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Burn Out On the Bubble Wrap Line


Ken Bushnell

There is of course a certain amount of drudgery in newspaper work, just as there is in teaching classes, tunnelling into a bank, or being President of the United States. I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA building, would pall a little as the days ran on. 

James Thurber

I suppose any job palls after a while no matter how enjoyable.  Let's take the job of, oh, say, popping bubble wrap. Can anybody resist popping bubble wrap? What if it were a job? How would that measure up to all day routines and a structured company environment?

We go to our hypothetical business where employees are instructed to deflate bubble wrap. Used, deflated bubble wrap, it turns out in our fictitious World, is worth a small fortune if deflated properly.  Patched, it can be reinflated to specific widths and resold to help reduce shipping costs. This is accomplished by precisely taking up only as much space as needed between products, protecting the load while allowing the maximum amount of material to be shipped in a container. The process has been patented by the Bubble Wrap Repackaging Corporation (BWRC) which now has four employees deflating used bubble wrap.

It's lunch at BWRC. Myrna and Cloy are in the canteen enjoying some company gossip. "How many times do you think he's going to shut the machine down?" Cloy always gives way to Myrna's expertise.

"He just thinks it goes faster that way. It doesn't really, but he's got to do it his way and he thinks he's the genius behind everything."  Myrna was speaking of Vince who operates the big bubble wrap press deflator that handles entire sheets or rolls of uniform size.

"Well he's going to have to pay attention or somebody's going to get it. If he screws up any more batches we're going to have to do them."  Cloy was non committal.

"You can bet they'll be dumping them on our table and we'll have to work late again." Myrna's seniority was evident. She had been working at the factory for two and a half years.

Cloy, who worked across the table from Myrna, had eighteen months with the company, but she still ceded to Myrna's seniority. "I hear they hired someone new today."

"They're supposed to be coming in this afternoon." Myrna was pleased knowing the job load would be eased by additional help.

"BZZZ!" An annoying buzzer sounded. "Five minutes," said Cloy.

"Yea, back to the bench." Myrna always got the last word in. She and Cloy got up and started ambling towards their table. The warehouse was relatively small, maybe forty by eighty feet. Next to the roll up loading door was the bubble wrap press Vince operated. Myrna and Cloy's table was half way down on the opposite side of the warehouse. During lunch an extra 'flip open' container of bubble wrap had been placed on the end of their table. These held five or six yards of bubble wrap, depending on the type.

"Hey! We got the big ones." Cloy's enthusiasm seemed to affect Myrna.

"Yea, we can do them by hand." Myrna always the instructor.

They both sat down on opposite sides of the table and grabbed a sheet of bubble wrap. 'Pop, pop, pop, pop,' Myrna was still the fastest in the business. The girls would take the bubble wrap, lay it flat on the table and press with a roll of the finger into each bubble. If there were bubbles on both sides they would pick up one end of the sheet and roll a bubble between thumb and forefinger, working their way horizontally across the sheet. After each row of bubbles they would fold the sheet under and start on the next row, except this time they would have a layer of deflated bubble wrap between their finger and the underside bubble.

"The first row is always the best," Cloy chimed.

"Sure," said Myrna focusing all of her attention on the bubble wrap.

'Cathump, cathump', the din of the bubble wrap press made conversation more difficult as it deflated one sheet after another.

"Here at BWRC we take pride in our ability to meet or exceed customer expectations." Jim Taylor was leading a new employee over to Myrna and Cloy's table. "Every bubble has to be just right. One misplaced over or under inflated bubble could mean the difference between a safe or a damaged shipment." Jim was giving the 'take pride in your job speech,' Myrna liked to call it. "Let me introduce you to the best in the business." Jim and the new employee approached the table. "Myrna, this is Beth. Beth this is Cloy Witherspoon." Jim laid his hand out flat, palm up, like a director of ceremonies.

"Hello. Hello." Cloy and Myrna spoke almost simultaneously. 

Neither was sure if they should stop working and went back to breaking the next row of bubbles.

