I got exposed to the printing industry through a woman I’ll call Mrs. Jones. She owned a duplex next door to me that a friend lived in. She and her husband owned an offset printing shop in Oakland. I would see her from time to time while visiting my friend and one day out of the blue, she asked if I would like to help them meet a deadline at the shop. I said OK and that evening she came and picked me up.
I had actually taken a lithography course at Berkeley High School in 1980 where I learned a lot of pre-press basics like negative developing and opaquing, cutting and pasting, plate making and some typesetting but our instructor Mr. Vaulter didn’t trust us to touch the presses. I always thought that a rip off. I suppose he didn’t want us messing up the presses since he actually contracted private jobs for himself with them. He used us students for his own personal gain which I think was highly immoral. I detest the taking advantage of kids. Scumbag.
Mind you, I was still in my teens and really stupid about life. Little did I know, Mrs. Jones’s offer of employment was just a veiled attempt to initiate an affair, but I digress. No, I never assisted her in that endeavor but she also never stopped trying. It wasn’t a big issue, sometimes a little pushy, mostly just bewildering and weird to me. It was like her husband could no longer perform or something. I did however, become a regular down at the print shop and gradually fit in with the rest of the family and workers. I did receive some ridicule from my female co-worker for being too stupid to see the bosses wife wanted to supply me with “extra benefits”, I just had to endure them calling me stupid from time to time, to my utter bafflement.
The primary customers for the shop were most of the Black Baptist Churches in Oakland, we printed their programs and promotional materials. Our second biggest customers were gospel music promoters since the husband used to be a music promoter himself. He had all kinds of stories about the acts he used to work with, real backstage behind the scenes stuff that sounded like pure fantasy except that you knew he was telling the truth. He had been in a car accident and had a permanent hole in his throat which made his stories seem all the more weighty. I will never forget that constant wheezing sound, you could always tell when he was close by.
His wife rarely came into the shop, she tended to their properties. I can’t really blame her, the shop was a mess but that’s the way many smaller shops are. We handled everything from start to finish for small jobs. Typesetting, graphics and layout to doorstep delivery. We had three sheet fed offset presses, all AB Dicks, an old 1930’s platen, a arc lamp, huge camera and dark room and a pre-microcomputer typesetting machine. That thing actually had levers in addition to a keyboard. Somehow, he had even gotten ahold of an ancient lead type linotype machine but it didn’t work. We did have a working model back in my high school lithography class but asshole Mr. Vaulter wouldn’t let us touch that either. Asshole.
The print shop was located right in the middle of the “Hoe Stroll” on San Pablo Ave. You probably know where that is, right after Emeryville almost to downtown Oakland. One of our favorite pastimes was to watch vice decoy officers attempting to be convincing prostitutes. It was like watching a football game for us, we would hold our breaths as a car might pull up and wait for him to seal his fate or drive away before reaching the point of no return, an offer of money for sex. We would critique what the officer was doing wrong attempting to be a prostitute. We could always tell but then we were there every day and knew most of the hookers, they would come in from time to time to rest. We would laugh and make fun of the way the decoys dressed, “A hoe don’t dress that way, she’s too pretty and too healthy lookin”. You could tell others were afraid and didn’t want to be doing what they were doing, “A hoe don’t stand that far back when a car pulls up, she should be rushing right up to the window! She ain’t gonna catch nobody, she’s scared, she’s scared…” Sometimes we would root for the john’s, “no you fool, can’t you tell she’s a decoy?! Haven’t you ever bought a prostitute before?”. We would laugh at the ones that got caught too. All the regular prostitutes would vanish when the decoys were out and as soon as they left (when they caught one or two johns) it was immediately back to business. The typesetter would regale me with stories of deals he would make with the girls who were trying to hide from the cops and recount their negotiations act for act. What can I say, the printing industry isn’t very exciting.
The place was almost like a barber shop, I was the lightest thing in there other than the paper. There was one guy who was a friend of the boss who used to come in and just hang out. His favorite thing to do was exchange barbs with my female co-worker. “Well Karen, black on black today huh?” Karen: “You should know, you disappear when we turn out the lights.” and on and on. It was like being in an episode of Sanford & Son watching Fred and Aunt Ester go at it.
