Dave should have been a happy camper, but he wasn’t. What was there to be unhappy about? He was out of high school-class of 1980. Like most of us, his diploma was probably a gift from the teachers and the principal who were sick of our shitty attitudes. But out is out. He had turned eighteen and in Vermont that meant that you could legally drink, thanks to the draft during the Viet Nam war. At least that’s what my history teacher said. You should have seen the traffic from New Hampshire on Friday nights. The troopers had serious problems, but that’s another story. To top it off, Dave had also landed the best job of us all, a third shift slot at the local ball bearing plant. The third shift-that turned out to be the rub.
He tried to explain to me and his other bar buddies what it was like to go against every normal function of his nervous system and body. He described how his eyes began to close at about twelve a.m., how his mind went off to some inner world far from the grinding machine that he was feeding; how he had to shake his head as the polishing wheel finished its cycle; how he had to blink, pry open his eyes as he plucked another ball bearing with his pliers and set in the machine, and he told them how thankful he was when the machine was loaded and he could push the button that would give him a moment’s rest before the process began all over again.
“Man,” Joe said, “suck it up. Mike isn’t working, Kevin is washing cars, and I’m swimming in grease at Friendly’s. And you’re pulling in more money than we are. In two weeks you won’t give a rat’s ass about whether it’s night or day.”
As for me, I still worked as a bagger at the local supermarket; I’ve been doing it since my sophomore year. It’s okay but nothing to brag about or to even mention now that I was supposedly in the real world. Just a kid’s job. So I decided not to dump on Dave and just sipped my beer and smiled. Dave was pretty quiet the rest of the night.
When he showed up the following Saturday, Dave went right back to the same topic. We couldn’t figure out why it was so important to him that we get what it was like when he was working when he should be sleeping and sleeping when he should be working. As Kevin said, “No big fucking deal.” But Dave just shook his head and began to use a couple of really freaky, really weird comparisons that he thought might do the trick.
“Just imagine,” he said, “that life is broken down into three shifts and that seven to three is one, three to eleven is two and eleven to seven is three. You guys and most of the world live on a one, two, three schedule. Been that way for eons. Me and the rest of the people on my shift live a 3, 2, 1 existence. We’re in a totally different time zone, cut off from you and the entire nine to five crowd.”
Kevin put his beer on the bar, turned to Dave, sneered and pretty much summed up our reaction. “What the hell are you talking about?”
So he tried again. “Okay, assume that most workers wear their shirts the normal way. And by five p.m. let’s say, the normal people are out of work and my guys are out of bed, but my guys are wearing their tees shirts inside out. Okay, now imagine that were all parading down Main Street. We’re together but also separate and only the third shift people notice. Do you see what I mean?”
No they didn’t see what he meant. Crazy Dave, just crazy Dave blathering away. For some reason I thought of a poet we had to read in our English class that used a compass to try to get his point across about being absent but still there. I thought that was interesting but, as usual, never said a word in class.
After the hooting ceased it was on to discussing good looking and easy babes- and determining which one of those two characteristics was most important. Then, as usual the talk turned to the Patriots and the coolest car. Dave didn’t join in, and we didn’t see him again for quite a while.
Don’t ask me why. I just felt like talking to Dave. When I got him on the phone, he said he didn’t want to go to the bar, so we met at Mocha John’s coffee shop. I couldn’t help but notice that he was pale and edgy, couldn’t keep his hands still and had trouble holding his cup steady.
“Hey, thanks for the call, Terry,” he said. “I’ve been downing a lot of java lately. Helps to steady the nerves and get me going.” He took a sip of coffee, hesitated for a moment and then said, “I know you’re wondering why I haven’t shown up at McNeil’s on Saturday nights. I don’t know; it seems like I don’t fit in there any more. So I‘ve been going out with some of the younger guys on my shift. I guess I have more in common with them at this point.” When I didn’t say anything, Dave asked, “So how’s everybody doing?”
“Same old, same old,” I replied. I didn’t go into detail because I thought he really didn’t want to know or perhaps I didn’t want to relive the mundane details of the last month or so. Anyway, he didn’t ask for more info, and I happily moved on. “So are you getting used to those weird hours?”
