The Plastic Factoryby Ron Kolm
My name is Ron, I work in a plastics factory. The particular factory I work in is new, and it squats atop a man made mound of grass-covered rubble. In front of it is a large asphalt parking lot with an access road tying it to a major highway which, in turn, eventually bypasses a medium sized city. To one side of the factory are miles of flat sparse fields, traveling out to a low range of blue mountains in the distance. The other side drops down to a curve in the expressway.
The factory itself is modern architecture at its most functional and banal; the one-storied rectangular box. Only three appendages break this stark harmony; a loading dock on the left front, the main door on the right front (giving the design balance), and a toolshed in back. Halfway down the steep embankment, between the factory and the highway, is a small square concrete structure. We call it the “pillbox.”
The factory’s interior is split along its length into two equal halves by a spacious hallway. Access to this hall is controlled by the office, the first cubicle on the right side. The main entrance leads into this office. Continuing down the hall, we pass on our right the locker room, where the employees change into their white smocks, the bathrooms and the dispensary, and finally a modern, well-lit cafeteria, with its plastic chairs and formica’d tables, and its banks of tall bright fast-food machines. If we retrace our steps back to the front of the building, and list the rooms on our left as we repeat our journey towards the rear, we’d first pass an immense space directly behind the loading dock. This is the inspection, packing and shipping room. Beyond this, protected by thick double walls of cinderblock, is the pressure cooking room, the room I work in.
My shift runs from three o’clock in the afternoon to midnight, with an hour break for lunch, which is really dinner. There is only one other person who works this shift with me, and the reason for this is the brand-newness of our plant.
Over fifty people work in this factory during the first shift, which starts at six in the morning and ends at three. (First shift sets their alarm clocks for five A.M. They awake in pitch darkness.) Second shift (my shift) is being built-up gradually. There is no third shift. (The factory is closed between twelve and six.) So far, just the two of us.
Most of the employees have what they consider to be decent jobs. They wear clean smocks. They work in a clean, safe area. They’re allowed to listen to portable radios. And they get paid fairly well, all things considered equal. But for my partner and me, and for our counterparts on the first shift, conditions are somewhat different.
You see, what the inspectors are inspecting, and the packers are packing, and the shippers shipping, what the people in the office are drawing-up bills and invoices for, what the investors are making money on, are lenses for eye-glasses, but not ordinary glass lenses, no. The lenses we manufacture are made of plastic, using a new and still secret process. This secret is guarded in many and ingenious ways; for instance the entire building, and the pillbox outside, are wired to Wells Fargo, and so on.
But let us discuss the process, itself. A mixture containing styrene (an oil-based fluid) and an excimer, is poured (or inserted) into a form, which is placed in a giant pressure cooker, and baked (or broiled, or what have you). The temperature in our room is almost unbearable at times. The heat acts on the excimer, causing it to change chemically, and when the form is removed from the machine, some eight hours later, the liquid inside it has hardened into a tough, clear sheet of lenses. These lenses are then separated, cleaned, inspected and packed for shipping. But, let me repeat, only two people on the first shift, and my partner and I on the second, work in the bright, hot room containing the pressure cookers.
The wall on one side of our room is thin and corrugated, and is termed a “safety-wall” by the factory’s insurance company. This means that if one of the machines explodes, instead of spewing destruction in all directions, possibly into the separating or inspection area, the force, seeking a path of least resistance, will push this wall outward, away from the rest of the building. Only two people need disappear.
The ceiling in our room is supported by a network of bare steel girders, and festooned with fiery bright floodlights. Our room is bathed in artificial brilliance. Every object in our room, the machines, the walls, the girders, ourselves, becomes unreal in the harsh glare. These lights are special helium arc lamps, and when they suddenly flicker and die, which they frequently do (because the factory’s generator is new and unreliable), our room is plunged into utter hot darkness. Our room has no emergency lighting system, because the styrene mixture we use is flammable. (Thus, portable radios, flashlights, matches and anything else that might cause a fire are prohibited in our work area.)
