First Encounter with the Little Ochre Soldiers

by Jim Hill

I have two dream jobs – excluding a position within the Philadelphia Phillies’ front office, which is the “Holy Grail of Dream Jobs” and outranks the other two by a decent margin.  First, I’d love to be a member of the Crayola Company’s “Crayon Naming Committee,” devising titles for various shades and hues. Secondly, I’d be overjoyed to be a “device tester” for Life Alert Emergency Response, hiding in nooks and crannies, waiting for aid to arrive. But during the long summer preceding my freshman year of college, I became neither a name deviser nor a device tester. I became a “glass thrower” at Philadelphia’s Great Scotland Brewing Company.

I initially grew enamored with the idea of working for the brewery when my cousin Christian McKeon, “Crick” for short, pitched it to me, unemployed and broke, on a drive to Furlong’s seafood market. Our conversation went as follows:

“How would you like to live with me in the city and work at ‘Great Scot,’ Jim?”

“Sounds cool. Would I get to climb into the vats?”

“No, Jim.”

“Would I be doing some taste testing? Off the record, of course.”

“No, Jim. You’d be ‘throwing glass,’ stacking bottles on a conveyer belt.”

“Like Laverne and Shirley?”

“Just like Laverne and Shirley.”

“I’m in, Crick, I’m in.”

And I was in—fully in. I envisioned myself becoming a workingman—gruff, with leathery hands, just like those Irish dockworkers in On the Waterfront. Eventually a date was set for my “first day on the job,” and with each passing week, I grew more excited. I was excited for work as I lounged in my folding chair, spending some time in Avalon, on the Jersey Shore; I was excited for work when I returned from a brief vacation and prepared myself for the move into the city; I was excited for work when I arrived at my cousin’s apartment at the intersection of Third and Arch, unpacked my things, and inflated my Aero Bed; I was excited for work when Crick drove me to the brewery the following morning, when I donned my steel toe boots and crammed ear plugs into my skull, and when Pataki, the stout, hotheaded foreman, ordered me to stand beside the conveyer belt, then motionless, and prepare to “throw glass.” I was excited, excited, excited. And then the machines were activated.

The bottles began to move. Within moments they surrounded me: bottles whirring along the conveyer belt, dropped bottles, chipped bottles, shattered bottles, and pallets with towers of bottles, bottles meant to be placed on the belt. My excitement had abruptly ended. I was panicked, thrust into the middle of an unknown operation. My doughy hands were not those of “Pop” Doyle or “Kayo” Dugan, those laborers in On the Waterfront, and the leaden bottles repeatedly slipped from my greenhorn grasp. Glass pieces plummeted all around me, dropping one after another, and soon the cement floor became a dull brown, covered in shards. I was behind pace; I was slacking.

And then he appeared: Zechariah Mingler, the handsome, cultured halfback attending prestigious Princeton University. Crick had told me about him a few weeks prior to my arrival – “There’s another guy your age working at the brewery.” And there he was – grabbing eight bottles in a single motion, placing them neatly on the belt, and returning to the pallet for more glass. I felt outmatched, as if I were competing with Johnny Bench in a baseball grabbing competition. And the conveyer belt kept moving; and Mingler kept moving; and my focus was constantly shifting – but always revolving around Mingler. I wonder how many bottles Mingler’s dropped. I wonder if Mingler’s stacked more bottles than me.

And the day was becoming endless, the bottles infinite. The pieces were still difficult to grip, shift, and place. Then I thought for a few moments, between two and three o’clock, that I had discovered a revolutionary, avant-garde method of bottle lifting—one which requires its practitioner to shove his fingers in the mouth of each piece. In the moments immediately following this discovery, the day seemed that much shorter and the bottles that much less in number and that much more graspable. But genius is often misunderstood. Soon the fuming foreman Pataki engaged me in a profanity-laced discourse concerning “contaminants,” which led to my abandonment of the practice and my return to the “old school” approach.

I was miffed beyond belief. I was miffed at Crick for offering me the job; I was miffed at Mingler for operating at a Herculean level; I was miffed at Pataki for ordering me to “man” this conveyer belt like some sort of field marshal, for chewing me out over the “finger stuffing” technique. And I was furious that the workday wouldn’t end, that these bottles—these little ochre soldiers—kept marching forward and onward. And then, rather suddenly, the bottles came to a halt, the din of the machines was reduced to a whisper, and I had finished my “first day on the job.”

The apartment at Third and Arch was about four miles distant, and Crick had some office work to finish, so I had to hoof it. Outside of the building, Pataki clapped me on the back and, with a Marlboro Red lankly hanging from the side of his mouth, wheezed, “Good work today, buddy. See you tomorrow.” And, strangely enough, the words sounded kind. Stepping onto the chalky sidewalk, further into the stifling heat of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I began the trudge, all the while thinking, Good work today, buddy. And the journey, in turn, seemed that much less daunting and my first day at the warehouse that much better.

“Throwing glass” may not have been one of my dream jobs, but at least it was a job—a job with an imminent second day. But that “second day on the job” would be tomorrow. I had secured my freedom for that afternoon, that night. All at once, I was rid of Great Scotland Brewing Company, as well as its endless bottles and speeding conveyer belt, but oddly appreciative of the fact I’d be able to return the next morning. I wonder if Mingler feels the same way.

 

(some names and identifying details have been changed)