What Labor Teaches (Or: How the Taffy Gets Made)

In the sweltering summer of my sixteenth year, I scored my first-ever full-time job.

It was a taffy-making gig, paying $5.25 an hour and entailing 40-or-so hours per week of light manual labor at a modest factory in Portland’s Inner Industrial Eastside.

The person who hired me was a petite and perky woman in her early 30s who reeked perpetually of flower-scented mothballs and preferred to wear her hair in a tight, high ponytail. She looked just a bit like Phoebe from “Friends,” and she lived in my dad’s condo complex with her six-year-old daughter. (I’m fairly certain he was attempting to date her, which never really worked out, though she did consent to a couple of rides on our jet-boat the week before she hired me, by phone, through my father.)

This Woman came from fallen old money. I never knew the whole story except that their longstanding familial candy-making gambit was on the rebound from rather dire straits. When her father, the patriarch, had died, he left the business in shambles. Assets were frozen, limos sold off, but This Woman’s enterprising mother had steeled herself gone about refashioning the floundering enterprise into a thriving business, which This Woman subsequently purchased. (And if you’re wondering why I’m only referring to the owner of the taffy company as This Woman, it’s because she was low-key scary and I don’t want her finding this.)

By the time I arrived on scene at the surly and skeptical age of 16, second-generation operations were humming right along, and I’d been brought on to help fulfill orders during the busy warm-weather season, when product was shipped out by the truckload to the Oregon coast. (Where, incidentally, most of our state’s taffy is sold but scant little is actually made.)

I discovered three key things about taffy-making that summer: it is surprisingly laborious, it is astonishingly uninteresting, and it demands an incredibly nimble hand. Every 30 minutes or so, for eight hours a day, five days a week, seventy-some-odd-pound wads of warm, freshly spun taffy in a symphony of flavors from peppermint to peanut butter to popcorn would be thwunked onto the belt of my whirring, Soviet-era taffy-pulling-and-wrapping machine.

My task: to coax a long, thin, continuous rope of that undifferentiated hunk through a rotating feeder that parsed it into bite-sized chunks before twisting little wax wrappers around the candy and spitting it into a waiting bin. Voila! Taffy, made and ready for the pre-diabetic masses.

Here’s the thing about taffy, though: some flavors—usually those with a gooey filling—were rather tricky work (peanut butter and anything with any kind of jam was a dread standout) and, if you weren’t paying close enough attention, the filling would ooze out and cause the machine to jam up with a violent CLANK!

The protocol for remediation was swift and panic-filled: you yanked a lever down to turn the machine off, but before you could get to work putting the fistulated taffy hunk to rights, you scrambled for a screwdriver and began popping out all the unwrapped hunks of taffy still sitting inside the feeder. If you moved fast, this was accomplished easily enough, and the only evidence of your misadventure would be a gummy pile of unusable taffy congealing into a sugary lump on the concrete floor. If you were too slow or too clumsy, however, the pieces hardened quickly into sugary little rocks imbued with the sticking power of Gorilla Glue. In this case, you might have to spend twenty minutes chiseling and hacking away at the innards of the machine before all those dried-up bits of taffy came loose and you could get back to your task, by which time the huge lump of taffy was granulated and far less pliable.

It was a hot, long, boring summer. Halfway through, somebody finally gave me a fan and a stool to sit on while I worked, which sort of helped, but mostly I entertained myself by mulling over two extended daydreams: in the first, I pretended it was a Soviet-Era Eastern Bloc factory worker forced to labor endless days and nights in some grim, sooty Soviet town where even the blizzards were gray. Perhaps the foreman was secretly in love with me, or perhaps I was secretly fomenting a workers’ revolt, or maybe we were planning it together; it depended on the day, really. This fantasy was unexpectedly versatile. It helped the hours to pass, and I always enjoyed the pleasurable sense of semantic disruption I experienced at day’s end upon emerging from the Marxian darkness of the factory and into the sunlit cheer of my summertime Portland adolescence.

The second reverie was vaguer: at the start of summer, I resolved that, by season’s end, I would know, decisively, what I wanted to do with my life. Who I was and whatnot. That kind of stuff. I also spent countless hours lot in this reverie, mulling over possibilities, thinking about writing or acting and how I might be able to spin such larks into a full-blown profession. I don’t think I ever came to any sort of substantive conclusion, at least none I can remember or thought to apply in any useful way, but when September arrived, I did resolve to use my substantial taffy factory earnings to buy an electric guitar with amp and a new wardrobe of Roxy clothes.

