Big Blue blues

My first job out of college was a temp stint at IBM Poughkeespie, where the starting wage was well above the minimum, weekday overtime was time and a half, and weekends paid double. You couldn’t work enough overtime to satisfy Big Blue in 1984. If they had their way, you’d spend two extra hours there every night and come in Saturday and Sunday, effectively doubling your weekly take-home. They bullied you to take more of their money.

As to the work itself, in retrospect I lucked out. While many people I met there on breaks, including Broadway Blotto’s friendly Czech girlfriend, spent their nights hunched over circuits with goggles on, straightening bent pins with tweezers over and over in a procession that must have continued well into dream time, I was part of a small team working the DI wash, a more gross motor and social undertaking that involved prepping Clark boards for their defluxing and loading them into and out of a truck-sized industrial washing machine — a lot of two-man lifting and calling out across a large room.

A Clark board was a panel processor or chip of some kind, varying in size but typically about a square yard and pretty heavy. Four or eight Clark boards filled a single tower only a foot and half shorter than me, and a large, blinkering room full of such towers — I saw it once — was what IBM then called “a computer,” one vastly less powerful than the glassy rectangle in my pocket at this moment — but that is Moore’s Law for you.


I worked the life-eating second shift, three in the afternoon to eleven. The young men my age with permanent positions, most of whom had gone to work instead of college, were all driving starter sports cars and taking up three spaces in the lot with them in a show of I don’t know what. They loved second shift. They went out clubbing — Bertie’s, Let’s Dance, Joe’s — every night. They were making serious money, and the future was golden until it wasn’t.

I went home and watched Letterman and ate bags of barbecue Fritos. The next day I’d have about enough time to do my banking, and I always had banking to do. I had no life and no needs — living at home and working the day-devouring second shift. The money was piling up in my Inter County Savings account, the interest on which was seven percent. That money, like most unspoken-for money since, ultimately went toward my first multitrack recording setup.

I couldn’t wait for the appointment to expire. There was a midpoint evaluation and renewal at three months. I passed, but, to their surprise and my father’s chagrin, declined the second term. I wanted to see my friends. Three more months of that, at age 22, was death.

I went to work at an experimental pre-school out of a woman’s home in Gardiner. They never paid me a promised dime, and my life was off on a certain foot.

Over the next ten years, IBM bailed on the Hudson Valley, the region that had accounted for at least 60 percent of its global manufacturing. How little we even discuss the impact of that any more, tens of thousands of jobs, many of them highly skilled, leaving Poughkeepsie, Kingston and  East Fishkill over a couple of years. Sometimes I think of Rochester, with the ghosts of Kodak and Xerox and that city’s still palpable sense of rotting genteel opulence, or about northern Pennsylvania and New York’s Southern Tier, where oil was first mined, whose coal powered a world built of their steel, all but gone into angry genetic memory.

Strange how rarely I think of the invisible elephant in our own little room, IBM, and how central it was to the world, and to the world of my youth.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.