Street Talk: A piece of the White Rock

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I used to work at White Rock, you know. This was back in the early ’90s, a time that didn’t feel like the economy was a plate-glass window with a galaxy of tiny cracks in it. I was new to Lewiston and whether or not I had a place to stay depended on how well I was getting along with my girlfriend that day.You get the idea.

So through a temp agency I started working at the bottling plant. The first day, they put me on a line where my job was to straighten labels as they came down the conveyor thingamabob. I was pretty damn good at it, too, let me tell you. Nobody could work his thumbs and straighten a label like this guy.

Unfortunately, it took me a full 30 seconds to fix a single label. And while I was about it, other bottles continued down the line where they jammed up and screamed in pain. Sounds of clashing glass and exploding bottles. Shards flying everywhere, tinkling to the cement in a cacophony of destruction.

Welcome aboard, my boy. You’re doing great.

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Actually, no one said that. What they said was something to the effect of: “Yeah, let’s move you to a different line and see how you do with capping.”

So I went to another line where my job was to screw caps onto bottles. And I was fantastic at it, I don’t mind saying. Within minutes, I realized that I had found my calling. I wasn’t just good at cap screwing, I turned it into an art form. It’s all in the wrist, you know.

Unfortunately, it took me 10 seconds or more to screw on a single cap. Angry sounds of a hundred glass bottles trying to occupy the same space at the same time. More shards flying. More precious liquor splashing onto the floor in great, boozy waves.

I won’t lie to you. I wasn’t all that great at stacking cases of hooch, either. There was a guy who did it with blinding speed and he stacked those boxes in some intricate order that seemed like magic to me. I figured you had to have advanced degrees in geometry and maybe a little string theory, too, to get those boxes laid out the way he did. I, on the other hand, would go about it by simply placing one box onto another until I had a hundred or so heaped way up high. They’d fall over now and then, but if I leaned against them, nobody would notice. Not at first, anyway.

I wasn’t Employee of the Year at White Rock or even Employee Who is Capable of Some Things, Kind Of. But over time, I caught on and fell into the rhythm of the workday. Punch the clock at 8, break for a quick lunch at noon, bolt for the door when the whistle blew at 5 p.m. I’d walk the 2 miles home, reeking of all the booze in Milwaukee but sober as a judge. Whatever that means.

I’d get warm, get something to eat and the following day, do it all over again. Punching the clock, screwing on caps, breaking bottles, going home. I made a few friends at White Rock but no real close ones. I was there to earn a few bucks and get a girlfriend off my back for a week or two. A lot of the guys I met on the lines were twisting on those caps and stacking those boxes because they had kids to feed, mortgages to pay, furnaces to fill with heating oil.

Which makes me feel that much worse that the corporate giant that is Beam Inc. decided to change its mind about things and take its bottling act on the road. They can get caps twisted and labels straightened in Kentucky as well as they can in Lewiston, Maine. No doubt about it. That’s just business and I guess that’s life. But for a lot of the people who worked those lines, keeping the rest of America in well-bottled hooch, it’s a complete upheaval — a crushing, crashing, shuddering change to the rhythm of their lives. It was hard and often thankless work and soon it will be gone. It’s just a total pisser, to put it in the workaday argot of the times.

I think about White Rock now and then when I sit back to ponder my time in Lewiston. It was the last real job I had before lucking out and landing here in the newsroom. Gas jockey, hot dog flipper, label straightener, news reporter. How the hell did that happen, anyway?

The bummer is that now, instead of simply hearing the bad news, I get to deliver it. A call center closing, Sears going under, Geiger giving up the fight, Beam and Co. moving its operations to a weird place with blue grass. Like the man who isn’t Bruce Springsteen said: Things are tough all over.

Coming up next time: My brief stint at Jones & Vining and why my right eyebrow doesn’t grow quite right anymore.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. In the workaday argot of the newsroom, no one knows how the dinky that happened. Email him at mlaflamme@sunjournal.com.

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