Sean McIntosh grew tired earning ninety-nine cents an hour working maintenance at Torrey Bible, so he was happy when Mrs. Thomas in Student Affairs told him, “We have a factory job at $1.25 an hour. You can go over and apply.” So in October of his second year, Sean ate early lunch in the dining hall, then exited the arch and walked toward the “L” to go for his job interview.
Disappearing down the subway stairs at State Street, he heard the roar and clacking of the approaching train. After a ten-minute ride he climbed the stairs to ground level, then turned west, walking away from the office skyscrapers toward the industrial section. The tired city with its old, run-down brick factory buildings depressed him. His mother suffered from mild depression; he wondered if that explained why he sometimes felt depressed. Or did he just have fading, flagging faith?
He stopped in front of an ancient brick building with dead-eyed windows (for a Californian, all Chicago buildings seemed ancient) and a stone-linteled door. He entered and walked into the musty hall.
He approached the manager who sat at his desk in a high-ceilinged room with blinds drawn over tall windows. “Hi, I’m Sean McIntosh. Mrs. Thomas at TBI’s Student Affairs sent me to apply for your open position.”
Mr. Allen looked up, then shoved a small form across the table. “Hello, Sean. You can write down your Social Security number here.” That was it—no application, no job interview—he was hired. TBI students had a good reputation.
Sean grasped a splintery banister as he followed the manager up a flight of uneven wooden stairs to a large room dominated by a huge, roaring machine. Overhead, cobwebs hung from sleepy wooden beams.
Mr. Allen called over to Tom, the floor guy. “This is Sean. Put him on the can line.” Then he walked out.
Tom yelled at Sean, “Put on eight cans at a time. Just make sure you keep up.” Tom didn’t say much else; you could hardly hear over the roar of the machine, anyway. Standing on an uneven pine-board floor, Sean stuck his fingers into eight empty cans and placed them on the roller table, close to the beating heart of the machine. As they moved, he picked up eight more cans. Easy to get the hang of it but you had to pay attention. After the machine squirted pie filling into the cans, they marched out the other end filled, capped and sealed. After two weeks Sean figured out what “pie filling” was—a processed mixture of fruits for pouring into pie crusts before baking. Sometimes Sean would dip his finger into the mix for a taste.
Nobody seemed to care where the product came from or where it was going. He felt like Oliver Twist in a Dickens novel—performing mindless work in a bleak industrial world. Solitary, alone among a multitude of mute minions.
After he’d been working a week, Tom rolled a cart in with an enormous tub of hot pie filling. He yelled, “Come over and grab a handle.” Sean gave a heave to hoist the tub to the enormous vat, but faltered halfway up. Several gallons of pie filling spilled out across the floor. That was the last time Sean helped with tub-lifting; back to putting cans on the conveyer belt.
During the three months he worked, all he learned was how to put cans on a conveyer belt, eight cans at a time for four hours a day, numbing movements that cut him loose to explore the great inscape of his mind. He would look out the dirty window to glimpse the dead, wax-paper sky and dream of summer days with J-3 Cubs ascending and descending over grassy airstrips. He thought back to flight camp, still tasting the bitter failure. Would TBI accept him for flight camp this summer? It was the only reason he was staying at TBI.
After two hours work Sean got a fifteen-minute break. Walking into the break room, he saw another guy sitting at a table. Sean didn’t know what to say to him, and soon the guy got up and left. Sean pulled a Mars candy bar out of his pocket along with a packet of Bible verses. The Navigators organization printed little cards, each with a verse on one side and its reference on the other, grouped into small packets. Each packet had a different theme. He mouthed the words, trying to memorize.
His thoughts drifted to Kathy. He felt happy she’d come to TBI, but wondered at her somber demeanor, despaired of getting close to her. He’d mentioned he’d gotten a job in a pie filling plant. She said she’d started work in TBI’s dining room.
He tried to concentrate on his little packet of verses but someone had thrown an old Playboy on the table and the cover drew him. He glanced over his shoulder at the door, then opened the magazine. A world of unclad women magnetized him, so much so that he almost forgot to go back to work. He left feeling guilty and weak-willed.
The next time he came into the break room he turned the Playboy over, then put it in the drawer. But he couldn’t unsee the pictures. Pornography is like scratching a scab, he thought. It feels really good, and you’re driven to keep scratching, even after it turns bloody.
At five p.m. Sean placed his last eight cans on the belt. Without a word, the shift manager shut down the huge machine and walked out. Sean descended the uneven steps and exited into the city that still belched smoke from its hundreds of stacks, raining down “Chicago freckles.” Chicago—harsh, impersonal, businesslike, building industry to build capital. Compassionless city, God-forsaken. He walked alone for ten minutes, then joined the crowds squeezing into the “L” train. At Chicago Avenue he exited and walked west.
Entering TBI’s arch, he stepped into a saner, gentler world. He had friends here, and staff and faculty who may not know his name but still counted him as one of their own.