Retro Review: Rivethead-Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

49990303c7274_4619nYou’re at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re white collar, blue collar, pink collar or no collar at all. Now imagine a grown man walking around your workspace wearing a cat costume. The name of this creature just happens to be Howie Makem (How We Make’em, get it?). Are you imagining this? Are you shaking your head and thinking, “What the hell?”

Well, former GM factory worker and writer Ben Hamper doesn’t have to imagine Howie Makem; he experienced him. And he writes all about it (and other assorted hijinks) in his hilarious and yes, thought-provoking memoir, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.”

Hamper grew up in Flint, Michigan and worked on the assembly line at the local GM plant. Working at GM was in Hamper’s blood. He was a third generation GM “shoprat.” His grandparents, various aunts and uncles, and his own father worked for GM. A tour of the GM factory where his father worked (when he wasn’t drinking and womanizing) made a young Ben Hamper want to avoid the factory as much as possible. Hamper wanted to be an ambulance driver and later a disc jockey, but with a less than stellar educational record and a family to support, Hamper reluctantly applied at the Flint GM plant where he ended up squeezing rivets (hence the name of the book).

At GM Hamper had a job, not a career. It was a place to earn a paycheck, a paycheck Hamper fully reveals he often used to pay for nights at his favorite bar and punk records. The assembly line was hot, repetitive, stifling, noisy, greasy and often mind-numbingly boring. To break up the monotony of their shifts, Hamper and his co-workers came up with all kinds of shenanigans—racing to the drinking fountains, feeding the factory mice Cheetos, skeet shooting Milk Duds. Hamper and his co-workers also indulged in an activity called “double-up.” To double-up, one worker would do two jobs at once while the other worker would do something else. During double-ups, Hamper would read, hole up at a bar, and often he would write.

Hamper would be the first to admit he and his co-workers didn’t always have the most amazing work ethic and he also knew he was making some great money for his so-called unskilled labor. Yet, there were hard times. Hamper dealt with several layoffs and the possibility of factory closings. And when actually at work, Hamper saw his co-workers do everything from overdosing and barfing their guts out to torching an innocent mouse.

To encourage workers, GM management tried inspire them through an electronic message board, which flashed such erudite quotes such as, “A Winner Never Quits & a Quitter Never Wins,” “Safety is Safe” and Hamper’s personal favorite “Squeezing Rivets is Fun!” But to really get the workers juices flowing, it took a factory floor roaming life-sized cat to make the best quality vehicles on the planet—Howie Makem. Of Howie Makem Hamper writes:

Howie Makem stood five feet nine. He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun. He wore a long red cape emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality. A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws. Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a dick.

Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department. A “Howie sighting” was always cause for great fanfare. The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by. Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.

Hmm, Howie Makem sure beats Successories.

To cope with his job (and Howie Makem), Hamper turned to writing, which had been a passion of his since he was a teenager. An unsolicited record review to a local alternative newspaper named the Flint Voice introduced Hamper to Michael Moore (yes, THAT Michael Moore). Moore likes Hamper’s writing style, and encouraged him to write about working for GM, which steered Hamper to writing his own column. Hamper’s column became one of the paper’s most popular reads.

Soon Moore got a job as editor of the notable Mother Jones magazine. He figured Hamper would be the perfect addition, and Moore’s inaugural issue of Mother Jones’ cover story was on Hamper. Hamper thusly became a minor celebrity. He was featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. Being an unpretentious guy, Hamper is humored by the idea of celebrity. But before he could become the Hunter S Thompson of the lunch pail crowd, Hamper had to deal with some more serious issues with both his health and his tenure with GM.

All of this led to Hamper writing Rivethead, probably one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I have never worked on an assembly line, but I totally related to Hamper’s tales of workday tedium, silly management decisions, threats of layoffs and restructuring, and oddball co-workers. And I’ve worked in fields that would be considered “creative” where stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen.

Hamper writes in way that is fearless and funny. He gives it to you straight, with no chaser, and dares you to drink it all in and stifle your laughter. Sure, Hamper acted like a goofball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are reading this review while at work. Yet despite all the shenanigans Hamper describes, I don’t doubt for a moment that he also toiled very hard at a gritty, thankless job that probably wasn’t always appreciated.

Though Rivethead was released over twenty years ago, it is a book that is both timeless and timely, and one I think should be required reading. Sure, we can read memoirs and biographies of industry titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But perhaps it’s time to give a working class (anti) hero like Ben Hamper the attention he, and so many other faceless blue collar Joes and Josephines, deserve.

