STACKING DIMES IN THE OFFSEASON
by Tim Kistner
s a seasonal, home is where I decide to set myself up, find a job, make some friends, and choose which grocery store I like the most. In Alaska, that meant a home in the city of Ketchikan, a job as a
Jeep and canoe guide, my coworkers and The Seasonals, and most importantly, Safeway. But my hometown and the place that fundamentally shaped my character is Hatboro, Pennsylvania. In Hatboro, I held several customer service jobs, remained long-time friends with people from high school, and shopped at Acme (I never liked Acme too much).
Returning home from my travels is always difficult after living for months in very different places. Home feels good, comfortable, easy, but static. It's unsettling to watch a year pass by working full time in the suburbs while making weekend excursions to abandoned buildings and bombed-out areas. I always felt a need to explore, to get out, and to try strange things. An indescribable force pushed me to get away and travel with a lust for the unknown. I became obsessed with new experiences and there was a drive to take the plunge and just do it.
Leading up to this latest experience, I had been a seasonal for just one year. My new concept of home had been established, the next adventure was coming to fruition, and my latest friends were all in new places - the transition. The decision to visit Hatboro came about to see old friends going through big changes and also an ambitious rendezvous in a poetic town called Shunk. A month or two should have covered everything I could think of in Pennsylvania, but after three weeks, I was ready to leave. I felt the old grip of that northeast monotony. "I have a month to go. I'm going to get a job."
At this point, I've done enough random jobs that I feel I can tackle anything. My employment history includes working in a chocolate factory, refurbishing used electronics for a thrift store, supervising a high-volume call center for language interpretation, and of course, guiding cruise ship tourists through the rain forest in 37' canoes. Variety is the key to maintaining sanity and keeping hope that one day all these experiences will fit into the most oddly specific job on earth. I'm always compelled to lean toward jobs that sound interesting in their title, description, or setting. So what was my temporary job in Hatboro going to be? Working in a welding and metal fabrication shop! My only qualification: my brother worked there once.
All these experiences will fit into the most oddly specific job on Earth.
I always wanted to try welding because it involves sparks and flames while looking like a badass. I went in and the deal was made. Included would be a nice under-the-table wage and commitment for as many weeks as I needed in exchange for doing "lots of little shit around the shop," as proclaimed by the boss. My brother and master career welder, Jim, assured me I'd be doing "cool shit" like grinding metal all day, crawling in pipes, and maybe some basic welding tasks. Naturally, this skill runs in our blood, he thought. Jim had worked there for years but moved on to bigger projects like building centrifuges for the Navy. This was the new world I was entering, where expressions like "dropping dimes," "whack and tack," "weave it wide and wish it well," and "rub that pity off your weld," were explained as everyday phrases. I was also warned about "arc eye."
The first day on the job, I met with my boss who had lots of little shit to do. "Go to the back of the warehouse and find the guy that looks like a troll. He'll tell you what to do but don't get too close to him," he says with a thick Philly accent. At 6:47am, I put on my used work gloves and opened the warehouse doors. As I noted the worn out greasy feeling inside the glove from a thousand hours of hard labor, my senses were overwhelmed with the smell of burning metal, diffused florescent lighting, the taste of millions of carcinogenic particles in the air - electrified like the breeze before a thunderstorm, and the loudest sound of banging metal. Imagine repeatedly smashing an empty steel dumpster with a sledge hammer in an enclosed room. That's actually what I was hearing, with no explanation.
The warehouse troll had a name: Bob. He was short and dirty with a backwards Eagles hat. All of his front teeth were missing, presumably from a large metal beam catching him off guard. He drank a 32oz Wawa coffee while constantly smoking USA Gold's; I'd like to hear his official job title. He wasn't welding all day like the others but rather arbitrarily moving behemoth steel I-beams around, running a band saw, assisting with big projects, and playing tricks on everyone for their own good. Bob told me he once stole a coworker's puppy for a week after it was left in a hot car all day. The police were called and Bob, as a witness, told them this dog was abused and saw someone break in and free him. In reality Bob just brought him to his apartment for a week to teach the neglectful owner a lesson. The more I worked there, the more I felt Senior Warehouse Troll could have been his actual title.
