I can still picture Steve standing there at the side of the table, a cigarette in his hand, wearing his dirty white button down shirt tucked or half-tucked into his corduroys, grinning and saying, "That's because we're androids, man!"
My period in fulfillment probably lasted about 6 months. I did a lot of orders on my own and I did a lot with other people, but it always seemed like Steve and I would end up back on the line together. Our relationship ebbed and flowed. Sometimes our arguments while packing boxes would get quite ugly with everyone around us yelling at us to shut up and Steve saying, "just pack your box." I remember I even tried to choke him once, quite seriously. But we always ended up back on the same footing. We had a similar appreciation for the absurd and the ridiculous and used that framework to look at the world of the establishment in a similar way. When the US had troops massed around Iraq for Desert Shield, we heard a report on NPR about a bomb that could penetrate a tank and explode inside, turning the tank's operators into "spaghetti". For about a week after that, we'd see each other, give each other a high five and go, "Spaghetti!"
Working with Steve, I learned to pack boxes like a craft and eventually an art. If you had a small order, maybe just one or two boxes of miscellaneous books, the skill was in selecting the correct box size and amount and getting the books to fit in using as few packing materials as possible. When there were a lot of duplicate books, the job was easier. Books are beautiful, in a visual and a plastic sense, and to hold a stack of ten identical books and line their spines together to place them snugly against the corner of a box was a very pleasant feeling.
The principle of efficient packing was taken to a higher order of magnitude with larger orders. Many of the orders required that you ship out two or three pallets of boxes. Again, we would pack each box as efficiently as we could. The organization of the boxes themselves was another level of skill entirely. Each box should be made, sealed and labelled identically to create a consistent appearance. Steve and I would have ferocious arguments about the correct way to label a box. You had to make it clear what the box # was and how many total boxes there were on the top and side of each box. The pallet itself was packed as tightly and symmetrically as one of our boxes. Depending on the size of the boxes used, there were a number of different layouts for pallets. One would lay down 5, 6, 7 or 8 boxes in a pattern on the skid and then do the next layer with same pattern, but rotated 90 degrees to ensure you were not creating a tower of boxes that could lean over and come off the pallet.
Once a pallet was finished, somebody would use the forklift and take it outside on the dock to be shrinkwrapped. I believe that many companies have a machine that rotates the pallet while wrapping the shrinkwrap around it. At Western Books you put on a pair of gloves, or used some cardboard on your hands, and held the heavy roll of shrinkwrap while running around the pallet. Often, if you were on fulfillment and had finished a pallet, someone else would do the shrink-wrapping so you could get on with packing your order. Steve and I often refused to let anyone else shrinkwrap our pallets unless they were someone whose work we trusted. Obviously, there was no way we were going to put together a pallet as near-perfect as that and have somebody do a sloppy shrink wrap job. This was one of the many areas of petty power-grabbing that we would fight with Don and later Kyle about. When the assistant managers had finally given in and we had completed our order from paperwork to finished pallet, standing on the dock like giant bottle green cubes of crystal, testament to our efficiency, we would have one of our self-affirming conversations, often within hearing of the deluded managers.
"They were going to have that kid shrink wrap this. I mean c'mon," Steve would say.
"It's obvious." I would reply.
"Basically, they're insane."
"They are insane," I would agree.
This conversation would go on and take many different forms over the months. Steve tended to take the slightly baffled, slightly contemptuous tone of one who just can't believe the existence of such bad judgement but accepts it's presence. I had the more analytical approach, trying to find character flaws, or patterns of behaviour, anything to find some rational explanation for the utter ridiculousness of their thinking.
To us, the other creative factor in our box-packing technique was speed. You couldn't just spend minutes trying to figure out the best configuration. Orders could be quite large and there were always others right behind the one you were working on. It could be discouraging to be too aware of how much more work you had to do on a particular order. You packed as fast as you could. Yet this speed became a liberating rather than a constraining element of our jobs. The art was in working so efficiently, hands making no excess movements and brain making no excess thought that you almost became the boxes you were packing. In effect you were packing yourself. If you were really able to capture a good rhythm, you freed yourself from the order, the clock. And you truly freed your mind to be able to think and talk on all the subjects available to humanity.
And Steve and I did talk. We discussed many subjects. Of course we talked about our backgrounds, our work and gossiped about Western. But we also discussed war, history, America, movies, books, drugs. We were big current affairs fans, both of us listening to the local non-commercial talk station. When pulling orders down from the shelves, we would often be simultaneously listening to NPR on our walkmans. We would pass each other with brief commentaries on whatever we were listening to. Back at the tables, we could go into greater detail.
Steve was a New York Jew. According to him, his parents walked around constantly on prescription medication, in a state of constant stress. He got perfect scores on his SAT's and went to Cal for pre-med and eventually a stellar career as a nice Jewish doctor. At some point he moved into Barrington, a residential hall famous for it's punk and anarchist leanings. It was one of the many bubbles of radicalism left over from the '60's that the UC Berkeley administration managed to pop in the early '90's. Steve started doing and dealing serious drugs at Barrington and ended up having some kind of episode which sounded to me like a schizophrenic breakdown. In his words, "There were nazis under my bed."
When I started at Western, Steve was living in a boarding house in Oakland and had a sporadic but bad crack habit. He would stay off of it for a couple of weeks and then go on a weekend binge. This usually ended up with him coming into work on monday, slightly paler than usual, complaining that he had had to chop up his ATM card at 6 in the morning on Saturday night because he only had four dollars and thirty-eight cents left in his account. He would go to the ATM, take out $10, go buy a rock, go home and smoke it. Forty-five minutes later, he would be back at the bank machine.
I remember Wayne telling me about smoking crack, "When you smoke that crack-rock, you sweat. Sweat is rolling down your cheeks." I imagined Steve sitting in his little room, his wiry black hair sticking up in the middle of his forehead, his hands clenched at his cheeks and beads of clear sweat sitting on his grey face.
Despite his after-work existence, Steve was rarely in a negative mood. At worst, he would be a little down, kind of sadly calm. The only times I remember him really freaking out was when I tried to choke him and when Hiram showed him the dead rat he found behind one of the pallets. I can't remember what the drama was, but Steve had done something to cross me and I confronted him in Returns by grabbing him around the throat with one hand. He was a lot smaller than me, but I think the closing of the throat triggered some survival mechanism, because he got out of it quickly. I had imagined I would sort of hold him there like Darth Vader and tell him what was what when you were dealing with Conan. Instead, he got this ferocious look on his face and tore my hand off his throat. His intensity startled me and the conflict ended there. When Hiram showed him the rat, you could hear Steve scream across the warehouse. Hiram went around for days, chuckling to himself about how "he screamed like a woman."
But mostly Steve seemed happy. He would be sitting at the lunch table, an ironic smile on his face, a cigarette in his hand. Because of his good-natured demeanor, he had a minor relationship with everyone in the company. He also had a discerning and wry comment about everyone in the company. Somehow, Steve was one of the people who really saw the joke in life and I think that is what kept him going. He saw the absurdity in human relations and in working and he appreciated it.