Trained on Milk

With age, this feeling of disappointment grows by the second. I found myself owing a debt of 40 hours of community service to society. Namely due to repeated violations of local speed limits, causing a loss of license, then a couple more while driving without a valid license. I later learned a little about our local prison system by way of similar methods. Back to point, I was assigned a position in the “Food Preparation and Service” department of a local hospital. I reported to the hospital on time, only to wait about 20 minutes for the rest of my fellow colleagues to arrive.

Once our team had been assembled, we were led on a brief tour of the area we would share for the duration of our various service terms. We loaded onto a small hidden elevator in the rear of the main level cafeteria, and descended into the belly of the beast. I found this whole experience very entertaining and frightening at the same time. The view from the elevator at the basement floor was of a small room containing two large ducts ascending up through the multiple floors of the hospital. More on this later. To the left of this room was a very large room labeled “Laundry Services.” It was filled with massive laundry equipment, folding surfaces, and questionably legal migrant workers. We passed these rooms and walked down a long wide hall that didn’t bear the adornments of the public floors in the hospital. It was a cold, overly lit concrete tunnel leading further under the building. On the way down the hall I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sign reading “Neurological Research and Development Lab.” I’ll let you think about that one a bit. Past the R&D lab sign, we continued until we reached a large room containing a very foreboding dish washing apparatus. This isn’t a simple dishwasher that you’d find in your kitchen. It is massive, and has a “production line” appearance. This is where used dishes and silverware are brought, sorted, loaded into specialized containers and trays, and fed into the mouth of the “Washer.” Beyond this room is another large room that is centered around a long assembly line. Still beyond this room is the kitchen where food is planned and prepared.

It took only a matter of seconds to size up the process here. You have a dietitian who reviews each patient’s specific dietary needs, and designs a simple meal plan to cover those requirements. Next the cooks that prepare these food items. After each item is prepared, it is delivered a short distance to a specified row along the assembly line. Each patient’s meal is then tailor made using the available food components from the varied departmentalized rows. This is where it gets relatively interesting, emphasis on “relatively.” Each row contains a certain food group. For example one assembly line worker would add 1 of up to 4 choices of vegetable, another might add a certain type of drink, while yet another might add a meat item, etc. Simple and efficient, right? Not so fast. There is a director at the beginning and end of the assembly line. The director at the beginning of the line starts by reading over the dietary recommendations for each patient, and then placing corresponding color-coded cards in their assigned locations on the plate or tray. An example might be, a yellow card with the word “Corn” printed on it placed in a bowl on the tray, as opposed to a green card with the words “Green Beans.” Or there could be a red card with the words “Whole Milk,” as opposed to a brown card with the words “Chocolate Milk,” where the color of the card is a match to the primary color on the milk carton. Each worker along the line is in charge of looking for a card in their designated area of the tray, and placing the corresponding item in place of the card. At the end of the line is another director to ensure this process is completed without error. You get the idea. You could be illiterate or color blind and do this job, just not both. If you don’t get the idea, quit reading now. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration, humiliation, and more practically, time if you do.

As a matter of either dumb luck or divine providence, our tour stops here temporarily while an employee dispute is being addressed. Evidently one employee called in sick, causing another weekday employee to volunteer to work a weekend shift. So where’s the dispute, right? Bear with me. The volunteer normally worked the “vegetable” row along the assembly line, while the employee who called in sick normally worked the “milk” row. Hang with me a little longer. The dispute ensues when the weekend “vegetable” row worker comes into work, only to find the volunteer weekday “vegetable” row worker, and I quote, “In my spot!” The manager explains to her that due to the aforementioned employee, a weekend “milk” row worker, calling in sick, she should just allow the volunteer to have her normal “spot” and instead take over the job duties of the “milk” row. If you’re thinking this is merely a territorial dispute among female assembly line workers, you’d be wrong. Prepare yourself for the real reason, aka punch line, of this never ending tale. The worker’s comment to this suggestion was, “But I’m not trained on milk!” I wish this was a fictional story created to show that you can never fully foolproof anything, but it’s not. Also notice that the 4 negative feelings I listed earlier are all contained within this story thus far. Disappointment, confusion, anger, and fear.

