A Day in the Country at our Printing Plant

My first job, in the summer of my 14th year, was in a New Jersey baby clothes factory. Though this was to be a short engagement—someone reported me to the child welfare people who put an end to my working days for the next two years—it made a lasting impression. And so whenever I hear of an opportunity to visit a factory, my hand is always the first raised. I’ve seen how ergonomic chairs are made, smelled the sweetness of wood furniture factories, been grossed out by leather tanneries, fascinated by the intricacies of carpet tufting, and more recently, intrigued by the processes of carpet and vinyl recycling. I have yet to visit an automobile factory, but there’s a longstanding invitation from Italy that I might take up any day now.

I’ve been to the printer that produced Metropolis in its early years, but had no experience with the high-tech plant of the Brown Printing Company; our magazine is one of 500 titles running through the huge Web Offset Presses, Perfect Binders, and Polywrappers.

So I was eager to board the big bus parked in front of our offices on West 23rd Street one day in late June, headed for East Greenville, Penn., to watch our August/September 2002 issue being printed. The nearly two-hour trip took us through a congested Manhattan, a backed up Lincoln Tunnel, and a rush-hour New Jersey Turnpike, as well as various smaller routes south to Pennsylvania, toward Allentown. As we drew closer to the plant, the scenery became rural and small town. East Greenville itself is a lovely little American town with its Main Street, spacious front porches, and the stars and stripes fluttering in the summer breezes.

Brown is a huge, non-union factory, set on some 35 acres, with 400,000 square feet dedicated to manufacturing and shipping magazines and catalogs all over the United States. (The plant has is own post office.) Here we got to see how the magazine we produce in New York, actually gets made in the Pennsylvania countryside. The noise of the printers is deafening, their speed is eye popping, and the waste of paper and ink (though we were assured that they are recycled) was disturbing.

Though we often work long hours and on weekends in our comfortable, air-conditioned offices, we quickly realized how easy we have it. The men running the Web Offset Printers spend their days with machine noise raging around them. The women who sort and collate the pages are slaves to the rapidly running assembly line. And the repetitive tasks that everyone does there made our jobs look like something out of a dream.

But some factory workers also get satisfaction from their jobs. Metropolis Senior Editor Karen Steen who, like me, loves the big, loud, intricate machines that show human ingenuity in the way they’re engineered, was impressed by the skill of the people operating them.

“The printing press itself is monitored using a control panel that looks something like a recording studio sound board,” Karen told me later. “The operator played it like a piano, making adjustments by feel and altering levels of color and darkness so minute they were invisible to my eye. Seeing him at work, I knew Metropolis was in good hands, and finally I understood why it takes so long for the magazine to come back from the printer.” And every one of us understood that day how much New York and East Greenville need one another.

Categories: Cities