Photo Courtesy of Morguefile.com

My job at the taffy factory ended unglamorously and somewhat traumatically when, in mid-August, I accidentally fed my pointer finger into the business end of the taffy-wrapping machine. Half my nail was instantly ripped off my hand and sucked into the machine, carried off into oblivion atop a still-warm hunk of peppermint taffy. In laborer autopilot, I yanked the “Off” lever down and half-heartedly attempted to remove the bits of taffy wedged into the machine before devolving into hysterics, little drops of blood cascading from my mangled finger.

The Woman ran over to my station, assessed the situation, and pulled me into the break room, where she ministered to my trembling finger with a bandage and an ice pack, then looked at me kindly and said, “Don’t you think you could go back to work, now, though?”

Wiping away the snot and tears, I nodded beneficently, ever the gulag laborer, chained humbly to my machine, and powered through all adversity by a mighty Red ethic.

Hang my throbbing hand! There was taffy yet to pull!

At the machine, now hopelessly gummed up, I paused.

“My nail is still … in there,” I sniveled to The Woman, gesturing limply to an overflowing bin of peppermint taffy pieces.

She glanced distractedly at the box full of pink-and-white candy. “Guess someone is getting a little extra protein,” she announced pertly, then spun on her heel to attend to a batch of cherry-colored corn syrup confection bubbling expectantly in a nearby cauldron.

My finger throbbed and protested, but I hacked mercilessly away at those stuck hunks of fragrant taffy, cranked my machine back to life, and got to it. I tell you, I finished that goddamn shift!

Then, because I was 16, I went home. My mother, upon sighting my bandaged hand, became extremely pissed off. She gently explained to me what “Worker’s Comp” meant, and, a day later, called The Woman directly to quit on my behalf.

“You’ve worked enough,” mom announced, smoothing my hair back.

Visions of sky-blue zip hoodies and flared raver girl khakis danced in my head. Hang the ethics; she was right! I’d worked enough for one summer; maybe enough, even, for one lifetime.

My Capitalist heart longed only to shop. So I went to the mall.

I’ve done many boring and degrading jobs since, but I have never returned to manual labor. Nor have I ever forgotten my summer at the taffy factory. It taught me something crucial, I think, about work ethic, and those lessons inform my approach to my chosen kind of labor (creative work) even to present day.

For example: I’ve come to discover that idea-generation works in much the same way as that greasy, squeaking taffy-wrapping contraption: your inspirations begin as big blobs of undifferentiated goo, but with a little hustle and a lot of muscle, you can work them into useful, usable forms at incredible speeds. With time. With practice. With focus. And the faster you churn them out, the faster more come flying at you. Empty the hopper and it magically refills, over and over.

Two: just like taffy, ideas left to sit idle can really gum up the works. You’ve got to move at a steady clip when it comes to the collecting and the shaping and the forming, even when things get sticky. Step away too long, and all your great ideas are likely to clump together into an unpalatable debris. Useless and worthless. Then you’re merely passing time in a gulag of your own making, dreaming eternally of electric guitars and bell-bottomed pants and the life you might be living somewhere, anywhere else.

Post-script #1: I googled That Woman yesterday. Turns out, the year after my summer in her tutelage, she hooked up with the owner of a successful chocolate-making company in our state, and now they preside happily over their very own candy empire.

I’m happy for them. I really am. And if you ever purchased a bag of peppermint taffy circa 1996 and discovered something unfortunate and alarmingly crunchy lurking inside that wax wrapper, now you know, and I’m really, truly sorry.

Post-script #2: LITERALLY AS I WAS FINISHING THIS while sitting on my living room couch, a guy popped at my front door and peeked in the window at me and called out, “I’m running for office, minute of your time!” And I opened the door and it was some guy called Joshua peddling some sort of sketchy send-magazines-to-orphans-in-Chicago racket whose goals were dubitably unclear, but he was so sweet and young and it was getting dark out and I had to hand it to him for smiling through what must be such a sketchy undertaking, whether or not it was legit, and he’d shown me a scar on his arm besides from when he got shot that looked pretty wild, so I kicked him $20 bucks and told him about the taffy factory and he laughed and cringed and agreed that it sounded awful. Then, I clapped his shoulder and sent him on his merry way, because, moral of this story: HUSTLING IS HARD, FRIENDS!

The end.

Pink_saltwater_taffy,_2011_(6022400859)

Photo Courtesy of Wikimediacommons/stevendepolo

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