever in Brown’s office pleading his cousin’s case. The dictionary pages probably held him in good stead, or at least I hope they did. More than once a day, Rufus would come by my station, lay a finger lightly on my shoulder, and say, “How you getting on, Mark?” He actually wanted to know. If I had a problem, I’d tell him. Mix is too thick? Here’s what you do. Can’t get the paint from under your nails? You try this.

As my father predicted, I started getting used to it. I didn’t wake up and feel like I was rising from the crypt. I figured out how to keep from being coated with a second skin of paint every day. I learned how to clean off the stuff that did stick. When Rufus began asking me if I’d stay late and work overtime on Tuesdays and Thursdays, twelve-hour days, I said, “Yes, I will.” I was going to have money for this year’s tuition, room and board, and maybe some for next year’s, too. 

Still, the life was not easy. I never went out after dinner on the weekdays, and even on the weekends I preferred to stay in and read. I had all of one date that summer; when the girl found out that I worked in a paint factory, she was less than thrilled and made sure there was no second. 

In early August I was sent to what was called “The Shed” and put under the tutelage of a man everyone called “Way Out Willie.” Willie was going to go on vacation to see his daughter and in his absence I was to take over his job of cleaning the paint vats. After the paint was poured and canned, the mixing vat had to be made pristine for the next batch of paint. The Shed, which was out behind the factory, was where this happened. When a vat had been drained, you winched it down, wheeled it out onto the elevator, rode it to the ground floor, and then off to the Shed—Way Out Willie’s kingdom.

Willie was a black man of indeterminate age—I thought him to be ancient, but he might have been as young as forty-five. Since anyone could remember—he had been there before Rufus; he had been there before Sal—Willie had been down in the Shed with his brushes and his cleansers, head immersed in the vats, swabbing them out. He sang to himself most of the day, songs of his own devising from what I could tell, that blended in, and didn’t, with the scratchy songs on the radio that was sometimes stuck between stations. When Willie was not singing, he was talking to himself, in an amiable, melodious patter, the contents of which it was impossible for most of us to discern. Thus the nickname: Way Out Willie. Willie wore long rubber gloves to protect his hands and arms, and he kept his shirt buttoned to the top button. But though there were filtration masks hanging from the wall in the Shed, Willie did not avail himself. He went into the vats commando style.

When Brown took me down to see Willie on a Friday so that Willie could break me in, I felt something within vague hailing distance of compassion in him. Brown looked at me; he looked at Willie, and for a while we listened to Willie sing and talk and observed him as he worked. Brown jutted his chin in the direction of the supplies hanging on the wall and offered me what was probably his most intricate and generous advice so far: “You’re going to want to wear a mask,” he said. “It gets pretty hot. It’s uncomfortable. But wear the mask.” The implication being that if I did not want to begin singing the songs and chanting the chants of Willie, I had best protect my brain from the fumes.

I did, most of the time. But Brown was right about the mask: It was black rubber and must have weighed a pound or two, and it was hot and uncomfortable. When I got my head down into the vats to swab the bottoms, the mask would slip up and up on my forehead until finally it would slide off and into the puddle of cleanser that I was using to get the vat cleaned out. The smell of the mask then was uproarious. 

Before Willie left, he told me that the authorities at Packard wanted him to go light on the paint remover, save all the supplies that he could. Or that’s what I think he said. Willie seemed quite good-natured, he laughed and he smiled and never seemed angry, but no one but Rufus could consistently understand what he was saying.

If Willie had told me to conserve the paint thinner, I disobeyed outrageously. I poured the stuff into the vats like it was water. I wanted my head inside those echoing cauldrons as little as possible. Still, even a little was a lot. On a couple of hot days I found myself standing up and reeling out of the Shed, going back behind and throwing up in the weeds. I never ate lunch when I worked in the Shed, and I almost never ate dinner. I was pretty much alone all day. I got the radio tuned to an actual station and I learned to do my work fast, wasting all the chemicals I needed to waste. Done, I hid behind a pile of broken vats and read: I was on to Marcel Proust by now, volume one of the great novel. For a long time I kept that baby blue copy of Swann’s Way, much worn, gray on the pages and splattered with paint on the cover. I was also reading William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. Occasionally Rufus stopped by to see how I was getting on—he seemed to know about the hiding spot behind the broken vats. Maybe he’d used it himself once or twice. 

