Boxed In

A short story that allows one to vividly experience what it is like working for the world’s largest online retailer…

by: Patrick D. Hahn

I‘m in the heart of a major industrial park, Somewhere, USA. It’s the middle of the night. I’m standing in line waiting to enter a giant warehouse owned by the world’s largest online retailer, founded by one of the world’s richest men and proud owner of a private spaceship. Several of my colleagues standing in front of me sport clear plastic backpacks, the see-through bags required in order to prevent anyone from smuggling in a gun or a knife onto the premises. Like so many of the tropes of modern life, this directive has nothing to do with keeping us safe and everything to do with keeping us all in a constant state of low-grade anxiety.

I scan my badge to gain access to the building, enter the break room, and help myself to a cup of coffee from the dispensing machine. I look around for a familiar face and see Larry, a burly bald-headed guy who I’ve always assumed to be somewhere in his thirties. He’s my height but weighs at least twice the size of me. We both work non-cons, which is short for non-conveyables — packages that are too heavy or bulky to be handled by robots. I can’t say we’re friends, but he’s one of the few people here who knows my name, which I suppose counts for something.

I sit down across from Larry, and after we exchange pleasantries he asks, “Do you think they’ll let us out early today?”

“I dunno,” I offer. “They were asking for V.T.O., so maybe they’ll let us out early.”

And…that’s it. There’s nothing more to say. There never is. Same shit, different day.

Not that I’m complaining. I have to admit that a future in which machines write poetry and PhD’s do heavy labor is not the 2023 I had envisioned as a boy, but it is what it is. All and all, the powers that be here are relatively fair considering this era of disposable people. You do your job, the supervisors leave you alone. If there’s a problem, they try to help. Plus, there’s free coffee in the break room. Can’t ask for more than that.

I sip my coffee as we sit together in silence, cautiously avoiding each other’s eyes until it’s time to go to work. I scan my badge a second time to clock in, scan my badge a third time to check out a scanner, and after booting up the scanner use it to scan my badge a fourth time to sign into the scanner. During our orientation they told us that every move we made on the warehouse floor would be recorded by surveillance cameras, every click of the scanner recorded in their database. I had no doubt they meant every word.

Stepping on to the warehouse floor, one comes face to face with the superabundance produced by modern civilization. Big boxes, little boxes, medium-sized boxes, square boxes, rectangular boxes, triangular boxes, trapezoidal boxes, boxes whose shape defies description…boxes, boxes, boxes, boxes, boxes. It’s our job to keep these boxes moving toward their final destination.

The supervisor leads us through some stretching exercises before giving us the safety tip of the day, the work tip of the day, and the success story of the day, and then we end with one giant overhand clap for ourselves, to simulate the bite of a shark — the shark being our warehouse mascot. I always feel like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner as I participate in these odd rituals.

I walk over to one side of the warehouse, find a cart filled with non-cons, scan the packing slip, wheel the cart over the correct dock, scan the gate, and one by one begin hefting these heavy and oversized packages and heaving them on to the rollers leading into the maw of the trailer, where other workers are waiting inside to stack them. There are other jobs in the warehouse that are less strenuous — in fact all of them — but they all bore the life out of me. I rather enjoy non-cons.

Afterwards I wheel the empty cart over to one of the receiving gates and, with a gentle shove, send it rolling in the direction of a worker who circulates a cart full of unsorted non-cons my way. I wheel this cart over the sort center and hand it off to other workers who begin the process of arranging the packages on to other carts. Meanwhile I select another cart of already-sorted non-cons, scan the packing slip, and begin anew. When things are going smoothly, this job is like a dance, with each one of us a pivotal part of the choreography.

I learned a long time ago that the worst possible thing you can do working this kind of job is to look at your watch. The more times a day you look at your watch, the slower the day goes. But I am vaguely aware of the passage of time when eventually  the black sky, seen through the high windows overhead, changes to gray, and finally the first rays of dawn begin shining through.

We are running out of carts at the sort center, so I venture over to retrieve one from where some workers have thrown a bunch of empty ones into an angry tangle. If they would just take an extra three seconds per cart to put it back in a neat row, that would make it that much easier to put the next one back. Of course, if I had to come in here fifty hours a week, I’m not sure I’d have any fucks left to give either.

I am yanked away from non-cons to help with pallet building. Here we take the small and medium-sized packages that come rolling off the conveyor belts and one by one scan each package, place it on the correct pallet, and then scan the pallet to make sure we’ve put it down on the right one. This is harder than it sounds. Most things are. Each package is unique in terms of length and width and height, so trying to stack these packages into some kind of stable configuration is like putting together a puzzle as someone hands you the pieces one by one and you have no idea what the finished product is supposed to look like.

They tell us not to extend the stacks of boxes beyond the footprint of the pallet but we invariably do, due to the ever-present temptation to squeeze one more package into a given tier to make the other boxes fit together more snugly. Afterwards, we cover these tottering, bulbous edifices in shrink wrap to keep them from collapsing as they are wheeled to the gates. In contrast to non-cons — where at least I get to use my physical strength — I find this work tedious and boring. But somebody’s gotta do it. Those private spaceships don’t pay for themselves.

The packages continue to cycle in, faster and faster, piling up on the rollers, cresting like slabs of ice on a Siberian river during spring thaw, and finally spilling out over the floor. We can’t keep up. I no longer feel like Patrick McGoohan — more like Lucy Ricardo.

Just keep moving, I tell myself. If there’s not enough people here to handle all these packages, that’s not your problem. The only thing that matters is every time they look in your direction, they should see movement.

In time, we are finally greeted by a deafening silence as the conveyors are shut off. My colleagues and I quietly clear up the backlog of spilled packages on the floor, and the shift is finally over. There’s no buzzer, no bell, but one by one the workers start drifting toward the exit, and I follow.

I scan my badge a fifth time to check in the scanner, and then a sixth time to be granted egress from the building. No one bids me good-bye as I exit through the turnstile into the brilliant sunshine.

The work never ends. The only thing that ends is your shift.

This job is a lot like life itself. You fill a spot for a time, keep things moving, and then step aside and trust somebody else will take your place. And don’t ever expect applause, or even a thank-you.


Patrick D. Hahn is the author of Madness and Genetic Determinism: Is Mental Illness in Our Genes?, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Header art by photographer Anton Tang.

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