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Got two cents?
Pass It On
I remember the day I had to break the news to Mike that Howie Makem had apparently vanished. Christ, it was as if his little brother had disappeared.
"Howie's GONE?" Mike hollered. "Have you asked around? He must be somewhere."
"I don't know where he went," I answered. "All I know is that he's been missing for weeks. The flag outside the plant hasn't been at half mast or anything, so I assume he's still alive."
"You wouldn't be snowin' me about this whole disappearance, would you? I know how loath you are about givin' me a Howie Makem interview. Let's be honest, Ben."
"I can't believe we're having this whole conversation. Howie Makem is missing. I don't know why and I don't know where. Above all, I don't even fuckin' care! If he ever shows up again, I promise to get you an interview. Are you happy?"
My editor leaned back in his chair. "Exceedingly so." He beamed.
It was back to the drawing board for the brainy sorts at GM Truck & Bus. In light of Howie Makem's disappearance, another inventive Quality concept was needed. They introduced to us the official General Motors "Quality Drinking Glass."
One evening, the supervisors began approaching each of their workers with a little mid-job pep talk. The gist was that if the Quality level reached such and such a figure, we would all receive a lovely drinking glass memento that we could proudly take home to show our kin and prop beside our bowling trophies and eighth-grade diplomas. The glass even provided a wrenching of the heartstrings, for emblazoned on the side was the profile of none other than Howie Makem himself, rest his controversial soul.
Christ, I got all choked up and thought I was gonna bawl. With renewed determination, I began knocking the piss right out of each and every rivet that dared rear its shiny little scalp in my direction. Go team, go! Forget your house payment. Forget your child support. Forget that trip to Cedar Point. Damn it, do it for Howie!
"Thanks for the good job, Ben." Gino smiled. "Here's your cup."
At the same time, one of the utility guys was walking right behind Gino asking each worker whether he'd like to sell his Quality Glass for a buck. He mumbled something about wanting to start a collection. I was shocked. I told the guy to get his rotten currency outta my face. No one could have my Howie Makem drinking glass. The gall of some bastards...
I figure that the whole investment in these glasses probably ran GM maybe $35. But, of course, it was the thought that mattered most. After all, when someone works hard all day in a smoky chamber full of sludge, noise, armpits, beer breath, cigar butts, psychos, manic depressives, grease pits, banana stickers, venom and gigantic stalking kitty cats, why not give the guy his own glass.
You can bet your ass he'll soon be needin' a drink.
Not all diversions were of an amusing nature. I recall one that really gave us fits. GM and the union got together and installed these mammoth electronic message boards in various locations around the plant. They only sprung for about a dozen of these boards and, wouldn't you just know it, with all the available acreage around the factory, they just had to point one of these bastards right at me. It hung about five feet above the picnic table directly across the aisle from my job.
The messages they would flash ranged from corny propaganda ( green neon bulb depictions of Howie Makem's face uttering shit like QUALITY IS THE BACKBONE OF GOOD WORKMANSHIP!) to motivational pep squawk ( A WINNER NEVER QUITS & A QUITTER NEVER WINS!) to brain-jarring ruminations (SAFETY IS SAFE). The board also flooded us with birthday salutes, religious passages, antidrug adages, audit scores, limericks and the occasional abstract gibberish. (One night the board kept flashing the phrase HAPPINESS IS HORSES alongside a rather grotesque-lookin' rendering of a horse head. If I had any idea what it meant, I'd gladly pass it on.)
I remember the first day the message board went into operation. For the entire shift, it beamed out one single message. They never erased it. We kept waiting for another phrase to come along and replace it. No such luck. The message blazed on brightly like some eternal credo meant to hog-tie our bewildered psyches. The message? Hold on to your hardhats, sages. The message being thrust upon us in enormous block lettering read: SQUEEZING RIVETS IS FUN! Trust me. Even the fuckin' exclamation point was their own.
