I woke up in the driver’s seat of my white Ford Tempo. A jeep was heading straight at me.

I’ve always heard that in the moments just before death, your life flashes before you.

In this case, there was not even enough time for that. When I woke up, the jeep was within five feet of my car. The only thing that went through my mind was sheer terror. A fraction of a second of sheer terror. No time to even think the word “Death!” or, more likely, an expletive of some sort. Just a wordless, instantaneous, terrifying, emotional understanding that I was about to die.

But as it turns out, neither my car nor the jeep was actually moving.

So the instant of terror was followed by the relieved realization that I was, after all, safe.

This scene was played out day after day, a la the movie Groundhog Day, during the several months in 1999 that I worked the night-shift at the airport as a package-handler for a shipping company.

My shift was midnight to 6 a.m., and with the job consisting largely of hard physical labor, I was profoundly tired by the end of each shift. I don’t know how to describe the state other than that: “profoundly tired.” “Exhausted” doesn’t do it justice.

At the end of each shift, as hundreds—maybe thousands—of other people made their way into the airport for the start of their workdays, grimy, tired buses would haul the night-shifters from the tarmac to the distant employee parking lot.

Then, upon arrival at my trusty Tempo, I’d toss my filthy gear (noise-eliminating headphones, kneepads and elbowpads, heavy gloves, reflective apron, goggles) onto the floor of the passenger-side, and I’d lean the driver’s seat back 60 beautiful degrees, and I’d recline into quick unconsciousness.

I’d wake up around 8 or 9 a.m. to find myself at the wheel of my car, and see a car staring directly at me from about five feet away. A cold wave of terror would suffocate me as I realized that I had fallen asleep on the highway and was about to be crushed in a head-on collision.

What made the illusion of convergent motion so convincing was the headlights of the other vehicle. You’re used to seeing taillights from that angle—not headlights. So even though they were not on, the sight of those headlights so unnaturally close always cemented the expectation of an impending head-on collision.

Despite this recurring horror show, I kept using the front seat for my daily nap simply because it was so much more comfortable than the unadjustable back seat.

For a while I tried telling myself as I went to sleep that my car was parked, so that I’d remember that fact when I woke up. But the strategy proved ineffective and was soon abandoned. I learned to just accept the daily dose of terror.

 

My brother-in-law once worked for a landscaping company. During those days, he wrote in a letter that there was something very satisfying about taking a shower and actually watching the day’s work wash off your body, circle the drain, and disappear. He definitely hit upon a truth; I would experience that satisfaction each morning upon my return home from the night-shift.

And there was also pain. But even the pain felt good. For the first time, I was getting my hands dirty and using my body to make a living.

How did I get to the tarmac after an MBA and a career in accounting? I was trying to succeed as a comic and musician. I was getting a few gigs here and there, but I needed a source of steady income. But I didn’t want a “career” type job that would likely tempt me to abandon my struggle toward a music and comedy career. When I saw the ad, I immediately thought that this was exactly what I needed. It was only 30 hours a week, so it would allow me time to work on my music and comedy. Yet it provided the ever-elusive health insurance, thus eliminating one of the banes of every artist’s existence. And it paid surprisingly well.

 

I definitely had the feeling that I didn’t fit in at this job.

The work environment was everything I’m not—loud, huge, fast, dangerous, dirty, and intensely physical. The workplace consisted of a huge conveyor-belt-laden building that probably used to be an airplane hangar—the ceiling was around 50 feet high—plus the neighboring tarmac. The indoor areas in which we walked were frequented by forklifts, often carrying up to two tons of freight while cheerfully ignoring the posted speed limits. The outdoor areas we worked in—rain or (moon)shine—were frequented by all manner of airport-type vehicles, including—along the outer edges—the airplanes themselves.

Also, I am an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type person. So the fact that all of this loudness and filthiness and heavy-machineriness was transpiring between midnight and 6 a.m. made the whole thing even more surreal. I had never even realized that this whole thing/system/world existed.

My first night on the job, I was overmatched and overwhelmed. One of the forklift drivers yelled at me to get my attention. I walked to his forklift and he asked my name. Of course he had to yell it, the same way you have to yell your conversations when you’re in a loud bar (which is another place I don’t fit in). In response to his inquiry, I yelled, “Ranjit!” He replied, “What?” “Ranjit!” Now he was annoyed. “What?!” I finally yelled, “RJ!”

From that moment on, my work-name was RJ. It just made everything easier.

For his part, rather than give any indication that he’d heard my name that wasn’t even my name, he instead yelled something completely incoherent and pointed somewhere in the distance. Clearly he was instructing me to do something, but I had no idea what. Before I could say a word, he simply sped away on his forklift, as I jumped back to ensure that his left tires would not crush my feet.

Even though I never did completely lose the feeling of not fitting in, over my six months there I became surprisingly competent at the job.

Individual packages would come down to us on conveyer belts. We each had a scanner-gun that we would use to scan the UPC on the package. We also had pallets (for larger packages) and “huts” (for smaller packages) throughout our area, all marked for specific destination airports. A “hut” was basically a hard plastic box, maybe 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet, that you could load up with a couple of tons of packages, then lock up, and then transport by forklift onto the tarmac where it could be loaded onto an airplane.

In no time I had memorized all of the 3-digit airport codes for the airports in my team’s jurisdiction—RDU (Raleigh/Durham), CVG (Cincinnati—and by the way, did you know that the Cincinnati airport is actually in Kentucky?), CMH (Columbus, OH), etc.

The packages we handled by hand ranged from tiny, less-than-a-pound packages, to 50-pound packages. We would scan each package, place it into the appropriate hut or onto the appropriate pallet, then later lock up the huts and wrap huge amounts of cellophane plus a thick canvas around the pile of packages on each pallet, after which the forklifts would whisk away the huts and pallets to the outer tarmac to be loaded into the guts of the airplanes.

A few months into the job, the physical pain that I’d felt from the beginning was not going away; rather, it was getting worse. At first I’d thought that the pain was normal since I’d never worked a full-time physical labor job before, and I’d assumed it would go away once I got used to the physical rigors.

I was wrong.

Also, during this time, I was practicing piano a lot (a couple of hours per day—I was teaching myself Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”), and I was learning how to play the drums.

I think that the combination of these three things is what eventually destroyed my arms and hands.

I sat down at my piano one night and the pain in my hands and arms was so bad that I could not play a single note.

I had left a successful career to try to make my way in music and musical comedy, and now I’d seemingly thrown away my ability to play music.

 

For all the other jobs I’ve ever left, I’ve given plenty of notice (usually 1-3 months).

But with this job, I simply walked in at the next shift and told my boss that I needed to quit right away with no two-weeks’ notice. I told him the story of why I was in this job in the first place, and I told him about what had happened, and about the current state of my arms and hands. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care about any of this, but I wanted to tell him anyway.

Halfway through the explanation, I started crying.

I was in my 30s.

This time, I got back to my car around 1 a.m.

I didn’t go to sleep.

I drove really fast.

I watched that place get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror, until it disappeared forever.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.

 

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