The first day, they taught me to grade and sort the boards. First by the number of knots, then by grain depth, then by plane truth. I thought the last should’ve been first. It was loud, and the ever present drone of saws and air compressors shuddered off of corrugated steel walls, numbed insignificantly by ill-fitting cylinders of orange foam pressed into my ear canals. Burning wood and piquant glue randomly overran diesal fumes milling constantly near the open overhead door behind which I worked.

After the first break–which was long enough for my round, white-bearded supervisor to smoke two of my cigarettes while discussing the rate at which he’d received pay-raises in his first decade–I was moved to the dovetail saw. The saw itself was simple enough, incredibly loud and running at 20,000 rpm. Once the boards were cut, the ends were joined with glue and conveyed through an industrial microwave written over with flaking red advice and portentous symbols picked away by all the laborers before me waiting for time and two-by-twelves to pass. All I had to do was hold the boards against the rollers as the saw ripped them through, and every couple hours stop to change the blade. A young Hispanic man, whose English put my own to shame, watched me press my fingers to the timbers just an inch or so from the revolving saw. When it was time to stop it, the man said it’d take an hour on its own, which couldn’t be afforded at such high rates of production. So he climbed up to where the horizontal blade was housed and lifted a small, steal door while it spun. A smell of burning rubber trickled from the sole of his shoe as it pressed downward on the shaft. When it took his lace, the blade hardly slowed at all, just a hiccup, a mist of red and shoe leather, the whisper of a blade wheeling free of the motor that drove it. The man was calm and coherent when they wheeled him out. Then they moved me to the gluing room, where hot and caustic vapors made my eyes tear and mucous well in my nose. Plasticbags hung on either side of the door. One, labelled “reuse,” held dirty, disposable paper masks. The other was marked “MSDS,” but it was empty.

Photo: #berkeley #california

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