That is, the styrene is flammable only until it is poured (or inserted) into the machine. At which point its flammability becomes an asset instead of a liability. Once we’ve got it inside the machine, it’s supposed to expand, though admittedly at a slower rate than it would like. This property of styrene, its desire to expand rapidly, makes it a difficult material to handle. You see, it especially wants to rebel at room temperature—to express itself pyrotechnically, so to speak. Because of this unfortunate tendency towards violence, it must be stored in a large refrigerator at one end of our room. We remove it from the freezer on a hand truck (styrene is shipped and stored in huge shiny steel drums), place it on the prongs of a forklift, and raise the cold drum high into the air. At the bottom of the drum is a petcock and rubber tube affair, which is attached to a filling machine (similar in size and shape to an eight cylinder automotive engine block). The styrene is thus gravity fed into the filling machine.
The filling machine, a massive piece of complications, is mounted on a large chain hoist, so it too can be raised or lowered. However, this process of loading the filling machine has not yet been perfected. We only know it’s full when noxious streams of styrene splash to the concrete floor. The overflow can then be stemmed by shutting the petcock and lowering the forklift.
Now this filling machine, suspended on its chain hoist from two long overhead rails, is able to traverse the entire length of the room, enabling it to service all four of the pressure cookers. My partner pushes, while I pull it into position, slipping on the treacherously deceptive puddles of styrene as they play out behind us. The filling machine leaks constantly. Once we’ve managed to bully it into the proximity of the pressure cooker we’re about to use, half of the battle is won. The other half is occupied with coupling twelve tiny translucent tubes between the two bulky inanimate objects, whilst fierce streams of styrene spray about our persons.
Styrene is possessed of strange properties.
It eats away the rubber soles of our shoes. It gobbles at bare skin. It devours eyeballs.
The barrels of styrene are clearly labeled “Non-Life-Supportive.”
Which means an atmosphere of pure styrene would kill you quick. Each time I enter the freezer to remove a drum, I gag on the stench, my head spins, I almost black-out, but if I’m lucky, and fast enough, I know I’ll probably emerge intact, it’s happened before. I usually survive.
In some ways styrene is poetic ... it has poetic qualities. Styrene is one of the ingredients in model airplane cement. And model airplane cement, ingested through the nostrils, can alter a person’s consciousness. More than one Nirvana has been sealed by this method.
And styrene smells.
The smell gets in your clothes, your hair, everywhere. It has a very distinctive smell. People tend to avoid you. Nobody wants to make love with you. You become a pariah, an outcast, an abnormality.
But I digress. The connections are finally made, the forms inside the pressure cooker are filled, the filling machine is dragged away, and the switch turned on.
My wife and I live in a decaying two-hundred year old stone farmhouse, which clings precariously to the side of a steep embankment. It goes from three stories in the front (living room, bedroom, attic) to five stories in the rear (tool shed, kitchen, parlor-bathroom, back bedroom, attic). The size and shape of our house (it’s not ours, we rent) presents us with a constant series of problems. For example, if, in the middle of the night, I want a snack, or some juice to take an aspirin with, I must descend from the front bedroom to the living room, and then from the living room to the kitchen, leaving a diagonal trail of light behind me.
If, while in the kitchen, I hear a noise in our backyard (on our mountain), I have to exit from the kitchen door onto a crumbling cement walkway, flashlight in one hand, the other groping for the rusted iron railing, and trundle carefully down a tilted flight of badly chipped steps to the slope below. Luckily (or unluckily) the bedroom is so far removed from the kitchen that it’s impossible to hear anything out back.
The incline falls away so sharply that when I wander into the back bedroom to look for a book, or a magazine, or just to ponder my fate, and happen to glance, absentmindedly, out upon the world behind our house, I’m always surprised by how small—how far away everything is. Sometimes the view exhilarates me, if things are going well, but if I’m depressed, which seems to be the case more often than not these days, it adds an even greater distance between me and any peace of mind.
From this vista, following the base of the house downward, the hill, dotted by tall clumps of twisted pine, finally flattens into a stubbly clearing, traversed by a small creek. Beyond the creek is a large field, and beyond the field a highway (which replaced the road our house fronts on). Beyond the highway is a shopping center. The shopping center is flanked by several heavily populated sub·divisions.
Rising far behind this strip of activity are the same blue mountains that I can see through the steel grates that cover the side windows of the plastics factory.
