workzine

Mike Sharlow, 6/25/2012

Current Occupation: Structural Designer

Former Occupation: janitor, general laborer, construction worker, administrative assistant, and cab driver.

Contact Information: Mike Sharlow was born in Wisconsin and has spent most his life there, although in the past he lived in Southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada. His website is www.mikesharlowwriter.com.

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Injury

On October 13th 1989 I had an accident with a radial arm saw, and I lost my middle and index finger on my right hand. It also bit off a chunk of my knuckles when it took my fingers. There was nothing clean about how they got severed. It was more like the saw tore them off. It was horrifying, yet amazing, how the saw hiccupped and so quickly grabbed the board I was cutting and pulled it in with my hand. There was no time to react to the speed and power of the saw. Only someone with super human strength and senses could have fought off the saw’s attack. A resonating ka-ching, and it was all over. I stepped back, looked at my mangled hand. I only remember seeing bone and blood, and that it felt cold, so cold. I covered it with my good hand, and went for help. As drops of blood splashed spidery patterns onto the floor and my shoes, I wondered if my loss of blood would make me pass out and possibly kill me. I walked into the office and the first person I saw was Paul, the assistant manager. Before he saw my hand he smiled and said, “Hi.”

“I cut off my fingers,” I said, omitting the greeting.

“Let’s go to bathroom,” he said.

I followed him in, but I don’t think he understood the gravity of the situation, because if he did he would have led me straight out the door to the hospital. After he peeled off a wad of brown paper toweling from the dispenser and asked me to remove my good hand from my bad so he could wrap it, the look of lip curling revulsion and squinty eye aversion of horror on his face told me that he really didn’t understand the gravity of my injury until this moment.

After my two day stay in the hospital, I saw an attorney, but I discovered it was useless. Workmen’s Comp laws were cut and dried. My compensation was based on my overall body disability, which was determined by my doctor, which was ultimately determined to be 24.5%. This was multiplied by another number which determined a dollar value. I eventually received $17,500 for my loss. The attorney told me that if I lost them in a car accident as a result of someone else’s negligence, he would have been able to get me six figures in compensation. Workman’s comp laws were obviously designed to protect employers and the insurance companies for the employers.

I was out of work for six months. I had physically healed long before that, but T.R.U., Trusses-R-Us, my employer, didn’t know what they wanted to do with me, whether they wanted to bring me back to work or not. I didn’t know what it’s like to be in war, but if a soldier loses a limb he doesn’t have to go back to the front line again. I was pretty sure I didn’t have it in me to go back in the shop.And I knew for sure that I would never touch that saw again.

My brother was the reason why I got the job at T.R.U. In 1986 when I was unemployed, I constantly asked him if they were hiring. Finally, he told me that they were putting in a new piece of production equipment, a table press, and that I could have a job helping them install it. He told me that the job was temporary but could lead to full time, if Mark Hafer, the project supervisor, thought I was a good worker. He was a tall, skinny, mush-mouthed guy who spit when he talked. He had greasy, dark, thinning hair on his head and fuzzy gray hair growing out his face including his nose and ears. He had nerdy black plastic rimmed glasses with lenses so dirty I didn’t know how he saw through them. Hafer wasn’t just strange looking. He spent time in Mendota State Mental Hospital. He was there the same time Ed Gein was. Rumor was that Hafer sat in the same group therapy sessions with him. “You knew Ed Gein?” I asked him. After I asked, I wasn’t sure I should have, but I had worked with Hafer for about two weeks up to this point and I think he liked me. He always appeared surprised at how quickly I finished the tasks. I could tell he didn’t like my brother and at first he sort of held it against me, but once he realized I wasn’t like my brother, he warmed up. “Ed was a nice guy,” he said. Mark must have liked me too, because he recommended me for a full time position.

The work relationship between my brother and me slowly deteriorated like metal oxidizes to rust. I believed his expectations of me were unrealistic or simply unreasonable to me. Despite the animosity between us, in three years he elevated my position from lowly lumber stacker to a foreman in a production department. From a distance he would squat on a lumber cart like a gargoyle scrutinizing my every move and decision I made. His motivational tactics went as far as him saying to me, “If you don’t ride your guys’ asses, I’ll be all up in yours with a twenty foot 2×4.” And like the rebellious insubordinate I was I told him to fuck off. At this point a battle ensued. Harsh words were exchanged, but we never came to blows. Given all this he never fired or even demoted me. I must have been doing something right. But it wasn’t just me; my brother was notorious for using intimidation to motivate. He was only five-foot-five, but he was as fearless, ferocious, and as chiseled as a junkyard dog, so most guys were afraid to stand up to him for more than the fear of losing their jobs. He had no problem harassing, threatening, or telling a guy how fucking worthless he was. He didn’t do it in two sentences or less either. He gave a ten minute lecture, and by the time he was finished, a guy worked his ass off getting rid of the anger, or he soon quit as a result of the emasculation. The saw supervisor, Ron G., a short, stout red haired guy, who claimed to be a descendant of Viking Berserkers, once told Richard that if we were dogs, the ASPCA, animal rights people, would take us away from him. For the next five minutes my brother ran around the shop asking all the guys, “Do I treat you like a dog?” Most were afraid to be honest. He never asked me for my vote, but then again, being his brother, he considered me to be less than human, so I wasn’t eligible.

