Long Reads

The Unbearable Kindness of Warehouse Beef Stew

I could hardly make it through my shifts. Meanwhile, my sister started the slow cooker.

December 10, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

I once saw a wall of boxes bury a man in the back of a semi. This was in the truck bay of The Company’s fulfillment warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota. I had been working there for a few weeks. The boxes were packed to the ceiling of the trailer and the trailer was ten feet high. The man was unloading, twisting back to throw each box onto the conveyor belt behind him. Then he pulled the wrong box and, looking up, realized.

“I think I’m losing my mind,” I told my sister, spilling into the kitchen.

Late afternoon, I was home from my double shift. She glanced up from her laptop as though to confirm I was still clumsy, slipping on the snow I was tracking in. The truth was I could barely move my arms. She slid the hot bowl of stew across the table. And the bottle of Sriracha too, which, taking a seat, I drizzled onto the beef and carrots and potatoes and rice.

“I guess at least it’s a good sign that you can still think you’re going crazy,” she said, smirking, tapping the trackpad, looking at the screen.

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Top Comment:
“It’s like those mornings when I’d start the car in the floodlit driveway and she’d rush from the house onto the front steps to wave to me—just a wave set against the silence of snow, as if we’d both been blown someplace too early for words, a place where this gesture said, “I’ll take care of you, I’ll be here when you come back.” " And she cooked this wonderful thing for you, this simple hearty soul sustaining thing. Food can do this. Food can bind us so we survive not just in body but in mind, too. Thank you for this and please thank your sister. You are both strong human beings...”
— Steven W.
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“Because?” I said.

“Well, if you were really losing your mind,” she said. “I mean—”

“I get it, I get it,” I said, sort of laughing, wringing my hands over the steam rising from the bowl. My fingers were stiff from the dash between driveway and door, turning the frozen knob. “I just get completely lost in there. It’s like I’m gonna turn a corner, but it’ll be me I bump into. And then I’ll ask him—I don’t know—what are you even doing here?”

“What are you doing there?”

“‘You can do anything for a year,’” I said, mocking our father’s voice, shoving a potato into my mouth. Our father was right about mostly everything, but about this he was mostly wrong. “Hey, if you’re looking to hire a personal assistant,” I joked, “then I’ll put in my two weeks tomorrow. Case closed.”

It was funny because we were both scraping by on cobbled-together, low-wage jobs. “Honestly,” I added, “I wouldn’t even know who to give my notice to.”

“Yikes,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

When she wasn’t listening to me complain, my sister made me stew. It was a kind of slow dance and here’s how she would do it: She started the slow cooker at night while I slept. My phone’s alarm sounded at 2 a.m. By then, the stew had already cast its spell on the kitchen. The warm, savory smell yanked me back as I ran out the door. If I was lucky, in my flurry of keys and sneakers and warehouse gloves, I caught my sister: night owl lingering in the kitchen at her laptop, playing video games, chatting on forums, her wide, freckled face pale in the screen’s blue light.

Sometimes, when I thought she had already turned in for the night, I’d see her rush from the darkened living room into the freezing driveway to wave goodbye.

I didn’t know when she slept. I drove the hour to Shakopee, took my slow exit in the dark, careful about the ice, wondering who it was she talked to late at night. And about what? I had my hopes, but guessed she was trolling YouTube comments. She could’ve used a friend. Me too. Both of us were new to the metro, our father’s new city; we were living in his house. She had dropped out of high school, been working for a year, trying hard to keep each job, though being both bored and stressed on her feet for hours on end was just the beginning of it. Each seemed to leave her at a loss.

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if my step-mom hadn’t texted me the image of the billboard she’d driven by. “Now Hiring.” A man with a crew cut in a gray polo smiled in studio light.

I’d just finished a degree in poetry and had applied everywhere and anywhere, it seemed—restaurants, cafés, schools, gyms, offices. Nowhere was biting. And it wasn’t as though I hadn’t worked before. In the past, I had done numerous strange, sometimes difficult jobs. But my adjunct stipend had stopped months ago while my car and student loan payments steamed right ahead. Beneath an old copy of On Photography, medical bills sat unpaid in my nightstand drawer.

I thought again about the billboard, registered online, and the next day drove to a hotel between the airport and the Mall of America. Even though it was only early November, salt dusted the roads and the sky had become a wash of steel punctuated by steam stacks. In a conference room with a small group of other future employees, I listened to a presentation from a middle-aged woman in slacks, heavy brow-liner, and something like an apology in her voice. If you worked four consecutive early shifts, you could make an additional $2 an hour. There wasn’t enough parking for Seasonals, so we would park down the highway, then catch the Trolley in.

