Rambo Zombies Win a Cruise Jan03

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Rambo Zombies Win a Cruise

It was finally beginning. My new lanyard was heavy with the weight of the plastic badges that hung down at my belly. It dug into my bare neck a little bit, but it was a dig of importance, a dig of belonging. I was inside at last, authorized, on the team. A metal octopus of conveyor belts curved and twisted above my head as I walked the Green Mile that first day. Kuh-click. Whir. Kuh-click. Whir. I looked up just in time to see a flash of yellow plastic whiz by. Clickity, clickity, clickity! Then back to kuh-click, whir. It was a yellow tote carrying products that someone had ordered across the long maze of the warehouse to the packers to be shipped. Shelving stretched out as far to my right as I could see and towered up to the rafters four-stories tall. Stunning. I couldn’t keep my mouth closed. I couldn’t stop looking all around. I felt like a bottle of shaken-up champagne. And when I shared a grin with Allison I’m sure she saw the bubbles dancing wildly in my eyes.

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I had to remind myself to pay attention. Not only was I supposed to be listening to the safety trainer via my earphones, but I needed to be sure to stay inside the 3-foot wide path marked by green tape on the floor. They call it the Green Mile because it may actually be a mile in length if you walk it from end to end – yes, the warehouse is that big. (We guestimate 6 Costco’s worth.) It marks the safe path for people to walk in when they need to travel from one area to another. In fact there’s so much tape on the warehouse floor that it’s an actual job that gets assigned during slow times – to scrape the old tape up and lay down fresh, new tape. There are all kinds of colors with their own meanings, but basically the other non-green areas are used by pallet jacks, fork lifts and the automatic vehicles, or they’re unsafe to walk in for some other reason. People walk the Green Mile.

We were on our way to Stow School to learn our new job. For the next two months we would be responsible for putting inventory on the shelves. For 35 days we would push 3-tiered carts full of products down long, hot isles searching for any room in the crowded bins. For 350 hours we would carry a bar code scanner in one hand, grasp a Barbie or a power drill in the other, scan it, scan the bin and shove it in. (I’m not kidding, there was a lot of shoving.) We aced Stow School. The other people on our shift kept asking if we’d done this before. We smiled, said no and secretly felt proud of ourselves. Those were the early days, before my wrists and hands ached, when I actually got a little thrill each morning as I picked up my scanner at our Start Up Meeting. I would lovingly wipe it down with a sanitary wipe, like my baby, then push all the various buttons to get to the Stow Tool and scan my badge to log in. I was ready to stow, excited to see what crazy things were on the carts that day, anxious to get good performance numbers.

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Well that all changed. It wasn’t the first week. We worked shorter hours then while they “hardened” us against that cement floor and a lot of our time was spent training – everything was still new and interesting. But it was the second week. That was the week that my enthusiasm nearly crippled me. Our normal shift was 10 hours a day, Friday through Monday, 6am – 4:30pm with a half-hour unpaid lunch. Mandatory overtime was required most weeks and that meant working a 5th day of 10 hours on Thursday as well. That particular week they were also offering voluntary overtime which meant we could choose to work yet another 10 hours on Wednesday on top of it all. I see you all cringing for me already. Have you done the math? That’s 60 hours of stowing, standing on cement, and holding that damn bar code scanner. Allison maintained her sanity and only worked the days required of her, but I had to go all glutton-geek-nutbar and VOLUNTEER for extra overtime.

It was the morning of the fifth day that week when I woke up and I could barely walk the five feet from the bed to the Beauty Hole. (That’s what we call our tiny bathroom in the RV now, the Beauty Hole.) My back was stiff and my hands ached a bit, but my achilles tendons were in full-on protest. I may have enlisted the rest of my body into some militant boot camp, but not those two. Overnight they had pulled on their tie-died, waify, pirate shirts, grabbed a couple of pot brownies and were staging a sit-in. They chanted at me while I drank my coffee, “Tennis shoes are bad! Tennis shoes are the enemy!” I gingerly tried to stretch them out. “Hell no! We won’t go!” Dear God had I been spoiled and coddled in my work life for the past 20 years. I was soft, soft like a pile of cotton balls. I did survive that 60-hour week, but like an evil step-mother it licked its thumb and wiped the excitement right off my face like it was day old ketchup. I never volunteered for overtime again.

