Thursday, November 29, 2007

Most people looking at me, standing by the shredder all day feeding papers into it, might count me down as a flunky.


Let me tell you something about that.

You have to think about why things are the way they are. Now, the papers are being shredded because they have to be destroyed. They have to be destroyed because they are dangerous. They are dangerous in the wrong hands because they could reveal salaries, compromise bids, violate personnel privacy, and start lawsuits. So you have to assign a man to shred them.

A man you can trust.

Okay? A lot of dangerous, litigable stuff passes through my hands. And I shred it. I’m the one who can be trusted. Just like a U.S. marshal. Like an FBI man.

The boss waits for one of those big cranes to go by, clanking and all painted yellow with a serial number spelled out with little metal tags. Then he steps forward quickly and hands me a sheaf of papers. “Shred these for me Willy?” he says. I say, “Yes sir!” and get right to it. Now, most people in the plant get their marching orders from a flunky of a flunky of the flunky of the boss. But I get my orders directly from him. Those intermediary flunkies can’t be trusted with the material we handle, the boss and I. So I have a direct meeting with him about once a day.

That’s the level I’m on.

Here comes Allison and I can’t help looking at her. Her hair is glossy black like a big clean waterfall. Or a pillow. I’d like to sleep on it, smelling it all night. She’s putting mail in slots right by my station at the shredder. I turn the shredder off to give the electric motor inside a rest. It gets hot sometimes and the breaker will trip. You have to watch for that. When the motor winds down I say, “Hello, Allison. Your hair looks lovely today.”

She jumps like she didn’t see me there and I startled or, or like I had brought up the subject of animal genitals or something. She is a very delicate creature. She is from Korea and women are different there. Here in America a woman comes at you swearing and making jokes about animal genitals, and then she grabs you by the crotch and asks you out on a date.

And you’d better say yes. At least that’s my experience with American women. Allison isn’t like that, though. She’s a delicate creature, and you can’t just go up to one with your big silver Texas belt buckle on, grab her by the hand, crushing a few bones there, and say: “Damn glad to meet you, honey!” And then start talking about animal genitals.

Allison is like a blushing blossom, and I will have to soothe her gently as a spring mist. She walks away and I watch her ass, small and bulbous and making that skirt bounce.

Ms. Henderson sees me watching Allison, I guess, because she gives me that cross, evil look and then ducks back in the office. I’m sure she thinks I am a flunky and that I have no right to be making love to Allison. I start up the shredder and run the sheets in three at a time, making like I hadn’t see her.

Most people will say that the machine can take only one or two sheets at a time. I always chuckle when I hear them say that. Well, for most people it’s true. They put in three sheets, and it jams. But that’s only because they don’t know how to feed in three sheets.

As it goes through, if you pay any attention at all, you can notice that it crinkles a little, and then it folds. Well, that means the machine it now trying to pull six sheets. That’s three twice. And it hums for a second and jams. Naturally. On the other hand, I feed them with careful attention to their weight and trajectory, so they go in perfectly straight and don’t fold. So you see, the machine can handle three pages at once. It’s just the consequences of poor paper insertion that it cannot handle. People never blame themselves, they always blame the machine.

About once a month some buffoon, usually a new guy, tries to shred his own papers and the machine jams. Then they call me out of the men’s room to come fix it. It always happens when I’m in the men’s room because there’s no other time anyone can get near my machine. I never look at the new guy who caused the jam, and one of the welders or electricians from the shop will take the guy aside quietly and explain that you should leave all the shredding to Willy.

After that they leave it to me.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if the sharpened rollers could be levered open, like a jaw. Then you could clear a jam in just a second. As it is I have to pull the papers out of the jaws with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, then run the machine in forward and reverse until the jam finally clears.

A new machine might be nice.

There is an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Attention!” Ms. Henderson says, “The fire unit is responding to a chemical spill in building 28.” There is a pause and then she says: “Willy Hudson, report to the office.”

That’s me. I take up my papers, the ones that haven’t been shredded yet, and I go into the office. The boss is in there nodding his head while Ms. Henderson waves her arms and shouts. Her nails are three inches long and her hair is permed out cotton candy. Even through the glass you can hear her scream: “I’ve had it with that flunky! He’s messed up for the last time!”

When I tap on the door, she yanks it open and says: “Get in here!” I sit down calmly and look at the director. He is flipping through some papers.

“Look,” he says, “My friends, I am a busy man and I only have a few minutes, so let’s cut to the quick on this.” In my mind that comment is aimed half at me and half at Henderson. I wonder why he puts up with her at all. “Willy, Ms. Henderson tells me there have been some problems with your performance.”

I look at her. She takes over.

“Willy, were you standing over by the shredder this morning?”

“Yes, m’am.”

“And what were you doing?”


“And were you looking at any of the documents?”
“Yes m’am, I was.”