Jim handed Beth an envelope containing several booklets, saying, "Here's your employee starter package." His timing seemed to be a little off. Beth didn't really know what to do with such a big envelope just now. "You'll be working with Myrna and Cloy here. You'll see how it's done in the Employee Introduction Booklet in your envelope there." Beth lifted the envelope a little showing Jim she knew what he was talking about.

"Myrna here will show you how it's done." You could see Myrna roll her eyes a little as he said it. "That means by tonight you'll have seventeen more yards done, right Myrna?" 

Myrna didn't acknowledge him directly, just a nod. Not only was she supposed to train a new employee, but now she had to make sure the extra work load was done, by today. She knew it was overkill, it was impossible, but in the spirit of company enthusiasm she knew Jim meant 'give it your best shot.' She also knew that by tomorrow he really did want to see the extra seventeen yards from the new employee. She wasn't even paid extra, to train new employees.  It was all in the spirit of 'a small company growing and we should all pitch in for future rewards,' sort of thing. Myrna's eyes really did roll this time, adding a head twist for emphasis.

"Here. Sit down next to Myrna." Jim took the envelope from Beth and placed it on the table next to Myrna. "I'll leave you in the hands of the professionals." Jim had already turned and started walking back to the office as he said it.

Cloy looked up from her work and smiled as Beth sat down. Myrna, still not looking forward to the extra duty, kept on working. "Do I just take one of these?" Beth said as she pulled a sheet from the end of the container.

"Yea." Myrna made her first commitment to the task at hand.

"And I guess you just start popping them." Beth popped a bubble and looked at Myrna and Cloy's work studiously.

Myrna let Beth pop a couple of more and then instructed, "Just watch for a while. You'll see how it's done."

"You just roll them like this," Cloy said as she held the sheet up for Beth to see. Immediately she felt she had overstepped her bounds as she caught sight of Myrna's glance in her direction.

"Oh, like this." Beth proved more diplomatic that either Cloy or Myrna had first suspected.

"Yea," said Myrna. "Except you gotta do a whole row at a time."

Beth didn't understand so she went back to watching.

Just then there was a disgruntled scream in the corner. "Aaarg!" It was from Vince. The cathump, cathump had stopped. Beth looked over in horror.

"Jammed again Vince?" Myrna didn't even look up from her sheet.

"Yea! Just take a minute." Vince hopped around to the back side of the press and started pulling off a plate.

"Where'd you work before this?" Cloy had glanced over to the machine and now directed her attention to Beth.

"Just downtown at Spooner's Megatorium."

"Oh I've been there." Cloy showed marked enthusiasm. "We bought a hamster wheel, me and my husband."

Beth was intent on learning the job and didn't want to pick up the conversation about Cloy's husband and hamster. Instead she focused her gaze on Myrna's bubble popping.

"What did you do there?" Myrna asked.

"Displays and decorations," Beth said.

"Displays and decorations?" Myrna asked with a sincere curiosity.

"Yea, I was head designer and decorator for the stores and any shows they did."

Myrna was now suspicious. "And you gave up a job like that to work for minimum wage popping bubbles?"

"Gotta work," Beth said. "Besides everybody likes to pop bubble wrap."

Myrna rolled her eyes again. She'd probably heard that a million times since she started working here. She'd given up a long time ago trying to change anybody's opinion, who said it. "How much did you make there?" She asked.

"Fifty-two thousand a year. They've got stores in twenty-three cities, you know."

Myrna was shocked. She stopped her bubble popping. "Fifty-two thousand a year?" She was speechless. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. That kind of money didn't even make sense to Myrna. "And you quit that to do this?"

Bzzzzz! The rest of what Myrna was going to say was interrupted by the buzzer. "Two thirty break," she said, glad for the interruption. 

"We're gonna go to the canteen. Wanna go?" She directed her comment to Beth as she and Cloy got up from the table. Beth followed them to the Canteen.

"How long you been workin' here?" Beth asked Myrna.

"Too long. Two and a half years." Myrna was already over by the soda pop machine putting in quarters.

"How do you like it?"

"It's OK." Myrna leaned back in the chair, opened her pop, took a sip and then let her head lean back as she closed her eyes.

Beth now turned her attention to Cloy. "How long have you been here Cloy?"