I live only a couple of miles from where I work.
The interior decoration of the house was bequeathed to us by the previous tenant. The living room walls (two feet thick, that’s how they built them years ago, and all solid stone) are wallpapered in a zig-zag pattern of random reds, oranges and greens. It had to take a deranged sensibility to design such a mess ... but why did the single woman with her two children who lived here before us select it for her home? God knows, she must have seen some strange corners of truth while sitting in that room watching TV.
The windows, however, are nice, as the thickness of the walls gives way to recessed sills, deep enough to sit on comfortably. The thinner walls of the parlor-bathroom, a later addition to the basic house, are papered in a silvery confection, so clearly reflective, that one can watch one’s self on the toilet.
The front and rear bedrooms were a shambles when we moved in, the wallpaper flaking and peeling in long discolored strips. I scraped through layers of ancient paper and paint, finally exposing the pockmarked plaster base. I sealed and painted the walls of the two rooms as best I could—but whenever it rains portions give way and crumble to the floor in small mounds of gaudy dust.
The attic is beyond help. The roof, an old slate and woodbeam type, leaks like a sieve—and the landlord says that the only way to fix it is to put on a whole new set of slates, which he can’t afford to do, do we want to move? But, as the rent is dirt cheap, a hundred-and-twenty-five a month for an entire house, we say no, and stay on.
I’ve constructed a series of metal troughs, running them from the worst of the leaks to the eaves, where I cut a number of openings for drainage. It actually seems to work to some degree, and though the plaster walls beneath still continue to disintegrate, at least there isn’t any more flooding in the bathroom or kitchen.
Just describing the physical condition of my surroundings is tiring ... but I’ve been avoiding the central issue ... and that is that I’m going through a terrible period in my life.
My marriage isn’t working out.
My wife and I have become enemies, of a sort. She can’t stand the smell of plastic I drag around with me like a shroud. The house stinks of it—my workshoes, soaked with caustic styrene, sit in the furnace room decaying into their cardboard and leather components. Inerasable black footprints have stained the kitchen floor forever. The kitchen door is the only one I’m allowed to use when returning from work. I stumble into the dark chilly kitchen after midnight, gagging on my own stench, tear off my deformed boots, throw them in the general direction of the basement, open a beer, and try to drink myself back to sanity. Quite often I settle for gentle oblivion. Sometimes the smell is so strong in my hair, even after washing it, that I’m forced to make my bed on the living room couch, and I lie there, nursing a beer, looking at the nutty wallpaper, and think about my wife sleeping directly above me.
My wife, to save her life I suppose, has created a new lifestyle right before my eyes. She’s hung beaded curtains between the doorways, and cluttered the house with broken antique furniture. Vintage movie posters stare back at me from the walls. Strange electrical appliances proliferate—juicers and blenders and canopeners and hairdryers and waterpiks and humidifiers and crock pots and so on. She works in a health food store, and takes handfuls of vitamins all the time—her purse is filled with them. Also, she’s joined a spa, and I’m sure she’s having an affair with her physical therapist. I’m bitter, I’m bitter, and worse, this problem is all my fault.
I’m going through a nervous breakdown. No, that’s not entirely true. I’m going through a breakdown of the imagination. That is true. I have no conception of the future any more, and having no conception of the future means that I’m stuck here in an everlasting present, passively letting events flow over me like waves on the beach. I can’t seem to think my way out of the dilemmas I’m faced with ... if it was one problem, or two, I might have a chance, but the job, the house, and my relationship are all tied together—and on top of everything the Arab nations have placed an oil embargo on my country. What this means in practical terms is that on a Saturday, let’s say, I’m supposed to meet my wife in the city at her place of work for dinner, or a movie, if we should happen to have the extra money—but I sit in my car, in a line of cars, in a long line of very slowly moving cars, looking at my watch, feeling my stomach twist into knots, knowing that by the time I finally get two dollars of gas (because that’s all they’ll give) and drive into town, whatever good time we might have had will be irretrievably lost. She’ll be furious. Where were you, why are you late, why didn’t you plan ahead, have you been drinking? And she’s right, I seem to trap myself, plan my own destruction. My wife is so much quicker than me, especially in the emotional sphere. She seems to have identified my impasse and is bailing out. While I tread water. Drinking too much. And returning day after day to a plastics factory.
