Within about 10 minutes I’d found a couple of potential positions including one labeled “Automotive Plant Cleaning”. This was around 9 pm Weds. night, if I recall correctly. Hardly ten minutes after submitting an email indicating interest, my phone rang. “Is this Carl?” the voice asked immediately. “Yes it is,” I said. “I was just checking my email one last time and saw that you had inquired about the cleaning position.” She went on to explain to me how the job was at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, that it was pretty nasty and hot and asked if I would be interested in attending a basic safety meeting and orientation the following morning. Stunned at the quickness with which this had all transpired, I agreed and wrote down the address.
Eventually, we were asked to come to a room in the back and fill out applications and assorted other materials indicating availability, position type and pay desired and also a checklist of assorted skills. Before we could finish, the guy who wasn’t there today showed up and asked us to follow him. He took us past the front desk and down another hallway into a small conference room. Three other guys sat at the table with what appeared to be syringes sticking out of their mouths. We were told to open the plastic packages on the table in front of us and to remove the drug tests inside. The “syringes” were actually a sort of sponge attached to a piece of plastic used to take a sample of saliva for drug testing.
As he proceeded to read every other slide in a rapid-fire manner, it occurred to me that I wasn’t retaining very much of this info, and that it was a good thing that this upcoming quiz was open notes. We watched a video of people doing the random tasks that would be required of us. I pulled the drug-testing swab out of my mouth and inserted it into the receptacle that it came with waiting to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. No negative, no positive, nothing. Apparently, I had failed to collect enough saliva so I had to try again. After doing so, I received a couple of lines which indicated a negative test for cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, PCP, opiates and another substance I can’t recall…maybe THC?
The whole process took about 45 minutes and if anyone failed the quizzes on safety regulations, expectations and the like, they were allowed to take it again. One guy raised his hand and said “This thing is showing that I’m positive for PCP. I’ve never even seen PCP!” Our guy just laughed and said “everyone pass your drug test forms forward.” These were the forms where we indicated that the spit in the plastic thing was, in fact, our spit and we gave permission for this agency to test it. He placed our forms in a folder and then walked around the room with a garbage can telling everyone to throw their tests into it. “Everyone passed,” he declared and the relief from the crowd was palpable.
Having not used my alarm clock for some time, I set the thing but forgot to turn it on. Still, I woke up with a few minutes to spare, brushed my teeth frantically and drove like a lunatic to Georgetown. Following my map, I found the appropriate entrance (there are several) and rolled up to the gatehouse. There was no one inside, but I saw a noticeable pad like the one that we used our badges on to gain access to the plant, so I held mine to it. A flashing light came on, but the gate didn’t move. Recalling the emphasis they had put on punctuality a couple days before, I assumed that this meant I was just too late, turned around and drove back home. On the way, I contacted the employment service and left a message on their voicemail asking whether or not I should try to go in the following day. Later in the evening, they responded to tell me that I could, but to be sure to be on time.
So, the next day I woke up around 4:20 am, drank a cup of coffee, threw on some old clothes and my new steel-toe boots and made the trek to Georgetown again. Same results at the gatehouse, but in my rear-view mirror I saw other people turning down a road before the gate. I decided to follow them. After passing several large parking lots with locked gates, we turned into an open lot. With about ten minutes to spare, I found a parking spot, grabbed my lunch and headed toward the turnstiles.
After swiping my badge and gaining entrance to the massive compound that is Toyota, I quickly caught up to a couple of women who seemed to be in as big a hurry as I was. “Are you going to Paint 1?” I asked them. “Yes we are,” one of them replied. “Is this your first day?” When I responded that it was, they said “maybe you’ll work with us up in the penthouse,” and proceeded to laugh it up while telling me how it wasn’t what you might think. After following them inside I recognized a couple of the guys from my incoming class. One of them was fairly helpful in pointing me in the direction of the things I needed: a lint-proof suit, a hard hat, safety glasses and a padlock, while the other seemed annoyed that I had to ask.
