NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS DESCRIPTION OF A CRUDE ACT THAT SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTASTEFUL.
“It’s some kinda remote-controlled thing, Gram,” Anthony Gammaitoni explained to his grandmother at the breakfast table. “The forklifts just drive around by themselves while someone somewhere directs them. I don’t know how all it works. All’s I know is the company says it’s the only way they can stay in business, the only way to compete with the big warehouse and shipping companies around here.”
Gram shook her head. “Well, be that as it may, I just don’t see why they wouldn’t have something else there for you. It’s just not right that you’re gettin’ laid off, what with all I hear on the news each night is how employers can’t get no workers here in Pennsylvania, that workers just quit so much now.”
Anthony shrugged in resignation, mumbling, “I haven’t been there long enough to get a picking or sorting job. Besides, those jobs are all full up, and believe me, those people are not lettin’ go of them. I can’t blame them.”
“Don’t worry, son,” said Anthony’s mother, squeezing his hand for a second. “I know you’ll find something else. Other forklift jobs must be available around here somewhere, don’t you suppose, hon?”
“Yes, and not all those people goin’ for those will have some college education like you do, Anthony,” said Gram with a smug nod.
Anthony and his mother glanced at each other, and Anthony just kept looking down at his oatmeal and coffee. He’d gone one disastrous semester to Lanawallen College right out of high school, racking up a small student loan debt along with a zesty 1.45 grade point average and the full realization that college classes were absolutely not what he was about or ever likely would be about in the future. True, he did too much running around with his friends that semester and clinging to the life he’d had for years in high school, but it wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried, at least when he did make it to class. Anthony wasn’t a wild kid then, drank beer no more or less than any of his peers, and didn’t even smoke weed like so many did. Frankly, he couldn’t afford that habit on his part-time job wages. Gram, at any rate, was always so impressed with Anthony having gone to college even a day, and she rarely passed up the chance to mention that her grandson had some college education when chatting with her little klatch of cronies after Sunday and Thursday masses at Saint Vincent’s.
Anthony’s mother looked at Gram with the soothing expression she wore when Gram yammered on about things she did not understand very much, which happened often. “Mom, let’s not worry Anthony right now. It’ll all work out. I have to scoot now and train that new girl so we won’t have patients lined up out the door there in Admissions.” She’d been with the big hospital in Wilkes-Barre for over fifteen years now, working in lower administrative jobs and grateful every single day for her career. The pay was pretty meager and the supervisors were pretty much all turds, but her employment was steady, benefits were good, she could wear scrubs or casual clothes to work, and she and Gram wanted for no basics, especially in the last year or so since Anthony had started working full-time.
“Yeah, I gotta shove off, too. I’ve never been late to work there even once, and I’m not gonna do it now on my last day,” said Anthony, hurrying back to the bathroom to brush his teeth and then to stop for a moment at his bedroom door, gazing at all he could really call his own besides his pickup truck that he’d bought new just last month. His clothes, his bed, his beat-up desk and nightstand, and the laptop computer his mother gave him for his high-school graduation two years ago. He usually did not dwell on whether he was keeping pace or falling behind in his adult life. He knew some, mostly peers of his back in high school, who clearly were killing it, going to college or working in great jobs down in Philadelphia or over in New Jersey. Most of the others he knew were about like him, though, mostly still living at home with parents or maybe sharing an apartment or century-old house with a roommate or two or three, mostly working hourly-paid jobs, mostly treading water but talking so, so big about the future.
At this particular moment, Anthony could not see any kind of future. His supervisor and facility manager had met with him and the other seven forklift operators (five on first shift, Anthony and another on second shift) only three days ago, telling them the bad news that today, Friday, would be their last day when they could all come in at 8:00 a.m. for what the supervisor called “out-processing.” Anthony had not absorbed much of the discussion, which really wasn’t a discussion so much as a one-way, top-down pronouncement. He remembered “cost savings,” “improved safety,” “competitive pressures demanding incremental efficiencies” (that little gem from the facility manager), and other such twaddle, and it was a full five minutes into the meeting before Anthony realized they were telling him bad news affecting him personally.
The next day, contractors were already in the warehouse before day shift even started, installing all kinds of cameras and sensors throughout the warehouse and unloading four beautiful, new forklifts that looked unremarkable until you got close enough to see their cameras, sensors, control panel for the onboard computer, and speaker. When Anthony arrived for second shift yesterday, everything was already installed and the robo-lifts were moving about the warehouse, taking loads to the truck bays, setting loads on staging racks, and occasionally talking! “Please stand clear. Please stand clear.” Anthony had no idea the voice was that of an operator sitting at a screen, joystick in hand, in Chicago.