The pillbox is a six-foot cube of concrete, surrounded by barbed-wire, housing two massive freezers. Each of these freezers has its own thermostat, and each thermostat is wired to the local Wells Fargo Protective Agency. If either thermostat begins to register a rise in temperature an alarm is automatically triggered, causing a Wells Fargo employee to telephone the plant with the bad news. The reason for such an elaborate warning system is this: the freezers are used to store the excimer (which creates the chemical reaction during the pressure cooking process) before it’s mixed into each batch of styrene. And if styrene is highly flammable, the excimer alone is downright explosive (at room temperature styrene will evaporate if not constricted; the excimer will detonate violently.) However, once the frozen excimer is dropped into a barrel of styrene it dissolves, becoming much more docile, ready to perform its task. If a freezer-fail is not corrected, the pillbox and its contents would be demolished in a bright flash of sound.
Theoretically, upon receipt of such an emergency call, I must race out of the factory to the pillbox, produce a key, open the barbed-wire gate, and seek an explanation for the malfunction.
If I am unable to coax the freezer back to life with sweet reason or swift kicks, I’m supposed to speed back to the plant, locate the portable generator (which is mounted on two skids like a child’s sled), drag it down to the concrete enclosure, hook it up to the wounded freezer, and start it with a lawnmower whipcord. When the factory foreman tried to demonstrate this procedure during my training period, he couldn’t get the generator going. I asked him what I should do if, just for the sake of argument, the same problem occurred during a real crisis.
“If all else don’t work,” he answered, “And you’re out of gas or whatever, you gotta take the little buggers (the excimer is packed in small clear trays like cuts of meat in a supermarket) and throw them down towards the expressway, so the little buggers will blow-up away from the plant.”
Sure—I can just see myself standing on the side of the hill like some kind of crazy person pitching little meat-trays like baseballs, risking my life for three bucks an hour, while frightened drivers swerve about below, shocked by the orange puffs of smoke and concussion. Sure – I’m a sucker – I’d probably do it.
When the hardened sheets of plastic lenses have sufficiently cooled (they’re not really cool; in fact, they’re usually still hot to the touch, like toast from a toaster) they’re removed from the steaming pressure cookers and stacked on specially designed carts.
This act of removing the plastic sheets from the pressure cookers creates a static charge; anytime two materials come into contact and are separated, one assumes a positive charge and the other a negative. The sheets therefore attract copious amounts of dust and lint, like iron filings to a magnet, making them unusable. The static charge is neutralized by gently waving a two foot long radioactive bar back and forth above each sheet. This bar is the anti-static rod. Its radioactive core (the anti-static rod is registered with the Atomic Energy Commission—to tamper with it, or to remove it from the factory, is to commit a felony) is ionized, which means it contains extra electrons; electrons looking for a more stable environment. And the electron starved plastic sheets provide it. Making everyone happy. The electrons, the lenses, the factory owners; everyone, that is, except me. While doing its job, the rod, I fear, is also doing something else, something not so nice.
Every time I wave this magic wand over the sheets of plastic like some kind of demented tooth fairy, my white smock billowing around me with the motion, my gut tightens, my sperm die. I’m sure of it. This factory is probably making me sterile. (My wife and I don’t talk about it.) And possibly, at the same time, mutating my cells, opening the genetic door to cancer, that unwelcome though everpresent guest.
No particular violence. A winter sun is high above the house, far away.
I hustle out of bed and into my clothes, shivering in the cold, and stumble down two flights of stairs to the kitchen. My wife is long gone. To her job at the health food store. Or wherever. She didn’t move when I eased myself into bed after work last night, though I doubt she was asleep. She’s turned into quite a good little actress lately, despite the limitations of her role.
Opening a beer, I survey our poverty pocket of a refrigerator. A few lonely leftovers working their way back to nature, sitting unwrapped on tiny chipped saucers. Butter. Brussel sprouts. Meatballs. Also, a half-finished carton of milk. And a small project of Tupperware containers filled with various unlabeled grains and powders. But I’m not about to mess with the unknown. Give me a Big Mac any day.
