None of us wanted to enter the factory but it had no tolerance for tardiness or absence, and we had no other options to turn to in which to make a living. It was cruel and unusual to turn away and dismiss Norm with no dignity or compassion. It left a bitter taste in all of our mouths. Soon the bell would be ringing once again and none of this would matter, for group production was far more important than individual needs.
As we approached the main entrance, a band of three, there were several employees waiting outside. Although they had their own keys, none of them wanted to enter until we came so we could turn on the lights, which awarded points and bonuses on our checks if we were the first into work, as well as deductions if we were late. But when we entered, someone else had already performed the task for us. And that person was standing right in Norm's spot. Norm, it seemed, had already been replaced. None of could bring ourselves to believe that the company could replace him on such short notice.
Not only was this guy standing in Norm's station directly opposite mine, but he was feverishly fitting together pieces of metal with a progress that equated that of an entire team's work shift. He gave a quick groundhog's glance at us as we stood in momentary awe at him. His look suggested we were wasting time, despite being the first crew present there. Without greetings or introductions, we proceeded to our respective stations and began our work a few minutes shy of the bell. As the morning progressed, each of us cast a suspicious eye over at the guy who now resided in Norm's station. The new guy was rapidly fitting pieces together at a pace that the human eye could scarcely follow, yet in a very even and consistent manner that was surprisingly calm. He definitely possessed a very stocky figure of the type of person would work at a factory -- and very large hands of someone who would work on an assembly line. He was attired in a regulation grey work outfit and hat and was not conspicuously older or younger than us. Certainly he was more disciplined than any of us, which was good for the team but bad for our already shaky hands . He was overqualified if anything and we wondered if we'd be able to keep up our end at such a furious pace. He kept focused solely on work with his attention downward, not once socializing or interacting. Even as more laborers spilled into the building, he continued working without looking up even once, as if they simply didn't exist to him.
The new guy created a very unsettling presence amongst the workers, having filled Norm's station the very next morning after he committed suicide; willingly or unconsciously. I certainly didn't like him facing me as he was positioned directly across my view as if to judge my performance and productivity. The only silver lining was that he served as a momentary distraction from the darkened office of heavily fogged glass windows containing the presence of the new supervisor. Just yesterday we were wholly preoccupied with the inhabitant dwelling behind the foggy glass, now our attention was drawn to the new guy. Our minds were filled with varying degrees of suspicion and speculation about him, although he did not portray any elements of negativity around us or discuss the painful and disturbing topic of Norm's suicide. His only purpose for being there was to contribute his productivity for the team without the least regard for his fellow workers, dead or living.
By lunch time, still no words had been exchanged between us. It would only be so long before someone addressed him to see what he was all about. Even though the bell had sounded and the rest of us convened in the break room, the new guy remained at his station to continue his work. We figured he was just trying to prove himself in light of the new supervisor. So we left him alone to talk about him behind his back. I could see him from where we sat; he was eating a sandwich with one hand and working with the other. It was ludicrous, insane -- unreal!
We exchanged gossip over lunch and by drawing fingers by way of evens and odds. It was decided that I was to be the first to engage him, but not right away, otherwise it would be too obvious. We joined forces again immediately after lunch and continued on our line as always.
It wasn't until then that the menacing presence inside the office was manifesting itself in a much more obvious and conspicuous way. Aside from seeing more shadowy movements against the glass, there were these horrible sounds difficult to describe emanating from inside. It sounded like a guttural growl, or a dragging raspy throat noise, as if he was pulling mucous from the back of his throat forward. It blended into a hiss of sorts, but no coughing to suggest that of a smoker. There was occasional heavy breathing, with a gurgling bubbling sound from his throat that was quite disturbing. The thought of what lay beyond the door was growing more ominous with each passing minute. After yesterday, I possessed no ambition to pursue the mystery myself. I just kept hearing these strange groaning sounds and inaudible mutterings that spooked all of us. It was becoming quite nightmarish and had an air of being inhuman. Admittedly, I have a vivid and animated imagination as writers often do. Now my gaze averted back to the new guy and it was time to break the ice.
