Henry Chinaski works as a post office clerk. He works evening shifts sorting out the post.
I was sitting next to a young girl who didn't know her scheme very well.
"Where does 2900 Roteford go?" she asked me.
"Try throwing it to 33," I told her.
The supervisor was talking to her.
"You say you're from Kansas City? Both my parents were born in Kansas City."
"Is that so?" said the girl.
Then she asked me:
"How about 8400 Meyers?"
"Give it to 18."
She was a little on the plump side but she was ready. I passed. I'd had it with the ladies for a while. The supervisor was standing real close to her.
"Do you live far from work?"
"Do you like your job?"
She turned to me:
"How about 6200 Albany?'·
When I finished my tray, the supervisor spoke to me:
"Chinaski, I timed you on that tray. It took you 28 minutes."
I didn't answer.
"Do you know what the standard is for that tray?"
"No, I don't know."
"How long have you been here?"
"You've been here eleven years and you don't know the standard?"
"You stick mail as if you don't care about it."
The girl still had a full tray in front of her. We had begun our trays together.
"And you've been talking to this lady next to you."
I lit a cigarette.
"Chinaski, come here a minute."
He stood at the front of the tin cases and pointed. All the Clerks were sticking very fast now. I watched them swinging their right arms frantically. Even the plump girl was jamming them home.
"See these numbers painted on the end of the case?"
"Those numbers indicate the number of pieces that must be stuck in a minute. A 2 foot tray must be stuck in 23 minutes. You ran 5 minutes over."
He pointed to the 23. "23 minutes is standard."
"That 23 doesn't mean anything," I said.
"Whadda ya mean?"
"I mean a man came along and painted that 23 on there with a can of paint."
"No, no, this is time-tested over the years and, rechecked.”
What was the use? I didn't answer.
"I'm going to have to write you up, Chinaski. You will be counseled on this."
I went back and sat down. 11 years! I didn't have a dime more in my pocket than when I had first walked in. 11 years. Although each night had been long, the years had gone fast. Perhaps it was the night work. Or doing the same thing over and over and over again. At least with The Stone I had never known what to expect. Here there weren't any surprises.
11 years shot through the head. I had seen the job eat men up. They seemed to melt. There was Jimmy Potts of Dorsey Station. When I first came in, Jimmy had been a well-built guy in a white T shirt. Now he was gone. He put his seat as close to the floor as possible and braced himself from falling over with his feet. He was too tired to get a haircut and had worn the same pair of pants for 3 years. He changed shirts twice a week and he walked very slow. They had murdered him. He was 55. He had 7 years to go until retirement.
"I'll never make it," he told me.
They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and the belly. It was the stool and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, everywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it. I had come in weighing 185 pounds. Now I weighed 223 pounds. All you moved was your right arm.
I walked into the counselor's office. It was Eddie Beaver sitting behind the desk. The clerks called him "Skinny Beaver." He had a pointed head, pointed nose, pointed chin. He was all points. And out for them too.
"Sit down, Chinaski!'”
Beaver had some papers in his hand. He read them.
"Chinaski, it took you 28 minutes to throw a 23 minute tray."
"Oh, knock off the bullshit. I'm tired."
"I said, knock off the bullshit! Let me sign the paper and go back. I don't want to hear it all."
"I'm here to counsel you, Chinaski!"
I sighed. "O.K., go ahead. Let's hear it."
"We have a production schedule to meet, Chinaski."
"And when you fall behind on production that means that somebody else is going to stick your mail for you. That means overtime."
"You mean I am responsible for those 3 and one half hours overtime they call almost every night?"
"Look, you took 28 minutes on a 23 minute tray. That's all there is to it."
"You know better. Each tray is 2 feet long. Some trays have 3, or even 4 times as many letters than others. The clerks grab what they call the ‘fat’ trays. I don't bother. Somebody has to stick with the tough mail. Yet all you guys know is that each tray is two feet long and that it must be stuck in 23 minutes. But we're not sticking trays in those cases, we're sticking letters."
"No, no, this thing has been time-tested!"·
"Maybe it has. I doubt it. But if you're going to time a man, don't judge him on one tray. Even Babe Ruth struck out now and then. Judge a man on ten trays, or a night's work. You guys just use this thing to hang anybody who gets in your craw."
"All right, you've had your say, Chinaski. Now, I'm telling YOU: you stuck a 28 minute tray. We go by that. NOW, if you are caught on another slow tray you will be due for ADVANCED COUNSELING!"
"All right, just let me ask you one question?"
"Suppose I get an easy tray. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I finish a tray in 5 minutes or in 8 minutes. Let's say I stick a tray in 8 minutes. According to the time-tested standard I have saved the post office 15 minutes. Now can I take these 15 minutes and go down to the cafeteria, have a slice of pie with ice cream, watch t.v. and come back?"
"No! YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO GRAB A TRAY IMMEDIATELY AND START STICKING MAIL!"
I signed a paper saying that I had been counseled. Then Skinny Beaver signed my travel form, wrote the time on it and sent me back to my stool to stick more mail.