Story for March — Concentration


Some people love to tell stories. Joe, the Chief Pressman at a large printing company, was a large, genial man who always had a story. I met him for the first time when I worked for a small college. As director of publications, I oversaw design and production of posters, books, and catalogs. Joe’s company had been low bidder on a six-color book and we were working on it.

Printing setup takes time. Finally the big Heidelberg offset press was running in slow mode, turning out printed covers one by one. Joe, his assistant, and I were inspecting the “make-readies,” the first printed pieces, to see if they were up to the quality we demanded.

“See the guy over there?” Joe said, pointing with his unlit cigar at a man working carefully on a much smaller press across the floor of the huge printing room. “He has an interesting story, I’ll take you over to meet him if he’s free when your job is running good.

“Hey, Mike, remember the other rollers,” Joe shouted at him. The man grinned and nodded and did a thumbs-up in silent response. I took another look at him. He was a short, stocky man with a square face and a short neck that rounded into narrow shoulders. His small mouth and slanted eyes gave him the appearance of someone I’d seen or met. Then I realized I didn’t know him as a person, he just had a look I’d seen before. Mike’s appearance identified him immediately as having Down’s Syndrome.

Joe had been genially shouting at Mike ever since I had come in, at least an hour before. I took Joe’s manner for granted since he was in charge and aware of everything that was going on. He was always yelling at someone and, indeed, yelling was the only way anyone could be heard when four or five presses and other machines were in operation.

Sounds were magnified in the bare concrete factory building: whirr-whirr; click-clack, click-clack; stamp, bang, stamp; ching, ching, ching. They followed one another, all rapid fire, all weaving and layering over and under one another and bouncing off the hard walls. The metallic din rose up toward the several stories-high ceiling, echoing and dissipating as it went.

Joe looked at one more make-ready of my printing job, approved it for my viewing, and when I smiled, nodded a go-ahead to his assistant and said to me, “Come on in my office, I’ll give you a cup of coffee and tell you about Mike.”

Joe’s office was clean and bare, with glass window walls along two sides looking out onto the factory floor. Dusty bands of sunlight from the clearstory windows high above crisscrossed at angles to the floor. It was quiet enough inside the office to talk.

“His Mom’s a neighbor of mine,” Joe said. “She’s got only him and when he was a baby she was that upset about him, let me tell you.” I looked again at the man. His machine was not running. He was polishing every inch of one of the rollers and it was shining.

“He looks fine to me,” I said, “what’s the story?”

“Well, Mike ain’t fine, really.” Mike’s Mom was real upset when the docs told her he had Down’s sickness or something like that. He was a cute little baby even if he had a puggy nose and a funny face, and when he got older he just smiled all the time. Good natured, you know? Not like my kids, he never cried that I can remember unless he fell down and really got hurt. But he didn’t talk, and he didn’t talk, and pretty soon his Mom started to think what could she do for him? How would he grow up? What would he do when she was gone?

“So she took him in for tests and they said, ‘Put him in a special school,’ and so she did. But she kept him at home to live and drove him over every day even though it was a long way. Then she sat and waited for him while he was in the classes, she was that devoted to him. He was her only one, remember? ‘No live-away home for Mike, she said.’

“They did help him at that school. He learned to talk and they found he was a bit deaf, but with a hearing aid he started to do better. Then, after a few years he was gettin’ to be a teenager and she wasn’t any younger and then her husband had a heart attack. Lucky the husband was a Union guy, the disability pension helped a lot and with Social Security, they got by. Mike was too old for school by then and he was just around the house. Nuthin’ for him to do.

“Mike’s Mom said to me, did I have simple work for him? Maybe sweep the floor? So I started to take him with me every day and I trained him to clean up. I can tell you we never had the floor so clean. I had to tell him to quit. Then I saw him watchin’ one of the guys runnin’ one of our small two-color presses. I says to myself, let’s see if he can learn to help on that and, guess what, he could.”

Joe paused to refill his coffee maker. As he worked on it, I remembered a years-old story about another, quite different, printing company. My partners and I owned a tabloid-sized community newspaper and two of us were watching the press run. It was being printed on a small web press in a sweatshop in a dark deep sub-basement city print shop. The dingy, freezing cold space was so filled with huge rolls of newsprint paper there was barely room to walk around. The web press was going at full speed. The paper threaded around, up, and over the rollers in a complex pattern, catching the inked impressions, and being folded and trimmed into a finished newspaper every second. The pressman, who was also the boss, was watching intently and his assistant was walking around. I was fishing out printed papers from the mounting stack to check their quality.