But wait, the story doesn’t end there. I still haven’t described my temporary position in this slow and methodical process yet. So now we have a cart, loaded in room by room order, with the trays that are hopefully correctly assembled. On each cart a label is posted, one number and one letter. This label designates a floor number and wing letter for each cart of food. An example would be, a cart with the label “2C” would denote that the cart is for patients who reside on the second floor, wing C. You might think, “Oh, you delivered the carts to the corresponding floor and wing.” To which I’d respond, “Whoa fella, not so fast.” It was my job to merely take the cart from the end of the assembly line, down the long hall, back to the elevator. That’s it. There I would hand the cart off to a worker who rode the elevator to the designated floor posted on the cart. Once he reached the correct floor, he handed it off to another worker who delivered the cart to the designated wing. Now at the correct wing, the cart would be handed out to a nurse who would then distribute the trays to the patients. Once the meal was eaten the same nurse would then make the same trip around the wing to collect the emptied trays. The trays were then loaded on the cart, the cart taken back to the worker who had delivered it to the wing to begin with, continuing in reverse order, back down the elevator, and handed off to me. Now here is where my job got tricky. Instead of returning the cart back to the end of the assembly line, I was to deliver it to the beginning of the “Dishwasher” line, so that each item could be carefully sorted and washed, etc. If you’re like me, you might be wondering what happens during that space of time while the patients are eating their meals. The answer is, nothing. That’s right, nothing.

During each meal, and the subsequent time between the clean up of one meal and preparation of the next, I have been assigned, nothing. In an attempt to escape this “nothing,” I wander down the hall in search of “something” to fill my “nothing.” I found a middle aged man sitting in a metal folding chair, watching satellite television and eating the proverbial donut. I struck up a conversation with the man by asking him to describe his job. After several minutes of a verbatim recitation of various rules and regulations of what he was NOT supposed to do, I ascertained that his job consisted primarily of moving two-wheeled plastic waste bins around. Here it is, play by play. First you’ll need to remember the small room with the two large ducts from before. Those ducts are chutes that allow items to be dropped down the center of the building from any floor above, down into one of those two-wheeled plastic waste bins. One chute was for “Cardboard Only” and the other for “Trash” as designated on the signs affixed to each chute.

By now, you have surely noticed that everything in this building is labeled, everything. This workers job, as I understand it, is to allow these bins to be filled with their appropriate form of waste, then deliver each cart to its own designated location for disposal. Opposite the two large chutes are two mechanical lifts, of course, these are also labeled. So if I were Joe Worker and the “Trash” bin were to be filled, namely at the hands of other workers on various floors who drop waste down the corresponding chute, I would then wheel said cart approximately 3 feet to the aptly labeled lift. Once the cart was securely rolled onto the lift, I would “Press and Hold,” also labeled, the “Out” button. This would start an automated process in which a steel door would open, the cart would be pulled out through the door, and subsequently lifted and emptied into a larger waste receptacle. The waste would then be compressed into a larger removable waste receptacle that could be loaded onto the back of a semi-trailer. The cart meanwhile would be returned into the room, empty, and the door closed behind it. The “Cardboard Only” lift operated by the same principle. Again that pesky question pops into my head, “What does he do while the waste bins are slowly being filled throughout the day?” Nothing. Well, not entirely nothing. He does have to sit and watch satellite television and eat snacks. I’m not sure this task is in the employee handbook, but it seems that he also makes time to yell upward into the chutes whenever someone mistakenly drops “Trash” down the “Cardboard Only” chute or vis versa. The shouting seems to follow a standard “Us vs. Them” protocol. “They do that on purpose! They know I hate it when they do that! I’m going to quit if they keep this up!”

I know I’m probably disappointed, confused, angry, and afraid for all the wrong reasons again, but help me out here. I’m having a hard time figuring out what part of each of these scenarios makes me more disappointed, as opposed to confused, angry, or afraid. Should I be disappointed that we as a society have become so spoiled, lazy, unimaginative, or uneducated that someone can’t pick up the extremely minute differences between working the “Vegetable” row as opposed to the “Milk” row, or that someone is being paid more than twice the minimum wage to sit on his ever enlarging butt while watching satellite television and eating donuts only to complain about the occasional need to move a piece of “Trash” 3 inches from the “Cardboard Only” bin into the “Trash” bin. Surely my expectations are just set beyond what humans can ever possibly attain. But if that’s the case, what am I to do with people like my father, my uncles, their father, and his father, etc? I guess nothing. Nothing.

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