'Lunch Bucket Paradise' -- Warehouse Daze

It was cooler work but the fruit crates never stopped, coming ten seconds apart, a hard way to earn a buck.


(This is the seventh excerpt from "Lunch Bucket Paradise," East Bay author Fred Setterberg's fictionalized account of growing up in San Leandro's Washington Manor -- Jefferson Manor in the novel. See links to prior excerpts below.)

A shrill toot from the factory whistle called starting time. I clocked-in for the graveyard shift and hurried across the catwalk through the guts of the place – a tangle of steel pipes twisted into pretzels, storage bins the size of city dumpsters, the cooking vats shaped like Doughboy swimming pools with the dial face of their pitted gauges obscured in clouds of chalky steam.

Past the factory floor, the air cleared and the roar subsided – just the steady hum of conveyor belts hauling cardboard ketchup crates one story overhead, the hard-rubber scrape of forklift tires screaming their stop-and-start along the concrete.

The warehouse was a better place to spend the shift, no question. You didn’t feel the heat rising off the pressure cookers all night or catch a blast in the face from the steam vents when you weren’t paying attention. I gazed up at the hole in the ceiling, a backflap the size of a garage door opening to a patch of inky sky. My uncle had advised me to steal a glance whenever I could.

Win had pulled strings to get me into the warehouse. I didn’t turn eighteen for another four months. Just don’t say nothing stupid, he counseled.

I fit my lunch bucket under a link of conveyor line and reported for work. The night had barely begun and already I felt like I was drowning.

“Hey, kid.”

The box stacker from swing shift dropped his last crate of ketchup bottles onto the palette, then he shrugged off the evening with a mournful roll of his shoulders. He dead-stared the concrete wall and smiled at nothing as I stepped into his place.

 “’Night, kid.” 

The crates first peeked into view fifty yards up the conveyor line, discharged from a small breach in the wall; then fifty more were rolling down the twisting rack of metal casters, picking up speed and emitting a piercing whine as they headed my direction. 

I grabbed my first crate of the evening with both hands, jerked it waist-high, pivoted on one foot, and tossed the load onto the pallet, bending my knees like I had been told. Every ten seconds a new crate spurted into the warehouse, each arrival spaced eighteen-inches apart.  I set the next two crates length-wise, sitting side-by-side with the first. Then I laid down another line adjacent to the first; then four more positioned side-ways. When I finished the bottom row, I started a second level by fitting the first four crates side-ways on top of the length-wise row. Then another level reversing the pattern.  In less than ten minutes, the palette rose five levels high.  The forklift driver squealed up short, needling his prongs into the catch of the pallet, and drove off into the dim light of the loading docks.

I moved to the next pallet and began building a new stack.

A couple of hours into the shift, our first breakdown occurred. Something had happened up the line, but you could never tell what at the warehouse end. The conveyor belt squealed and stuttered to a halt and boxes shifted into one another, erasing the two-feet of daylight between them. I glanced up and down the line to see what the other stackers were doing.

Two guys sprawled across their pallets, studying the ceiling. I up-turned a crate bleeding ketchup from the corners and sat. The sweat streamed down my back. My heart’s drumbeat began to slow. I thought about nothing at all.

No, that’s not true.  I thought what I thought every night.

Please, God – let me go, get me out of here…

Half a minute later, the conveyor started up and we all flew at the line double-speed, plucking off boxes as fast as we could so that they didn’t jam and tumble to the floor.  A few casualties jolted off the line. They hit the concrete, cracking like wind chimes.

The line ran steady until lunch.  At 2:30 AM, my replacement tapped my shoulder. I nodded and he stepped forward.  Before I could mutter thanks or good luck or whatever you were supposed to say, he was snatching boxes off the conveyor belt.

I climbed the catwalk and snaked back through the factory’s steel intestines until I reached the lunchroom. A clock on the wall told me that I’d spent five minutes of my lunch break just walking the length of the factory floor, but the constant dull glow of overhead neon rails made it impossible to feel the time.

The screech of conveyor belts persisted in the distance, their racket swamping the room whenever somebody walked in or out the door. An old man in blue coveralls occupied a stool in the corner, spooning down warm diced tomatoes from the can.

Also on Patch:

If this is your first exposure to "Lunch Bucket Paradise," check out these prior excerpts.

  • Meet the .
  • The enjoyed by working families.
  • The .
  • The . 
  • A carefree tramp .
  • All hail !

(Publisher Heyday Books in Berkeley has offered San Leandro Patch readers a 30 percent discount off the $15.95 cover price of "Lunch Bucket Paradise." To order call 510-549-3564 (extension 304) or email orders@heydaybooks.com. Be sure to mention "PATCH" to get the discount.)


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