Thursday, May 21, 2009

Staying Grounded: My Monthly Dose of Blue Collar

As some of you know, I've been laid off from my job for a while now. What started out as a 30-day lay-off in mid-February has drawn out into nearly four months. And from the amount of business my plant has lost during that time, it doesn't look like I'll be called back soon.

Not that I'm complaining that much. I'm drawing a check from Uncle Sam that is close to the take-home pay I was getting every week and I'm getting to keep my health insurance (for now). So it looks like this coming summer will be spent with the kids and in front of the computer monitor catching up on my writing. So, like I said, what I have isn't too shabby compared to some folks who are hurting due to factory shut-downs and unemployment. At least I have something to fall back on and some very entertaining company (almost too entertaining sometimes!) here at the house.

Still, even with all the positive factors, I do tend to get restless sometimes. And, believe it or not, I get to missing the old workplace, even with its stress and down sides.

One of the conditions of keeping my health insurance is that I come in to work five hours per month. This consists of waking up extra early around the 10th of the month (the anniversary of my lay-off), dressing in my gray uniform (sorry, not blue) with the company logo above one pocket and the embroidered RON above the other, driving twenty miles to nearby Lebanon, clocking in, working my butt off for five hours, then clocking out and driving back home. The amount I earn in that 300 minute period must pay a hunk of my family insurance benefits, because when I recieve my check for the following week it usually amounts to around $1.56 after deductions.

But this blog isn't about the insurance, but mostly about going back to work and staying grounded in the real world. The world I grew up in. The Blue Collar world.

I come from a blue collar background. From folks that worked an honest day's work for little pay in return. The majority of my kin worked in factories or garages, while others worked the land, on farms they owned or didn't own. The farmers grew corn and tobacco; the others worked as forklift drivers, mechanics, or assembly line workers. My father worked in a tool and die shop for nearly forty years before retiring. Before that, in the Army, he worked in the motor pool, keeping the jeeps in proper working order. I remember growing up and smelling the thick scent of oil and raw metal on my father when he came home in the evening. It wasn't an alluring smell, and neither was it repulsive. It was simply the smell of hard labor and doing jobs that others -- the more educated -- neither had the desire or gumption to attempt. I'd smelled other odors on my grandfather and uncles after a long day in the fields; not oil and metal, but sweat and raw earth, along with the tang of tobacco juice on their breath. Their uniform was not the blue-collared garb of a machinist or mechanic, but felt hats, jeans, and long-sleeved shirts to protect their flesh from the merciless rays of the sun. Still, it found their faces and the napes of their necks, burnishing their skins an Indian brown and etching a roadmap of lines around their eyes and along their cheeks, spilling down the sharp, steep cliffs of their jawlines like waterfalls of character.

Since those of our bloodline attending college was as scarce as whiskers on a bullfrog, I joined the ranks of the working class following high school. Mind you, I still wanted to be a writer. More than anything else on the face of the earth I wanted to spend my days behind a keyboard, conjuring books and stories from my imagination. But it was necessary to work in the meantime. I had to make a living and take care of myself. At the beginning, I worked as a janitor in my father's shop, sweeping up razor-sharp curls of steel and washing windows pitted by white-hot specks of metal thrown off as sparks from the spot-welding machines. Later I became a welder myself and did that for nearly seven years. When I began writing novels for a living in the early 90's, I thought that blue-collar existance was over and done with. Then several years later the implosion of the horror market rendered me jobless and I did as I was raised to do. I laced up my steel-toed boots, packed my lunchbox, and returned to the factories where I grew up. In late '96, I got a job as a press operator in an electric motor plant and stood in one spot with my thumbs on the triggers for nearly five years, until Mexico took our work and I was faced with unemployement once again. I drove to Lebanon and found a job at Metokote, first as a painter on the powder-coating line, then later took on the line leader position of the packing team, packaging electro-coated car parts for shipment to bodyshops all over the nation. And I had that position for nearly eight years, until this recent downturn in automotive consumerism.

So you see, I'm not a stranger to unemployment, the same as I am not a stranger to the blue-collar way of life. But with this recent lay-off and my imersion in my writing, I almost fear losing this sense of blue collar I grew up observing and participating in. If you've read my work, you know that most of my characters are cast from the working class; factory workers, farmers, mechanics, storekeepers, etc... the salt of the earth, as they were once called. And, due to being around such folks all of my life, I believe I can write those characters convincingly. But to do so, I must keep in touch with those who punch the clock and eat their lunches amid the smell of oil, metal, and gasoline fumes. That is why I don't mind going back for those five hours and rubbing elbows with the sort of folks who live from paycheck to paycheck and grumble about the lastest production manager as if he were Satan himself. For it is their essence that go into the men and women of my stories and novels, not some made-up paperdoll of a character that I know absolutely nothing about. In some sense, most of my characters (particularly the main characters) are me... the Jeb Sweenys and the Boyd Andrews. They are constructed from my experiences as a child and as a man; infusing them with their joys and sorrows, their aspirations and angsts.

So, do I complain about breaking away from my most recent domestic routine? A routine that is filled with playing kids, grass-mowing at mid-day, and hours of creating Southern-fried horror behind the keyboard? No, I don't mind at all. If only for a mere five hours, I get to return to a place I feel comfortable with and to spend a little time with people I care about and who care about me in return. I relish hearing their bitching and moaning, as well as their lame jokes (most of them dirty to the point of being pornographic), for that is what keeps me grounded in their world... and keeps me writing my characters the way they ought to be... constructed of flesh and bone, piss and vinegar... instead of unconvincing shadow puppets constucted of random words on cheap pulp paper.

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