"So where are you from?" I asked him.
"Corporate called and sent me," he said in a surprisingly forthcoming and casual tone.
"Do you live around here?"
"Sort of," he dutifully replied.
"Whereabouts?" I asked to ease along the conversation.
"Cot is watching," was his next revelation.
"...Excuse me... did you say God is watching?"
"No, Cot. C-O-T...as in the new supervisor," he gestured, rolling his eyes at the office.
"Oh, Cot -- gotcha," I acknowledged; although I couldn't possibly imagine what the name was short for.
"Its short for Cotman," he volunteered as if he was reading my mind.
"Have you heard about the guy whose position you're filling?"
"Yes, that's why I'm here. Now please, not to be short but there's still a lot of work to do so we can get caught up by the end of the week."
"Right," I sighed, now seeing the limitations of his willingness to share anything about himself. The others on our block murmured some things to themselves and returned their focus downward to their work.
During that brief exchange, the new guy had continued to manipulate those metal pieces together without interruption, without looking upward and without missing a beat; it was a little eerie. Henceforth, I did not bother him anymore, allowing him to do what he did best, in the hopes he might open up a little more on our pm break. His work capacity was beyond any productivity we had previously seen or even heard about. His hands were a blur to all of us and he was completing entire pieces by himself in between us feeding him the fourth part of our normal practice of assembly.
Soon after, I observed Edgar and Mitch attempting to emulate the new guy's style and failing quite miserably. I myself followed suite, but in keeping up with the competition we were all very embarrassed and feeling inferior. Perhaps humility was the first step to admitting there was a problem that needed to be corrected. This would take some time to get adjusted and adapt to the new style. But would we get paid any more for our extra efforts if we doubled our productivity, other than a few extra points for performing above and beyond the other crews' labors? Or would we get off an hour early if we doubled our daily quota? Since the assembly pieces were endless and there were always more, there was really no such thing as completion; this we all knew. Still, there needed to be some light at the end of our dark tunnel or a carrot to dangle over us to become such mindless automatons. But no, all that loomed over our heads was a fear of job loss and security; of double digit hourly pay; of a lesser future with a smaller opportunity. No one seemed to desire the alternative, so onward we furiously and feverishly labored.
Our hands continued to fumble in an effort to replicate the new guy, but our eyes could not follow, our minds couldn't depict how to piece together this maddening jigsaw with the necessary steps needed before passing it off. His technique of piecing was different from what we had been practicing all along. Before the end of the day he asked us to switch positions and become more adaptable to learning all the stations so we could piece together our own, which was ordinarily a violation of our routine practice; at which we were best and most comfortable working.
By the end of the day we closed out at three times the productivity of any other team, despite the loss of Norm. As I looked up from my station, I clearly noticed a shadowy, almost hooded figure rolling ominously along the heavily fogged glass of the supervisor's office, almost withdrawing itself as if it were content for a change. It was merely the presence of a supervisory eye upon us coupled with a fear of the unknown that seemed to make us all the more productive. There was this personal detachment of no interaction between employee and supervisor that made it effective. There was no burdening of worker's personal problems to interrupt progress and cause downtime of any length. This too, was good for the company.
It seemed the performance of the new guy was noticed by many employees on the nearby assembly blocks. At first they were resistant to entertain the idea of a new way to increase productivity, seeing a new level of virtuosity in the manual service world. Yet if these men otherwise had no dignity in their ordinary lives, they could now. Perhaps the spirit of competition and bragging rights would soon manipulate them to better respond to their changing environment. If they could all just forget the old way of the past and what they thought worked effectively, then the sooner they could get over the indignity of their previous lack of production. The bell finally sounded an hour later than normal today. This took us all by surprise, wondering if this was another new mandatory adjustment we would have to endure with no proper notification; or if we were just catching up from being behind due to a sudden unexpected and inconvenient death. God or something forbid if the company doesn't enjoy one day of profit to honor a worker.