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Book Marks

Maya Angelou Phenomenal WomanAs you probably know by now we lost Maya Angelou today at the age of 86. Angelou was truly a Renaissance woman. Besides being a notable writer and poet (her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a must-read), Angelou was also a professor, actress, calypso singer, activist and so much more. The New York Times obituary is a lovely tribute to this talented and unique woman. The New Yorker pays homage to the remarkable woman with some photographs. And here are 13 essential Maya Angelou quotes.

The upcoming Q & A with Lisa Mattson about her novel Exes in My iPod is getting some local buzz from both OnMilwaukee and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Go Lisa (and my friend Kristine, of course).

What did you do by the time you finished middle school? Brooklyn teen Angela Content has authored two books!

You know you’re a book lover if

If Dolly Parton didn’t exist we’d have to invent her. What a wonderfully giving woman.

Wine, One Woman and a Whole Lot of Songs

10365865_10152088404785334_182127716057323390_nBeing a voracious reader, I’m a big fan of book/author events. But who says these events should only be held at book stores and libraries? Not Milwaukee’s very own Thief Wine. And on June 5th Thief Wine will hold a very special author/book event at its Milwaukee Public Market location.

Thief Wine will host a Q & A session with Lisa Mattson, director of Marketing and Communications for Jordan Vineyard and Winery located in California. Ms. Mattson will discuss her newly released novel The Exes in My iPod: A Playlist of the Men Who Rocked Me to Wine Country. The Exes in my iPod follows the rocky road to love of a woman named Harley Aberle, redneck waitress turned sophisticated wine maven, using a collection of songs from her ex-boyfriends that now reside in her iPod. Through these musical memories (and several bottles of wine), Harley learns the hard way on how loving and respecting herself can lead to true happiness and long-lasting love.

Now Mattson herself never thought she’s become a wine devotee. She grew up in the Midwest where people eschewed fancy bottles of red and white for cheap bottles of beer. However, while in college, Mattson discovered wine and grew to love not only the drink, but also the industry. Before working at Jordan Vineyard and Winery, Mattson worked at The Cellar Club located in South Florida’s Biltmore Hotel and for The Wine News Magazine. She has also worked for E & J Gallo Winery in Northern California.

Hosting the event is Milwaukee-based freelance writer and author, Kristine Hansen. Hansen writes mainly about food, drink and travel. She has been published in Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal, and is also the Wine Editor for FSR Magazine. Several years ago Hansen co-wrote the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee and Tea. She is currently working on a novel based in Napa Valley. And I must note, Hansen is also a very good friend of mine.

This Q & A session promises to be a lot of fun. Along with getting to know Mattson and her novel, attendees will be able to sample complimentary wines featured in The Exes in my iPod, as well as some delicious appetizers. Attendees can also purchase wine from Thief Wine.


Here are the details of the event:

Where: Milwaukee Public Market, Palm Garden, 2nd Level
400 N. Water Street, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Phone: 414-336-1111

When: Thursday, June 5th from 5:30pm-7:30pm. Q & A session starts promptly at 5:30pm. Book signing and tasting reception is from 6:00pm to 7:30pm

Event Price: FREE!

Book Price: Digital copies can be downloaded for $3.99 before the event. Paperbacks copies are $13.99 and will be sold at the event.

RSVP: Four tickets per person. Please RSVP before June 1

And I am happy to note Lisa Mattson reached out to me and is sending me a copy of her book, which I hope to have in my hot little hands shortly. I love discovering new authors. And I want to commend my friend Kristine who I know will ask some amazing questions and inspire good audience participation. I also want to give thanks to both Thief Wine and the Milwaukee Public Market for hosting this event. Both Thief Wine and the Milwaukee Public Market are true gems amongst Milwaukee’s local food and drink retail establishments.

 

Writer’s Block

2013-artwork-non-fiction-writers-block-sketchI know I’ve said this a million times, but where has the time gone? I can’t believe May is now more than half way over. Granted it hasn’t exactly felt like May here in Milwaukee, more like November. This past week temps were pretty low and we got a lot of rain. However, today is sunny and much warmer. I’m probably going to get off the computer soon, take a walk and run some much needed errands.

But what about this blog? Well, I just now you are dying to find out about future posts. I still need to work on my retro review, which has been on the back burner for a while (oops, sorry). I also want to write reviews for both a collection of short stories and a novel that I recently finished reading. Right now I’m in the middle of a non-fiction book I picked up from the library, which is begging for a review. I also met a local author at my church and she was kind enough to send me two of her novels. She writes a genre I’m not too familiar with so I was quite grateful to receive both of her books. I’m really touched that this prolific author is taking a chance on a fledgling book reviewer like myself.