"Almost two years. Well actually a year and a half. I'm working on two years."

"Are you able to do seventeen yards everyday?" Beth plied Cloy.

With her head still back Myrna opened her eyes and gave Beth a sideways glance.

"Just about everyday. Sometimes we do more." Cloy's enthusiasm was  remarkable.

"Do you ever not make seventeen?" Beth asked.

"Sometimes. Only when it's the small bubbles, two sided, all day.  Cloy's enthusiasm seemed to disappear. "We get a write-up and then Jim asks why."

Just then the buzzer sounded again. Cloy, Myrna and Beth went back out to the warehouse. Vince and Jim were over by the press discussing something about the condition of a part and how it would work better if it were replaced. Vince put the plate back on he had removed earlier, before their break, and started the press again. 'Cathump, cathump,' it seemed to be working. Jim headed back to the office.

Myrna sat down first. "Let me show you how it's done." Beth listened attentively. "These are the easy ones. The bubbles are big. First you roll 'em between your fingers." She showed Beth how to pop a bubble.  "Then you do the whole row that way. You have to pop them in this direction." She showed Beth a thumb over the forefinger motion, lifting the wrap a little, and exaggerating the motion. "If we break them this way then they can be patched at the factory."

"Factory?" Beth asked.

"That's where they reseal the bubbles," Myrna informed her. "You see, we just prep 'em here."

"Prep?" Beth showed genuine interest.

"Yea, that's what you're doing now. Then we put them in a box, the big boxes at the end over there, and they take them to the factory." Myrna pointed towards the opposite end of the warehouse at a stack of boxes.

"Have you ever been to the factory?" asked Beth.

"Once," said Myrna. "We had a meeting and a dinner for all the employees and they held it at the factory."

"Here, you try it." Myrna got up and reached around to the other side of Beth and pulled the sheet of bubble wrap she'd been working on into position. "You started this one, but it looks like you popped one in the wrong direction, but I don't think it will matter. Here, finish the first row and then fold it over."

Myrna watched as Beth started on the first row of bubbles. As she started the second row she didn't fold the sheet over. "Wait a sec. You gotta fold it over so you can get set up to do the whole sheet." She reached over and folded one side. "Now fold the other side like this.  And then you grab the fold and top bubble between your thumb and finger like this." Myrna demonstrated. Beth followed on the opposite end.  "That's it."

Myrna returned to her side and watched as Beth completed the row.  "That's it, except you might want to start on the other side and work towards you. Doesn't really matter though."

"Like this?" Beth started her second row taking Myrna's advice.

"Yea, that's it. Just keep going through the whole sheet, and when you're done slide it across the table and pull another one out."

"There's only supposed to be two people to a table," Cloy reminded Myrna.

"Yea, she's right. Tomorrow you'll probably be working at your own table, or me or Cloy will move to another table, because it's easier when you just slide the finished ones down to the end."

Suddenly there's a hubbub from the front of the warehouse by the office. Several Japanese businessmen file out, into the warehouse, followed by Jim and Sven Orstead, the President and CEO of BWRC.

"This is the preparation area," the girls hear Jim saying. "Staging, shipping and prep is performed at this facility. We can process over 220 yards a day in this warehouse alone, and that's just the beginning."

One of the Japanese businessmen turns to one of the members in their entourage and speaks in his quick foreign dialect none of the employees understand. "What's the cost per square foot?" The gentleman he was talking to turns out to be a translator.

"Our lease is 88 cents per foot," Jim answers. "With all overhead and equipment it comes to less than $2.00, $1.94, I believe. I've got it in your file at the office."

The translator relays the information back to the businessmen. The one that asked the question smiles at Jim, a couple of others shake their head while making a couple of quick comments between themselves.

"I think you'll like our machine over here." Jim lays his hand out to lead the way. "We've got all the rights. Just received the patent last year."

The translator talks quickly. He does an up and down motion with his hand, like sketching out some mountain tops in the air. One of the businessmen giggles while two others step closer to the machine and examine it closely. Jim gives the 'cut it' signal to Vince with a twist of his wrist.

