The Demographics of a South Carolina Sheet Metal Shop
Many or even most of you already know that I dropped out of the Theravada Buddhist monkhood back in May, and in August I started working at a sheet metal shop in a midsized town in South Carolina. So after many years of being a great elder in the Buddhist Sangha and in Burma even being worshiped like a small-g god or living pagan idol (“like Colonel Kurtz without heads on poles”), now I am a common blue-collar worker, and I have to admit that thus far I like it. This post is to describe my new environment to some degree, with some social and political considerations.
So, the demographics of my shop. There are at present seventeen people working there, thirteen men and four women. All four women work up front in the air-conditioned sales area, and do little heavy lifting and no dangerous work. Two men likewise work up front most of the time, including the boss, and the rest of us guys work in back, in the manufacturing and storage area, or else are drivers delivering goods to various places.
Racially, the makeup of our workforce is as follows: Of the four women, two are of European ancestry (“white”) and the other two, including the assistant manager, are Hispanic. Of the thirteen men, nine are “white” and four are Hispanic. Three of the Hispanic men are skilled at operating various large machines at the shop, and are key workers. The other Hispanic guy is a new hire to replace a black man, the only one, who mysteriously quit, and just didn’t show up for work anymore. He was an interesting guy so I suppose I should say a few more words about him.
First of all, he was an older guy, maybe as old as I am, who worked one of the large machines, the slitter. He did his job well but was disinclined to do much else, like volunteering for such jobs as cleaning up or helping some other guy with something difficult. Apparently the reason he stopped showing up for work, with no phone call, and not even answering the calls from the manager (at first mainly just to see if he was OK), is that he simply didn’t like working there much and found a job that he liked better. He was not a stereotypical American black man since he had a family—a wife and several children (presumably all by the same mother, his wife)—and held a steady job right up until he quit. I was sorry that he quit because he was a friendly guy, and he did have some slight impact on my life, for example by recommending to me Ninja Scroll as the greatest anime movie of all time (he was really into anime, and got me more interested in it—lately I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop). Also he told the funniest joke I’ve heard at work thus far, which had me laughing so hard I had to walk it off; it’s a totally off-color joke though, so the prudes among you should just skip to the next paragraph now. A load of lumber had broken open in the loading zone and we were all picking it up and stacking it again. After it was stacked it had to be banded, and the bands had to be run under the stack of boards, but the middle of the stack was over a big puddle, as it had been raining. JT (for that is his name) didn’t like having to bend down and run a plastic band under the lumber through the puddle, so another fellow said, “It doesn’t matter how yucky it is down there, it has to be done,” whereupon JT said, “That’s what she said.” I told you it was off-color. The guy who replaced him is a Hispanic fellow, so now there are no black people (or Asians) working there.
I have seen no racial prejudice or discrimination since I started working there. The black man as well as the Hispanics have simply conducted themselves as equals and have been treated as such by everyone, as it should be. (Really, the way to be equal is to conduct oneself as an equal, not moan and complain until equality is somehow bestowed by some outside force.) Sometimes there is some kidding or joking but no ill-will when, for example, one of the guys with dark hair is treated as though here were Jewish, or I keep treating one of the white guys as though he is Japanese.
A little more sociological data: I am one of the few white guys working there who does NOT have a beard, and who does not speak with a southern accent. JT the black guy spoke with a “black accent” that could have come from Oakland or Detroit or Kansas City as easily as from South Carolina. The Hispanics speak with a Hispanic accent rather than a southern one, or maybe it could simply be called a kind of inflection or lilt to their English. In order for me to blend in more easily I might have to grow a beard, get tattoos all over both arms, and cultivate a South Carolina drawl.
The accent thing with the white folks is kind of interesting to me, because throughout much of town it seems that about half the population speaks without a southern accent, in more or less standardized American newscaster English. This is most obvious at high-end places where plenty of people have university degrees and presumably are more mobile and likely to move across state lines for whatever reasons. But at the sheet metal shop not only most white people who work there but also most white people who are customers have a rather thick South Carolina accent. I’m certainly not hobnobbing with the social elite, and am among the common people, which I like.