Just for a moment, let's imagine that you worked for the sewage department. One day you walk into work to discover that the boss has erected a giant neon sign tight next to your job that insists SHOVELING TURDS IS FUN! Or, let's pretend you're a shoe clerk. You arrive at your workplace to find a huge billboard that pours forth the adage SMELLING FEET ID RAPTURE! How would you react to such derisive lunacy? You couldn't accept this as normal. Not in a billion years. C'mon, c'mon. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Well, I know what I did. I cut myself up a chunk of cardboard, took a big red felt marker and etched down the letters CKED. I then crammed a wad of tape on the back of it, stood atop the workers' picnic table and slapped those four letters over the N in the word FUN. I hustled back to my job and turned around to gaze at my handiwork. Oh yes, this was much better: SQUEEZING RIVETS IS FUCKED! I was such a stickler for accuracy. My proud correction remained up there for about three hours until Gino, fearing the wrath of overlords, ripped it down amidst a chorus of heavy booing. It was all right. Gino was cool. Any other foreman would have torn it down immediately and reprimanded me for some muddled violation of Company policy.
This whole incident with the new message board disturbed us. We wondered exactly who was in charge of this vile effrontery. Were these the same deplorable loons, the same demented pimps of propaganda that had shamelessly spermatized the Howie Makem saga? Did these fuckers really believe that squeezin' rivets was "fun"? If so, why weren't they all down here having the time of their lives? They'd have gotten no protest out of us: "Here you be, Jenkins, another dozen rivets to squeeze! Head 'em out! More fun than a whore with three tongues!"
I had several definitions of fun. Riveting was nowhere on the list. Taking in a Tiger game from the right field overhang was fun. Listening to Angry Samoan records while gettin' sloshed was fun. The episode of Bewitched where Endora hexed Dick York with elephant ears was fun. Dosing past noon with the phone off the hook was fun. Having sex in a Subaru was difficult -however, that was fun too. Squeezing rivets was not fun. It paid the rent and put Fritos in our kids' bellies, but there was no way you could classify it as fun. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow.
It made me wonder just what our precious union's involvement was with this brain-rapin' contraption. They were coinvestors in the purchase of all these message boards. Weren't they obliged to be on our side? How could they sit idly by and allow GM to glut the screens with hysterical lies? Since we paid their goddamn salaries, you would think they'd have some balky mulehead assigned to monitor the mucus. A representative of the workin' Joe who would step in and tell GM: "Hey, you chuckleheads. If you dare beam 'Squeezing Rivets Is Fun!' ever again, we reserve the right to broadcast 'Squeezing the Plant Manager's Balls Is a Hoot!"
I believe the thing that grated us most about the giant message board is that it never once supplied us with anything we didn't already know or couldn't have cared less about. The possibilities for useful data were certainly there. For instance, why couldn't they flash the nightly lottery number? Several of us had money ridin' with Frankie, our in-plant numbers runner. Why couldn't they post updates on scores from the Tigers' and Pistons' games? What could be more harmless and righteously American than lettin' us check in our local sports heros? Why couldn't they run silent footage of the Three Stooges or Tom & Jerry cartoons? No lyin', we'd have settled for home movies of Roger Smith's valet sortin' through his sock drawer.
All we got was the same daily bullshit. I had a creepy suspicion that the message board was slowly driving us daft, especially Eddie. His job was situated just such that the messages were staring him right in the face. Several times I caught him glowering at the board as if he were on the verge of goin' bughouse.
Eddie and I began firing rivets at the screen. We'd rear back like Seaver and Gooden, throwing our arms out in desperate attempt to shut down the madness. It was useless. The damn message board must have been made out of Kryptonite. Once in a great while, Eddie would peg it hard enough to make one or two of the words temporarily disappear. Everyone would begin to applaud when, suddenly, the letters would heal up and reappear.
It ate at Eddie. At times, he seemed to be hypnotized to the board during which he would engage in absurd conversation. I still recall the night he motioned me over to answer a question. His eyes were pinned to the center of the green neon. "Ben, what's the difference between No Lead Gas and Unleaded Gas?"
"Could you just tell me the FUCKIN' DIFFERENCE!" Eddie shouted. He was serious.
"Well, I always assumed that the two were just the same."
"Then how come my car runs better on the goddamn No Lead?"
I had no idea. I slid back to my job and hit a few rivets. It wasn't any fun.