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Wisdom from the Warehouse

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

For years I worked in an auto parts warehouse in West Oakland. I joined the Teamsters' Union, unloaded trucks, stocked shelves, and pulled orders. For a time I was the shipper. I completed my Ph.D. while working there, although the only thing that changed was that my co-workers began to call me Doc.

After I was hired by San Jose State, I continued to work summers, over Christmas vacations, and occasionally on my free days when things were really busy and extra help was needed. I worked long enough to be "vested," and I receive a small pension from the company thanks to the union contract.

The West Oakland branch was part of a national chain, and our branch was always ranked near or at the top. This was due in large part to Don, our boss, who ran what might be called "a tight ship." Perhaps "slave galley" would be a better analogy.

I learned much from Don, and those lessons still prove valuable. Here are some guidelines I picked up that may help you in your daily life.

"Put a dent in it." When 40 pallets of auto parts are unloaded, it takes days to stock the shelves. (This was long before Amazon, robots, and automated systems.) What you could do was start, that afternoon, right now, and do what you could. When you are faced with ten rows to weed in the garden or 175 voters to canvass, don't think about the monumental task. Just put a dent in it.

Annie Lamott offered similar advice in her book Bird by Bird. When her brother was assigned to write a report, due the next day, on a large number of birds, her father gave him advice on how to proceed. Write it bird by bird.


"Don't procrastinate. Do it now." Many of the buildings in the Oakland warehouse area were covered in graffiti. Not ours. If our walls were hit the night before, we were out with paint first thing in the morning. We might be tagged three or four nights in a row, but it was always immediately painted over. As a result we might go for months with no graffiti. Why bother? No one would see it anyway.

"It's not a mistake until it leaves the warehouse." Every parts order was checked by another worker. Every part. We had a phenomenal record for accuracy. Think about that the next time you are about to hit the send key or the print key. Is that joke/sext/insult something you want to leave your house or have people read? Remember, once it leaves the (ware)house, it will be too late to fix it.

"Sounds like a personal problem." This is a lesson for all those whiny Millennials who get their feelings hurt. Get over it. Quit sniveling. Don didn't want to hear about troubles at home, or why your car wouldn't start, or your neighbor's barking dog, he wanted that order pulled or that truck unloaded. It is amazing how often I am tempted to use that phrase in today's world.

"Let's get drunk and be somebody." That one I didn't pick up from our boss, but from a co-worker. He often said it on Friday at quitting time. I don't use that one too many times, but it occasionally comes in handy.

I certainly don't want to romanticize my job in West Oakland. I have back problems, and I am still waiting to see if asbestosis kicks in from handling box after box of Johns Manville brake parts. On the other hand, the lessons I learned there have been helpful in all types of situations, and for that I am grateful.

~ Roy Christman





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