Once I passed the drug test, I started the next week.

The empty amusement park had a giant parking lot and the group of us were huddled at the far edge, waiting for the bus to the warehouse. It started to snow. It was a quarter till 4 a.m. by then. The snow came down fast and wet, falling through the metal coaster’s tracks and the Drop Tower’s latticed spires. My sister had talked all summer about this amusement park.

We should go there, why don’t we go.

Now flakes big as house moths settled on the roof of the carousel, collected in the Ferris wheel’s gondolas.

“You got a light, man?” someone asked in an accent I didn’t recognize. Something harsh and strapping.

I shifted in my puffer coat. “Nah,” I said. Then, too deliberately, “Man.”

I dug my hands deeper into my pockets. Nothing out there would stay lit for long. Hats and hijabs flew back in the gusts sweeping in from the ocean of soybean fields. Others waited in their cars instead, then sprinted when they saw the bus on the highway turning. They risked not getting a seat, being late for the shift. Or twisting their ankle on the asphalt and ice.

The warehouse was huge, depot-like, and surrounded by rows of cars bedded down with snow. It didn’t have windows. Seeing it, I felt as though I recognized the place—grim, mathematical, and unadorned as buildings I’d read about in my book on the Gulag. Oh, Lonesome. I conspired to write a Dickensian novel. Or maybe Orwellian, I should’ve thought.

“The winter I delivered Christmas to half of Minneapolis…” A joke with no punchline.

Disembarking the bus, we funneled through the turnstile security, rushed to clock in. We stripped our layers, stuffed them into a locker. Put on orange traffic pennies, gloves, grabbed a scanner gun each. The ceiling was high as a hangar’s. Conveyor belts and metal chutes crisscrossed overhead. The white walls were covered with large stickers that read: “Customer Obsessed!”

“Earn Trust of Others!”

“Deliver Results!”

“Make History!”

We stretched together, listened to daily volume numbers, dispersed to our stations.

And then the work began.

When it was done being new, it was brutal. The warehouse floor felt both crowded and desolate. Rows of conveyor lines partitioned wide concrete expanses. Workers scurried. On a typical ten-hour day, I walked miles moving packages from conveyor belts to pallets. Then, depending, I wrapped the stacks in shrinkwrap in a process called water-spidering.

I would work this all into the novel. I picked up another box, set it down on a pallet labeled A5. Used my scanner gun to tell the system the work I’d done, to log my contribution, increase my rate.

Rate—the number of packages a worker scanned per second—is how The Company measures an employee’s efficiency. Rate is also a tool to isolate workers by pitting them against each other. As designed, people elbowed each other on the line, shoved each other out of the way. They were trying to grab from the endless stream of boxes only the smaller packages: padded envelopes with lipstick tubes or cotton swabs, shoelaces, toothpicks, paper clips, #2 pencils. These were easier to hold many of, speed between pallets with, not stopping back to the belt to grab more—lightyears faster than grabbing two large boxes at a time. The idea: Keep your rate high enough not to get fired. A ranked list was posted at the end of each shift.

It would take about a week before I could feel the sentences of my thoughts beginning to blur. Like the feeling just before, driving on icy roads, your car starts to spin, that small lift that makes all the difference. The first thirty minutes of each shift were mine, it seemed, but then in the throat of the hour, I lost, I couldn’t. Hard to distinguish, words, a smear of weather, atmosphere, mood and bluster, my whole body: That.

Meanwhile, the warehouse screeched and scraped wherever it could get in. My eyes and nose burned from cardboard particles. Pain shot up my arm and shoulder. I dropped my box, which might’ve been somebody’s gift. Or craft supplies maybe, googly eyes, matches, Band-Aids, mascara, audio wire, crayons, I could guess. I could see through the inbound truck docks the sun hadn’t come up yet. Snow was coming down.

The kind of snow I’m talking about happens all the time in Minnesota—dense and spell-like across the empty dark, as though blown in from somewhere ancient, not here. Everything caught in it seems stiller.

Even the street-lit steam billowing from St. Paul must’ve slowed in this snow, suspended, something like a breath of velvet, a silence too expansive to move through. A few hours, and then it was morning and my sister, who had not jumped from the bridge, was driving home along icy fields. No one knew anything about anything yet. She was exhausted in the way she had been exhausted for months, swerving between torpor and fugue. Her hands were heavy on the wheel. Just for a second, her forehead dipped down to rest on it.

But somebody on the road got mad, or scared. Somebody laid on their horn. She snapped back up. Drifted into her lane. The white lines were faded with salt and slush. Sun after snow, the temperature dropping tightened some of the moisture into crystal. And I knew those fields. Bright as lens flare, as if on fire.

