This post is about 800 words
If you’re lucky, you’ve had a bad job. It you’re blessed, you’ve had a terrible job.
I’ve known people who have worked themselves up from near-squalor and I’ve known others who’ve had charmed lives and probably never washed actual dirt from their hands. No judgment either way from me. I can’t begrudge people for the lives into which they were born.
But there’s something to be said for having a career where everything didn’t go your way. Not only are these opportunities to see how you deal with the crucible, but they add a different level of appreciation to what you’ve achieved.
Here’s an example from my own varied work history.
In college, I worked for a temp agency that regularly sent me to a food processing plant. Most of the jobs were mundane: picking burnt chips off a conveyor belt or pulling mislabeled cans off the line. I could literally turn off my brain while I did these tasks, and actually, I wrote a lot in my head during my overnight shifts.
Those aren’t the kinds of tasks I’ll describe here, however.
One night, the shift manager took us to a more secluded part of the factory, where the mercury vapor lights seemed dimmer. As we walked past ovens, labelers, and mixing casks, he explained that we were disposing of ruined food. Bacteria had spoiled a large batch of ranch dressing that had already been bottled. Our task was to open the bottles and pour them into fifty-gallon drums.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
We reached the station, where a seemingly endless pile of shipping cartons awaited us. The current crew was finishing up, more eager for their break than usual, and there was something in the air. It tugged at the senses like a forgotten memory trying to be remembered. I couldn’t place my finger on what it was, so I dismissed it as we received our simple instructions:
- Open bottle.
- Pour into drum.
Now, I was an invincible college student who knew everything, so I dismissed the tinges of green I saw on a few faces. Like passing an accident, curiosity enveloped me and I wanted to know what I was dealing with. I walked over to the drum and looked down into it.
We all have a list of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made. Near the top of mine is looking down into that barrel. I don’t know if you’ve ever been punched in the face by a locomotive, but if so, you know what happened to me that night.
It was the kind of smell that spread a taste across the tongue like a creamy film of putrefaction. Only divine providence kept my stomach contents where they were.
The subsequent two hours passed in an interminable haze. My brain shut down rather than try to process the insanity my senses conveyed. This was Lovecraftian horror at its finest.
I repeated the instructions hundreds of times – Open-Pour-Repeat, Open-Pour-Repeat – trying valiantly to adhere to a fourth step: Don’t breathe.
The smell was everywhere, in everything, and it would never leave me. It wasn’t on my skin. I thought it WAS my skin. Much like Frodo near the end of Return of the King, I forgot the sound of water and the taste of food.
When our two-hour shift ended, we shuffled away from the atrocities we had just committed, unable to warn away the next victims as they approached.
And for fifteen years, the sight and smell of ranch dressing made me ill (the headline image for this post even makes me a little squeamish). I never loved the stuff, but I didn’t dare taste it for fear of transforming into a screaming fountain of reverse peristalsis. You might think the passage of time has injected some hyperbole into my tale. Perhaps. But if that truly were the case, I probably wouldn’t have avoided ranch dressing for fifteen years.
So. I suppose this post should end with some message or moral. Well, I try to be transparent when I write these, so you’ve probably already guessed the points here:
- Appreciate the job you have because it could be far, far worse.
- Learn from those awful experiences, lest history repeat itself.
No, wait. That’s all wrong. The point is, never look into the barrel of bacteria-spoiled ranch dressing. (With apologies to Nietzsche) because when you gaze into the creamy abyss, the creamy abyss gazes into you.
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© Michael Wallevand, August 2021