My computerized alarm clock plays a few bars of music--the theme from CATS. It's time to feed the cats and leave for work. The cats know the music; they know it even if I only sing the tune, and rush for their bowls when they hear it. They're creatures of habit, these cats.
I put on my heavy work boots, take my jacket and bag (both prepared earlier), and leave. I work at ABX Air, a package-delivery company, and I'm a new employee assigned to the auto-sort facility. I'm walking a few blocks to the parking lot of a nearby store, where ABX Air sends a bus every night to pick up night workers. I wear a plastic fluorescent orange vest over my jacket; my walk takes me past a bar and through several intersections, and I have no wish to be run down by driver who's had a few too many. It's cold outside, and wet; but I'm grateful--at least it's not snowing.
(Living near a bar is interesting. Often there are knocks on my door in the small hours of the morning; that means that someone has used his cab fare to pay for drinks and is now stranded. The first time that happened, I called (and paid for) a taxi for a woman who knocked at 3 a.m., inexplicably barefoot. She never returned the pants I lent her, since she had wet her own. I had some time to think about the incident, and now I don't open the door when people knock. I feel a little guilty about that; but I suppose there are safety concerns; and I don't want to encourage them to strand themselves by helping them when they do.)
The bus is already there when I arrive. There's room for only one more. I'm glad I'm early. There would have been a second bus for the overflow; but it would have made me late for work to wait for it. I don't want to be late--it's the first day back at work after a four-day cold that's still hanging around my sinuses, making a nuisance of itself; and it's been only a week and a half since I started this job.
The bus is noisy. So are the people in the bus. I try to tune them out; but it's impossible. Something in the bus's engine is making a high-pitched sound that makes me cringe; the people laugh, shout sudden loud phrases, and try to be heard over each other's talk. I can't understand what they're saying; there are too many of them talking. A guy behind me takes out a bag of food--Taco Bell--and begins eating it. The smell nauseates me. It's hot--the bus must be at least 85 degrees; and I'm dressed for winter. I try not to sweat; if I do, I'll soak my shirt and be uncomfortable for the rest of the night. I'm successful, for the most part. By the end of the ride, I want to crawl away--anywhere, just away--and curl into a little ball. I can't think straight.
The bus ride ends. I walk across the muddy bus lot and into the "Welcome Center", which is the only way to get into the huge ABX Air complex. I check in with the desk clerk and show my ID. He checks off my name and gives me my photo ID. Next I go through the metal detectors. I put my bag onto the conveyor, which feeds through an X-ray machine. I wish I could look at the screen and see what the X-ray of my bag looks like; the machine fascinates me and I've stood watching it several times before. The computer even color-codes the X-rayed items by material. Metal is blue.
I'm asked to empty my bag. Not everybody has to do this; but I suppose they are being extra-careful with me. I comply: Book, flashlight, keys, bag of coins, wallet. They let me through.
I wait in line for the shuttle bus that will take me to my workstation. It's a long line, and the people in front of me fill one bus. I get on the second one. Across from me sits a woman in a headscarf and skirt. She speaks to a man sitting next to her in a foreign language I don't recognize. She must be an immigrant.
The bus stops and I get off. I'm not at my workstation yet, though; first I have to walk through one building--a huge hangar-like structure where large packages are sorted--out the other end, and into my own building, where I walk up a flight of stairs, across the floor, up more stairs, across a catwalk that spans the conveyor belts, and down the stairs. I get lost halfway through this procedure and have to ask directions; but this doesn't faze me too much, since I've recovered partly from the acute overload on the bus.
It's now 11:30, and my start time is still half an hour away. I check in with my supervisor, making sure I still have a job after four days of calling in sick. I do; but she's putting two "occurrences" on my record instead of just one because I can't produce a doctor's note that says I was sick. That's rather hard to do without medical insurance, but those are the rules.
I beg for some earplugs. The conveyors are roaring all around me, and every once in a while, a buzzer goes off, loud and harsh. I'm rather glad when I get them without much ado--I'd thought they might protest, since my area is below the decibel threshold for earplugs.