After most of the factory workers had emptied the facility, we happened to be the last ones there despite our outstanding performance. We stood around, just to piece a few more metal bits together like we were making a new bond to have a jumpstart on tomorrow's quota so we could be ahead of the other teams. After all it was like free pieces that counted toward tomorrow and we didn't even realize we were still working. This new way was poisoning our mindset like an addiction where we couldn't help ourselves. And it was only the beginning of more arbitrary new things to come.
Upon exiting the factory just before dark, when the grayish milky smoke from the factory blended with the dark clouds, Edgar and Mitch sat outside to relieve their feet and have a cigarette since we weren't allowed to smoke in Edgar's car. It was then I noticed the new guy exiting the factory finally and heading toward his own car, as he didn't carpool. I indicated to the guys with an eye gesture to give me a minute to intercept the new guy.
"Hey, excuse me...by the way, I didn't catch your name."
"Oh right, names. I don't distract myself with them."
"So you don't even have a name?" I said sarcastically.
"What can I do for you?" he reversed the question.
"We just want to know what's going on, that's all."
"Right. We are done for the day and I'd like to get home if that's reasonable."
"I'm just trying to converse after work hours."
It was then he stopped walking and turned to face me. "Listen my friend, I don't want any trouble. I hope that's not your reason for approaching me."
"Hey, no trouble, take it easy. Weren't we working together on the same line today?"
"Yes, you made a good start even if there was some downtime adjusting to the new learning curve. We've already anticipated this so no worries."
"Downtime? We tripled the production of anyone."
"We will just have to do better tomorrow. Is that all?" he asked, distancing himself.
"I'm just trying to get to know you. It's only natural when you work so close together."
"There will be time for that over the next few weeks, once we've caught up and are back on schedule." Its nothing personal I assure you."
"So I take it you're working with the new supervisor?"
"Nothing like that at all. I don't even know him."
"But you've worked under similar conditions before?"
"I work for the company, just like you do."
"But something must have changed recently."
"No, work is still work, same as always."
"All these new changes so quickly is a bit much, don't you agree?" I asked reasonably.
"Andersen & Company is always changing the way in which it conducts its business, that is why it's so successful and not going under like these others. Starting tomorrow they are even going to start writing memos of all changes so you will be pre-informed. Not everyone will be able to adapt and they will be replaced by those more willing to learn. It is easier to train new employees than re-teach the old ones. It's just a cold hard fact of life unfortunately. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go home."
"How about stopping out and having a drink with us?"
"I don't drink. It affects my productivity."
"But you take company meds, isn't that right?"
"The company meds help me sleep uninterrupted and make me feel revived in the morning," he replied, like a dutiful robotic mannequin.
"That's what killed Norm, they guy you replaced."
"Norm overdosed. You can overdose on anything."
"So that makes them all right?" I boldly asked.
"Again, I don't want any trouble, and hopefully you'll still want to continue working here after today. Now there'll be no more discussion about this."
"Are you saying you're going to report me?"
"That's not necessary nowadays," he said. "Please do not try to converse with me any more after work hours as I value my personal time."
"There's nothing to converse with, apparently."
"See you tomorrow, ahead of time would be nice," he added as he shut the door and started his car. With that there was nothing more to be said so I returned to the pack, conceding my defeat to the new guy.
I walked back towards the guys shrugging my shoulders in the air indicating I'd made no progress. Now having extinguished their cigarettes and looking exhausted, we were ready to leave. It was obvious we'd be carpooling now as a band of three, back into town and back to our ordinary lives -- however temporary -- ready to start the new work day all over again. I anticipated our weekends diminishing next as we drove in silence, neither asking nor caring. The guys dropped me off back to my one bedroom cold water only flat where I stayed for the remainder of the evening.
It was eight o'clock and dark outside by the time I got inside my apartment. In three more hours I'd be back in my bed, recharging my weakened body for yet another long day ahead starting at 5 a.m. A euphoric feeling of fatigue and mind rot swept over me as I fell out on my couch and watched some T.V. On the news, there was coverage about a thriving Andersen & Company being praised for stimulating the economy and creating new high paying jobs. No doubt stirring up the cattle for the next workers to be via free advertising in disguise.
