Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part IV

IV.

All of the houses full of garbage, the horror of the surprise addition of an industrial-sized refrigerator to the move, almost dislocating your shoulder carrying a wardrobe up narrow stairs – the emotional impact of everything that happens on the job is intensified by the presence of your coworkers. Some of the guys knew how to make the time pass as pleasantly as it could, but when the soundtrack to an already exhausting day is a series of bizarre racist rants or the impatient mockery of your need to get some water, you’ll begin fantasizing about where you’ll hide the bodies.

I worked with a semi-pro indoor football player, a film student working on a documentary, and a very outspoken born again Christian. There were numerous ex-cons and a lackey that rode the coattails of tougher dudes, freely mocking from under their protection. There were grumpy old-timers, quiet guys, and an arrogant mechanic with a disarming resemblance to Matthew McConaughey. There were some serious chess players, a handful of family men, and a few sets of siblings. There was one guy that was so loud and had such an intense, wild-eyed stare that you never knew if he was laughing or if you’d just gotten on his bad side, either of which would result in some totally unpredictable behavior.

There were a lot ‘one guys,’ guys who, to their chagrin or pride, were forever defined by their actions. There was the guy that always ruined trucks. In the span of a month, he hit a car on the highway, side-swiped a moving van in the company parking lot (shredding its shell in the process), and somehow bent the front axle of a third truck. Another guy was always vigorously scratching his back on any corner he could find. Porch post, brick wall, tree – anything pointed and hard. He had itches so profound that his scratches began in a squatting position for maximum force.

The job was about the only thing my coworkers allowed themselves to have in common. Lives outside of work were mysteries, even between people that had worked together for a long time. Very little was shared or asked about because it didn’t seem to matter. (It’s not for the sake of entertainment that I reduce people to their idiosyncrasies; they were seriously the only things we knew about each other.) Maybe it was easier to move literally tons of stuff every day if you focused only on the job.

It was more than that, though. People were either directly at odds with one another or at best wary, laughing on the surface but always keeping watch. The same trivialities that have inspired millennia of conflict were on display at the moving company. Making sure everyone knew you were tough was the only thing that mattered.

One day I made the mistake of soliciting a coworker’s attention with a ‘psst psst!’-sound instead of calling his name. I really don’t know why I did it but I almost got punched in the face as a result. He stomped over, fists clenched, eyes ablaze, asking how dare I call him like a dog, warning me to never fuckin’ hiss at him again. It was especially scary because his anger came out of nowhere. We had been chatting agreeably all day but he turned on me in an instant. The crew leader standing nearby didn’t make any move to intervene, he simply laughed and awaited the threatened blow.

Not everyone was like this, of course. Some people were very friendly and talkative, and some people just kept their heads down and worked hard with no offense intended by their disinterest. The problem was that you might not be able to avoid getting sucked in to the fray. It was assumed that because you worked there you were willing to play by the same rules as the most aggro mover.

(To be fair, I was left out of most nonsense. I tried to be friendly or at least unobtrusive, so I don’t think I was subject to the same rituals of manhood that others involved themselves in. The only public insult I had to endure was occasionally being called Harry Potter, and (I think) that was only because I wear glasses.)

But the craziest part of it all was that when a day of insults became unendurable, employees were allowed to fight on company ground. Fights usually got stopped before they got out of hand but there weren’t any repercussions for the people involved. I guess it was understood by the management that fights were inevitable. One day this guy accused the crew leader of shorting him on tips, and they argued about it for the rest of the day. When everyone was back at the warehouse clocking out, the offended party jumped out of his car when he saw the crew leader walking inside. They exchanged a few punches and then the guy jumped back in his car and drove away, with both returning the next morning as if nothing had happened. This was at least it was better than the conflict resolution technique a guy said they used at the moving company where he used to work: two guys were shut in the back of a moving truck, and the doors were re-opened when the pounding stopped.

But sometimes people were surprisingly understanding of your physical limits. While you were always expected to work hard, it wasn’t often you’d hear people being mocked for not being able to carry as much as the strongest guys. Word certainly got around if you did things like take bathroom breaks to hide from carrying heavy pieces (“He is the peeing-est motherfucker on the job!”), but most of the mockery was more encouragement than derision. There were even times when you were allowed to carry light pieces for a little while, as everyone who worked there knew how difficult moving could be.

Trying to understand these dynamics and where/how I fit in was a perplexing and dissonant exercise. I didn’t like the impulse to aggressively out-dude one another but I wanted people to recognize that I could pull my weight on a move. I didn’t want to fit in but I wanted to be accepted. Why?

Earning their respect was a way for me to live up to the perception I had of myself. I wanted to be work hardened; I wanted to exude blue-collar honesty. Sometimes I felt like the job was a romantic exercise that reinforced the fantasies I had of my ability to withstand hardship. I didn’t have any interest in forcing people to recognize my toughness, but I secretly wanted people to acknowledge it.

This is why it was so satisfying to be told I was a better worker than the football player-sized guy who started a week or two after I did. Everyone was thrilled to have him around since he was gigantic, but his attempts to avoid the hardest parts of the job – by offering to be the recipient of goods at the top of the stairs instead of unloading and carrying them up, as if he were taking one for the team – severely disappointed my bosses and coworkers, and a few weeks later he was gone. Considerable strength turned out to be less desirable than a commitment to an equitable division of labor; I apparently demonstrated I could work this way and was thus more valued.

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