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Friday, January 07, 2005

Ice Man

The summer after I graduated high school, my father convinced me that I needed to get a job and start earning all the spending money I'd need while I was away at college. He said something like "You need to earn two thousand dollars this summer!" and I was all like, OMG! And then they went to Europe and I was pretty much on my own. So I got a job and held myself to spending no more than $2.50 each day on lunch, and saved all the rest.

Through a girl I knew from school, I got a job at an ice factory where her mother worked as a receptionist. ... an ice factory.

It wasn't really a big production; there were probably 10 of us working each day, but some would be out delivering ice in trucks (the fun part), and the rest packing ice at the factory (the crappy part).

In the front of the factory was the receptionist area. I never went there, except to get my pay check. The woman who worked there was nice, but wanted nothing to do with the factory workers. She would sit and listen to the radio and knit or do crossword puzzles, completely uninterested in the mayhem on the other side of the wall.

The rest of us, high school kids, college kids, odd adult-types who apparently couldn't find anything more profitable, worked 10 or 12 hour days, for minimum wage or not much more - I think I was making $4.85/hr when I left.

Our first stop every day was the block ice area. This was a big, dismal, concrete room that held stacks of boxes full of plastic bags and three huge tubs of super-cooled anti-freeze. Each of these tubs held thirty or fourty steel or plastic ice-block molds. We'd come in at 6AM, open the lids on these tubs and start an assembly line. One guy would pull the blocks out of the anti-freeze and take them over to the sink, where another guy ran hot water on the outside of the mold to loosen it up; then he'd dump the 15 pound block of ice onto a little shelf where the next guy would wrap it in a plastic bag, spin it, put a piece of strapping tape on the top and hand it to the next guy who'd drop it into a bigger plastic bag along with 5 other blocks, then stack the big bags on a palette. Then the mold would go back in the brine, and get filled with water.

Every part of the line sucked. The first guy's hands would freeze and sting from the super-salty, super-cold anti-freeze; the second guy was always banging the sides of the molds because they never wanted to give up the ice block and he had the hot water/cold ice duality to deal with; the third guy was always dropping the ice blocks on his toes because a wet-sided, 15 pound, block of ice is a difficult thing to control at 6AM. The stacker was constantly having to wrestle with 75 pound bags of wet ice blocks - which is like stacking garbage bags full of ice-cold bowling balls. But, eventually we'd run through all the blocks, and then we'd take a break and bitch about how much we hated block ice.

Next to the block room was the Small Freezer. It was small only in comparison to the Big Freezer - it was still big enough to hold many tons of ice. But, what it lacked in relative size, it made up for in relative frigidity and mysterious darkness - for some forgotten reason, we never turned on the lights in there. This is where we made dry-ice blocks using a little wooden puzzle box that snapped together, with a hose on one side that attached to a big cold CO2 tank. It's also where they stored Chipwhiches for someone who rented the freezer space. We ate most of their stock, of course.

The loading dock was where trucks backed up to get their ice, or where smart people came to buy ice directly from the factory, especially "drty ice", which was ice we dropped on the floor and couldn't sell for anything but packing beer kegs. Since nobody kept track of dirty ice, it was a good way for the workers to make a little side cash while the boss was out. We'd sit on the dock when things were slow and throw ice cubes into the parking lot and chunks of dry ice into the permanent mud puddles.

In addition to the hated block ice, we made cubed ice; and we did that in the bagging room. This room had a bin the size of a house that held ice cubes. The cubes would get corckscrewed out of the bin, into a bagging machine, into an 8 pound bag that was then sealed with a metal clip, run up a conveyor belt, onto a platform where one of two guys would drop it into a bigger plastic bags, which someone else would seal with tape and stack on a palette. 40 big bags per palette, 200 little bags, 1,600 pounds per palette. We'd usually do this all day. To keep it interesting, we'd go as fast as the machines would let us, trying to stack a palette faster than anyone had done before. Thrilling! I think the record was something like 8 minutes. But, the bagging machine was constantly running out of bags, or clips, or failing to clip a bag, so it was always dumping ice on the floor, or on the conveyor belt, or into its own moving parts - it needed constant attention. The big bin drove the ice towards the bagging machine with a corkscrew on its bottom, but sometimes the ice would freeze solid and get driven up as a solid block that would tear the front off the bin. When we could spare the person, one of us would stand at the front of the bin and poke at the ice mass with a big steel shovel, or clear the jammed bagging machine.

After we stacked a palette of ice, it had to go into the Big Freezer. More accurately, the Fucking Huge freezer. During the winter, the big delivery trucks parked in there (not much call for ice delivery during an upstate NY winter); but in the summer, it was full of palettes of ice, stacked three high with an electric fork lift (which lived in the freezer). By the end of the summer, the palettes on the bottom would be crushed flat by the 3,200 pounds of ice above them, and the ice would fuse into flat blocks that pissed off the customers who thought they were going to have nice cubes. Palettes fell off the top of the stacks every week, and we'd have to go into this freezer and clean up 1,600 pounds of scattered ice cubes as quick as we could before we froze to death. As big as it was, it still stayed below ten degrees all year. The electric bill must've been absurd.

And finally, there was the back. This is where we kept unused palettes. Because of the weight of the ice and the water, palettes were constantly falling apart. So, once every few days, we'd have to go out and cobble together useable palettes from the rotting, splintered remains of whatever came off the trucks. And get high. We'd go out back, start ripping and hammering, smoking, and chewing Skoal.

But the delivery trucks were the best part of the job. Instead of standing at one end of a conveyor belt all day, you got to drive around the area, looking out the window, filling ice machines at all the local stores, collecting money, eating lunch at McDonalds. If money were no object, I'd love to get a delivery job. The best routes were those around Lake George. It's a beautiful area, and even the annual crush of toursists from NYC couldn't ruin it completely.

I didn't have the class C license required to drive the big trucks, but I could drive the smaller ones. Well, legally I could. One day, I was assigned to drive a truck up I-87 to the small town of Warrensburg. This was a 20 mile drive, up the west side of the lake, no big deal. So, I'm cruising up I-87, or "the Northway" as the locals say, and the truck isn't feeling healthy. I'm doing 55 or so, but I'm starting up a hill, and I notice it has no power left - I give it a little gas but it doesn't accelerate - and the engine is screaming. I look at the guy riding with me and I'm like "Hey, what's up with the fucking truck?" He just shrugs, cause he's only 16 and probably hasn't ever driven anything. So I shrug too, and forget about it. We get into town, and hit the first stop. I go to take the truck out of gear and notice that it's not in "D" as it should be. No, it's in "L". That truck was doing 55 uphill with a literal ton of ice in back, in "L". Ouch. We had a good nervous laugh about that.

I did that job for three summers after high school. Rode my bike ten miles each way to get there each day. Good times.

Skot at Izzle Pfaff recalls his warehouse job.

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