Candy and popcorn

When I’m working a seasonal assignment, it’s for one thing and one thing only. “Show me the money, man!” Perhaps that’s why I’m sensitive to efforts to turn work into a carnival, or something approximating “Romper Room.”

Let me start out by saying that I’ve never been much on employers plying me with non-financial incentives. I’m not overly covetous (I don’t think) and I’ve had jobs that paid shit for wages in my past, but living in the U.S. of A. takes some ka-ching to keep a roof over your head and wheels beneath you. As much as I enjoy cycling, I can’t see the practicality or the feasibility of a business trip from Portland to Presque Isle by bicycle.

Year ago, I worked for an insurance giant in Portland. Our campus out on the edge of town was populated with large soviet-style cement block structures and the culture resembled what I imagined a stint at the Kremlin during Khrushchev’s reign might have been like. It was probably appropriate that I had a Russian expat friend while working at Moscow Mutual.

I didn’t like this job. In fact, most days I hated toiling in this cube farm, surrounded by a stack of packets, being told when I could take breaks and being a tiny cog in a giant moneymaking machine. If only it had occurred to the Southern corporate suits and bean counters to pass a little more of the capital down the ladder. They didn’t and I began my journey of reinvention.

Instead of cash bonuses, the low-level supervisors (interestingly, all women) thought it would be motivational to send around an ice cream cart and candy on select Fridays. This was greeted with squeals of delight from a workforce that was 70 percent female and weighted on the marginally obese side. For me, in the throes of my Atkins purge of bacon, eggs, and bacon, Friday afternoon ice cream sundaes were the last perk I was looking for. A drink cart stocked with copious amounts of Stoli might have been nice!

Tuesday night I walked into my anonymous call center located somewhere north of Boston to the aroma of popcorn burning. I was familiar with that smell. It was an olfactory holdover from Moscow Mutual, and one other insurance stopover (we’ll call this one, Mutual of Maine) during the late 1990s. Apparently insurance people dig popcorn, and burning it comes with the microwave variety found in the ubiquitous vending machines these places always have.

On this night, however, there was no need for microwaved kernels. No way Jose! Our fearless leaders—the shift supervisors—were reduced to taking turns popping movie theater-style popcorn, filling paper bags to overflowing and making it available for anyone wanting one. I declined because popcorn (like almonds) gets caught in my throat and causes me to have difficulty carrying on a conversation. No one wants to have to deal with an order taker having a coughing jag while ordering holiday gifts for their grandchildren.

Apparently my seasonal co-workers were unfamiliar with the art of eating popcorn and thought it was for scattering about the carpet and tables of the 2nd floor break room. At 7:45 on the dot when I walked down the hall from my workstation to the break room, it looked like a popcorn blizzard, or perhaps a popcorn food fight had broken out. One of the workflow coordinators had been reduced to being a domestic, pushing around a little carpet cleaner, replete with a scowl on her usual perky face. I had to clear my table top of about an inch of popcorn in order to have space to eat my Cheez-its and banana, and read a Donald Barthelme short story.

My dad worked in a paper mill for nearly 50 years. On the occasions that I got to visit the noisy behemoth of industry, with its belching and farting equipment and whirring machinery, I never saw a dessert cart or a popcorn machine.

The men working at Pejepscot Paper (and they were all men) spent the best years of their lives making world-class paper. My dad used to bring reams of paper home for my sister and me to draw and color on.  He was proud of the work he did because his employer treated him with what was considered respect in those days—a job that provided a living wage, with benefits, and the possibility of eventually retiring with some sort of pension.

It wasn’t glamorous work, and at times it could be dangerous. There were men who were maimed and some killed, after being rolled flat like a sheet of paper. I remember my father telling of one particular gruesome fatality. Because of the dangers and the toll this work took, my father’s union made sure that compensation reflected these risks.

The last few years of his work career were difficult. Paper, the kind that Pejepscot produced was no longer profitable, or at least profitable in the new paradigm of profit that pushed workers further down the pile of priorities. After a particularly devastating storm involving flooding, the machines at Pejepscot and the huge boiler that my father ran with a skill akin to being an artist never started back up. 

My dad was fortunate and landed a position at a mill closer to home. He worked the last decade before retirement with a smaller paycheck, hoping to coast to a place where there would be a nest egg that would carry him and my mom to a comfortable ending.

While I never worked in a mill like my dad, I did work a series of blue-collar gigs early in my employment career.  While there were issues that irritated the hell out of me, mainly because of my youthful piss and vinegar and anti-authoritarian streak, these kinds of old-school employers recognized that you worked not for some kind of intrinsic reward of accomplishment and higher calling (like so many of us have been brain-washed to believe in this “new” world of 21st century work we’re now forced to navigate), but because you needed a paycheck that provided a little bit of extra cash at the end of the week for some fun on the weekend before you started it all over again on Monday.  Not for cake, candy, or popcorn!

3 thoughts on “Candy and popcorn

  1. Jim,
    I must make one slight notation to the Pejepscot Paper Company’s gastronomic history. Herman the German says there was always lots of coffee and sometimes, Merle King would bring a hot dog steamer down and set it up in the break room. Never popcorn, although I did see Merle’s daughter, Maureen, operating a movie-style popcorn machine at a high school fundraiser last weekend. That sounds just about age-appropriate. Pop on, my brother. Julie-Ann

    • It’s so funny that you mention Merle King. I remember a visit from Maureen’s dad one year right before Christmas and a bottle of something wrapped up and presented to Dad (Herman the German) as a manly gift between two long-time fellow employees and friends. That’s the old-school kind of stuff that’s been cut like cloth from the fabric of this technicolor coat that used to make up meaningful employment with employers that kept people around for decades. It’s gone and never coming back and I’m not being bitter, just setting down the facts–thanks for your fact-checking on this matter.

      Yes, I do recall Dad mentioning Merle’s steamed hot dogs and Pejepscot. I’m hoping that my anonymous call center somewhere north of Boston will have a steamed hot dog night. Hopefully my fellow seasonal order takers will do better with dogs in a bun than they did with popcorn.

      Sounds like Maureen is carrying on the King tradition of serving their fellow travelers essential victuals.

  2. Coffee, it’s a 100% natural substitute for sleep!

    The juxtaposition of the popcorn fest you waded through and your father’s own experience implies a positive correlation between jobs that pay little and bring in the circuses to distract you. It also suggests that jobs that actually involved producing something were jobs that brought better wages and benefits (Your Sister and I recently discussed this in the context of Billy Joel’s Allentown), as opposed to jobs that consist of administering pieces of paper. Given that sales are absolutely essential to your current employer’s success. I understand the “motivational” stuff, although I have to wonder why anyone intelligence would even think it matters in the context of a call center–it’s the callers that need to be motivated, not the order takers.

    I guess I would have to chalk it up to some level of management just not knowing what it’s doing.

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