“Not really,” he said, but I’m learning a lot. Not just about ball bearings and precise tolerances, but about how people cope with something so strange as working the third shift. I don’t want to bore you but…”
I looked at him more closely and noticed that his hair was longer and that he was starting to grow a beard, but I didn’t want to change the subject just then so I didn’t say anything. “No, no, go on. I’m interested.” I wasn’t bullshitting him either.
“There are two groups on the shift. There are the younger guys like me who have to start on the graveyard shift if they want a job. Most of them hope to work their way onto the second shift and then grab the gold ring and get onto the day shift. So they get all excited when someone on an earlier shift quits, gets fired or dies. Then there’s the old timers who have worked the graveyard gig for years and have either given up any hopes of moving to an earlier shift or who over the years have embraced the eleven to seven cycle.”
That last comment got my attention.” Why would anybody want to work that shift?”
“The rules are different, you do have to grind so many ball bearings according to specs and keep those machines humming just like any other shift. But no one gives a shit how you reach your quota. The floor mangers really know what they are doing but also realize that they are not going anywhere-maybe they told someone in the office to take a hike or they’re considered to be too weird to be seen in the light of day. It’s great, no one bugs you.”
He took a deep breath and a gulp of coffee. I could see he wasn’t agitated or angry, but just really into what he was describing, even a bit excited, which surprised me.
“So,” he continued, “if the machines were up and running and the total count was ahead of schedule, the foremen would call a time out. You can’t imagine what a relief it is to not hear the sound of those machines. Then out would come the foam footballs and someone would run down an isle for a pass. Others might pull out a book and start reading aloud-poetry no less. Can you believe it? Another guy breaks out in song, others join in. It’s a little crazy, but I love those breaks.”
“It’s nothing like life at the supermarket,” I replied. “Maybe a customer drops a glass jar of whatever on the floor and the crew runs to the scene and tidies up. That’s the excitement for the day.”
He nodded. We finished our coffee. I liked talking to Dave and asked him to come down to the bar some Saturday. He didn’t answer, just shrugged as we went our separate ways.
A few weeks later I ran into him on Main Street. Because of the long hair, the bushy reddish brown beard, and the knitted toke pulled over his ears, it took me a minute to recognize him. The guys would say he looked like those weird hippies that started to come into town in the late sixties, but to me he looked more like the lumberjacks that you saw up north or in the backwoods of New England.
Although it was a chilly November night, we stopped and talked for a while.
“Can’t stop too long,” he said. “Sorry I haven’t stopped by McNeil’s, but I’ve been taking off on weekends and doing some hiking. Have to get the smell of the lubricating oil and the grating sounds of the machines out of my head when I get a chance.”
“I can see why,” I said. “Snow’s going to start flying pretty soon, though. Might put a crimp on traipsing through the woods.” Why I didn’t think of snowshoes or skis is beyond me since I was born and raised in Vermont. But, you know, my crowd was never into that kind of thing.
“I know,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it. I take my mom’s car to work, and I leave early now, head up to the hills and just sit there with the windows open or sit outside on the hood and just look at the stars. Seems like there’s no end to the sky, just goes on and on. Then there’s the snow that says hunker down, dig in. Makes you think.”
I knew then that Dave would never show up at the bar; never get back into the old routine. He said he had to go. We shook hands, then I watched him head down the street. When he passed our local book store and funky hardware store, he raised his hand and turned the corner. I wondered if he was a lost soul or one of those pioneer types that has to head out, look around. Before I got home, I stopped for a few minutes and peered at the vast night sky
Right after New Year’s Day, I received a postcard from Dave that featured the Colorado Rockies. There were just a few lines on the back saying that he was enjoying his travels and heading for Durango. Didn’t know where he would end up. Wished me well, but didn’t say a thing about the rest of the gang.
If I had his address I would have written him to tell him that I had quit my job at the market, had actually landed a job, you guessed it, on the third shift. Don’t know if it had anything to do with his departure, but I was glad to get it. Would have told him that I was saving up my money, checking out Durango on the map, and spending a lot of time listening to the wind and watching the Connecticut River first flow and then freeze over.
-- Bill Sullivan is professor emeritus, Keene State College, NH, where he taught courses in American literature and American studies. He is a co-author of Modern American Poetry and Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States since1950. He also co-produced” Here Am I,” a documentary film on the life of Jonathan Daniels, a slain civil rights worker. The film aired on numerous PBS stations. His poems have appeared in a number of online journals and in print. He now resides in Westerly, RI.