As is the case with many college students, I worked a full-time job while carrying a full, fifteen to eighteen hour school schedule. Being a commuter, I wasn’t that interested in experiencing the “college life,” and once my classes were over for the day, I didn’t stick around. Working the graveyard shift at a local factory, which was ideal for my school schedule, I found most of my afternoons taken up with sleep. Having been unceremoniously let go from my job at Schreiber’s Cheese (it appears that they frown on employees disappearing in the middle of their shift without telling the boss), I was in need of a new one. In short order I found an opportunity at Leggett and Platt.
Leggett and Platt currently produces a wide variety of products for the home, but at the time, their main product was bed springs. Going from Schreiber’s to Leggett was a major change. Whereas Schreiber’s was a non-union plant, Leggett was union, and once I was hired I became a part of the Amalgamated Wire Cutters and Spring Benders of America, or some such outfit. Schreiber’s, other than the smell of milk and cheese, was a clean, well-lit, place to work. Leggett on the other hand was dark, greasy, and loud. In order to not lose your hearing, ear plugs were required at all times (I lost much of my hearing anyway due to the loud rock music I subjected myself to). The method of compensation was also different and I went from straight hourly pay at Schreiber’s to a base pay plus piece rate, which I found didn’t often deliver on its promise.
My main job was to make the tops of the bed springs and I was assigned a specific machine outfitted for the task (there’s a reason I was assigned to that machine and it had much to do with the piece rate mentioned earlier). Making the tops was easy and it wasn’t long before I was one of the fastest top makers on the graveyard shift. At least I was when my machine cooperated. I found that it was hard to get into bonus pay when the machine was constantly breaking down. Waiting for the maintenance man to come around might take part of an hour. It was during these down times that I found myself composing the lyrics to a few songs. I would take a blank time card from the break room and throughout the evening I would write down verses as they came to mind. What else is a person to do in that environment?
One other difference between the two companies was in the employees. Schreiber’s had its share of oddballs, but nothing to compare with Leggett. The bar scene in Star Wars is a fair representation of the people who I would be working side by side with in the early hours of the morning. It didn’t take long for me to see that this college boy was “not in Kansas anymore”. The first of the unique characters on my shift was Shirley.
Shirley was the fastest top maker on my shift and wearing that title, she gave me something to shoot for. I found early on that her machine was always in tip-top shape and was the main reason for her success. Being an old veteran she had the pick of machines, and it isn’t coincidental that she didn’t pick mine. Not only had she learned basic maintenance on her own, but she also made sure to be on good terms with the maintenance man. If Shirley’s machine was ever down and she couldn’t do the repairs, which was rare, the maintenance man knew that hers was top priority. Mine could wait. There are a couple of fictional characters that you might be familiar with that serve as an adequate descriptor of Shirley. In the movie Throw Momma from the Train, Danny Devito’s character has a mother; the Momma in the title. Picture Momma, and then picture Mama Fratelli from The Goonies. There’s a reason they both work for Shirley; the two characters were played by the same actress, Anne Ramsey. While Shirley was pounding out tops, and making top dollar for her efforts, I was often at the machine next to hers, whacking mine with a hammer, frustrated that I couldn’t catch her. Shirley was a constant smoker, with a cigarette dangling from her lips at all times. Her “uniform” was the same every night; blue jeans and a royal blue t-shirt, with a large hole just above the belly button. She was gruff and seldom spoke to me other than a few grunts and growls.
Bill was another character on the shift. I’m not sure what he did specifically, as I would see him meander around the plant, pestering person after person throughout his shift. Sometimes he would do maintenance on the machines, but he wasn’t the maintenance man. At times he might cover for the foreman when he was on his lunch break. Other times he would bring materials and supplies to the top makers. What he mostly did was screw around. I never saw Bill run a machine. It’s entirely possible that he got away with his goofing around because of his intimidating reputation. Bill made it known that he was once in prison. That I do not doubt. Rumor has it, and I’m guessing that he started the rumor, that Bill was in prison for murder. Whether he did or didn’t murder someone was truly irrelevant, the important thing is that we believed he did. Sitting across the table from him at lunch time, looking into his “Charles Manson like” wild eyes, I treated him with all the respect due a murderer. I found it best to humor him and I gave him much more leeway than I would most people. I put up with his practical jokes and laughed at appropriate times, not wanting to cross him and find out that the rumors were true. He found my brother and me, both college students, to be a novelty, so he spent much of his time telling us stories and asking us numerous questions.
As is the case in many fictional stories, Bill had a sidekick. In these fictional stories, there is the smaller man, who happens to be fairly intelligent, who often befriends a much larger, and also much dumber partner (George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men are just two of many examples). Well, in this instance, Bill had his partner, the sycophantic toady, Polack. His real name wasn’t known, at least by those of us who worked with him. He may have been of Polish descent and been given the derogatory moniker because of it, but more than likely he was given the name because of his obvious lack of intelligence. Polack was enamored with Bill and followed him around everywhere he went. If Bill were to suddenly stop while walking through the plant, Polack would run into him. Polack was a foot taller than Bill and seeing the two together was humorous. Bill may have been the brains of the outfit, but being the smartest guy in the room with those two isn’t saying much. I believe that Polack was truly afraid of Bill, and so he not only showered him with flattery, but he also perpetuated the idea that Bill was a hardened criminal. He may have been, but the stories had a tendency to become more outlandish each time they were told. I found it best to just nod my head while the yarns were being spun.
On our shift we also had a foreman. How one becomes a foreman in this setting is curious; maybe the foreman is the last man standing. Our foreman was Joe. Joe spent most of his evenings sitting in his small office situated in the middle of the plant, doing what, I could never tell. From time to time he would wander the plant and check in at each work station, and then disappear back into his office or some other out-of-the-way hiding place. He must have been a diehard Elvis fan, because his hair and sideburns, as well as his mouse like tummy, resembled Elvis during his “fat period”. Joe was the one who answered the phone on those nights; I’m ashamed to admit, when I called in sick, even though I wasn’t sick, just sick of working in that factory. He seemed genuinely disappointed in me not coming to work, but never challenged me on the veracity of my claim. Joe never let anything bother him and one night when I was working on an unfamiliar machine, a wire ran through one end of my finger and out the other. I was a little shook up and called for help, as I now had a chunk of warm wire sticking out of both sides of my finger. Joe calmly grabbed some wire cutters, cut the wire loose, and then pulled the remaining wire out of my finger, as if the operation was routine. He then, like a doctor with his patient, pronounced me good to go and sent me back to work.
How long I worked at Leggett, I’m not quite sure, but I do remember the impact working there had on me. I may have learned much in my college years and can look back on the experience as being worth the time and money. But, working at Leggett gave me a much more valuable lesson in life. After only a brief time of working there, I realized why I was going to college. Whatever I had to do, I wasn’t about to end up on the graveyard shift with Shirley, Polack, and Bill for the rest of my life.