“That there’s that artificial intelligence, buddy. That’s robots over people,” said a nearby coworker in a thick, New Jersey accent to anyone who would listen. “Won’t be long they won’t need us pickers and sorters at all. Whadya goin’ do? I mean, honestly, whadya goin’ do?”
The irony of this particular coworker talking about intelligence, artificial or otherwise, eluded Anthony, but he could relate to the fellow’s rhetorical question: what, indeed, was he going to do with no job and a monthly truck payment, insurance, and gasoline to cover? Anthony felt his mood sinking faster than his prospects.
Anthony headed toward I-81 to go up to Scranton where his last day on the job awaited him. He steered his pickup truck past the old houses flanking the main road out of Claymore, his hometown whose characteristic torpidity was exceeded only by its chronic poverty in marking a cycle of decline upon decline plaguing so many towns in the region. Claymore, population 3,100 or so, was like most towns in Luzerne County, its prospects shrinking year by year, its handful of promising, young residents fleeing as fast as they could for college and jobs somewhere else—anywhere else—and never coming back.
The first big decline started early last century when the anthracite coal mining began slowly winding down. Anthony’s Gram was born in 1959 in Pittston, just in time for her father to lose his mining job. Being a blue-collar family’s kid in coal country in the 1960s acquainted her well with the first decline of the region, and she’d never known any other kind of life than that of all things shrinking: shrinking town population, shrinking economy, shrinking horizons, shrinking hopes and dreams. Gram went the way of so many girls back then, marrying young at nineteen. The babies started coming in 1980 in typical Catholic fashion of procreation-first-and-poverty-be-damned. Anthony’s father, Charles Vittorio Gammaitoni, was the first of Gram’s five children.
Anthony barely remembered his father, very dim memories of a thin, tall man with dark hair, smiling and laughing. Anthony’s mother formed the fuller image of his father in Anthony’s mind through stories of a man whom she had actually known but five short years herself. She told Anthony how they’d met in high school in her senior year there in Claymore, how they’d married in 1999 and moved into the present house that year, and how his father was so hard-working, especially after she got pregnant with Anthony just eight months into the marriage. Anthony was born in 2000, and his father joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard the next year to supplement household income, learn new skills, and maybe garner some education benefits he could use someday at some college. Charles Gammaitoni’s unit was activated in January 2003 in anticipation of what would be called the Second Gulf War later that year, a war that achieved its main objective in three weeks but claimed Private Gammaitoni’s life on day two of the conflict. Gram moved in with Anthony and his grieving mother that year.
Anthony mused for just a fleeting moment as he drove to work, wondering what his father would think of him now. He switched to thoughts of his mother, feeling only slightly more comfort in her utterly faithful support and all the encouragement she had given him as far back as he could remember. Girlfriends and buddies and jobs and hobbies and opportunities could come and go—indeed, had come and gone—and still his mother would root for him. It helped him feel only a tiny bit better as he pulled into the parking lot.
Anthony and the other forklift operators were pretty much fully out-processed by 10:00 a.m. A company human resources professional, apparently only a couple of years older than Anthony, who introduced herself as Michelle Davis-Baniff had come down from headquarters in Binghamton to set up shop in the supervisor’s office and review meaningless matters with each of them individually. Anthony found the exit interview perhaps the most interesting.
“Would it be okay with you if we had a chat, your exit interview?”
“Okay! Good!” Michelle Davis-Baniff beamed as if she had just received a promotion or maybe found a $20 bill in the parking lot. “Now Mr. Giamatta—"
“My name. It’s Gammaitoni.”
Michelle Davis-Baniff glanced down at her clipboard, furrowing her brow for a split second. “Oh! Yes, Gam…Gamma…may I call you Anthony?”
“Anthony, what would you say was the best thing about working here?”
“The work, I suppose. I like my job.”
Michelle Davis-Baniff, trained not to fill silences with chatter but to permit associates to cognitively process their needs and emotions at their own pace during any potentially difficult organizational event, dutifully waited a polite twenty seconds before asking, “What specifically did you like about your job?”
Wincing inwardly at the past-tense “did,” Anthony said, “Using the forklift to move stuff, stage stuff, store stuff, and load trucks. It helps…helped…other workers with their jobs.”
“Was helping others important to you?”
“Well, yeah, of course.”
“We very much appreciate that kind of sentiment, that teamwork kind of attitude. It’s what this company is about, as you have probably heard. Our team of our associates, working together, is what makes the company successful.”
Anthony stared at Michelle Davis-Baniff, her smile frozen as she twisted a diamond engagement ring round and round with her thumb, for a good ten seconds and said, “Uh-huh.”
“What did you think of your compensation—your pay and benefits—here?”