Vince walks over to the businessmen and says "I think we can get more speed if we put in snaps to pull the sheets." All the businessmen and the translator look at him without saying a word. Suddenly Jim breaks the ice with "I think what he's saying is that we're constantly making improvements." The translator translates and all the Japanese businessmen smile and nod their heads up and down several times as if understanding.

"If we expand to your country we can either advance the foreign rights or provide the equipment." Jim sounded a little nervous.

"That's right, gentlemen. The rights to this machine are for sale along with the franchise opportunity, if you're interested." Sven's comment raised the subject of money a little too prematurely. He stepped back and tripped as he caught his foot on the corner of a table. He regained his balance before falling completely. "What do you think Jim?" he says trying to act as if nothing had happened.

"The press may not be necessary for overseas operation, Sven." Jim tried to talk quickly before the translator could finish what Sven had said. "Manpower requirements are minimal and one person can do seventeen point four yards a day, with a few tools."

"Can they do eighteen?" The translator was speaking for what looked like the most senior of the Japanese businessmen.

There was a quick comment from another of the businessmen to a third, "Twenty?" The translator went on as he spoke for them, possibly out of turn.

The party worked its way over to where the women were working. They gathered behind Cloy and then gradually peeked out from behind one another until they were all spread evenly around the table watching them work.

"This is our custom table," Sven said as he unconsciously picked up a sheet of bubble wrap and started popping the bubbles. "Any oddball sizes that need prepping are run through these gals."

Cloy looked up and smiled at the businessmen. Myrna intensified her effort popping the bubbles. Beth still wasn't really quite sure what to do so she just looked at the businessmen, smiled also, and held her hands in her lap. "This is our new gal," Sven went on. He also noticed at the same time the translator wasn't translating what he was saying so he rolled one of his hands towards him to try and indicate that he should be translating, all the while still popping bubbles with his other hand.  "Well go on. Tell them," he said.

The translator turned and said a couple of quick words to the closest gentleman who smiled mischievously and then looked up and down at Sven.

Jim stepped in to relieve his boss; "we have several orders for electronic companies here," he said, trying to change the focus of the conversation.

One of the businessmen turned to another and said a quick word and then picked up a piece of bubble wrap. "Ah Eeeee!" he seemed to say as he started popping the first bubbles. He turned to one of his companions with a gesture of 'you try it' and handed him an edge of his bubble wrap.  They both started popping bubbles faster and faster and then all of a sudden they looked over at Myrna and started trying to match her pace.  Almost at the same time the other businessmen picked up a piece of bubble wrap and they all started popping the bubbles. One held it up. Another turned as he popped bubbles. All were chattering joyously commenting to one another as if this were a real thrill.

Jim had to raise his voice a little to get through the chatter; "if you gentlemen want to retire to the office I can give you the stats you requested."

Jim had to tap the translator on the shoulder to get him to listen.  He leaned over so he could hear: "If you would like to come into the office with me I can give you the information we've got ready."

This time the translator translated it. Two of the businessmen ignored him and kept turning as they popped the bubble wrap. One tried to put a piece under his coat. Still a fourth stepped back from the rest while still popping the bubbles.

"This way gentlemen." Jim took the elbow of one of the businessmen and started to guide him towards the office. The businessmen kept popping as he went with Jim's lead. The others followed. As they neared the office one of the businessmen looked down at his last couple of bubbles on his bubble wrap and dashed over to the table, smiled at Cloy and took another sheet, only to start popping the bubbles on this one as he walked towards the office.

As the last of the entourage filed into the office Cloy, Myrna, Beth and even Vince all looked at one another like they couldn't believe what they just saw. 

"I wonder if they're still going to make us do our seventeen yards?" Cloy said, breaking the silence.

Epilogue: Beth only worked three more days before she quit. BWRC went out of business two months later. It turned out Beth was a spy for a styrofoam pressing company; a competitor that wanted to steal the bubble wrap press technology and preparation techniques. United Styrofoam Reprocessing now controls over 90% of the Bubble Wrap Repackaging Business. Also as a side note there is now a company in Japan that orders three container loads a month of used bubble wrap. They claim it's a meditative tool for their employees.

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