Sunday, December 1, 2013

Warehouse Characters (Part 1): “Howard”

I've been working for the same warehouse for over two years now, and for over a year, I was working on the warehouse floor (now I am a warehouse clerk, someday I should write a post about the bizarre and senseless things I have seen truckers do).

Though I don’t miss the working conditions that I had to deal with, and the pain I had to deal with spending part of that time as a case picker, it could be fun being around various types of people, and the joking around that would often go on to make the time pass by faster.

When I worked the warehouse floor, I was on night shift, and our evening and night shifts had the reputation of being more relaxed, more light hearted, so long as the work was getting done, no one really cared.

At the time, the management we had didn’t venture out of the “front office” as it is still known as, where all of the people above the level of shift supervisor had their offices, during day shift that often, and forget about them even checking up on the night and evening crew. They liked being 9 to 5’ers. Go in, do their jobs, leave to go home to be with family, that’s what they were content with.

When I started, I kept getting stuck in the cask pick division. For those not familiar with warehouses, sometimes an entire pallet of a certain product isn’t necessary for an order, so people known as case pickers (or in some companies “order pickers), go around assembling a pallet made up cases of various products. 5 cases of this product, 10 of this, etc.

The pallets are stored on racks, and you either drive around on a stand up forklift, which is made to go in and out of tight spaces in a warehouse, or a pallet jack (we had motorized ones that were usually referred to as “walkies”, some buildings, you’re stuck with a manual pallet jack, lugging it around), picking the appropriate cases off of open pallets until either the pallet can contain no more cases (then you drop off that pallet, and start the process over again), or your order is done.

It’s repetitive, it’s tedious, and will wear on your arms, wrists, and back.

What was making it more annoying at first was this guy I’ll call “Howard” (I’ll explain that one later), who was a part time employee on evenings and nights that on most days was doing what we called “wrap and run”, putting the case pick pallets when done into a wrapping machine, and then carting them off in a propane forklift to aisles known as stage lanes, where they will wait until they are loaded into a trailer.

I had been asking people at the warehouse what Howard’s problem was, he didn’t seem to like me at all, and was always complaining and nit picking at everything I did, this wasn’t right, that wasn’t right.

It was annoying, both his behavior (I was wondering if he was an arrogant guy that thought he was going to become a shift supervisor someday), and the fact that I was trying to get things done right, I needed this job if I was ever going to have any hope of escaping the living hell I was dealing with at home. I’m always the kind of person who likes to doubt themselves all the time and I was beginning to wonder if I actually was doing anything right. It didn’t help that I’m rather obsessive, and either care too much about detail, or don’t care at all.

Howard was a rather strange guy all around, he was thin, in his 40’s, sometimes he would leave his hair black, at other times, he would dye it extremely bright colors, highly unnatural shades of blonde, cherry red, etc. Sometimes we would spike his hair as if he thought he was an 80’s rocker.

He would often come into work with shirts on for 80’s bands, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and other assorted games.

I had asked around about him to other warehouse employees, wondering what was with his attitude towards me, and most of them said he was a rather strange guy, some people avoided him, others thought he was rather funny, and would talk to him, most said don’t worry about it, that’s just the way he is, he’s probably hassling you just because you’re the new guy.

One day, as I approached the wrap machines to drop off a case pick pallet, he started in with the complaining again, and I had asked him if this was his initiation process for new people. He laughed and said that the other people in the warehouse must have told me about him. He said he was wondering how long it would take me to say something back to him about it.

From then on, we would often talk and joke around about anything, as it turned out, he was a rather brilliant guy, very smart, he was a history teacher before coming to work at this company, and he didn’t directly say it, but hinted that he had to leave the teaching profession because the stress lead to a nervous breakdown.

He had also spent 8 years in the military, stationed for 6 of those years in Germany with a US Army unit that specialized in handling explosives (he would often cuss out people in German when he was mad about something).

He was bipolar and refused to take medication for it, he said medication made him a “zombie”, and he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life living like that. He frequently said and did a lot of bizarre things, sometimes because he thought it was funny to shock people, or just simply because he wanted to. Once in reference to “Flo” the character from the Progressive insurance commercials, he said that he wanted to “violate her up the nose”….. Someday, I should write a book about some of the bizarre things he said and did during that time.

He loved to drive propane forklifts as fast as he could through the warehouse, often trying to replicate the famous “Woooo!!!” shout of 80’s wrestler Ric Flair as he went around corners. He loved to pull various stunts with forklifts, driving fast figure 8’s and spinning tires until they started smoking. It’s amazing that he never crashed the forklift once due to these antics. He also had this routine that he thought was funny of chasing forklifts for several hundred yards like a dog chasing after a car when they would pass by the wrap machines.

He would still hassle me from time to time for laughs, and his favorite target was my weight (I’m 5’9, and about 260 pounds). He kept calling me "Care Bear", and I asked him if that was his strange way of saying I was gay. He said no, it was because I was “big and cuddly”.

He didn’t like what I did in response to that, I had found out over time, from other workers and from some things he had said, that he had a very unhealthy attachment to his mother. He was 46 when he was fired from the company (strangely enough, it had nothing to do with any of his antics, but it result from an argument with the assistant director of the building), but he had only lived 3 years outside of his mother’s home, and according to company legend, he moved only several blocks away, and still took his laundry to her.

I started hassling him back about being the character Howard Wolowitz from the show The Big Bang Theory. Eventually, I got moved out of case pick and became a general forklift operator, and when I would drive past the wrapping machines, I would do my best imitations of Howard’s mother and her loud, nasal voice (she is simply referred to as Mrs. Wolowitz on the show). “Howard!! Your Fruit Loops are getting soggy!!”. “Howard! Who is calling at such an ungodly hour?”

After I passed the wrap machines, I could often hear him shouting in the distance: "FUCK YOU, CARE BEAR!!!".

It became a running game back and forth with weight jokes and Howard jokes and quotes from Mrs. Wolowitz. A few people who were fans of The Big Bang Theory had caught the reference to Howard, and it became his nickname among some of them.

As bizarre as he could be, he could be a funny guy, and we had become good friends. I still miss that guy, he could make shifts go by much faster, and it never made for a boring shift. I couldn’t make up a fictional character like him if I tried, it’s like the old Mark Twain saying, “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense”. 

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