For hours I lay restless on the couch, unable to sleep, unable to get off my couch to my slightly more comfortable bed, or mattress on the floor with three pillows and no blanket was more like it. On the table in front of me, next to six empty beer bottles I'd consumed tonight, stood the bottle of Norm's meds that I'd somehow inherited. I leaned over and reached for it, taking a generous gulp but being mindful not to overdose. Soon after I had just enough energy to drag myself to my one bedroom and spill onto my bed. Usually my legs and feet would restlessly twitch once I was off them; some spasmodic reaction to being on them all day. But tonight I felt no such thing. I shoved a pillow under my head and one over my back as always, making a hamburger of myself with the pillows as the buns, since I felt claustrophobic under any covers. Then without warning, I didn't even remember falling asleep; it just came and claimed me.
Over the next few days productivity had increased dramatically with all of the assembly blocks, perhaps as a result of the new guy whose name was still unknown to us. By the end of the week, production had more than doubled across the board, but our paychecks had only increased by 5%, with the additional perk of the company buying pizza for us late on Friday.
We were limited to two slices each of plain pizza, no toppings, and still had to buy our own soda cans from the vending machine, which now stood outside on the open floor, as the former break room was closed to make room for another assembly block. That would be worked at the weekend by anyone who wanted overtime at $18.00 per hour. A new memo was posted creating an incentive to motivate employees stating that the last two hours of the day after the work bell would be two hours of time and a half, which with five days of the week would allow us an extra $270 per week. That was what most townspeople averaged in a whole week. We should've been appreciative of the opportunity while it lasted, so we'd have extra money, but no time left over to go out and spend it frivolously on bar drinking. All weekend work for those who worked over 60 hours per week was considered overtime pay. Yes they raised the bar to 60 hours per week now before time and a half, because everyone else was accepting it and following suit.
Nothing seemed enough to satisfy their slave labor greed; more always meant even more and it was becoming a downright sick addiction to out-produce the other teams, which was exactly what the company wanted. We were all on the verge of collapse, but the new guy just kept on going with no sign of relenting in sight.
By the following Monday, it was now mandatory to produce the pieces in the tradition of the new guy. The image of the supervisor was just to serve as a scarecrow of sorts. They may as well have just spray painted a shadow on the heavily fogged glass window of his office. Now, immediately in front of us was the new Big Brother to encourage the employee's morale and promote good work ethic but always had the ever looming shadow there should the workers rebel. Conversation while on the assembly line was no longer permitted, for how could there be any bad thoughts if there was only one thought: Work. Breaks now consisted of remaining on the assembly line doing half time production, while for lunch we learned to eat with one hand and work with the other. There were still so many new untapped ways to micromanage our work performance and get that much more out of us. Soon we would all need to increase or change our med prescriptions to continue at this pace.
As Monday was coming to an end, a new memo was already posted for Tuesday stating: Any reduction in productivity from the new work quota of last week will result in the assembly team remaining after hours to complete the work at the employee's expense. Meaning not only would we not be paid, but we would have to pay back the company at time and a half. I'm sure it was illegal for the company to do this, but who had the time to consult a lawyer? Since everyone else was abiding by it, why should we be exempt? It was just another incentive for us to finish our scheduled work on time, which was good for morale. Complaining only wasted time and we so looked forward to our overtime being ours and getting paid for it.
Now that I'd been taking my company meds more regularly now, little things like this didn't seem to bother me anymore. Especially after we were told that other factories were out-producing us and they had far less employees. We knew we had to be doing something wrong. It would take more time to adjust to the learning curve, but sooner than later we would be there. The company was encouraging us with all of their confidence and understanding about it by claiming that we were segregated from the other factories and too far away from corporate headquarters to have been taught the right way. There was no longer any resistance to learn the new way in order to achieve new heights. For the new guy, without any kind of ostentation, was now leading all of us and was quite anxious to show anyone willing to learn. After all, we were only trading our time for a share in someone else's well-thought-out dream and should be appreciative to be a part of the overall success. Unlimited opportunities were surely awaiting us at Andersen & Company.
To be continued...