Letterpress List No. 55: Dimmer Switch

All right, say it: Maybe Shop Boy’s not the brightest bulb in the pack.


But if you need all of those bulbs over there put into these packs over here in a neat and swift manner, Shop Boy’s about the brightest there is.

See, I’m not afraid of grunt work. Especially assembly line-type stuff. This doggedness has served me well in the news business — nothing if not an assembly line, especially today — and the printshop. Ask Mary. She’ll tell you who she’d prefer be at the controls near the end of a long, long press run with a difficult feed … when you’ve got to nail every single impression because you’ve got only enough paper to fill the order and maybe leave you with five samples.

Drum roll, please.

No drums around? That’s OK. It’s just Shop Boy.

Which is why Shop Boy was at the big C&P again late one night — we’re talking 2:30 a.m., folks — feeding a tricky little wedding invite (with a “bleed,” so no getting lazy and dragging the paper along the inky tympan). Who designs these things, anyway?

Oh. Never mind.

True story: In high school, Shop Boy and his buddy Dan O’Hara got jobs at Matthews Inc. Every day after school, we’d trot the mile or so across town for work at the “chalk shop,” where we, yes, produced and packaged chalk — for textile companies. Talk about an outmoded industry. We’d mix a bunch of almost certainly carcinogenic powders together with some other unbreathable compounds to form a paste that we then sent in four tubes, Playdoh Pumper No. 9 style, down a conveyor belt, where it was cut into 4-inch logs atop wax paper. These we’d pull by the paper onto 5-foot trays that fit into slots of an oven. About 250 trays per batch.

The stuff would bake overnight. The next day, we’d pull the red-hot trays out of the oven and pile them on dollies for transporting to our workbenches. There, we stacked the trays 15 or so high and seven rows deep. We then made square boxes and set to work packaging the chalk. The pattern went like this: protective layer of sawdust; layer of chalk (4 sticks, 4 sticks, 2 sticks horizontally on the right and left sides, 2 sticks and 2 sticks vertically up the middle. Sawdust, repeat. Five layers per box. Seal and label the box with an initial representing the chalk color. Now do 200 more boxes.

Boring? Perhaps for mere mortals … or people who think too deeply. Shop Boy simply kept chugging, not thinking about not having a girlfriend or messing up his math assignment or having zits. Chalk-chalk-chalk-chalk, sawdust. Batch after batch, day after day. We would race to see who could do the most in an afternoon. Freaky concept nowadays, I know.

Bonus points: If the chemical formula were off a molecule or two, the chalk would stain whatever textiles were being marked for cutting and we’d be sued. And if the chalk showed up broken at the textile firm’s loading dock, it’d be sent back and the proceeds would, it was hinted, be removed from our paychecks.

And Mary wonders why Shop Boy can keep his focus for hours on end.

We’d focus on the music, too, of course. I mean, for two lady-less, Cranston, R.I., grandsons of immigrants (a lot of redundancy there), Danny and Shop Boy could bust a move. Before Typecast Press, that was the singin’-est, dancin’-est shop on the East Coast. Believe that. The big boss sure did after he walked in one day to find Shop Boy atop a stack of boxes, belting out “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer, full-on falsetto. Man, I could bring the noise. (Dan was more an alt-country/Southern rock guy. Charlie Daniels, Dixie Dregs, Allman Brothers, that type of stuff.)

Mr. Matthews: “Uh, um, how’s it going, um, men?”

Shop Boy (in an exaggeratedly deep voice): “Just celebrating a job finished ahead of time, sir.”

Mr. Matthews: “Um, uh, OK, then. Um, just don’t break the chalk.”

And he was OUT the door.

Danny about needed the Heimlich maneuver. Really, Shop Boy thought the dude was a goner.

So I hopped down off the boxes and, gently, helped him stop laughing at me. Heck, I probably deserved it, especially after the time he told me about his Uncle Leo, who’d been stabbed in a bar fight or something. All I could see was McGarrett from Hawaii Five-0 taking off his sport jacket, wrapping it around his arm for protection — !?!?! — and dancing around like West Side Story as he fearlessly took down a “punk” wielding a long knife. Or, you know, one of those crazy kung fu films.

“Uncle Li-Ho!” I yelled, breaking into the ridiculous McGarrett knife dance.

Hey, Shop Boy came to some things late … like, um, empathy, tact, class and stuff. If it was good for a laugh, it was good enough for me. Well, and in my defense, were were drinking about three pots of coffee per shift.

But where were we?

Hmmm. Oh, yeah, dim bulbs.

See, the bank of lights that runs up the center of our secondary studio — that’s where the big machines live — has gone all Uncle Leo on us lately. Throw the light switch and some will answer the call. Others might or might not. As the autumn days get shorter, it’s becoming a real issue. Not for Shop Boy so much. But often, while I’m cranking out the quantity, Mary’s watching the quality.

OK, so how many Shop Boys does it take to change a lightbulb?

One, unless he’s in denial. See, the lights are attached to a steel beam about 20 feet above the printshop floor. I said I’m not afraid of hard work. Hard landings? Do I really need to be messing with that? Couldn’t Mary just, like, get better glasses or something? Maybe if Shop Boy keeps dancing around the issue, Mary will simply hire an electrician to deal with it. (Not to put any ideas into her head or anything.) She has talked of replacing those old lights and filling the high ceiling with larger banks of more efficient ones. Fine by Shop Boy.

As long as she leaves room to add a disco ball.


Letterpress List No. 55

How about an hour’s worth of music to climb a ladder or simply stand and contemplate the “mood lighting” by? Most of these tunes should be available in the usual places. Goofy and great video links are to YouTube.

Fell on Black DaysSoundgarden (Hmm.)
What a Fool Believesthe Doobie Brothers (Shoulda heard me hit the high notes on this one … it’s no wonder I had no girlfriends.)
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing — Leo Sayer (“Just hold me tight and leave on the li-ight …”)
Hawaii Five-0 the Ventures (Da-da-da-da, daaah-daaah!)
Cuts Like a KnifeBryan Adams (Danny and Shop Boy lost touch over the years. Was it something I said?)
I’m No AngelGregg Allman (No stranger to the dark.)
Assembly LineDixie Dregs (Kinda jazzy here.)
Top of the Pops — the Smithereens (We knew all the tunes.)
Bad MedicineBon Jovi (“One more time, with feeeeeling!” Shop Boy had a little too much Sam Kinison in him back then.)
CoolLeonard Bernstein, from West Side Story (I don’t care how many knives you gave them. These “gangbangers” would have been laughed at till they cried and ran home in Shop Boy and Danny’s neighborhood.)
The Fight SongMarilyn Manson (He doesn’t really fight fair. But he, um, wears the pants in the band.)
Shout It Out Loud Kiss (Don’t have to tell Shop Boy twice. Then again …)
Stacked ActorsFoo Fighters (Stacked to the rafters.)
Nice Guys Finish LastGreen Day (“Your sympathy will get you left behind.”)
Too Much Time on My HandsStyx (We were fast, which left us a lot of time to get in trouble.)
Excuse Me Mr.No Doubt (Sorry, boss.)
(Do the) Instant MashJoe Jackson (“Grab can, lift arm, stack can, turn around.”)
We Are Santa’s Elves — from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Our work is play. And it’s almost that season again!)
Fired (anonymous, wordless cover) — Ben Folds (We were saved by our productivity.)
Time Is on My Sidethe Rolling Stones (Shop Boy can stack excuses even faster than he can pack chalk.)

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