Suddenly there was a shout, the Pressman hit the panic button and the press stopped instantly. The assistant lay on his back on the stone floor under the press. It had happened so quickly that it took me a second to realize the man had been stripped naked from the waist up—he had nothing on at all above his blue jeans. He was white and still. My newspaper partner drew in a deep breath and ran up the steep stairs yelling, “Ambulance.” I knelt over the man, who was now aware and moaning, “Can you hear me?” I said, “Wiggle your fingers, open your eyes, talk to me…” he obediently did all I asked and then flexed his arms and legs. Soon it was clear we could safely put pads of newspaper under and over him to keep him warm until help arrived. I was worried about him lying on the freezing concrete floor. I took off my coat and put it over him. When the ambulance arrived, I drove my little car after them to the hospital. I was trembling uncontrollably—and it was not just from the cold.

The man had been wearing heavy, long-sleeved BVD underwear, an outdoor plaid wool work shirt on top, and a thick denim printer’s apron over all. He had ventured too close and brushed a roller with his sleeve—a tiny slip, just a split second. The press had ripped every bit of his layers of clothing off so quickly I doubt a camera could have captured the motion. I don’t want to imagine what would have happened if buttons and ties had not released when he pulled away in panic. He had been freed to fall back, away from the press. As it was, he had three broken ribs, dislocated his shoulder, and had many bruises and much pain.

Sitting in the hospital, waiting for his family to arrive, I remembered that the shop had an old, hot-metal linotype press. They used it to make fancy wedding invitations. The type was made of lead, melted down and re-cast when the letters would wear down. I suspected that breathing the fumes for twenty years when the lead was melted was the reason for his loss of focus.

In buying printing, I have seen many different types of presses in operation and have always been impressed with the respect the pressmen have shown for their machines. They are always wary—they know the damage the press can do.


Joe handed me a fresh cup of his steaming hot brew. “Hard to believe, but it’s been twenty years and Mike runs that little press nearly all by himself. I get him started on work, of course, and I watch him. If there’s a new kind of job, I or one of my guys shows him the steps. They know how to understand him, even though he don’t talk too clear—his tongue’s kinda’ thick, you know? But he gets everything, even jokes. For instance, we have a little gag. I told him one time that he was so much work for me, he was giving me gray hair—just kiddin’ around—and, after a while, he understood why that’s a funny thing to say. Now he says it to me if I’ve kept after him a lot. He says it in that way he talks, kind of jumpy and down in his throat, ‘I’m getting gray hair,’ and we all get it and we all laugh. He loves that. It means a lot to him when people understand him. Like he’s one of the boys, you know? Of course, When he first started, I had to be tougher on him than any of my other men—kept after him all the time. But he was okay with it, he knew it was for his own protection. Now once the job is goin,’ he’s great. He never wavers, he’s at one hundred percent attention.

All the time Joe was talking to me, Mike was working with another printer to set his press up. Soon it was ready and running. Mike gave an okay signal to his partner and looked over at the office window and gave Joe a thumbs-up. Joe nodded—a big, slow, dramatic nod—and gave a thumbs-up to him in return. Mike turned back to the press and increased the speed, watching with complete attention. “Mike never gets distracted when he’s on a job,” Joe said. “When I yell, he gives me the old thumbs-up sign or the okay with his thumb and finger round to let me know he’s got it.

“A few years ago his Dad died and now he supports his Mom. How about that, isn’t that somethin’? She never would have thought, and neither would I, when she came to me that day years ago to have him learn to sweep the floor. No, sir, she never would have had any idea that he would be a regular employed guy and supporting both of them someday. Like they say, ‘he’s the sole support of his family.’ Come on over, I’ll introduce ya.”

We walked across the floor and Joe said to Mike, “This lady was admiring how you cleaned up your machine.”

Mike looked at me and smiled, “Maybe I’m better than Joe thinks, even if I give him gray hair?” He spoke slowly and, since I was prepared for his guttural style and knew the joke, I understood every word.

We all laughed and Joe handed him a cup of coffee. Then we stood and watched as Mike looked after the job—now and then lifting a finished sheet to see if it was consistent with the rest and making small adjustments to the machine. “Pretty good?” he asked, turning to look at us.

Joe and I nodded. “Pretty good, Mike,” Joe replied, “Everything you do is pretty good,” and he gave a dramatic thumbs up.

Mike beamed.

By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014