Portrait of a pallet jack
The job is straightforward: drive around the warehouse collecting cases to fill orders from supermarkets, loading them onto pallets and staging the pallets on the shipping dock to be put onto trucks. The skills involved are operating a pallet jack and building loads on pallets. Formal training in the former began and ended my first night, although people have shared some techniques with me since then. Mostly it’s a matter of getting a feel for it. Stacking a proper load on a pallet has been the main concern of my group’s trainer, Mike, who is our supervisor during two-month training period.
“Building a pallet,” as it is called, is something like building a stone wall, in that the goal is to use gravity to hold a pile of irregular objects together into an orderly formation. As with walling, corners are critical, and it is important to try to keep everything level course by course. Of course boxes are more regular than stones, but they come in a remarkable array of sizes and shapes, and then there are bagged items, such as dog food and cat litter, and some items held together with plastic shrink-wrap, such as bags of sugar and some salad dressings. Ordinarily, a grocery selector heads out with two pallets on his jack and fills both to a height of somewhere between four and six feet. The solidity of the load on the back pallet is most important, because it is the items on the back that are most likely to fly off when one goes around corners, and because the front pallet has the advantage of being sandwiched between the load rack and the back pallet. Bigger, heavier items go on the back; small things and stuff that doesn’t stack neatly go on the front.
Other considerations concern efficiency. It is desirable not to handle a case more than once, so putting each in the right place the first time is good. Steps between the pallets and the driving platform of the jack add up over a shift, so that’s another reason to put small items on the front pallet. The hardest aspect of load-building efficiency to learn is when to deviate from the list of cases on the “shot,” the list of things to collect. A shot presents the list as a series of peel-off labels, one for each item, identified by three numbers — aisle, bay and slot — presented in the order in which they are encountered while traveling around the warehouse. That is not always the best order in which to get things, however. Mike usually directs us to pick certain items out of sequence, in order to put items of similar size together and to build solid layers on which to pile later cases. A layer of double-stack cans is a fine base for less orderly cases to be stacked on, for instance. A load tends to become less orderly and stable as it develops; having to pile a number of large, heavy cases on top of a wobbly pile of assorted-size boxes is difficult, and best avoided by putting those cases on the bottom.
As Barbara Ehrenreich observed of low-status, low-wage jobs in her book Nickled and Dimed, work that is usually considered “unskilled” often, in fact, demands considerable skill, as well as sheer effort, to do well. That’s the case with building a good pallet. Building a bad pallet can result in having half the load abruptly distributed across the floor when one turns, stops or starts suddenly — as I have experienced repeatedly. If one could look at a shot and quickly discern which items should be picked out of sequence and where in the load they should go, it would be a great help. My trainer, Mike, has an uncanny ability to do this.
My first inkling of his peculiar skill was during the first night my group of trainees picked groceries. The first shot we did as a group, with Mike. One person drove the jack, another read the shot, and the rest of us just trailed along. At one point, the reader announced the next item: 47-48-12, let us say. This was some distance down the aisle, certainly out of sight. “Marshmellow fluff, my favorite,” Mike said. There are, I think, about 28,000 different items in the warehouse. How in God’s name could Mike remember what any given three-number sequence refers to? But it seemed he does. A list of numbers that are to me totally meaningless are to him, apparently, readable as specific known items in certain locations.
Another time, before sending me out on a shot, Mike told me to pick a number of items first, because they are all in the same size boxes. Then he pointed out another item, which he said was slightly taller, good to include with the others, but put in a corner, because it is desirable for corners to be higher than the rest of the load. Somehow he was able to recall the relative size of the boxes with such precision that he could warn me of a difference of a half-inch or so.
And on one occasion, when I returned to the dock with loaded pallets, Mike noticed one box and said, “So that’s what size that one is,” and seemed to gaze intently at it to fix its dimensions in his mind. He was genuinely interested in the case, and appeared to fully intend to remember it.
Building pallets has been likened to playing Tetris in three dimensions, which seems very apt. I asked Mike, who seems to genuinely take pleasure in arranging cases on pallets, whether he is good at Tetris, and he said he is, and used to play it a lot. Having a good sense of spatial relationships is useful in this work — it’s something I don’t have — but Mike’s ability goes beyond this. His familiarity with the vast number of things in the warehouse struck me as freakishly detailed, but I wasn’t sure if he were unusual, or if anyone who has worked there as long as he has — eight years — has the same grasp of zillions of items’ size, location and identifying number. I asked him if there were some kind of savant thing going on with him, but he laughingly dismissed that idea.
Last night, though, by way of comforting me for my imperfect pallet-building ability, Mike mentioned that he has an easy time of it because he has a photographic memory. That made total sense, given what I had seen, but I wasn’t sure he was being serious. I asked if he remembers everything he sees, or just grocery cases. Everything, he said. Everything he reads, too? Yes, pretty much, he said.
A photographic memory is a huge aid to being a good grocery selector at the warehouse, no doubt about it. But wouldn’t it be a huge advantage in innumerable fields? I have often thought that if I could have a sort of super power, a photographic memory might be high on my list. My brain lets most of what it encounters slip right out again, sieve-like. How fantastic it would be to be able to retain everything! Mike acknowledged that his brain is a little better than he sometimes gives himself credit for, and that there might be some better application for it than selecting groceries, but he enjoys working with his hands and is grateful for the mandatory exercise his job gives him. And he does seem to really like his job. Which is great, I guess. I hope he’ll find something more interesting to remember, though, by and by.