A few minutes later some supervisors showed up and asked “is this anyone’s first day?” I raised my hand and they told me that I would be going to “the ovens.” The oven turned out to be the closest I’ve ever come to working in a coal mine. It was a long dark shaft that the cars come through to be dried after having been painted. Our job was to scrub the paint off the walls, sweep the dust off the floor and then lay levels of aluminum foil all around. I was sent to the far end with a guy who promptly either passed out or fell asleep in the floor on the other side of the oven. Nearly an hour or so into it, I realized why this was “the oven”. It was 100 degrees in there if it was a degree and I was already soaking wet with sweat, a little bit light-headed and fantasizing about making a break for the parking lot as soon as the opportunity arose.
Instead, during my first break I had water and a Zebra cake and caught a second wind. But, after another half-hour I was contemplating lying down like the other guy. At some point, I was called out of the oven. Thinking I was in trouble for being slow, it was a relief to be asked “how do you feel about sweeping and mopping?” Anything sounded better than what I was doing, so I probably sounded rather enthusiastic about the prospect. “We’re going to move you to another unit, if that’s alright,” he told me. We hopped on a golf cart and drove across the plant to a massive room with mostly stainless steel floors and all sorts of rails on the floor where Toyota Camrys are transported from place to place.
I was introduced to the two supervisors by the guy on the golf cart, and they told the tearful woman that “Carl here has been kind enough to volunteer to come up and help us today.” He thanked me, handed me a broom and walked away. The woman with him explained to me that we need to sweep and mop the whole area, which was HUGE. Our first task was the stainless steel floor. My job was to wipe down all the equipment and the lights, basically dusting, so that my chastised colleague could sweep. Two other men, who spoke only Spanish, were following closely behind with mops.
My new coworker thanked me profusely. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. I tried to reassure her. “We’ll get this done, don’t worry,” I said. For the next few hours we swept this massive floor with the kind of broom you’d use to sweep your kitchen. It occurred to me that a good push broom would be worth its weight in gold. We finished the stainless steel floor in short order and moved to the orange floors. As best I could tell, the orange floors designated the path that the cars took as they made their way through this section of the plant for whatever reason. These floors were equipped with all sorts of rails, which provided a whole universe of nooks and crannies for paint dust, and we were instructed not to leave any such dust unswept.
The rails divided the first long section of floor into thirds, and since my colleague was clearly struggling and slower than I was, I decided to do two of them at once. “Wow, you’re fast!” she said and “Thank God you came up here to work with me today, you probably just saved my job.” We went to lunch and she showed me pictures of her son who had recently turned one year old. “I can’t lose this job,” she explained, “because of my baby boy.” It occurred to me that when I arrived the supervisors seemed to be indicating that she should have been able to complete the task that four of us had already been working on for the better part of three hours by herself in four hours. This confused me, since the four of us still had a long way to before being finished. She thanked me for pointing that out and confided in me how “I have a slipped disk, that’s why I’m slow. But, I can’t tell them or they’ll let me go for sure.”
Another woman told me how “they have air-conditioning here, they just turn it off on the weekends to save money.” I mentioned that I’d passed a few dozen big orange coolers throughout the plant, but none of them had any paper cups and none that I’d checked had any water in them. “Those are for the people that work here through the week,” she explained. After scarfing down a bologna sandwich and a Gatorade, I caught my breath enough to recognize that sweeping a concrete floor in steel-toe boots for several hours in this heat was not much less grueling than my initial gig in the oven. Thirty minutes vanished in a hurry and we went back to it.
When we returned one of the supervisors had brought a vacuum cleaner and pointed to a series of dust-filled rails. “You can use this or the broom, just whichever is easier for you,” he said. It reminded me of the first time I’d been handed the keys to an excavator after having dug a few ditches with a shovel. Eagerly unrolling the extension cords and tying them together I found the first open outlet and the vacuum whirred to life. It was the kind with shoulder straps so you could wear it like a backpack. Before strapping it to my back, I pointed it at a rail full of dust. There was no noticeable impact, so I put the nozzle to my hand. It had suction, but not much. I pointed it at a small dust ball on the floor. Still nothing. Rather than wasting time fiddling with this contraption, I went back to the broom.
“This sucks,” my coworker kept saying. “How the hell are we supposed to get all this crap out of here?” “I’m going to go down here to the other end,” I suggested “and you start here. We’ll meet in the middle.” It was tedious as hell, and every so often one of the supervisors would stop by to show you a spot that you had missed and to reiterate that there could be no dust on this floor. Eventually, I recognized that I was all alone. A few minutes later, my colleague returned with a pale face after having “puked my guts all over the bathroom” as she put it. This wasn’t terribly surprising for me, as I’d been fighting the urge to puke or pass out most of the morning. She swept for a few more minutes and then dropped her broom and made another beeline for the bathroom. When she returned the second time, she was shaky and I said “if you want to leave I’ll tell them what happened.” “I can’t walk out,” she told me, her voice quivering with nausea, fear or both.