She had missed her shift at the coffee shop—but maybe her manager would ignore it, or fire her then take her back. She needed that job, one of her better ones. More than that, she needed to get home. Needed to take the right exit, turn into the neighborhood, get enough speed to slide up the slick hill by the baseball fields and ice rink. She was so tired she could barely keep her eyelids open.

Was it that afternoon, or another, I flew into the kitchen saying, “I think I’m losing my mind.” It would be a long time before I asked. She doesn’t remember. Too many times, dizzy with thinking. The car idled. Steam frothed over the bluff. Snow fell or it didn’t. The sky changed. She cracked the window to let in some air.

The myth is that the wage will help you stay afloat. I bet on this myth, briefly, and took the job. But the work pulls you under. Corporations will make assertions otherwise. From The Company some of the assertions are: Her carpal tunnel had no cause; her ruptured disk had no cause; his panic attack had no cause; her homelessness had no cause; her depression had no cause; his suicide had no cause; her heart attack had no cause; his heart attack had no cause; his heart attack had no cause; his heart attack had no cause.

But she hadn’t jumped. She was driving home. Past the guardrail’s comb of icicles, she saw a shack resting on wheels in the distant field of snow.

It wasn’t a field. It was a frozen-over lake. The shack was an ice house. All winter the small world of it sat above the cold, watery one beneath, suspended on ice.

We’re talking over the phone.

“And they just leave it out there all winter? And they sleep in there?”

“Sometimes,” I say.

“How do they know the ice is thick enough?”

“Why didn’t you tell someone what was going on, what you were feeling,” I say, ignoring her question.

Then a long silence.

“You there? Where’d you go,” I’m asking when I feel her starting to drift, though I don’t know what it is she needs to hear, how to coax her out of the dark she sometimes disappears inside. It’s like those mornings when I’d start the car in the floodlit driveway and she’d rush from the house onto the front steps to wave to me—just a wave set against the silence of snow, as if we’d both been blown someplace too early for words, a place where this gesture said, “I’ll take care of you, I’ll be here when you come back.”

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Max McDonough grew up on the Jersey Shore. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, Best New Poets, Gulf Coast, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. When he's not working, you can find him in the plant section of the Home Depot.

11 Comments

Tessa January 1, 2020
Wonderful article. Your description of what work is like for so many unseen, unacknowledged people rings true. In today's world of social media-worthy posts, it's refreshing to read an honest essay about doing what you have to in order to get by when it's necessary, and those (sometimes small) important things that keep us going.
 
Veggie A. December 30, 2019
Wow, this is gorgeous writing. I feel the ache.
 
Steven W. December 30, 2019
Max (and your sister) I hope you are both doing well. This was really good. I got cold just reading it. Your tale is one of millions these days. I don't know how we can sustain it. I almost for got this was about beef stew. "It’s like those mornings when I’d start the car in the floodlit driveway and she’d rush from the house onto the front steps to wave to me—just a wave set against the silence of snow, as if we’d both been blown someplace too early for words, a place where this gesture said, “I’ll take care of you, I’ll be here when you come back.” " And she cooked this wonderful thing for you, this simple hearty soul sustaining thing. Food can do this. Food can bind us so we survive not just in body but in mind, too. Thank you for this and please thank your sister. You are both strong human beings...
 
EdyS December 29, 2019
This is just gorgeous. And heart rendering. I hope you are both on solid ground now. Please do write that novel.
 
Ardyth E. December 29, 2019
Max, this is a profound essay, juxtaposing sibling love with the literally cold, hard realities of 21st Century shipping. I never read more than a few words of the food essay that precedes a recipe (too smug, self-absorbed, wordy: just tell me how to cook the food, already). I couldn’t put your story down.
 
Deborah B. December 13, 2019
I was expecting the standard feel-good recipe intro. Instead I found myself in the bone-cold of Minnesota winter, feeling the deep love between a brother and sister. Thank you Matt and Food52.
 
jadebridgesauce December 12, 2019
Looks like you add lots of sauce. Is this Teriyaki Sauce?
 
Steven W. December 30, 2019
The recipe says Worcestershire.
 
Joanna S. December 11, 2019
Thank you, Max, for sharing this exceptionally personal piece with us. Like everything else you write, it is beautiful.
 
Eric K. December 11, 2019
I kind of don't even know what to comment, other than: Thank you.
 
Alex E. December 10, 2019
W o w, Max. My jaw dropped reading this. The scenes here are palpable. And there are so many good lines! Each time I thought it couldn't get better, it did. Thank you so much for sharing this. I hope someday I'm lucky enough to read the novel.