What else? Well, next week Sunday some friends are coming up from Chicago to finally celebrate my birthday. And on Monday, another friend is taking me out to lunch to celebrate my birthday. Yes, I do realize my birthday was back in March, better late than never, right?

Reading to Reels: To Kill a Mockingbird

to-kill-a-mockingbird-movie-posterAfter the huge literary success of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird it only seemed fitting Hollywood would make a movie of Ms. Lee’s classic novel. And since its 1962 release the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic itself. The American Film Institute named it one of the top 100 films of all time. And Gregory Peck won a much-deserved Oscar for his laudable portrayal of Atticus Finch. I decided to revisit the movie. I’m glad I did.

As To Kill a Mockingbird opens, we are introduced by Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) Finch. They are being raised by their widowed father, Atticus, who makes his living as a lawyer in small-town Alabama, and minded by Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the Finch family housekeeper. Jem and Scout have just made friends with Dill (John Megna) who lives down the street. Most of the story is shown through the eyes of the Finch children, especially the tomboyish Scout.

The Finch children are rambunctious and curious, and they desire a chance to explore the world. And in their tender years, their world is their neighborhood. Scout and Jem are very intrigued by the Radley house, a house that always seems to always be dark and shuttered. It is rumored that in the Radley house lives a monster, a monster named Boo (Robert Duvall in his first movie role). According to Jem, Boo is a towering 6 and a half feet tall, drools, and has a large scar on his face. He lives on raw squirrels and cats, and his father often has him chained to his bed. What would happen if Boo escaped his chains? Would he hurt little kids?

And in the midst of all this speculation, Atticus is called to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). Tom has been accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Though there is ample evidence that Tom didn’t harm Mayella in any way, in the Jim Crow south an innocent black man means nothing compared to the opinions and bigotry of white people. The people of Maycomb let know Atticus should not defend Tom, doing everything from nearly lynching Tom to inadvertently threatening the Finch children. Atticus knows he has a monumental mountain to climb, yet he knows he must defend Tom. It’s the right thing to do. And before long, Scout and Jem realize it is the right thing to do.

The court scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird might be some of the most compelling committed to celluloid. Atticus tries valiantly to bring out the inconsistencies in Mayella’s story while also showing her empathy. The trial rivets the town bringing even Jem and Scout to the courthouse to witness their father in action. When the verdict is finally read, there is no jubilation or cheers. There are no tears of anguish or screams in anger. There is just an unsettling silence. As the white folks leave the courtroom the black folks stay behind standing in honor of Atticus brave defense of Tom Robinson. And a minister utters one of my favorite movie lines ever, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’.”

Bad things continue to happen. Tragedy beyond the trial befalls Tom Robinson’s family, and Atticus has to deliver the bad news to Tom’s wife. Jem and Scout are attacked my Mayella Ewell’s father Bob, but mysterious man saves the children from harm. That mystery man turns out to be Boo Radley. The man Jem and Scout fear the most turns out to be a savior.

Jem and Scout learn some very important lessons. Life isn’t always fair, but there are things worth fighting for. Parents, in all their wisdom, are only human. People aren’t always what they seem.

Directed by Robert Mulligan with a script by Harold Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird is filmed in black and white. It is a drama that feels fully human and real. Though I came of age of a much less “innocent” time than Jem and Scout, I recall a time when I thought grownups had all the answers, justice and fairness would prevail, and I had to fear the great unknown. I also remember telling stories to my friends, coming up with fun games during lazy summers, and worrying about my first day of school.

But of course, I’m also from a generation that was defined by assassinations, corporate and political scandals, unnecessary wars, terrorism, polarization and divisiveness, and family strife. I found myself weeping for a more innocent time that Jem and Scout were living in soon reminding me that no child has lived in a completely innocent time.

As mentioned Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. But I was also blown away by the performances of both Philip Alford and Mary Badham. Badham is especially remarkable as Scout, natural, inquisitive, brave and smart. I truly believe Badham gave one of the greatest child film performances. She’s right up there with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” Henry Thomas in “E.T.” and Victoire Thivisol in the French film “Ponette.” Badham never made another movie after To Kill a Mockingbird but what a tiny legacy she made. Her performance is both timeless and timely, and so is the film.

Meaty by Samantha Irby

MeatyIf Samantha Irby didn’t exist we’d have to invent her. Ms. Irby is a Chicago-based writer and performer who writes a blog called “Bitches Gotta Eat.” She’s hosted Chicago’s “Sunday Night Sex Show” and performed at various shows throughout the Windy City. She also opened up for comedian Baratunde Thurston on his “How to Be Black” tour and wrote an advice blog with her writing partner Ian Belknap. Oh, and with all of that on her plate, Irby also works regular job.

