A SHOP RAT LAYS IT ON THE LINE
RIVETHEAD: TALES FROM THE ASSEMBLY LINE
By Ben Hamper
Warner -- 234pp -- $19.95
'Car, windshield, Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming . . . I wanted to shout at my father `Do something else!' Do something else or come home with us or flee to the nearest watering hole. DO SOMETHING ELSE!' Car, windshield. . . . "
So writes former auto worker Ben Hamper in his angry yet comical Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, a powerful book that often reads like the biting poetry of Charles Bukowski, laureate of Los Angeles lowlife. Hamper, who followed Dad's footsteps despite his loathing for the line, was a riveter at General Motors Corp.'s Truck & Bus Div. plant in Flint, Mich., for 11 years. A nervous breakdown in 1988 compelled him to give up his cherished nightmare of someday winning a GM 30-year pin. But along the way, he developed a talent for writing and began publishing his meditations on factory life. In time, his "Rivethead" column, from which parts of the book are drawn, appeared in the Detroit Free Press and Mother Jones magazine.
Rivethead is far more than one man's musings on life in an auto plant. It is about class, the working class, and the lives led by the American men and women who manufacture the things we buy. It is about people who sweat for their pay. These folks, Hamper says, still toil in unsafe factories for companies that don't care--companies that, despite their prattle about employee participation, often treat workers like children.
Hamper traces his rocky journey from underachieving, abused child to assembly-line worker. Not just his father, but a great-grandfather, three grandparents, and two uncles had been auto workers. Everything prepared him for the assembly line--even grade school. "The education-through-intimidation technique favored there was not unlike the jarhead gang mentality of the General Motors floorlords," he writes. "Our fathers' overseers were brutes with clipboards, sideburns, and tangled rhetoric. Our overseers, the sisters of St. Luke's, were brutes with clipboards, sideburns, and tangled rosaries."
Hamper rebelled briefly, doing drugs while working as a housepainter. But, married and a father within months of high school graduation, he soon embraced his "birthright" at the GM plant. Just three months later, he writes, another new worker began to break down under "the slow-motion injustice of the time clock." The man's emotional collapse was complete when he took a blowtorch to a mouse he had befriended. "Roy insisted," Hamper reports, "that the mouse was mocking the way he performed the job."
Hamper's humor, which undoubtedly helped him survive, keeps things lively. The book is peppered with wisecracks. Flint is "a town whose collective bowling average is four times higher than the IQ of its inhabitants." Former GM Chairman Roger B. Smith is "perhaps the only fella in the entire Western Hemisphere to possess eight million freckles and yet absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever." Which didn't deter Hamper from dogging Smith to share an evening of bowling.
If that sounds like the plot of the movie Roger & Me, in which director Michael Moore trails Smith in an attempt to discuss the impact of GM layoffs on Flint, there's probably more than coincidence at work. It was during one of three layoffs that Hamper began writing, starting with music reviews for the underground Flint Voice, founded by Moore. That gig led to the "Rivethead" column. In fact, Hamper appeared briefly in Moore's 1989 film: He's the guy shooting hoops at the mental health clinic--the one who, fearing another layoff, had a panic attack on the line, then had a breakdown while listening to the Beach Boys sing Wouldn't It Be Nice?
Most of Rivethead focuses on the in- dignities of life as a shop rat. There's the message board that flashes "Squeezing Rivets Is Fun!" There are shop foremen who allegedly refuse to stop the line to aid injured workers. And there's Howie Makem, the plant mascot--a guy dressed as a cat and wearing a long, red cape emblazoned with a "Q" for quality. Some white-collar dunce, Hamper figures, probably thought the proles could relate to a cartoonlike character. Instead, "Howie sightings" became a joke to relieve boredom: "The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by." Later, they took to pelting him with rivets. The book also details the social problems of line workers--usually too much booze--and explores life during layoffs.
Like his column, which Hamper says drove GM to spy on him, this book won't please everyone. Hamper's prose is laced with obscenities, and the fainthearted may grow queasy when Hamper's buddies lose fingers or slash limbs while using dangerous machinery.
By plumbing his life and the lives of his co-workers, Hamper reveals in ugly detail the two-tier society that persists despite comforting rhetoric about opportunity and bootstrap success. It's a world where workers suffer and cope through drink or madness. Not pretty. But compelling.KEVIN KELLY