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Night Shifts; Manufacturing Arrows

September 27, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

John Brandon: I did my best for a while at a lumber mill that fashioned blunt-tip wooden arrows. The only use for the product, as far as I know, is in schools that teach archery as part of their PE program. This may have been the only wooden-arrow producer in the country. I was the new man, as I always was in those days, so I had to drag the colossal hunks of raw cedar around to the head saw. If one were to design a task for the specific purpose of causing hernias, this would be that task. Perilously awkward, perilously heavy lifting. Another thing left to the new guy was rolling the arrows to see which were warped. You had to lean over a wide table for hours on end, knotting your shoulders and neck. I also shoveled out the sawdust room. All the sawdust from the mill was sucked up and blown into this stifling shed that leaned against the main building, and once a week I had to put on a mask and wedge myself in there and shovel it all into canvas bags. It took most of a day. Once in a while a circus would come and purchase all the sawdust—I’m not sure why. Anyway, the place was in the middle of nowhere, so on breaks there was nothing to do but lean against the outside wall and pick sawdust out of your nose and ears.

I worked Monday to Thursday, ten hours a day, with a forty-five-minute drive at each end. Thursday nights, my work week over, my girlfriend would drag me to a beach bonfire where I’d dull my aches with Alaskan Amber and eat hamburgers, tugboats belching in the distance. The wee hours of one of those nights was the only time, as an adult, that I pissed the bed. Being thoroughly drunk and sort of tired had never caused this. Being thoroughly tired and sort of drunk did. Not to mention our studio apartment hung out over the sound, so we slumbered each night to the lapping of gentle waves.

Brian Evenson: In 1987, as a young college student, I had the pleasure of working four abysmally bad jobs, all of them at hours when no human should be awake. First I worked the graveyard shift in a sweeper truck, sweeping parking lots. I was the guy who would get out with a leaf blower in freezing cold weather and blow all the debris away from the curbs so the truck could get it. My partner’s job seemed to involve sitting in the heated cab getting high. When that job collapsed, I moved on to working the graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour fast-food Mexican restaurant. It was just me and a very fat manager with peroxide hair who spent the time from one A.M. to two A.M. smoking, and two A.M. to four A.M. sleeping. When I finally couldn’t take that any more, I took a job as a part-time bread processor for the university, working from three A.M. to seven A.M. putting dough in an automatic proofer and then into an oven. I quit this job because my hands broke out in a rash. Simultaneously, I was washing pans in the backroom of another bakery from seven A.M. to nine A.M. I was fired from that because I couldn’t make it over quickly enough from my bread-processing job. There was, later, ditch-digging, working as a labor subforeman for a construction crew, working as an assistant manager at Hamburger World, and a job trying to program in a computer language that I didn’t know. But, in 1987, I didn’t have a single bearable job.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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