Irby is funny, profane, opinionated and brutally honest about herself and life in general. And now she’s sharing more of her wit and wisdom in collection of essays in her debut book Meaty.

Meaty is a hodge-podge of opinions, advice, rants, observations, recipes and personal memoir. Irby writes of bad dates and ever worse sex, white people she likes, her love of tacos, her struggles with body image, and her epic battle with Crohn’s disease.

She’s also not shy about talking about her less than ideal childhood where she grew up poor and black in an upper middle class mostly white Chicago suburb with two parents who died when she was very young.

In the opening essay “At 30” Irby takes assessment of herself at this milestone birthday and like a lot of people, finds herself lacking. She doesn’t have a career; she has a job. She’s sans husband and kids. She doesn’t own a house, is behind on her electric bill, owns a busted laptop and her fridge shows off her lack of grocery shopping skills. She claims she needs to work out and work on her unfinished novel. She’s in need of a therapist and nutritionist. She also desires some half-naked hot dudes, a decent parking space in her Rogers Park neighborhood and for people to declare her “the funniest person they know.” Well, if Irby keeps expressing herself she just might get the last one.

In “Forest Whitaker’s Neck,” Irby gives a full description of her naked body from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. And from the graphic description of her private parts I am now more familiar with Irby’s vagina than I am with my own. Reading this essay might be a good idea for any of her future bed partners or doctors so they’re not too shocked.

“I fucking love white people” Irby claims in the essay “Milk and Oreos.” However, Irby does have certain standards. She likes white people who shop at farmer’s markets and eat the free samples at Whole Foods. She’s not fond of white teen moms who smoke Newports and are named “Destiny” with 19 Es. In other words, she likes white people like me—farmers’ markets and free samples at Whole Foods? I am so there!

In the essay “I Want to Put a Fat Bitch on Television”, Irby describes her idea for a sitcom featuring a character oddly similar to herself called “Nell in a Hand Basket.” After reading about her idea for a sitcom I want Hollywood to make this happen. NBC just cancelled “Community” (sniff), and now they have a space to fill on Thursday nights. “Nell in a Hand Basket” would make great “must-see TV.”

And speaking of black women on TV, Irby doesn’t take Lena Dunham to task for not having a whole lot of black folks on her HBO show “Girls” in the essay “Elena Tyler. AKA Why I Can’t Be Mad at Lena Dunham.” She fears the show just might make the black character a token or a stereotype. And she also thinks we should appreciate a very young woman making a ground-breaking television show. And just so you know Elena Tyler was Felicity’s roommate on the late 1990s early 2000s TV show “Felicity.” Was Elena Tyler a token? Perhaps. Personally, I was too busy drooling over dreamy Ben Covington.

But interspersed with Irby’s hilarious rants and observations are moments of pathos. In her essay, “My Mother, My Daughter” Irby describes how her own mother pretty needed her care when Irby was still a child. Irby’s mother suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, a disease of which there is no cure. When Irby was around nine, her mother was in an awful car accident, which just exacerbated her MS. Irby betrays no detail in describing that horrific day and its aftermath that altered both their lives completely.

And in the essay “Skillet” explains her relationship with a mostly absent alcoholic father (who suffered from both alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder) through a dirty skillet Irby accidentally washed in soapy water. Just reading about the pain—physically, emotionally and mentally—inflicted on a young Irby made me want to invent a time machine and go back to give girl child Irby a huge hug and tell her nobody will ever hurt her again.

Then there is Irby’s battle with Crohn’s disease. Irby tells the brave readers that Crohn’s disease is a harsh mistress that can flare up at any time. She may shit in your car and she may crap all over some poor guy’s dick. Sure, it’s gross, but it’s Irby’s reality. Deal with it.

Meaty is probably not for everyone. If you are uptight, not comfortable with graphic descriptions of sex and shit or just lack a sense of humor, you probably won’t like Meaty. However, I found myself laughing, nodding in agreement with Irby, cringing on her behalf (or in recognition) and at times, feeling nothing but compassion and good will towards her.

Ultimately, Irby’s attitude seems to be “take me or leave me.” I’ll definitely take Irby and I hope she has enough material to write a sequel to Meaty, especially if it includes more recipes.

Book Marks

cropped-reading_is_coolFellow blogger and book enthusiast Lynette Noni writes a post on why reading is so important to her. It’s a great post and one I totally agree with!

Kirkus Review fears we may have overlooked these great 2014 releases.

Unsettling news. American children aren’t reading well or enough. However, there are some books that make children want to read.

Maybe the first independent bookstore sponsored Story Time Day on May 17th will help reverse the kids can’t read well and don’t want to anyway trend.

Why we should care about library funding.