Other than that, nothing much else happened. I mostly did pre-press work but never actually ran the presses, again I wasn’t trusted. It wasn’t until I started temping that I actually got my hands on a real press. Come to find out, I hated it. The damn things are so temperamental, everything has to be set up just right from color matching the inks to feeding the sheets to jogging the paper to registering the image to proofing etc. etc. Most of your time is spent in set up and breakdown, the job itself is over in just a few minutes. Completely unrewarding and dirty. The noise, the deadlines, the stress, forget it. They say the printing industry, especially offset and web, are dying due to copiers. Good riddance. Did I mention most everything in a print shop can cut your fingers off or pull off your arm? I had to rush a co-worker to the hospital late one night on graveyard when a press de-gloved him. He got his hand caught in the press’s rollers and it just pulled the skin right off his entire hand like removing a glove. Didn’t even slow the press down. That happened in another shop, not the one I just described. The guy was clumsy and should have never been around such a dangerous machine anyway. After that, I stayed as far away from him as I could get. The only time I got hurt was while I was holding a three hundred pound roll of paper (yes, I used to be freakishly strong) and the boss came up behind me and yelled. Startled, I twisted around while still holding the roll and wrenched my back. Out for a week on Workman’s Comp. Again, not the same shop described above.
A few years later I went to work in a flexographic shop that made adhesive labels. They didn’t make the actual paper themselves (they ordered huge rolls of that) but did die cut them and print the graphics. They did have a graphic design department that could originate simple designs but nothing too complex or fancy. Nothing that anyone with a few basic Photoshop and pre-press production skills couldn’t do. My skills as of now from just playing around with graphics apps would far surpass any of the stuff they ever did and charged customers a mint for. I can’t believe what they charged for practically nothing. It was a family owned business and the owner, a little old man, was a tyrant of cartoonish proportion. My experience there turned me completely off of working for any Mom and Pops family owned businesses ever again. You were always running into the boss and if you got into it with one of them you had to fight them all. Bunch of assholes too.
Flexo is web printing as opposed to sheet fed meaning that the paper was on a roll. The shop had five presses. Their sizes were four, six and eight ink stations respectively. An eight station press can produce “process” images meaning that it was capable of printing the full spectrum of colors, about four million or so. The image would be of photographic quality coming out. I operated a Mark Andy four station press which could not quite reproduce true to life photographic quality images but could still do a lot, especially if using half tone plates. The plates for flexo presses are basically big rubber stamps made of a pink polyurethane material that could stand up to high volume runs. In the offset printing process, your biggest worries are 1. offsetting (an image bleeding off onto the next sheet that falls on top of it), 2. registration (your image being crooked) and 3. paper jams (they stop the press). In flexography, your biggest concern is 1. slip (the paper slides as it contacts the plate), 2. making sure your color values stay constant throughout the run (color changing), 3. keeping the proper pressure on the plates for a clean image and 4. making sure the plates stay stuck to their rollers. In label making, you also have to make sure that the roller cutting die is properly adjusted to just cut through the adhesive backed paper but not it’s substrate (the shiny backing you peel off of a sticker). Both offset and flexo produce a lot of wasted paper in the setup process, sometimes the waste totaled more than the finished job. The customer pays for all of it including the custom machined roller die cutter which we keep and may use on other jobs.
Web presses are super dangerous, even the smallest one can pull you in and chew you up. My four station press had a three horsepower motor, it would pull your skin off and break your bones before jamming if you were lucky, otherwise you were getting an amputation on the spot. A six or eight station would pull your arm clean off without even slowing down. I’m not kidding. A lady working at a shop down the street from where I live now had that happen to her, the press pulled her whole arm right off. The only reason it didn’t totally eat her was due to a co-worker with fast reflexes slapping the kill power switch. Those presses run extremely fast too. You can’t be careless, can’t wear any jewelry, can’t have long sleeves, can’t have loose clothing, can’t wear rings or even a watch. Our shop had a couple of guys lose their watches (ripped off their wrist), a girl lost part of her scalp when her hair got caught and somebody else had a ring snatched off. If a tool dropped, you just let it go and wait for it to come out the other end, mangled. When all the presses were running with their dryers the shop got too loud to bear, you had to wear hearing protection. I never want to work with dangerous equipment ever again.
The job was either extremely boring one day or super stressful the next. That type of environment tended to make people a little crazy. We did stuff to entertain ourselves while on the floor when the tyrant boss wasn’t looking. I lived for our lunch hours. We were located next to Lake Merritt and had a nice little community to refresh ourselves in. As a matter of fact, I actually saw the making of the movie “Made In America” while it was being shot at the lake. I saw Whoopie Goldberg riding that yellow bike and cursing like a sailor and Ted Danson riding the elephant. I wish I had seen Nia Long but no such luck. Anyway, when you release people back into the world after enduring that much stress, they go nuts. It was non stop laughter until we had to go back to work. My co-worker and friend could imitate our cartoon character like tyrant boss perfectly and I would laugh so hard people thought something was wrong with me. I miss those moments, the camaraderie and all. It was just a much better time in life back then than now.
The boss was also a slumlord and some of us rented his apartments. If you were playing hookie from work he would actually walk over to your place and use his pass key to round you up. I’ll never forget the time I woke up one day to him standing over me in bed demanding that I report to work immediately. He shadowed my every move like a cop, all the way over to the shop. Those were the days…