I read any time I could at Packard Paint: good books like Faulkner’s and Proust’s—better books, maybe, than I’d be reading if I’d had the summer to lie at my leisure next to a pool, being cooked red, then brown as a baked potato in the sun. I enjoyed the Proust and the Faulkner for themselves, no doubt. Though I was sometimes in the position that Ralph Waldo Emerson describes when he says that often books mean most to us when they are suggestive and strange, before we have gotten at the “precise sense of the author.” I didn’t always get immediately to the precise sense of Faulkner or Proust (maybe I never did), but they put me in a richly agreeable dream state. Their sentences rode me away from Packard Paint like soft rivers. 

The books mattered in other ways, too. They were my way of telling myself—and telling others, too, I have to admit—that I was a college guy. These books signified my proper home. Soon I would be rejoining the world from which they’d dropped down, like artifacts from some marvelous civilization beyond the clouds. It was a bit cruel, I suppose, to flaunt my attachment to this world elsewhere. But I needed it badly so as to assure myself that this period of my life, which I often thought of as a prison sentence, was going to end. And my fellow workers, who might have taken my Proust or my Faulkner and drowned it in a vat of international orange, generously indulged me. I was the college kid, after all, and I had my part to play.


As a reward for meritorious service in the Shed, I got a few days taking inventory with the man everyone called “Automatic Harvey.” Harvey was the neatest man who ever stepped into Packard. He never had a splash of paint on him. He wore sport shirts and slacks. Pants can only become “slacks” on certain guys, and Harvey was one of those guys. He was trim, quick, and fastidious in his movements and probably not as fully committed to heterosexuality as the other denizens of Packard claimed to be. He told me that the faster you worked, the faster the time passed: a philosophy I was willing to entertain for his sake (he was a kind boss), but didn’t sort with my nature, which took most pleasure in being paid for hiding out and reading Swann’s Way and The Sound and the Fury. Soon the inventory was over and it was time to head back to the main factory floor, mixing and pouring and canning and humping crates down the stairs and stacking them on the loading dock, to be sent off to coat the hull of the HMS Preposterous or to dye Neptune’s beard a livelier shade of blue. 

Did I get used to it? No, not really. By mid-August I was counting days to my release; if there had been a piece of charcoal there by my last workstation I would have scored the hours on the wall—seven marks, then one diagonal to record an eight-hour day; a bigger hieroglyph for the twelve-hour shifts I was still putting in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I poured and canned and carried and I looked forward to going back to my coed dorm at the University of Massachusetts and spending my spare time listening to the Who and Jethro Tull—and maybe smoking something that didn’t sort all that well with what was permissible in my parents’ house. I was also looking forward to talking to a girl or two who could see me as something other than a paint-factory guy. I was looking forward to sleeping late in the morning and taking classes on existentialism—in 1971 at least half of the classes seemed to be on existentialism (naturally I myself was an existentialist). So I counted the days and looked forward to ascending if not into heaven then into the last phase of the 1960s, which really would not be entirely over (despite the insistence of mere numbers) for five years or so.

But there were other thoughts, too. Everyone who worked at Packard Paint hated it—except maybe Automatic Harvey, who so adored counting items and keeping them well stacked. Sal wanted more time with his tomatoes and his birds; Rufus wanted to stop putting in sixteen hours a day at work and see his kids and grandkids from time to time. Tommy Grimes wanted to be treated like a human being rather than an inept troll—a fate from which my early ineptitude hadn’t saved him. The point was simple enough: This was America, but these people, no better or worse than I was, worked like slaves and hated their lives, or at least hated the hours they spent in the factory. They couldn’t leave—the money was just too good, by the standard of what was out there. But they’d always be doing substantially the same job, getting themselves lousy with paint and dizzy on fumes until their retirement day, or the day they broke out singing the songs of Way Out Willie and couldn’t stop. I had stepped into something not entirely unlike the Purgatorio and I had gotten a look around. 

My paint-factory education brought me face to face with the fact that there were human beings, the majority living in the world probably, who simply labored their lives away. They did harsh, grinding tasks five long days a week or more, merely to sustain themselves as living creatures. They labored on and on and did not know the dignity of work. That is, they rarely had the chance to see themselves reflected in what they made, the way an artist sees herself reflected in her painting and the man who starts a business can see a vision of his own realized there. Sal had his tomatoes, Rufus had his dictionary pages, but that was not very much. Both of them could have had more; both deserved more. 