She was thrown off a little by that, because she didn’t expect me to say yes.

“Well I admire your honesty, Willy, because that makes this all a whole lot easier. We’re going to have to let you go. You know those are sensitive documents. We shred them precisely because we can’t afford to have flunky people like yourself digging them out of the trash and looking at them. And we can only entrust them to people who are completely trustworthy. You have violated that trust.”

The director relaxed back in his chair and giggled. He waved a pencil loosely in the air. “Nellie,” he said, “this boy can look at the documents all he wants.”

“But Bill."

“He’s illiterate! Can’t read a word. He was tested a few years ago and found cognitively disabled.”

Ms. Henderson looks at me in shock.

The director continued: “That’s what makes him uniquely qualified for this job. That’s why I picked him.”

She’s speechless. Feeling kind of flush with my victory, I say: “Do you think we can get a new shredder, the kind with the lever-action jaw so I can clear jams quicker?”

“Sure, Willy,” he says. “Just get the catalog and show Nellie the picture of the one you want and she will order it for you. Now, why don’t you two go back to work and let me sort out this mess with the liquid hydrogen tanks.”

He was looking down at the papers on his desk, pushing the eraser of the pencil into his forehead. We were already forgotten. Ms. Henderson got up quickly and went out.

I shredded the rest of my papers that afternoon with satisfaction. Around four o’clock I made a photocopy of the shredder I wanted and circled it with a big red pen, for Ms. Henderson. I looked at her with a wide, sickly smile when I gave it to her. Her face was folded like a paper, jammed in the shredder.

I saw Allison flitting by in the hall I smiled at her. She smiled back. When the bell rang at five I waited at the bus stop and she came along. “Why don’t we go for a beer?” I said, “I have the wildest story for you about what happened in the office today.” I was feeling expansive.

She flinched like the rotten animal genitals were dangling in her face again, and jumped onto her bus, which sped away. I got on my own bus, mentally castrating myself for being so direct. Remember, I thought, she is gentle as flour.

A few weeks later spring comes. I shred a whole ragged stack of papers with paper clips and staples all through them, marked with red grease pen and punctuated with yellow sticky notes. I look at some of the sheets before I feed them in. I like to see the patterns made by the words on the page. Sometimes the white spaces between the words form a river running down the page. The longer the river goes the more I think: “What are the statistical chances of that?”

When Ms. Henderson pokes her crabbed face out of the office I make a special point of looking at the documents carefully. Now she is the one who has to pretend she doesn’t see me.

At lunch time I go out and sit at the rough wooden picnic table behind the building. This whole complex is thick with high-powered electric lines, long white sausages of liquefied gases, and it rumbles with trucks, cranes and fork lifts. But the few from the back of out building looks over a gorge into the state forest. The gorge is filled with more industrialism but you don’t see that from the picnic tables, only a long magnificent ridge lush with thick green pines. The pines, and some firs and oaks, are far enough away through the hazy warm air that the ridge looks almost blue. I sit here eating my lunch and imagine going hiking in that.

Allison comes down the perforated metal stairs, like the steps on a ship. She moves gracefully and kindly. She sits across from me and smiles. I smile back. “Hello,” I say, as gently as I can, so as not to frighten her. She looks down into her bag lunch, pretending to be finding something but really, I can tell, scowling.

I don’t know about this woman. I just wanted to have a nice lunch and here she comes along to spoil it. One minute she’s smiling at me and the next minute she’s snubbing me. I begin to think that maybe she has an attitude. Maybe she’s pretty on the outside and ugly on the inside.

I don’t say anything. I ignore her and watch the blue ridge.

After lunch I shred for a few hours and then Ms. Henderson pages me into the front office. As I go in, I see Allison coming out of the office, down the long, narrow corridor. She looks at me nicely and I say “Hi.”

The instant I say that she looks away and ignores me. It’s like she deliberately tricked me into saying hello to her so that she could snub me. I don’t know if you remember what that feels like and you’ll probably have to go back to high school to remember. It made me shudder.

That girl was bad. I vowed right then never to speak to her unless she spoke to me first. Then there was Ms. Henderson.

She seemed relaxed and happy. She indicated a fellow in a blue denim jumpsuit at the loading dock. He had a large cardboard box on a hand truck. I went through the little door and out onto the dock. I saw that it was a new shredder. I led him through the shop until we got to the old shredding machine. Suddenly I discovered that Ms. Henderson was right there at my elbow.

“Load up the old machine,” she said to the deliver guy, and Willy will unpack this new one. I was happy to get the new machine but, it turned out I was fortunate that feeling drained away and was replaced suddenly by wariness.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “We might as well make sure this new one work first.”

“No,” said Ms. Henderson, “You got what you want. Now we have to salvage the old machine.”

