You’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.