T.R.U. offered me a job back after my injury. My title was the assistant to the Assistant Manager, as if a dishwasher is an assistant chef, and a bat boy is a pinch hitter. I knew they were offering me a bullshit job. T.R.U. knew it was in their best interest to hire me back. If they didn’t they could have ended up paying for me to go back to school, or just keep paying me until I found gainful employment elsewhere. This phase of the process, if entered, was called Economic Recovery. I didn’t want to go back to work there, but if I refused, I was on my own, so I accepted their crappy job.

I actually did some good. I implemented an accurate inventory system for lumber and a couple of other things, whereas before, Paul, the Assistant Manager, would just go out about once a week and do a physical count. That didn’t make sense to me. To keep an accurate inventory, you had to account for lumber that was going to be used in orders but wasn’t pulled from inventory yet. I figured out how to run reports to get that information. Paul’s system was analogous to figuring how much money was in his bank account by looking at the present balance. Any idiot knows you have to account for the checks that you’ve already written that haven’t cleared yet. With my system, I accounted for the un-cleared checks, so to speak.

I had this job for about two months. Then I was removed from the glory of this position to work in the production office. After my accident, I thought and hoped, I would never be back in production again. When I first started back, things were different between my brother and me. We actually got along. I inputted orders. It was tedious and time consuming. I started at 7:00 AM and sometimes I didn’t get done until after 7:00 PM. For more than one reason I wasn’t cut out for this. My mind tended to wander when I did mindless soul-sucking tasks. This job was all about inputting the correct numbers on a spread sheet so daily production could be calculated and scheduled. Before I had my accident I was an adequate typist for a writer. I never took typing in school but over the years I had acquired my own hunt and peck style utilizing my index and middle fingers on each hand which served my purpose, but I was much too slow and inaccurate for data entry, especially now. So, I made some mistakes. I felt like I was set up to fail. And after a couple of months of this the tension between my brother and I rolled back in like a thick fog. It eventually got so dense that the walls of the office could no longer confine it, so something had to give. One morning I walked through the door, and my brother immediately confronted me. “You fucked up again.”

Yesterday I worked until almost 8:00 PM. After I got home and ate, I wrote until almost midnight. I probably fell asleep at about one. It was now 7:00 AM. My brain was dry and achy from sleep deprivation.

“You need to fix the schedule,” he said, as he stood over me.

Since I got out of my car I realized my shoe was untied, but I did nothing about it until now. “Can I tie my shoe first,” I said.

“Hurry the fuck up,”

Then I said something that had been running through my head for months. “My attorney said that if I felt like I couldn’t do the job I should walk out.” It was one piece of useful information I got from this guy. My employer had to provide a job I could do, had the skills to do. I stood up threatening to leave. My brother walked into my space and stood there less than a foot away. A hateful look was all over his face from his squinting eyes to the sneer on his mouth. I saw the sum total of contempt he felt for me that was so thick and intense I’m sure it had accumulated and fed on itself since childhood, and now it had become monstrous, turned him into a monster. As I stood frozen I didn’t want to believe what I sensing and feeling, but then he said something that validated the depths of his hatred. “As God as my witness, and all of you, it’s not his injury preventing him from doing his job.” The “all of you” were the third and first shift foremen, six of them, gathered together in the production office for the third to first shift change. They were my brother’s generals to his dictatorship. None of them said anything. They watched my humiliation. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Heavy fear fell over me, so I sat back down in my chair. I had no one on my side, and he had those guys. Whether they wanted to or not, I knew they would take his side. Only Ron G. said something to me about it, and that was a few days later. “I can’t believe he said that to you, his brother.”

“I can’t either,” I said. And that was all I could say for fear of breaking down. All along I had suspected, but never wanted to believe, that my brother cared more about the company than he did me, but now I knew where I stood. My limb, probably my life, meant less to him than the company.

For about three more years I worked in this position under my brother, until he quit because he got a position as a plant manager in South Dakota. I was glad to see him go, and I don’t think I was the only one. Hate fantasies, the faith that my writing would free me, and occasionally spitting in his coffee helped myself endure those years.

More than ever I now questioned why I never left, why I didn’t find another job. Not until months after Richard left did I make sense of it. Abused people stayed. They stayed at jobs they wanted to quit. They stayed in marriages they wanted to leave. They stayed because they believed they had no value to take anywhere else. It had to be too dark and scary out there, because it was almost unbearable where they were.

About a year after my brother left I published my book, so I quit my job. I had always fantasized about walking into work and telling him of my success and that, “I quit.” I hoped this would have cleansed me and allowed me to leave my injury behind, but as I walked away on my last day, I knew I would always feel the numbness of my phantom fingers searching for the letters to create words to describe the pain of becoming free.

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