I would not be surprised if more than half the people who work at my shop go to church on Sundays. The boss does, and the two employees who recently contracted the Chinese Communist Virus allegedly caught it at church. The people are for the most part down to earth and very polite—much more than one would expect in comparable urban areas farther north or much farther west. Casual, seemingly sincere exchange of pleasantries, as well as calling people “sir” or “ma’am,” is frequent. Politics is rarely discussed at work (which is probably wise), but I would guess that most of the workers as well as the construction-worker customers are very conservative, and vote that way. Most of the stuff we work with is made in the USA, and we have two American flags on the premises, one made of sheet metal.
As for the demographics of the customers, it is pretty similar to the demographics of the workforce there. Few women of course, although sometimes the wife of the owner of a roofing company will come and pick up a few small things for her husband. Possibly as much as half of the customers, or pretty close to half anyway, are Hispanic. Unfortunately some of them speak almost no English, and a primary source of trouble is Spanish-speaking customers unable to communicate clearly to non-Hispanic salespeople what it is that they want. It is my understanding that the construction business in America, not only in South Carolina but elsewhere, including California, includes plenty of Hispanics. Many of the construction and roofing businesses are owned by them also. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems to me that Hispanics tend to be quite willing to work for a living, and for the most part are very easygoing and easy to get along with. As I already implied, most of the white guys who do business at the shop have short hair on their head, longer beards, a thick accent, and often heavily tattooed muscular arms and an impressive gut. Sometimes I am self-conscious of my northern accent. A few times I’ve explained that my father was from Georgia and my mother from Alabama, but I somehow got born in Alaska. Alaska is a less objectionable place to come from than, say, the Soviet Socialist Republic of California.
One thing that is slightly disappointing to me is that the main topics of conversation among the workers of every ethnicity, aside from work talk, tend to be basketball, movies, music, and video games. It reminds me of the ease with which attitudes are guided by the media, especially by the entertainment industry. But of course, the common working-class person is a normie, so it should not be too surprising. Some of them even believe the stuff about the importance of being vaccinated. On the other hand, the only person who wears a mask at work is a young white guy who just came back to work after being off for ten days after catching the coof at church. And quite a few men there are openly skeptical of vaccines and masks. A month or so ago I heard a visiting mechanic doing maintenance on one of the machines say, if you had a 0.3% chance of shitting your pants, would you go around wearing a diaper?
When I was in Burma I lived mainly among simple-hearted down-to-earth villagers and farmers, which I usually much appreciated. It may be that my karma landed me here in part to live among a reasonable facsimile of such common folks in America. University-educated liberals may be more interesting and openminded in certain ways, but conservative, traditionalist people raising families, going to church, and making an honest living tend to make good companions, and good company. Also if the shit hits the fan I won’t be caught behind enemy lines like I would have been in California.
With regard to my own participation in the workforce, I was sorry to be promoted from the entry-level job of trim wrapper, which is now being done by the new guy who replaced JT. Wrapping trim was a low-stress and even somewhat meditative way of working, just fetching and toting pieces of metal and wrapping them in shrink wrap so they don’t get scratched, and then organizing them on various racks. A new machine that makes roofing panels will soon be installed at the shop, and it may be that I am destined to be the guy who runs it. At present I’m running a different machine that makes “5V” panels. Also I’m getting better at operating forklifts and may soon be certified. Using a forklift to move heavy coils of sheet metal and large bundles of finished product is more nerve-racking because of the ease with which one can really wreck something, but still I like a good challenge.
So, instead of being a hermit in tropical Asian forests studying the evolutionary spectrum of hymenopteran insects (which is a subject that fascinates me by the way), now I am a member of the working class in the deep south, with a beautiful sweetheart who loves me, and I study my fellow humans. And life, thus far, is pretty darn good.
|the big chompy teeth on the 5V machine|