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Stacking Cardboard At Budmar

The rumor was that Budmar was a contraction of Bud and Mary, which were the first names of the original owners. The cardboard mill was in an ancient factory building in Bloomfield New Jersey. It might have had flying buttresses and gargoyles on its exterior walls.

My friends Alan and Stefan had gotten summer jobs there working eight hours a day, six days a week on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift. Alan, philosophy major, practicing existentialist, red diaper baby and red diaper adult, perpetually cheerful, made the job sound like fun. I joined them.

The work consisted of unremitting physical labor.

When the fresh cooked cardboard emerged on the conveyer belt, it was cut by machine to the desired dimensions. Jim, who operated the machine and adjusted its settings, also was responsible for tying the sheets of cardboard into bundles of approximately fifty pounds. Alan, Stefan, and I removed the bundles from Jim’s worktable and stacked them onto pallets. As the height of the bundles augmented, so did the effort required to stack them. When the piles reached the height of our shoulders, we felt like shot putters tossing very heavy shot.

There were no breaks except when a stoppage was necessary for Jim to readjust the settings. When one of us took a break for “lunch” or made a run to the bathroom, the other two had to work harder and faster.

Inside the mill, it felt like a hundred plus degrees with one hundred percent plus humidity. By the end of the shift, we were exhausted and filthy. We would go to the locker room, shower off the sweat and cardboard dust, which clogged our pores and our every orifice, change into our civilian clothes, and go to Alan’s air-conditioned house to crash. We often stopped at The Shortstop Diner on nearby Route 3 for breakfast. Sometimes we got carry out orders and ate at the house.

Sometime in mid July, the owners and managers told us that they were shorthanded, backed up with orders, and that they needed us to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for the following month. They sweetened the deal by offering us time and a half for the extra hours.

We accepted.

Unlike prisoners on a chain gang, we were at Budmar voluntarily--and, we were paid. We earned $1.66 an hour for the first forty hours, and $2.49 for each additional hour. Nevertheless, led by Alan, we sang work songs like Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang”, Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy”, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”.

When we weren’t working, we were sleeping. Stefan complained that he spent the whole day dreaming that he was stacking bundles of cardboard, and then he had to get up, go to the mill, and stack bundles of cardboard.

In the middle of August, the mill had to shut down for a week for cleaning and maintenance. The beaters, which turned prime materials like newspaper, old cardboard boxes, and water into raw cardboard pulp, had to have its storage tank drained and washed down. The owners were Italian and we used to joke about surreptitious late night dumping of cadavers into the beater’s mix, but we found no bones during the cleaning.

Alan, Stefan, myself, and “Crazy Johnny” had to shovel the viscous, foul-smelling, gray semi-liquid mess from the beater storage tank onto dump trucks, where it was taken to the nearest some place else—perhaps a reservoir, and dumped. One day, as we stood knee deep in this stuff, which we had named “cardboard shit”, Alan informed us that what we were experiencing confirmed Archimedes’ Third Principle:

—Unpleasant work seeks its own level.

We had to wipe clean the surfaces of the machinery and lubricate moving parts like the blades of the beater and the rollers beneath the conveyer belt. “Crazy Johnny” sustained minor burns when the solvent he was using to clean out the pipes caught fire. While I was cleaning the blades of the beater, I couldn’t avoid remembering my friend Larry R. who had been seriously injured after he had fallen into the dough blender while working at a cookie factory; he had almost lost both legs.

We somehow survived that summer. It was a tremendous relief to tell the owners that the last week of August would be our final week at Budmar.

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