“We can’t salvage it anyway until the boss signs for it,” I said. “So just be patient for a minute while I test this thing out.” I broke open the box and started setting up the new machine.

“I’ll sign for it,” Ms. Henderson said. She couldn’t wait. She took the manifest from the delivery guy and signed it.

“Now go on,” she said to him.

“Is this signature any good?” he said.

“Of course it is, you flunky twit. Now get out of here.”

“I ain’t going nowhere until I get a valid signature.”

She popped the clutch on her larynx and flew into a whole new gear. “Your damn truck is blocking our damn driveway and you better get that damn thing out of here before I call security and have the damn thing towed away!”

“All right, all right,” he said. “Jesus, lady.”
Now I had the new shredder set up and I saw what Henderson was aiming at. This one had a levered jaw all right, which is what I wanted for dealing with jams. But it also had a stack feeder. That meant you were supposed to be able to put a tall stack of papers on the feeder, and the machine would pull them in a few at a time to shred them. The stack in the picture in the manual was taller than I usually shredded in day. You wouldn’t need a guy like me to stand there and feed it.

Henderson was planning to get rid of me by making me obsolete.

Henderson came over and gave me a piece of paper.

“This is your termination notice, Willy. We won’t be needing your services anymore.”

I looked at it and could not make heads or tails of it. “I’ll take this to the boss,” I said.

“The boss has already seen it. He signed it. Look,” she said, indicating an pattern of curly ink. “That’s his signature.”

She was smiling and glowing now, almost dancing with glee. “You’re out of here, you pathetic little flunky!”

I saw the boss coming out of the men’s room and I ran over quick. “Sir,” I said, “We have a problem. They’re about to salvage my old shredder, but the new one isn’t going to work right. We have top stop him before he takes the old one away.”

“Bill,” said Henderson, “May I remind you that you have a three-o’clock to prepare for and that you’re supposed to be in Chuck Halinan’s office right now.”

“That can wait a minute, Nellie,” he said, motioning the delivery guy to hold up with the hand truck carrying the old machine. “Explain the problem to me, Willy.”

“Well, Sir,” I said, plugging in the new machine and powering it up, “this here thing is supposed to automatically feed from a stack of papers.”

I pulled up a stack of documents typical of the ones we usually use in the office. It had staples and paper clips all through it. And the edges of the stack were not neat and straight, like in the picture. This mound of sheaves was irregular, with pages sticking out all kinds of ways, many of them bent and wrinkled. If you’ve ever handled paper, you know that there’s is no way in the universe to straighten out at stack like that once it’s gone. The law of entropy drives the universe towards disorder at all times, and cannot be reversed.

“As you can see Sir,” I said, “this real-world stack is quite different from the ideal, Platonic stack in the manual. This stack will jam, necessitating the employment of a shredder feeder employee, such as myself.”

I put the stack on the feeder and pushed the automatic shred button. Sure enough, it sucked in a few pages that had been stapled together, and jammed. A red light went on.

The boss made a clucking noise.

Henderson said: “We’ll just tell people top take their damn staples out before they shred them!”

The boss said, “Can you see Halinan doing that, or any of the other bananas in this shop?”

I used the lever arm to clear the jam, and selected a portion of the stack without paper clips or staples. I held it up so that everyone could see. There was a little crowd now, of project directors and technicians, all watching the defeat of Ms. Henderson.

“You see, this stack has no staples or other obstructions. But it’s mere irregularity will cause the machine to jam.”

I placed this portion of the stack on the auto-feeder and pushed the button. It sucked in and shredded the paper for four cycles, and I was starting to get nervous. Then one of the misaligned ones went in and I saw it fold over in the cutter jaws. That caused the next three behind it to fold, and the whole thing jammed and the red light came on again.

I turned back to Henderson and smiled. Then I quickly cleared the jam using the lever arm, and a felt a little like an artilleryman in battle. I punched the auto-shred button again, and the machine went through two feed cycles and jammed on the third.

I shrugged and said to the boss: “The jamming lever I asked for is nice, but the auto-feed unit that Ms. Henderson ordered doesn’t work. If she had ordered the model I asked for, we would have saved the department money.”

I handed him the termination paper MS. Henderson had given me. He looked at it. “When did I sign this?” he asked her.

“Yesterday,” she said.

The boss turned white and handed me the paper. “Shred that Willy, and keep up the good work.”

He hustled her into the office, and after the glass door closed we heard him yelling: “Damn it, Nellie, I told you never to sign for me!”

We heard her high-pitched voice begin: “Well Bill, I only...” And then everyone broke out ins smiles and words of congratulations and patted me on the back and shook my hand. Good work, Willy, they all said.

Then they went out the wide doors with their rolls of project blue-prints, tipping their hard hats and wearing rare smiles on their faces.

When I turned around Allison said hello to me.
Weblog Commenting and Trackback by