The shop seemed to communicate in bangs, screeches, clunks, and forklift beeps
The first few days, I swept floors for the entirety of an eight hour shift. It was clear that this was a place where I should make myself look busy and I considered hiding in the bathroom stall awhile like some others did. Instead, I walked around a lot, picked up litter from the metal yard, swept the same areas over and over, and watched Bob run the sketchiest band saw that can be found in any developed country. It was amazing to watch this short man acrobatically maneuver such massive pieces of steel and reduce them to precisely cut lengths as ordered by some unseen entity. The shop seemed to communicate in bangs, screeches, clunks, and forklift beeps, which Bob then intercepted and interpreted. Later that week, I was asked if I knew how to run a forklift. "No," I said, "but I'm sure I can figure it out." The boss liked my attitude and I hopped on. I created a shop spectacle attempting to move some wood pallets around as I fiddled with the simple, but unfamiliar four levers. By the next day I was moving pieces of steel forty feet long, weighing several tons, roughly one hundred pounds per foot. My sweeping and looking busy skills had earned modest respect with the boss. "This shop is beautiful, Tim! You're doin' a great job. Now you see how dirty these fucking slobs are, throwing their shit everywhere?" The filth was real.
unshielded welding arcs as bright as the sun dancing around every corner. In the dingy atmosphere, the brilliant blue arcs cast an unbelievably intense light you just can't help but want to stare at. If you catch a glance of this raw electrical intensity, you may experience the dreaded effects of arc eye, or inflamed cornea. It’s not instantaneous, but several hours later arrives the feeling of sand in your eyes accompanied with an intense burning nothing but time can dilute. In serious cases victims report dizzying closed-eye visuals of expanding purple clouds. It’s not surprising that the awesome power of fusing metal has such dominating effects.
ust walking around the shop is dangerous. Sparks flying everywhere, heavy things being lifted above your head through tight spaces, forklifts swinging by with beams as long as a bus, and
Watch almost any movie and wait for the factory/industrious/evil villain lair scene where you see people welding for no apparent reason. That's the atmosphere here and the welders around me are the henchmen who don't interact with the main character. You must always be alert or you'll end up without your front teeth.
I heard stories about steel weighing five tons falling off the crane and workers jumping out of the way just in time. This taught me the importance of being nimble. During the last few days, the steel doors of opportunity had been torched open. I was trusted to drive a massive flatbed truck, which probably required a CDL, and I got to grind metal all day. Being small and nimble, I was the perfect candidate to crawl into a narrow pipe with an angle grinder. The job was to grind away all of the metal spatter, or popcorn, around the welds. When the spinning grinder wheel made contact with stuck metal bits, it fired them off at different directions in a beautiful trail of bright orange sparks. It was thrilling and I started to understand the passion for metal manipulation. Some welders even let these sparks fly into their open mouths to truly feel connected. Their passion, connection, and devotion were more than just a day job.
In the shop I noticed a fascination with constructing these huge projects and forging hard steel into new, precise formations. The workers I talked to all discovered welding in their teens and fell in love with some aspect of it, enhanced by the satisfaction of shaping seemingly unmalleable materials. My experience and temporary job title as Warehouse Sweeper and Small Machine Driver only lasted two weeks but allowed me to step into a new world to try things I never thought I would. As I left, I thought about the spirit of my own passions and what tools I discovered to exercise them. I may not be eating sparks or inhaling the sweet smell of electrically fused metal, but the things that make me feel connected could sound just as absurd to an outsider. Getting lost on purpose, driving vast distances alone, choosing a job with no experience, and putting myself in strange or unusual places all make me feel connected. My decision to try a job I knew nothing about was again inspired by the same passion that brought me away from my hometown. I wouldn't say the job was enjoyable, nor did I make very much money. It was very dangerous, dirty, and awkward as an outsider, but for some reason I just had to do it.