By the time she left for good, it occurred to me that four of us had been working incredibly hard for at least six hours on this task that was apparently meant for one person to complete in four hours. With my back and feet aching, one of my fingers almost literally worked to the bone, and my head pounding from an alarm that went off a few feet from us for what seemed like days, I decided that if there was any human alive that could complete such a feat, we’d all watch it take place on some ESPN show. By the second and final break (third including lunch) this whole thing had become a personal challenge. While I still really wanted to find my car and never look back, I couldn’t allow myself to be so defeated by dust and a broom.
It was 2:30 when I returned to the floor, and everything I had heard was that 4:30 was quitting time. Once I finished cleaning out all the tracks/rails, there would be only two more stretches of orange floor probably 50 yards long and 10-12 feet wide each. These had far fewer rails, mechanical devices and crevices. It would be a lie to say that I was looking forward to it, but the decreased level of difficulty was something of a relief, to be sure. Unfortunately, every rail became a mountain. I had to travel to the water fountain nearly every ten minutes and it occurred to me that in spite of having consumed two 32 ounce Gatorades and at least 40 ounces of water, that I had yet to go to the bathroom for anything more than a moment to unzip my lint-free suit, drop my pants and peel off my sweat-logged drawers to sit down and try to catch my breath.
Finally, a supervisor came by and told me how “as people finish their jobs on the other units, we’ll get some of them to come over here and help you.” By 4:15 I was calling them liars, bastards, whores and tyrants in my dehydrated and utterly exhausted mind. At precisely the point when I could sweep no more, and barely stand, the cavalry arrived. A blonde woman who appeared to be about my age, a younger Latina and an older man formed a flurry of sweeping all around me, and in the next twenty minutes mission impossible was complete. Or, at least complete enough that we were allowed to clock out and leave.
On the way out, I joked to the blonde how “I’ll be lucky to find the parking lot when I leave here.” Little did I know how true that statement would turn out. Apparently, I made my way out a different door than I came in, and walked to the nearest parking lot. Walking from one end of the other and back again twice, my car was nowhere to be found. I thought that it must have been stolen. My cell phone, like myself, was nearly dead, and I called Danielle to explain my predicament and why I was late.
The Grateful Dead was as appropriate as ever, and I sped my way home to Danielle and dinner. She was not the least bit impressed or overjoyed about my recounting of the day’s events, and after watching me limp around and seeing the extra toes I’d gained in the form of blisters on my feet, she stated emphatically how “you’re not going back to that place.”
I told her about the oven, and how it was like a coalmine only with paint dust. “Did you wear a mask?” she wanted to know. “No,” I answered honestly. “They didn’t give me one. In fact, I don’t recall seeing anyone with a mask.” “You’re not going back,” she exclaimed a little bit louder and more seriously this time around.
I laughed again.
Recounting my rescue from the oven, I told her about how I arrived to see the girl being reprimanded, how she was crying, about her baby and her back and her eventual early exit. “You’re not going back to that place, and I mean it.”
Still, I laughed.
“O.K.” she said, “I’m going to get a job there with you.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” I responded and she inquired “why not?” “Because you might die in there,” I told her. “Well if you go back, I’m going, too…and I’m going to call the labor board, that’s ridiculous,” she went on.
I laughed once again.
“You laugh,” she growled “but I mean it. You’re not going back to that damn place. I’m serious.”
Still laughing, I finally caught enough breath to explain how I had been wondering all the way home how much respect she was going to lose for me when I confessed that I didn’t think I could stand to go back and try this job for another day. So, much like Mike Rowe, the guy from the “Dirty Jobs” show, my experience cleaning the paint booths at Toyota turned out to be one shift. With the nearly $100 I made for 11 hours after taxes I will have paid for one pair of incredibly uncomfortable steel-toe boots, the half tank of gas I spent driving back and forth to Georgetown and my lunch.
In short, the search for part-time employment continues. Any suggestions?