Back on the (swag bag) chain gang
Emily, our intern, sturdily bends and lifts boxes of loaded plastic bags onto our trailer; my back hurts just thinking about it. Suddenly, the trailer hits its tipping point, clangs down and, a monster awakened, begins rolling. Emily shrieks, and Andrew jumps out of the way.Our friend Pete, who only stopped by the say hello, but happens to be in the trailer’s path and to be 6 foot, 5 inches, braces himself, and stops the vehicle with outstretched arms, his body rigidly tilted and face grimacing: Atlas in a parking garage.We are in the parking garage because we are attending the Outdoor Retailer outdoor-industry trade show in Salt Lake City, and we are sponsoring a climbing competition to be held on the garage roof, and it was the idea of one of us, whom we shall hereafter refer to as Lisa, that we would assemble 1,500 “swag” (gift) bags for audience members. Ten of us are filling the bags with 17 items each.The air is thick, smarmy with city heat and enclosed auto fumes. It was 101 degrees out a few hours ago when we unloaded this trailer on the shimmering sidewalk.Today is travel and setup day for the trade show, which our magazine crew attends twice a year. We all rose at 5:30 a.m. and started driving two trucks and trailers at 6 a.m. Reaching Salt Lake in early afternoon, we unloaded all the furniture, magazine racks and signage that make up our show booth.My job is to run competitions, book signings, and other events at an artificial climbing wall for the next four days, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., a new event every half-hour; all book-ended with industry breakfasts and dinners, or sometimes starting predawn with organized runs or information sessions for local TV. My coworkers all have exhausting schedules as well.Yet these swag bags are probably the worst job I have ever done at a trade show.Elinor, ever-organized, had, with Lisa, arranged the items – from magazines to stickers to catalogs, beer-cup insulators, Frisbees and sports snacks – in a semicircle by the time I arrived from show setup across the street.I picked up a bag, started with a magazine and a catalogue, and cycled around, plucking and dropping in items. Elinor hustled behind me, slowed by me, and intimidating. I hurriedly reentered the line, chucked a magazine into a bag, ripped the bag, and held up other people.Someone reorganized us into a bucket brigade. My first job was to shake each bag out, half-roll-up a magazine and a catalog, and stick them in the bag.”There’s a holdup here,” Lisa said meaningfully, and steered Dean, a volunteer, toward me. Now Dean opened the bags, and I rolled and dropped into them.We labored, sweltering.”How many have we done?” we asked Quent, who looked up and counted the remaining magazine boxes.”Oh, about 300.””That’s all?” we bellowed.Continuing, we refined our task techniques. I rolled my magazines spine-out for smoother insertion.Like children, we kept asking Quent how many we’d done, or when his wife, Kara, would arrive with pizza.”At 6:30,” he repeated. We monitored our watches. Five hundred bags now.”Quent, not to complain, but Kara’s late,” someone said desperately.Eight hundred … 1,000 … 1,500. The job takes us from 5:30 to 9:30.I remember coming back to college one fall and asking an acquaintance the usual polite question, “What’d you do over the summer?”Tom said, “I worked construction.”Curious, I asked about it.Tom said, “It was really hard.” He added, “I always thought I would never want to end up sitting behind a desk pushing paper. Now I realize I would be very happy to sit behind a desk pushing paper.”On the night of the comp, Lisa tells Andrew, “Don’t forget the swag bags.””Lisa,” Andrew says mournfully, “I will never forget the swag bags as long as I live.”Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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