Building Better Boxes

August 9th, 2019

One Box

(published in the Daily Memphian)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been sharing previous thoughts about looking back for lessons instead of just going backwards – and just as I’m ready to move forward again, something else happens to push me back.

We are just a President’s racist, cruel tweet away from Baltimore, a look in the mirror at a minority majority city reclaiming its historic buildings and spaces and reimagining their future, its downtown swimming in development and promise while the city struggles with how to share that promise with so many drowning in poverty.

Cities like that, like us, cannot accept racist dismissal, and our problems will not be regressively solved by control and repression; they will be creatively solved by opportunity and inclusion.

Again, I’m looking back for lessons.

Your first job in a box plant, you learn things.

You learn how to suck smoke a cigarette in a minute or less since stopping to do it is holding up production. You learn that bathrooms are for designated break times since stopping to do it is holding up production. You learn that the only designated break time is 20 minutes for lunch since any more than that is holding up production. You learn that some people get bonuses based on production and other people don’t. 

You learn about boxes. And bigger things.

“Listen here, college boy. Bend your knees when you pick that up, or you won’t make a week.””

That sound advice came from Charles, across a huge stack of corrugated boards that would soon hold refrigerators, on my first day at Mead Container. It was on Manassas, north of Chelsea, far away from my east Memphis house in miles and mindsets. For me, it was the first day on a job that would last the summer after my freshman year. For Charles, it was another day on a job he just hoped would last. That day, that summer, I learned a lot.

I learned that a box that will hold a refrigerator is roughly the size of a dorm room when flat, that the edges of a corrugated box will turn hands into hamburger, that my new name was college boy, and that the difference between black and white – between my expectations and those of my fellow laborers – was black and white.

It wasn’t that all the laborers on the plant floor, with my lily-white exception, were black, and that the holders of every position above that, with no exceptions, were white. That wasn’t subtle. Charles and I loaded flat boxes on conveyors leading to tall finishing machines operated by white folks who were literally above us and literally talked down to us. If we got behind – if we failed to load the boxes their bonuses were based on fast enough – we were sent to the corrugator for punishment, aka the “alligator” – to shred our hands even faster on the raw edges of the box board being processed.

It was the equality of the inequality, the steady repression of ambition. Those machine operators, the next step up, made sure we stayed down there where we belonged. We were no threat, because they knew I was going back to college and that Charles was going nowhere.

I had no idea what I’d end up doing, but I knew it wasn’t that, and I had been taught that my only limitation would be me. Charles only had one ambition – to drive the forklift. That was the highest hourly wage job on the floor, and he knew his limits.

With that limited knowledge, the people who operate machines win. 

“Think outside the box.” I truly hate that cliché. The box defines and confines the problem. Creativity “outside the box” without purpose, direction or measure is intellectual masturbation. Real creativity challenges conceits, alters perception, expands the possible, changes reality. Real creativity solves real problems.

Real creativity redefines the box and its confines and builds better ones.

Some of us are in boxes that have no more room for change, no place for the different, no greater ambition than to keep what we have – even worse – the ambition to go back and get something we think we had. Boxes like this are destined for attics. 

So many of us are trapped in the box of not just the unemployed, but also the underemployed – the soul-draining existence people endure knowing they’re better than that. Boxes like this explode. 

We need better boxes big enough to hold and nurture greater dreams than Charles had, the biggest of dreams, big enough that all of us will need to bend our knees together to pick them up.

Small ideas, small minds come in small, closed boxes.

I’m a Memphian, and I know from boxes.

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