Two hours after I first left home, it's finally time to start work. My job is, as are all the jobs in the auto-sort facility, a matter of doing what the computers and machinery cannot do. Any task that requires pattern-matching, abstract thought, or visual-spatial skills is delegated to a human; the bar-code reading, sorting, and bagging is done by the huge mass of machinery all around us. My specific task is near the end of the sorting process: I remove the bags that hang under chutes and fill with mail; then I tie them off, label them with a sticker I put on the zip tie that closes the bag, and place them on the conveyor. This is hard for a computer to do because the bags are filled to different levels, sometimes overflow, and sometimes jam. Also, the zip ties that close the bags are made for human hands. It could all be done mechanically, I think; but humans are cheaper than the machines, and we are much better suited to do these tasks which, for us, are trivial. A machine that could do them would be a design challenge to an engineer.
It's a kind of symbiosis. What the machines do best, they do; what the humans do best, we do. As I work, I continually refine my methods: Putting the label onto the tag smoothly, without wrinkles; putting the bag into the machine so that the laser which measures its fullness will not be fooled into thinking the bag is filled when it is not; pulling the tab on the zip tie so that the bag will stay tightly closed rather than popping open somewhere down the line. With every bag, I speed up just a little.
This is my favorite part of learning a new job: Refining my methods; perfecting the way I work. I'm hyperfocused--even the noise doesn't bother me too much; and, anyway, I have my earplugs. I make up a game: I think of an intelligible phrase for each three-letter destination code. PAU becomes "Proceed as usual"; "STP" stands for "standard temperature and pressure", a physics abbreviation. It's hard to find a good phrase for "MXX". Two x's in a row are difficult; and I won't cop out by using words that start with "eX", or using proper names. The best I can come up with is "Mail xylophone x-rays". It reminds me of the metal detector. I wonder what they'd think if I did try to bring a xylophone to work? Would they mail the x-rays to their security chiefs?
The sensory problems begin to become noticeable around two o'clock in the morning. The fluorescent lights are bright and glaring; the noise, though dampened by the earplugs, is still evident; and the bags of small parcels often have a strange odor. Many bags are filled with "lab packs", which are medical samples being sent by air to the laboratories. The smell isn't strong; it's barely noticeable, actually; but there's a note of blood, urine, and disinfectant in it that I don't like. I make it part of my standard operating procedure to breathe out while I'm closing a bag, so that the puff of air that comes from the bag doesn't enter my olfactory system.
At two-thirty, my supervisor comes up to me and tells me to go to the other line of machines; they have a lot of packages and need help there. She introduces me to the supervisor on the other line: "She's a really good bagger, but she's still new." Really good, I think to myself. Does she mean that? Or is she just trying to make me feel good? Subtext is so difficult.
I help out at the other line for a while, until they catch up to their workload. By the time I return to my own line, the ache in my feet from standing on concrete floors has increased from noticeable to all-consuming. I don't know why my feet hurt so much when I work standing up; they're anatomically normal, and most people's feet don't seem to bother them much. I've never, ever gotten used to it, even though most people seem to be able to do this easily. At the very least, they can block it out. I've tried--I can't. My feet send me little messages every second of every hour I work; and by the end of the shift, they're screaming at me so much I can barely think. I take a bathroom break when I get back from the other line; I'm not really supposed to do this after 2:00, but my supervisor doesn't seem to mind. Anyway, I wanted to go before 2, but I was too involved in my work. When I get to the bathroom, I'm a little surprised: Sitting on the toilet, without the ever-present machines to command me, I realize that the world has retreated into unreality, and my thoughts are slow as syrup: I'm well into overload.
Thankfully, the work--repetitive and simple--is something I can do even when my mind isn't capable of much coherent thought. My feet become more and more sore, and every once in a while, I surreptitiously lean a knee against a machine and wiggle the toes inside their boot. I work until 4:05, when the flow of packages slows to a trickle and my supervisor says I can go for the night.
I decide I deserve a treat. I've worked hard and I haven't made any mistakes today. I go to the coffee machine and get a French Vanilla coffee. It costs 70 cents, but it's good--just hot enough to burn my tongue, tasting of milk and vanilla and coffee. I begin my walk back towards the shuttle bus with the coffee in my hand; but that's a mistake. Walking and holding coffee simultaneously are really beyond the reach of my gross motor skills, and I slosh some of the coffee across my hand. Unlike the pain from my feet, the hot coffee doesn't seem to matter. That's a strange dichotomy in my sensory system: Some sorts of pain are all-consuming; others don't matter, and I forget them seconds after they happen. At the end of most days, I discover injuries I don't remember getting. I've received second-degree burns and gone on without much thought; but normal menstrual cramps put me in bed for half a day!
