The Interloper


The first thing you notice is the scent. Before you have even stepped onto the production floor, the smells of the factory hit you. Oil, grease, and cleaning fluids, combine to form a perfume that hangs in the air. You have been inside of many of these places, in many different countries, and the odor is always the same. You could say it was the smell of labor, but you have not earned the right.

The sounds are the next things to hit the senses, the hum of machinery, the thump of presses, mix with the ever present beep of a fork lift somewhere in the distance. Voices die in the noise, so you bend close to the speaker as he shouts above the din. You catch every third word, and nod as if you understand. Even if you heard the words, you would not fully understand what it means to stand there amidst the clamor for hours, days, and years until the sounds blended together into a beat as comforting as a mother’s heart.

Your eyes dart around to find your bearings. Everywhere you look is a maze of machinery, bodies, and metal, stacked and placed according to a design you cannot decipher. Tagged, numbered, inventoried, everything has its place, everything but you. As your eyes adjust to the swirl of light, and movement, you see the eyes. They are looking at you. Impassive, but curious, like deer in the woods, they watch your movements through the forest of steel.

You stop at a station, and your guide gestures, and explains where the man ends, and the machine begins. You put out a hand to shake, and touch flesh the strength and texture of wood. You know they  feel your weakness. There amidst the jungle of machinery is a locker, adorned with photos, and a few stickers. Look close and they tell the story of a life outside of these walls. They serve as a reminder that they live apart from the machine, although it is easy to believe they are always here. Three shifts a day, the hum and rattle of metal hardening them until they stiffen like statues.

You think of the statues in your own past, Mother’s, Father’s, Aunt’s, and Uncle’s, who stood for days at their machines, and dreamed of escape. They bought your freedom. You look into their eyes, and feel ashamed. What have you done with it? Where has your education taken you? You talk, and calculate for a living. Your words and math hold the fate of many in your hands. A few words, and string of numbers and someone would come and cut them away from their machines. The wires cut, the hoses dangling, as the machine is boxed up and sent away where someone hungrier will be yoked to it.

You do not deserve such power. You have not earned it. Their eyes stare back at you, and you look away.

They know why you have come, and they say

nothing.

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15 thoughts on “The Interloper

  1. When I lived in Atlanta I worked in the office of a large Sandblasting company that used to get massive parts of airplanes to sand or metal blast the rust off them.
    They worked with these MASSIVE Wheelabrator machines and then the factory assembly line had huge grinding belts and metal gears.
    I saw a guy lose two fingers once and while I filled out the OSHA report and made phone calls he stood there with me bleeding and refusing to go to the hospital until we found his missing digits.
    Never have I felt so out of place.
    Happy ending though, one finger managed to get reattached

    • I have spent my whole career in and around factories, paper mills, and powerplants. For the first 4 years after college I went to work in steel toed boots, jeans, and a Carhart jacket. I still bring my beat up old Stanley thermos to work with me, even though I now sit in a warm, and comfy office. I have never belonged in that world. I have always felt like an interloper, an anthropologist sent into the wild to record the life of a disappearing tribe, who unwittingly carries small pox in his blanket. I mourn their passing, but still can’t wash the blood off of my hands.

      “Welcome to Corporate America son.”

  2. I worked in a factory as a young man. It was a motivating force for me to get educated and do something else. It’s a small town. Eventually I finished my employment journey at the same factory, designing the parts that the men out on the floor made.

    I appreciate your respect for these men and woman.

  3. i feel like an interloper here in corporate america. most people around me seem to care and i can’t get it up for anything. i wonder when they’re going to box me up and send me away so i can be replaced with someone else who can eventually have their spirit sucked dry.

    • The real zombies never look like rotting corpses with flesh hanging off of them. They dress impeccably and communicate in Power Point slides.

    • I feel the same way about my little corner of Satan’s third testicle…I mean corporate America! I don’t belong here and the only reason I haven’t gone on a stabbing spree is because I’m planning my escape.

      Until then I rebel by not wearing pantyhose and applying purple mascara!

      Mascara, Tom. I said Mascara!

      • For the moon you keep shootin’
        Throw your rope up in the air
        For the kids you stay together
        You nap ’em and you slap ’em in a highchair
        All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya
        All you’re ever losin’ is a little mascara

  4. After the day I had at work yesterday (the one where I almost walked off the job where I work for lying lawyers) I feel even more out of place, especially in this rat-race of a metropolis (Bay Area). I miss and long for the slow pace of the beach lifestyle.

  5. Dear Tom, I read this post when it was first published and I waited till now to comment because there is so much I want to say and yet I lack the eloquence to say it. THIS: “You could say it was the smell of labor, but you have not earned the right.”…

    I watched my mom when she worked as a hotel maid. I watched all these people around me when I was growing up doing back-breaking works. Farmers. Construction workers. Even while I studied with all my being so I could be sure that I never ever had to live a hard life such as this, I always feel in my heart that I am a fraud.

    I have been at this for a while now, writing and then deleting. I love this piece and I respect you so much for being able to articulate this.

    • Lin,

      Thankyou for the thoughtful response. It’s amazing how two people from such different backgrounds, and such different places can feel the same words written on their hearts. I will never forget the sacrifices that they made for me, and how much I have always felt I “owed” it to them to succeed. And while I know in their eyes I have indeed “succeeded”, I will always feel like a fraud, and that I have not “earned” what I have.

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