Paperback, Writer

“It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of this controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Paper_CITDIf life and love are an open field and a clear, blue sky, then work has always been a deep, dark cave.

From 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., five nights a week, I worked second shift in the lowest basement depths of Augsburg Fortress Publishing House. My official title: “Paper Bailer.”

My supervisor, a laconic, angular old guy named Orville, who always smiled mysteriously and rarely complained about anything, left me to be trained in by Mark, the former night shift bailer, a greasy, rotund guy in his 40s, always in a smudged white t-shirt and whose body odor preceded him everywhere. If I remember correctly, Greasy Marky had changed shifts, leaving 2nd for 3rd. A bearded college post-grad named Stephen McCabe greeted me when he finished 1st shift at 3:30 each day.

You see, I’d begun looking for a new part-time job to help pay for college on Jan. 22, 1979: “The Record Shop fell through, and I’m gonna look in at Augsburg Publishing House—I doubt if they need help, though.”

Well, they did need help, and I was hired almost immediately. “The pay is, I think, $4.10/hr. starting, then after 3 or 4 months, $4.45,” the journal states. “It’s a maintenance job, with opportunity for advancement, bindery, printing, classes (graphics) on my own time, then apprentice printer, journeyman, etc.

“Sounds like I may be on my way. Again.”

First night on the job was Monday, Jan. 29. “[A different Mark] showed me around the offices, bookstore, printing rooms, film library, and the nice thing was we were finished by eight o’clock.”

By mid-February I was attending winter quarter classes, hoping to ask Steph Pinsky or “Lisa” out on a date, and “graduating” from sweeping floors to full-on paper bailer duties in Augsburg’s lowest depths—near the boiler room and trash collection area. Greasy Marky showed me the ropes. Mostly we waited around for the paper cutters to collect discarded scraps and deliver them to the bailer room.

It was busiest when those scraps arrived and the overhead ducts sucked in mountains of paper as catalogs and Augsburg newspapers came off the presses and cutters. The bailer’s job was to compress the scraps into the bailer, cinch the compressed bales with heavy-gauge wire that, when the compression was released, snapped into tight cubes of paper, and get them ready to be hauled out.

The work was dusty, dirty … and loud, from the grinding of the bailer and whoosh of overhead ducts, clanging of paper cutters and roaring forklifts—darkness and gloom cut only by the glare of florescent lighting. I quickly began to hate it.

Then, one night, Greasy Marky had a surprise for me, one he thought I’d like. He flung open his locker to show me Polaroids of his wife … naked.


When it wasn’t busy, which was usually earlier in the evening, I was able to write The Crowded Room and study class assignments, or—my newest fascination—read Penguin Classics paperbacks. I’d first learned about them after seeing a Penguin Classics poster at the University of Minnesota bookstore—a stark black cover with a painting of Dante dreaming of his beloved Beatrice.

I was mesmerized.

So, when the day-shift bailer, Stephen Thomas McCabe, saw me with a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia, we bonded over Penguin Classics.

“Have you read any Montaigne?” he asked.

No, I hadn’t. Only Utopia, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms. The latter fascinated me with his chapters on “Thinking For Yourself” “On the Vanity of Existence” and “On Women”—which I quickly learned was a really sore spot with the old misogynist. Case in point: “Many a thorn without a rose, but never a rose without a thorn.”

Stephen gave me his copy of Montaigne’s Essays, which fueled my curiosity. Maybe I would become a philosopher! The ideas brimming over in those little black books brought a glimmer of light into that clanging, dirty, dark hole.

And maybe, just maybe, I was on my way after all. Again.

~ by completelyinthedark on October 18, 2013.

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