Though I haven't really hurt myself, I don't want to spill my coffee. I stop partway to the shuttle bus stop and drink the coffee down to half the cup. That way, I won't get any more sticky vanilla on my hand.
In the shuttle bus I'm crammed between two people on either side. There's no room to respect each other's personal space; and I rather enjoy the pressure of one person on each side. There are more immigrant women--Muslims, I think. They're adhering to that skirt-and-headscarf dress code; but they're being smart about it: Their skirts are straight and probably won't catch on machinery; and they're dressed for the cold weather. The people nearby me talk about how annoying the women are, because they are always talking to each other in their own language and have to use an interpreter to communicate with their supervisors. I say, "I think it must be scary. When everybody speaks a language you don't know, it tangles up your brain." (It does.)
I get back to the "Welcome Center" around 4:30. Once again, I'm chosen to have my bag searched; once again, I agreeably upend it to have its contents scrutinized. The security guard apologetically thanks me for cooperating; they are, she says, always more careful around Christmas time. "Because," I ask, "somebody might steal Christmas presents from the mail, like some kind of Grinch?" She laughs. Yes, she says, and wouldn't that be a really mean thing to do? I indicate my agreement.
I'm grateful to sit down in my bus. I untie my work boots and wiggle my toes around; it feels heavenly. We wait for all the bus workers to finish; it takes an hour. At 5:30, there's an extra person on our bus. One person on this bus was supposed to be on the other bus. People shout at each other for a while; and finally they figure out that it's me--I was supposed to be on the other bus. I didn't know that you're supposed to go out on the bus you came in on; both buses are on the same route and I had thought they were equivalent. I take my things and go to the other bus. I've held everyone up by five minutes.
The bus is just as loud on the way back; but the people on it are quieter. It's still an ordeal. I look at my watch and see that it's 6 a.m. and we're still not home. I left home at 10:00, for a four-hour work shift. It's eight hours later, I'm still not home, and I'll be paid only for four hours of my time. My feet still ache, and my head is starting to hurt, too; the bus is noisy and bumpy and confusing. I realize my eyes are stinging, and suddenly tears are running down my face. Without any warning, I'm crying. Silently, yes; but one doesn't have to make noise to be completely miserable.
I can't hold this job and go to school at the same time. I know that now. When I heard it was a four-hour shift and assumed a half-hour commute since my workplace is some twenty miles away from my home, I thought it would be perfect. Five hours. But realistically, it's eight or nine hours, especially during the holidays when some workers stay much longer than others--and I'm paid for only four. Having to sleep during the day means precious little time to go to college--another hour-long trip to a nearby city. And even if I could have stretched the day to allow it, the stress of the job would not allow any mental resources to remain for studying.
If it weren't for the bus ride... if it weren't for those heavy work boots... if it weren't for the bussing and waiting that turns a five-hour day into a nine-hour day... I could do this job. I could be good at it--maybe better than anybody else in the section. After all, isn't an autistic mind better than most, when it comes to symbiosis with a gigantic, orderly, logical machine?
The thought that this job, the one I had hoped for and prayed for and been so happy to get, would not be a job I could do... that thought was the addition of insult to injury. I prize my independence above almost anything else in my life; but if I can't work to support myself, that independence will disappear.
But I can't do this job. I can't, and I know it. It's happened once before, when I tried working at a dog shelter and was overwhelmed by smells and noise almost immediately. Some things one can get used to, but not this. Not when the end of the day--my first real day, with both bus rides--includes an inevitable meltdown. Includes crying like a child.
The bus ride ends at the parking lot. I go into the store and buy a pint jug of milk and a little pouch of cat treats--one treat for the human, one for the cats. Milk is my comfort food; there's just something about it that makes everything seem better. I ask the cashier, "Are you hiring?" They aren't; but later on, when college students go home for Christmas, they may have openings. I walk home through the cold. At one of the intersections, an early-morning driver almost doesn't see me. I guess the orange vest is worth it.
It's 6:15 when I reach my front door--more than two hours after I clocked out of work. The cats are antsy; the computer played their "feed the cats" tune fifteen minutes ago, and I wasn't there to feed them. Their feline brains are almost autistic sometimes, I think. But rest, cat treats, and milk soon help everybody to feel at least a little better.