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Our days dragged on, we sunk down neck-deep into our new routine and the sameness of it all numbed us into zombies. The job required just enough awareness and attention that you couldn’t use your brain for anything else. If you did start thinking about what to make for dinner or drafting a blog post in your head, it would only be a few seconds until your whiney scanner baby would yell at you for trying to stick something in a bin that already had six unique products in it. EEEE-OH-EEEE-OH! And then there were the giant fans at the end of every 5th row that would take my neatly coifed pony-tail hair-do and blow it all to hell. Most of the day I walked around looking like I just rubbed 50 balloons across the top of my head, and tried not to get shocked by static electricity. They did move us around the warehouse each day so that we’d be stowing in a different location. There was at least the variety of a different floor or a different shelving module and some days we’d stow “rambo” (50-100 of the same popular things) and others we’d do “trans” (50-100 individual more random things), but it was always stowing.

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Until one day right before Thanksgiving, they needed extra help in Receiving so they transferred Allison and I to that department for the afternoon. We had no idea what we were going to be asked to do, but in that minute it felt like we’d won a cruise to the Caribbean. Yay! Turns out it was the kind of cruise where the ship gets stranded and all the toilets stop working. At first we were asked to unwrap huge pallets of inventory. We cut the plastic wrap off, put special bar code stickers on all the boxes, opened the boxes with our knives and then hoisted them over to a conveyor belt to send it on down to the sorter. After two hours of that we were moved to the “prep” station where we wrapped 500 pyrex bowls in 4 layers of bubble wrap each. I actually liked that job for a little while, but it probably had more to do with the music. We had the benefit of being stationary and near a stereo that shuffled through all kinds of songs throughout the afternoon, some holiday, some country, some 80’s, a good mishmash. But after the 348th pyrex bowl we noticed that a short phrase of the Nutcracker Suite was playing over and over again. It was amusing at first and we kept wondering why no one was fixing the stereo, but after 30 minutes it bordered on torture. I made some snide Abu Ghraib remark and Allison finally asked someone about it. Turns out that there is normally a boring buzzer alarm that goes off when a conveyor belt is jammed, but during the holidays they replace it with a holiday themed alarm. The Nutcracker Suite is ruined for us now. Sugar plum fairies have been replaced by pyrex bowls in bubble wrap. So even though we had a nanosecond of thrill over getting to do a new job, it was still a “jab two pencils in your eyes and call it done” kind of day.

We met lots of nice people, fellow zombies that we’d stretch with at 6am in the morning at the start of our shift, bump carts with in the isles, scarf down lunch with in the break room and then grin at in utter relief at the end of each day as we hobbled out the security gate to leave the building. We all talked about ourselves, sharing our geographical stories. We learned that a bunch of folks had just come from the sugar beet harvest, working 12-hour days in the fields digging up beets. Allison glanced at me, saw a glimmer of interest on my face and shut that down right quick. Mostly though we tended to talk about, or rather complain about the work. How little room there was on the shelves, how hard it was to find a place for the cart full of 20lb bags of dog food, or how relieved you were when the last cart of the day was full of stuffed Elmo dolls (because squishy things can get shoved in tight spaces). We counted down the time left in our sentence together. “Only 11 more days,” we’d greet each other with in the morning.

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By mid-December the volume of work for our team, the Inbound team, had dwindled and the work load had shifted big time over to the Outbound team. It was a Monday, the last day of our week and we’d been warned at our Start Up Meeting that they would be shifting people around to other departments later that day. Ali and I spent the morning anxiously awaiting our fates, praying for something totally new. “Gift Wrap! What? We’re going to Gift Wrap?” Double Yay! Now we’ve won a cruise to the Bahamas! Well, it was as hot as the Bahamas up on the 4th floor, but it wasn’t exactly what we imagined. We weren’t going to be the ones doing the gift wrapping, we were going to be a couple of steps down the assembly line at the re-boxing station. You see, all of the orders that have an item marked for gift wrap get diverted to a single big conveyor belt that runs through the middle of 50 gift wrapping stations, 25 on each side. When they come in, the items are inside a shipping box that’s just folded closed. The gift wrapper takes the stuff out, wraps the item in pretty paper if it’s square-sided. Otherwise, it’s put inside a gift box or a santa-like velvet bag when it’s an awkward shape. Then they put the stuff back in the shipping box, leaving it open and they send it down a different conveyor belt toward the final packing area. Sometimes the gift boxes and bags made the items too big for their original shipping box so that’s where Allison and I came in. We watched the conveyor belt for any boxes where the stuff was sticking out. If the lid couldn’t close nicely, we needed to pull the box off, put all the items into a larger shipping box, carefully peel off the bar code sticker that carried every inch of information about that order, stick that onto the new box and then get it back onto the conveyor belt.

