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How I Went from TV Producer to Blue-Collar Worker, and What I Learned

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Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/305 SEAHILL
They say it's important to get out of L.A. once in awhile   - if only to remember that not everywhere is Los Angeles. We become cocooned. I know I do.

I landed here December '97. Almost immediately, I met two women in a Century City elevator and gave them my resume. I was hired the next day as a production assistant for a sitcom pilot, and worked ever since - mostly television, one feature.

My family background is a mix of Midwestern and Texan blue-collar factory workers, enlisted servicemen and hardscrabble, matter-of-fact women. Not very L.A. Well, at least not the men.

So recently, with so much production leaving town, and after being out of work in the industry for the better part of 18 months, I saw an online posting for a FedEx Ground "seasonal package handler." It listed an address south of downtown as well as a date and time - Friday, 7 p.m.

I bounced out the door, my bride furiously yelling after me, 'What?! We can't live on that!' I went anyway, thinking of my sons and hoping it would lead to something better. 

I snaked my way down off the 10 Freeway, to 7th Street to Santa Fe, past the PlayPen strip club where a banner proclaimed FREE TOP CHOICE STEAK WITH PAID ADMISSION. A few blocks later I parked the car, then walked alongside a chain-link fence toward what appeared to be a guard shack. Asphalt spread to the south, west and north behind me. To the east and my immediate left was another chain-link fence with a couple of railroad cars/ tracks just beyond. This was not my L.A.

A group of about 15 stood near the shack. A fit Latino approached and reported it would be a lottery wherein each of us was given a ticket. If our number was called, we could tour the dock and gauge our interest in the work. He called about ten numbers; when he called one final ticket, it was me.

We toured. It was loud. I wondered if earplugs were offered. Folks were young. Way younger than me. Each package was touched, scanned and sent on its way. Conveyor belts whirred in every direction.

I kept doing whatever was asked over the next week and a half, showing up on separate days to orientation and then training. (The training videos made the point repeatedly how the company was non-union, and that was good.) At each juncture, HR seemed surprised to see me.

Finally, I was offered a slot: 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. The rate was $11.99 an hour.

I'd try it. I hoped unemployment would offset the balance. Plus I'd be out of the house. And how taxing could it be? Yes, I was in my forties, but I worked out; I knew I was in excellent shape.

Most importantly, it was a foot in the door. Online resume submissions had been a black hole in this job market, my Bachelor's of fine arts degree a nice wall-hanging. I had to get in somewhere so people could KNOW me. I could get the white-collar job by establishing my "brand" once on the inside.

The first day came, and it busted my ass - along with every day thereafter.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/MR. AUSTIN FROTHINGSLOTH
During my shift, semi-trailers would back up to our work area, the packages inside stacked like some huge Jenga puzzle. Other workers would unearth, scan and tag the packages - the tag included a number corresponding to one of the waiting delivery trucks backed up against the loading dock. The package was then placed on the conveyor belt running the perimeter of the dock. It chuffed through the dock along the belt before being grabbed by a package handler, who then placed it within the corresponding truck.

Some handlers had two trucks; some had three. I had four.

Remember I Love Lucy and the conveyor belt of chocolates? I was Lucy, and the "chocolates" were non-stop boxes of every size - bottles of wine, bicycles, rolled-up rugs. It's FedEx Ground, so there was some heavy shit, man.

I was given a "sleeve" to wear on my forearm, like a falconer's apparatus; a cord attached a ring-scanner to my index finger. I was taught to press my thumb to the scanner for each package, and then, with my other hand, press a button on my sleeve to indicate the truck of destination.

I would hustle up and down my 40 feet of dock, glancing at the packages streaming by, searching for their number. If one went to one of "my" trucks, I'd snag it, scan it, and haul it to the apportioned place (the first three numbers on the package indicated which truck it was meant for; the last four told me its placement within that truck). It took a couple days to get my head around the sequencing, but when your crew is doing as many as seven trailers a day, you learn fast. When things got overwhelming, I stashed the packages in the appropriate truck and hoped for a break to go back and get things sorted.

Most mornings, including Saturday, the pre-dawn air was dank from a nearby slaughterhouse - even in this driest of winters. I'd smelled pigs before as a youth in Iowa, but this was different. The scent was unforgettable and wouldn't come out of my clothes.

Drivers rolled in around 8 a.m. and began organizing their trucks, putting the finishing touches on our placements. One of the drivers was energetic - a "good talker." His route included the FOX Studios.

One day he said, "See this? This is exclusive. This is where they make the motion pictures!"

"Right," I said. In my head I was thinking, "I'm quite familiar with it, and almost every other lot in town." I didn't say that, though. I just nodded encouragingly and let him impress. (The truck drivers I worked with were all independent contractors. So those weren't union jobs either.)

At the end of the shift with the sun still low and rising, I would walk to the guard shack. I emptied my pockets and put the contents in a basket for inspection. Boots came off. I walked through the metal detector and was wanded.

Almost every day, one guard in particular commanded me to do something new: "Turn your pockets inside-out." "Let's see the bottom of your feet." "Clap your boots upside-down." I asked a co-worker about the formality. He replied, "They think we're criminals."

At the end of a shift, my back demanded an ice-pack with an 800 mg ibuprofen chaser. My body had been exhausted, not rejuvenated like a trip to my gym.

I kept hearing, "It's good money if you can stick it out." There were raises, too: "The last raise we got a quarter." (In a four-hour day, that's a dollar.) Every package handler seemed to have a second job they went to later in the day: McDonald's, Verizon, LAUSD.

Finally, one Friday, the foreman told me the seasonal hires were done. It would be my last day. He reported that I would need to fill out an online exit survey in the office before leaving.

I had a little bounce in my step! I couldn't believe I had made it! After putting the last package on a truck, I said my goodbyes to the handlers on my immediate left and right. One had been my trainer. I remembered how he'd said as the Christmas rush was crushing me, "I'm going to make a package handler out of you yet!" They were good men and women.

The on-line exit survey only allowed me to answer multiple-choice questions: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree. If I could have made comments I would have; some of the scanners needed replacing, which affected productivity. The water fountains and restrooms were too far away. A four-hour minimum should be guaranteed. Also, to have to work 1,000 hours to receive benefits is a bit long - on a four or five hour shift that requirement takes almost a year to engage. But, again, these weren't union jobs - and that was supposedly a good thing.

The foreman said I could come back, and if so, I'd have a better chance than others who had not been through the process. He also reported that one of the drivers had requested me for his truck, which was strangely gratifying. I felt proudest for having not gotten fired or quit.

My first two payments had been by paycheck, but after the exit survey I received my last check - in the form of a Citibank Visa "Fedex Ground Pay Card." The accompanying paperwork highlighted the fees attached to the use of the card - which struck me as another way for the banks to make money, while removing the company's cost of printing checks.

Many times in my days back at the network I would think, 'Man, I wish I had a blue-collar factory job like my grandpa did at Maytag. That would be so much easier.' I was wrong; it wasn't easier. It was different, but certainly not easier.

In recent days movie screeners have arrived to our home from the guild. I'd never considered what went into their delivery. Now, I really pause, look the driver in the eye, and say "Thank you" before signing.

The gig took me out of L.A. in some ways. It revealed something not shiny and rarely seen so starkly - at least by me. That was dignity.

And, of course, the L.A. freeways are pristine at 3 a.m. I loved that, too - seeing downtown's brilliant, quiet shimmer. It was almost like not being in L.A.

L.K. Fojtik is a writer living in L.A. He's looking for the next right thing to keep potatoes on the table. Let him know what you hear at fojtikproductions@gmail.com.

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