So I sip at my beer and stare out the kitchen window. And curse my wife because she’s got the family car, which is really a truck, which means I’m stuck here until I have to leave for work. My wife and I share a GMC pick-up truck. It’s pure white, with a bright red interior. We used to take turns driving it, but the overlap in our jobs (she works days, I work nights) killed that arrangement. Now she uses it almost exclusively. And I bum rides to work with my partner.
My partner’s name is Arnold Sebniewski. He’s a short fellow with long black hair slicked back in a glossy high-rolling pompadour. He married a young girl, a very young girl. A child bride of sixteen. And they play house in a poor neighborhood.
Bad luck continually nips at his heels, never quite devouring him whole. His car is an antique gas-guzzler. A living fossil he can’t afford. But he’s in a bind. No one would buy it if he tried to sell, and he needs a means to get to work. So every day I stand on the side of the highway praying for the well-being of his junkheap, and breathe a sigh of relief when it finally heaves into view.
Arnie chain smokes. This habit (no smoking in our work space) makes him a manic at work. He runs in and out of the pressure cooking area all night long like a terminally nervous whirling dervish, his smock covered with ashes and cigarette burns.
And he can’t see too well either. Arnold wears thick glasses that keep falling off his head to the greasy concrete floor. He picks them up and wipes them on his dirty smock, grinding oily crud into the lenses. He’s effectively blind. Combine this handicap with his nicotine craving and the result is an interesting series of problems.
The forklift we use in our room to shuffle around the barrels of styrene is an electrically-controlled hand-operated affair. It’s large and powerful. A useful machine. Arnie was fooling with it one night, and he managed to simultaneously start it and lock it into reverse. The forklift playfully backed him into a wall and, the handle jammed in his gut, raised him six inches from the floor. I thought he would be gored to death, while I stood there watching helplessly, a knot of fascinated fear expanding inside me.
But the machine’s safety switch shut off, leaving him suspended in the air, very much alive, his tiny feet kicking about. Another time, bored by the routine of our job, he climbed up on one of the hissing pressure cookers, reached for an exposed girder high above him, and pulled himself on top of it. He stood up slowly, a bit shaky, and grinned down at me. He then did a little victory dance to celebrate his feat, lost his footing, and fell to the floor. I couldn’t believe it. I rushed over to his twisted body, expecting to find his back broken, or his neck snapped, but once again bad luck had merely tapped him on the shoulder and then departed for awhile. His smock was soaked with dark patches of styrene, his hair was matted with the stuff, his eyes were closed, but he seemed intact.
I carefully lifted him from the floor, filled with a mixture of pity arid disgust, and carried him to the infirmary, where I rinsed his eyes with warm water. Leaving him there, bathed in the eerie green infirmary light, I returned to our room to check the temperature levels. I didn’t want the whole factory to blow up. At least not while we were in it.
Seconds later he reappeared in the room, looking no worse for the wear, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
The pressure cookers are essentially huge hot water heaters, with built-in thermostats and timers. With their lids shut they look like large rectangular stainless-steel coffins. Inside each pressure cooker are thirteen movable cast-iron plates and a hydraulic arm that projects towards them from the right inner wall. Assembled forms are placed between the plates, and then the entire sandwich (plate, form, plate, form) is compressed by activating the hydraulic arm, making it airtight (this keeps the styrene inside the forms and the boiling water out). The forms are filled, tiny plugs hammered into the pour holes with a rubber mallet, the water intake valve turned on, and the machine is ready to run.
The forms into which we pour the styrene are also sandwiches. The core of each form is a three-quarter inch thick steel pattern with twenty-four convex glass inserts. An aluminum “cupcake tray” with twenty-four matching concave impressions is placed on either side of the core. Both aluminum end pieces are edged with compressible rubber gaskets. The three pieces that make up a finished form are held together with metal clamps, the same kind high-school students use to bind their term papers.
After the forms have been locked into place inside the pressure cookers, the clamps are knocked off with a hammer and screwdriver.
