Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Plant

I'm trying to continue to put some good effort into my Fiction Writer's Workshop project and not avoid dealing with "Settings," which is the focus of the second chapter.

I don't think I'll address all or even most of the exercises, and of those I do, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be adapting them for my own use. A lot of what Novakovich suggests just doesn't seem like anything I'd write. I can't explain it, but you wouldn't expect Larry Niven to write woman's romance novels or Dashiell Hammett to write haiku.

Something in a few of the exercises suggests defining the protagonist by his or her environment, as if the person's setting is an extension of the individual's identity or the setting shapes and molds the person...or a little of both.

He was surrounded by a vastness of space and light and sound. "The Plant," as it was traditionally called (United States Postal Service Mail Processing Center, really), could be viewed as one enormous room, like a warehouse, but it was perpetually flooded with light. You could never tell the time of day, which was important since the Plant was in operation all the time.

This is what I used to do for the machine
The machines were always running, and clattering, and screeching (mainly when they were in the process of a high speed malfunction), and hammering, and whistling, and ringing. Some of the workers wore earplugs as a defense, but then that made it hard for them to hear the yelling of their supervisors when something (like the high speed malfunction of a mail processing machine as it turned several hundred first class letters into unintelligible confetti) went wrong.

The space of a football field (he didn't really know it was that size, but it seemed like a good analogy) was consumed with different machines processing different kinds of mail, requiring differently skilled personnel for the tasks, being replaced every eight, to ten, to twelve hours by the next shift in an endless ballet of blue collar precision.

He was where they always put him. As low man on the team, he got stuck with sweeping the mail out of the machine. There were always two people on the machines that processed letter mail, preparing it for delivery the next day, the feeder and the sweeper.

The feeder stood in one spot, pulling stacks of envelopes from bins, neatly and evenly stacking them on the feeder belt, and guiding one stack after another into the machine. The machine was programmed to read the zebra code that had been previously sprayed on the envelopes by another machine and order them in delivery point sequence (DPS). Then, this impossibly long device spit hundreds and hundreds of envelopes a minute into 100 or so slots (he never actually counted them, but they went on forever) up and down the device, and the second person on the team, me, had to quickly walk back and forth across the length of the mechanism, sweeping the slots becoming full into plastic trays stacked on metal wire racks, all containing the zip codes corresponding to the mail.

No wonder he was losing weight. Except for two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch, he was always in motion.

Mail is dry, incredibly dry. His hands were always chapped, cracked, and occasionally bleeding because the paper he was constantly moving from one place to another absorbed the water and oil from his skin like an alcoholic lapping the last ounces of vodka from a bottle. He once tried wearing gloves, but when he couldn't feel the mail, he dropped it, and dropping already sequenced mail is a bad thing.

He arrived at work at 11 p.m. usually, but sometimes sooner if they needed him. They could make him work up to twelve hours a shift, so if he couldn't see a clock (he stopped wearing his watch because he kept breaking it against the metal shelves of the machine or the wheeled wire cages where he stacked the mail trays when they were ready to be loaded onto trucks), the only way he knew it was morning or not was to look up at a skylight fifty feet above his head to see if it was black or blue.

Except for lunch, breaks, or, when the mail was finished being processed and he stacked all the mail in wheeled containers, he never saw anything but the hind end of the machine regurgitating its seemingly unending stream of letters, the racks and trays staged and ready to receive that mail, or the catwalks, support frames, metal ceiling (all white, making the lighting seem even brighter), and the occasional ceiling skylight in those few moments when he dared look up away from the mail, just so he could get a sense of distance.

In spite of the speed at which letters were launched like rectangular projectiles out of the slots and swept into the trays, he had learned to read addresses, recognize locations, and get a sense even of the order in which the mail was to be delivered. When the mail for each zone was trucked from the Plant to their respective local post offices, each carrier could retrieve the mail trays for his or her route and they would be (ideally...occasionally mistakes were made either by people or computers) in the exact order in which each tray and each letter in each tray, would be delivered. All the carrier had to do was "follow the mail."

All the sweeper had to do was run up and down the machine for hour upon hour, moving the mail from slots to trays from slots to trays, back and forth back and forth, ignoring the splitting flesh of his fingers, the maddening clatter of the machine, the paper dust, the dust of unknown origin he sucked into his lungs, the faint small of oil and ozone, and the always too bright flood of lights (light flare generators from every conceivable direction) that made it eternally day in the Plant, regardless of how much his body told him it was night and he should be in bed like normal human beings.

Ready to be loaded onto trucks at the dock
The last envelope was now in the last tray. The machine was silent as a man in a blue coat did something to it at a keyboard. Gangs of people descended upon his racks and he helped them load the trays into the wheeled containers, zone by zone, so they could be pulled out onto the dock and loaded into different trucks destined for different postal stations.

He never saw the docks. The dock people pulled the wheeled racks out to the trucks. His job was done when these containers were loaded. If he was lucky, that would be it and he could clock out and go home. If not, some other job would be waiting, either at a different machine, or maybe some manual sorting of mail the optical character reader (OCR) machines couldn't read well enough to spray paint a zebra code on (he always remembered the one a little girl addressed to her grandpa using different colored crayons).

But today there was silence. Well, not really silence. There were other machines churning, humming, and shuffling. There were people at end of shift shuffling out toward the time clocks, and then the bathrooms, and then out the door to go home. But at least his machine had stopped.

His supervisor gave him "the nod," it was his turn to leave. He looked up. The light from the distant skylight was blue. Someday he would be free. Someday he would walk out into the blue and never have to come back to through the darkness into the hideous bright light. For today, he could at least pretend.

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