What could one ever do—what could I ever do—to help create a world where people did not grind themselves to dust amidst the whirl of machines and the screams of the foreman and the foreman’s foreman? The hope for such a world will always be in my heart, as will the willingness to take whatever step I might to bring it closer, and that is something I owe to my time in the paint factory. At the very least, I left Packard knowing what life is like for the great mass of those who live it. And I did not know it in some abstract way: I knew it by the sounds and the smells and the taste, and the wild pointless fatigue that I felt at the end of every day.

A teacher now, I’ve taken to asking my students if they’ve ever served time in a factory. I teach at the University of Virginia, a state school, more upscale than my University of Massachusetts, but still not a mere sanctuary for the rich. When I first asked the question, I expected at least a third would have worked in a factory or at least have held one or two of what my contemporaries in 1971 would have called “shit jobs.” Not so. In a group of forty, maybe one has worked in a factory, maybe one at a big-box department store.

Why should they? With a summer’s work, I could cover tuition, room, and board at an excellent state school. Now, if you found a factory job—assuming that you could find a factory—you could maybe make enough to cover your expenses for the summer and a little more. In America, you cannot work your way to a top-flight education anymore. At best you can manacle your future with loans.

So why bother? Borrow money for school if you need it. Get an internship, even if it’s unpaid, and put yourself in position to cop a decent job when you graduate.

My students are smart and decent kids, but almost none have had a paint-factory education. They don’t know in any but abstract ways how working people live. They’ve never been immersed in the sounds and the stench and the grind, grind, grind. Is it any wonder that many well-educated Americans aren’t passionate about workers getting a true living wage, or about closing the vast gaps in income that open further every year? Is it a shock that there are 50 million people living in poverty in America—3 million of them working full-time—and that there is no great mass movement to end this sorry state? Those who might act together to help that 50 million often don’t know anything about what the life of working poverty is like. They were deprived, as it were, of their paint-factory educations.


The day before I left, Brown made me the long-est speech I’d heard from him. He told me that I’d done a fine job, though I’d been rocky at the start. Any time that I wanted to come back—school break, summer—I’d be more than welcome. Let him know two weeks in advance and he’d put me on. I had made it. I was now a Packard guy, if I wanted to be.

At lunch there was beer, Budweiser in cans, for me and Mike and plenty of jokes about Mike’s serious demeanor and about my early-inning spills. We must have tanked down three Buds apiece, and in the afternoon singing could be heard from the confines of Packard Paint—and not only from Way Out Willie. Each guy shook my hand and wished me the best. Surely for some it wasn’t easy. They would have given anything to be going where I was, and it was no simple trick for them to keep their legitimate envy down. 

Rufus was one of the last people who shook my hand, and I still remember what he told me. He said that he knew Brown had talked with me about coming back. That was a good thing; I’d earned it. But then Rufus, who was always of a smiling disposition, turned grim, and this (more or less) is what he said: “But don’t ever let me see you back here, okay? A young man can get stuck in this place and work his life away. The money is good, but you could wake up some day and be like me, and all the rest of the guys here, and I don’t want that to happen to you. So you stay away, you hear?” And he smiled his great gold-toothed smile, and he slapped me on the shoulder and walked away. 

Then he turned. “But one more thing,” he said. “One more. I want you to pay your union dues. Pay it up through the year, up to January. Pay your dues, but don’t ever come back, you hear?”

The dues gave my finances quite a whack, really. And I was supposed to keep paying my dues but never come back? Still, Rufus was Rufus and in the end I paid, a check to the local every month up until Christmas just as he asked me to do. It stung, believe me: Think of the black-light posters and Jimi Hendrix albums twenty-five or so dollars a month could buy in 1971. Then around February, I got a letter from a union, and it was not from the Chemical Workers but from the Teamsters. The letter said that from henceforth all workers at Packard Paint would be represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and that I was to think of myself as a chemical worker no more. As a way of showing me what it meant to join the union of Jimmy Hoffa and Company, there was a check in the envelope. The amount was equivalent to a month’s salary, overtime included. I had paid my dues, I had my money, and the University of Massachusetts would have theirs, too. And of course I never went back to Packard again. But I still have my paint-factory education.

 

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