The gaskets are a bitch to put on. They’re made of tough white rubber that doesn’t bend easily. We cut them in twelve foot lengths from a big spool, and throw them on a hot pressure cooker (making them more pliable) until we’re ready to use them. As you begin to edge an aluminum “cupcake tray” with the warm rubber your hands blister, but by the time you reach the final razor-cut (the gaskets have to be cut precisely—a mistake can ruin an entire run of twenty-four lenses) the material is cold and intractable. I’ve seen my partner murder a gasket with a ball- peen hammer, hitting it again and again on the floor.
After each run is completed, the forms are taken apart, the hard sheets of lenses removed, the melted gaskets pried off and thrown away, the cores vacuumed carefully, and the aluminum “cupcake trays” banged back into shape. There is often a lot of crystalline dark-brown plastic waste stuck to the various parts of the pressure cookers, styrene that has oozed out of minute leaks and partially vaporized, partially burned. This plastic waste has to be chipped from the metal surfaces and swept up. My partner handles the cleaning chores while I wheel the lenses to the packing and inspection area.
We construct extra forms during the period of time it takes the pressure cookers to complete their runs. We’re always far ahead of the machines. The owners of the plant are continually devising new ways to collapse the time it takes to bake a batch of lenses, but we still end up with a lot of time on our hands (and the owners are not around to supervise us during the bulk of our shift). We have different ways of making the long nights at work go a little faster—my partner takes drugs and I drink.
He gets his stuff from two of his friends, both Vietnam Vets who survived the war—one was a tank commander and the other a marine. The marine stepped on a buried artillery shell one day while walking point for his squad. A booby-trap. He should have disappeared, a small pink mist dissipating over a muddy trail far away from any plastics factory. But the detonator was defective. The explosion occurred anyway, trapped inside his brain, where it goes off periodically, and the only way he knows how to defuse it is with strong medicine—speed, acid, quaaludes.
They sneak up to the cafeteria window, commando-style, jimmy it open with a large hunting knife, and ease their way into the factory (this is the only way to bypass the Wells Fargo security system that protects the plant). We sit at a formica table in the empty cafeteria, darkness pressing against the windows, and do a variety of drugs and alcohol, mixing them with candy bars and cans of soda from the vending machines.
It’s usually at this point that I head for the pay phone in the hall to call my wife. I dial her number at the health food store, tell her it’s me, and then hang up the receiver so she can call me back (I can only afford the initial dime it takes to reach her).
I don’t know why I call her every night. We always end up arguing, but it’s a ritual I adhere to faithfully. I open the conversation by asking her how she’s feeling, how are things going at work, is her manager still making passes at her. And this kicks it off. (I wouldn’t know that her manager makes passes at her if she hadn’t told me.) To be told something like that and not be able to do anything about it (she likes the job, we need the money, so I can’t interfere) ties my stomach into knots. (Maybe she likes the attention.) I pop open a beer and wait for her response.
Are you drinking on the job again, is that why you’re so hostile, you don’t trust me, we should get a divorce. I apologize and try to change the subject. Sometimes I’m successful on the first attempt. If I’m not, we circle around the topic of trust for awhile, until it’s clear to both of us that we’re just repeating the same old endless, unresolvable argument. Then we move on to a discussion of our finances. How are we ever going to pay next month’s rent, the truck payments, fuel bills, etc.
Somehow or other a tenuous peace is finally achieved, and we’re able to end the conversation only vaguely dissatisfied (there’ve been times I’ve hung up on her in a blind fury, and there’ve also been times when she broke off the connection abruptly). Like a child picking at a scab on a wound we worry our relationship, but continue on.
I hang up the phone and wander back into the pressure cooking room to check the gauges. I look at the pile of finished forms stacked on the floor, waiting their turn to be filled with styrene. The helium arc lamps are burning brightly, without a flicker. Everything in the room is normal.
I walk through the double set of doors to the inspection and packing area, past the auto-clave where the lenses are washed, over to one of the side windows. Peering through a heavy steel grate I can barely see the outline of the mountains in the distance, darker than the night.
RON KOLM is one of the founding members of the Unbearables literary collective, and an editor of several of their anthologies; Crimes of the Beats, Help Yourself!, The Worst Book I Ever Read and The Unbearables Big Book of Sex. He is also the co-author, with Jim Feast, of Neo Phobe, and the author of The Plastic Factory.