Whatever your first full-time job was, it had a serious impact on how you think of your current job, your future jobs and workplaces in general. I know mine verges on unbelievable, so I’m breaking down the story here and now for you, and honestly, for myself, too.
I was 18, just graduated and working for the summer until I started college. Those three months were spent at a cold-storage meat facility in Chicago. The opportunity was exactly as unlikely as you’d expect, and I took it for two reasons: family friends owned the company and I was more focused on job security than job appreciation.
Now, it’s been three summers since I set foot in that building, but I hope I can tell a fair and honest story (with the caveat that it is only my side of things). I feel like there’s a lesson trapped in here somewhere. Maybe you’ll find it.
I drove there with my mother the first time. I was filling out paperwork with the boss and getting a tour of the building. The building’s exterior was cold and industrial, but it was also dotted with green areas, generally weeds that had struggled to survive and took root near abandoned train tracks.
Inside, shockingly enough, it was cold. The average floor temperature was something in the 50s, per regulations about working with meat and so on. The boss greeted us with hugs and his wife talked to my mother while I filled out paperwork and then went on the tour.
To me, it looked like the building could easily be repurposed into a flight hangar; there was nothing but open space going on forever in all directions. I saw combos (which I call meat jacuzzis because, well, I’m not wrong) lined in rows, with various destinations. I saw freezers with temperatures in the negative 20s, and even inside one of the bosses winter jackets I was very cold very fast. The boxing room was near where I had entered, and my boss told me it was where I would spend most of my time. My duties would include sanitation inspection before the boxers came in (I’d begin around 5), printing labels for the packages and applying the labels.
He asked if I spoke Spanish; I did.
Good, he said.
We talked a bit more, but then, before we left the boxing room, he said something I found to be more than off-putting.
If any of these guys fucks with you, he said, well, I’ll take care of that.
Now, like I said, he was a family friend with daughters my age. They certainly didn’t work here. I took it paternally, nodded understanding and left with my mother.
The first time my alarm went off at 4:00 I instantly hated myself. Still, I dressed anxiously in underwear, tights, a t-shirt, jeans, a sweatshirt and my mom’s old winter boots. Also in my bag was a pair of gloves, a hat and lunch.
Even with making a wrong turn or two on my way in in the dark I arrived fifteen minutes early to find the building locked.
I knocked on the door repeatedly, rang the doorbell and debated what was more important: my safety (preserved by sitting in my locked car) or my ability to catch the attention of somebody who stuck their head outside to see who was responsible for the frantic knocking.
I opted to sit on the steps outside and wait until the supervisor let me in. That’s when I got my first glimpse of his charater.
Martín was a tiny Columbian-Mexican mix with thick eyebrows, hair and the moustache. The moustache almost deserves a capital letter or a title. An index finger draped over the upper lip came to be a signal used when announcing his presence or mocking him. I think he was too stupid to notice (that or too busy being a career criminal, as I later came to find out).
He was too pleasant for the hour of the day and the nature of the job, but I let it slide as he walked me through the blindingly white boxing room. Save for a few scraps stuck in conveyor belts and to rubber floor mats, the place was just as clean as it had been the first day I was there. I was starting to wonder what it looked like with people in it. Martín was so darn nice that I simply ignored his hand constantly trying to land on the small of my back. I simply politiely outpaced him and let it go. As far as my dumb ass was concerned it might have just been a cultural thing and I was being too sensitive.
When the boxing room workers arrived, I knew exactly what I was. Usually somebody has to inform you that you are the token young, white girl, but I was far from uncertain about my place here.
Most of the workers in the boxing room where Hispanic men between the ages of 19 and 65. They made it very clear I was in the wrong place just by looking at me. I know I can read lips, but that day I would have given my right arm to read minds.
We don’t do academic decathelons here. But I think I could give her an award in the swimsuit competition.
(As you can tell, I can’t read minds. I can only use my words to try and convey what I assumed they were thinking.)
Regardless, they chattered about me constantly in Spanish while I worked. I knew how they felt about my looks, my demeanor and how stupid I was. The joke, of course, was that I understood every word of their gossip. It made me crazy to be the princesa in the room.
That wasn’t the only thing bothering me though. My gloves did not agree with the stickers I was trying to apply to boxes. As such, I was working with increasing stiff bare hands until one of the workers approached me with a pair of the gloves that he and everybody else wore.
Here, he said, thrusting them in my direction. It was clear that was about the end of his capacity for English.
I tried to thank him and decline, but he insisted. I asked what his name was, and when he said Angel I felt I couldn’t have written him a better title. Of all the characters you will meet in this story, that man will consistently be one of the kindest.
By the end of the day, I hated my job. I drove home upset and went upset to my parents, complaining about the idle chatter at my expense (I still can’t tell you why that made me so crazy).
They suggested I quit. There were other jobs, jobs where an 18-year-old saving for college belonged.
That only made me want to stay more.
Fine, my parents said, and bestowed an interesting piece of advice on me: Don’t let them know you speak Spanish just yet.
That was an idea I could get behind. It was the only upper hand I had in that workplace.