When we first got going there were only five gift wrappers on duty, the rest of the shift was on their lunch break, so we were able to get the hang of things at an easy pace. We learned the various box sizes, found the trick for peeling the sticker off without ripping it, we even had time to make a surplus of new boxes in every size and stack them in neat towers next to our table. This was fun. There was music in this department. We felt good. We got this. But then lunch break ended and the war began. It was fifty gift wrappers against Ali and I. The conveyor belt turned into a raging sea of boxes, blue santa bags cresting like waves and the race was on to beat the Fedex and UPS shipping deadlines. Suddenly we had our own Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory situation going on. Both of us were racing back and forth between the conveyor belt and our table. A flurry of Playstations and Xboxes threatened to break our backs (they always needed to be re-boxed and they were damn heavy!) The backlog of orders we were supposed to repack overwhelmed our work space. The pile of discarded small boxes that we were supposed to be breaking down for recycling threatened to drown us. It was hot. We were perspiring. We were getting behind. And then a Blondie song came on the stereo, an anthem to help us find a hidden gear. Singing and boxing and racing around and singing. The hours flew by and before we knew it our shift was over, but by this time we were really invested. We still had boxes to re-pack, the conveyor belt was still moving, we almost didn’t want to leave, but a new shift would be there shortly to take our places. We were just cogs in the machine. Happy, fast, Blondie-loving cogs, but cogs none-the-less.

We clocked out at 4:30pm, but it was sometime later during the 10 minute drive home that all of the muscles in our bodies decided to clock-out. We were completely spent, the kind of exhausted you see in high-altitude mountain climbers – only our Mt. Everest was the three stairs that we needed to summit to get inside our RV. That night we slept like dead people.

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“We made it!” was the morning greeting we shouted out to each other on our last day. Big zombie hugs all around as we waited for stretching to start. Our shift was ending early that day so we only had 9 more hours to count down together. Everyone started off in stowing that day, but after lunch, ten of us were told we were moving up to Gift Wrap and Allison wasn’t one of them. She was beside herself with disappointment, it was a real live adult-pout. I was just gearing up to offer to switch with her when one of our friends came up to us and asked what department we were going to. Turns out he was disappointed about being sent to Gift Wrap so he offered to switch with Allison. Triple Yay! The switch was made official with our area manager and that’s when he found out that he was going to be stowing on the third floor in B-mod. Apparently, he hated Gift Wrap because it was so hot up there and the third floor is only slightly less hot, so he got a bum trade, but he stuck with it. “Merry Christmas”, he said. Ali hugged him tightly.

We climbed the three-story ramp up to Gift Wrap and wondered what our final hours would hold. Would we be re-boxing again or something new? Either way, we felt lucky to be ending on a positive. After a 15-minute crash-course in the rules of wrapping, they sent us out to the conveyor belt and Allison and I manned a couple of wrapping stations across from each other. There were a few harsh rules, like being limited to only three pieces of tape, no raw edges on the paper and only one inch overlap on the ribbon, but it was easy to feel happy. We were really Santa’s Elves now! We scanned each packing slip carefully looking for any familiar names, and read all the gift cards. Our favorite was “Happy f-ing Solstice! Love Bob and Janet”. Once all 50 of the gift wrappers got going, Ali and I looked over to the re-boxing station and smiled knowingly at each other. They were buried and racing around. It was way better to be this particular cog in the machine.

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At 2:45pm, all of our fellow zombies on I-shift rolled up their ribbon, laid down their scissors and started down the ramp toward the break room. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I felt like a bottle of champagne, one that had been left open for two months. The conveyor octopus continued its dull roar above my head as I walked the Green Mile for the last time. Kuh-click. Whir. Kuh-click. Whir. I used my badge to clock out forever and then pulled the lanyard off my neck. I was outside at last, free, off the team. It was finally over.