“They were fine. No complaints.”
Another twenty-second pause.
“Anthony, how would you rate your supervisor on a scale of one to ten, with one being just horrible and ten being super-fantastic?”
“Could I have some water?”
“Water. Could I have some water, please?”
“Oh, of co-o-ourse,” Michelle Davis-Baniff sang with affected hospitality, leaving the office and returning from the refrigerator in the break room with a bottle of water.
“Thank you,” said Anthony. He then twisted off the cap and, in a steady, even rhythm without spilling a drop or gulping loudly, drank down the entire twelve ounces of cold water.
“Thanks again,” he said, putting the cap back on and setting aside the bottle.
“My, you were thirsty,” sputtered Michelle Davis-Baniff, who then asked, “Where were we? Oh, yes, rating your supervisor. What say you, on a scale of one to ten, about Dan York?”
“Dan is a great boss. I don’t have much experience, but he’s the best boss I ever had. He trained me and certified me on the forklift and gave me a chance when a lot of other bosses might not have, y’know? Now COVID was in high gear then and I think more people were quitting than applying for jobs, so I know he was prob’ly desperate to get a second-shift forklift driver, but he took a chance on me. I’m grateful for that.”
“Did you ever disagree with him? If so, how did that go?”
“Maybe I did a time or two, I don’t know. Dan York is a fair boss, so even if I did disagree with something, I imagine he was prob’ly right. He never cursed me or shouted at me, he always showed me what he meant if I didn’t understand the first time. Great boss.”
Having not evoked any dirt on site supervision and wanting to get this final exit interview over with so she could head back to Binghamton, Michelle Davis-Baniff began her final question. “If you have—”
“I’m sorry,” Anthony interrupted, “would you mind if I had some more water?”
Michelle Davis-Baniff blinked and calmly said, “Yes, of course.”
The process was the same: down went the entire bottle of water, just about as quickly as the first time, while Michelle Davis-Baniff quietly, primly seethed at Anthony’s disrespect, his sketchy attitude, his rudeness in interrupting her work. She found herself taking some pleasure in knowing Anthony was getting the boot.
“Ready now?” Michelle Davis-Baniff asked.
“Yes, ready. Fire away,” said Anthony with a broad smile.
“If you have already lined up your next job, what would you say makes the new job you’re going to better than your job here by comparison?”
Michelle Davis-Baniff had very little experience with exit interviewing, and she truly did not realize that this final question on her company-drafted checklist was a conditional one reserved for cases in which the employee was voluntarily quitting her company to go to another, presumably better job. The question was for gauging competitive conditions in the labor market, but to Anthony, it was simply a low blow.
He leaned forward a bit and said in a calm voice, “Um, look, ma’am, I don’t guess you have the first freakin’ clue about what’s going on out there in the job market for people like me. I have a bit of experience now, yes, and I am definitely going to be hunting me a new job, but no, I have not already lined up my next job. I do imagine, though, that any company…any company at all…will prob’ly be a better place to work than here as long as people like you are not running the show, and that goes for whether I’m digging ditches or hauling trash or cleaning sewers or whatever. I think we’re done here,” said Anthony, rising and walking out of the office without a look back.
Anthony headed for the exit nearest the timeclock, but noticed a crowd of employees standing in a circle, quietly listening as the facility manager and some man in a suit stood by one of the new robo-lifts. The facility manager was smiling and speaking with sweeping arm gestures and patting the robo-lift. Dan York was standing in the circle of employees, and Anthony edged in beside him. They looked at each other without a word, and Dan York shook Anthony’s hand with a nod, his eyes communicating well wishes and genuine sadness at parting this way. Then Anthony turned his attention to the facility manager who was in grandiose, high gear.
“…so that we can leverage cutting-edge technology for nonstop operations that are safer, faster, and more accurate than we’ve ever achieved before. With the help of our partners,” he said, pausing to squeeze the upper arm of the beaming, nodding guy in the suit, “we are making technology work for us as it is meant to do. Global business and the world’s economy reward moves like this, you see, so we are heralding a new—”
“Excuse me,” Anthony said loudly, stepping forward to within two feet of the facility manager. “Here’s something you can leverage.”
As his now former coworkers gasped, Anthony graced the stunned facility manager, the visitor in the suit, and the robo-lift with an impressive, high-velocity stream of urine, passing twice across both men’s pant legs and shoes and even reaching the speaker on the robo-lift. Anthony really had no particular thought in his head at the moment other than to focus on his aim, and he didn’t hear those gasps or the facility manager’s yell of outrage. All he heard as he let his blue jeans fall and he made his final contribution to the company was Dan York’s strained half-yell:
“Anthony, please, for Pete’s sake, son…please, don’t do it.”