My first real job was in a bolt factory the summer i was 16. It was hot. Inside it was worse, and loud. You’d have to shout to be heard through earplugs. When an oil-drip pan would catch on fire the gray smoke would fill the space and hang down from the ceiling for the rest of the day.
I was a go-to boy. Sometimes I’d babysit a bolt hopper to keep things from getting jammed. Sometimes I’d staple boxes for outgoing shipments. Mostly I was tasked with cleaning the grime and soot that had collected on everything over the years. Armed with rags, a putty knife, and a bucket of kerosene, I worked my way across the plant. Filling dumpsters with oil-soaked dirt, wiping down overhead light fixtures and fans, kerosene running down my arms, waxing the owner’s boat out in the parking lot… I learned a lot about class, threading machines, the union, and the odd ways of folks from West Virginia.
On Fridays at lunch all the wives would show up in the parking lot to get the paychecks that payroll had just distributed. The men would all walk out with their envelopes and hand them over. The wives would get out of their cars to talk for a bit, share a cigarette maybe, then drive off. I would sit against the shady side of the building and watch the proceedings, holding my sandwich with the clean parts of my hands, just chewing, and waiting. For me it was only half a summer. Until the next summer, anyway.