I went inside Amazon last week. That’s right: Santa’s distribution center and birthplace of the Kindle.
Approaching and entering the behemoth windowless block of Building Three was an experience similar to what I imagine boarding the Millenium Falcon would be like: momentous and foreign. Disappointingly, Harrison Ford didn’t greet me at the door. In fact, no one did.
In spite of the presence of two uniformed personnel behind an elevated desk, and several others busily working the airport-like security exits, bag search windows, and two full-body turnstile entries, no one acknowledged my appearance in any way. I looked down to check if I had turned invisible on the I-10 somewhere between my front door and theirs, but no, there at the bottom of me were the comfortable shoes I’d been instructed to wear in the email from Mbot’s school PTO leader, who’d organized this fundraising event which involved a five-hour stint wrapping gifts, $.75 apiece to go to Montessori to buy more turkey basters for turkey basting works, or materials for books about the biomes of the wetlands.
I had happily agreed to participate, imagining a relaxing yet enjoyably competitive afternoon around a large conference table making friends with other mothers while we honed our folding and taping skills. I shrewdly estimated that I could wrap perhaps seventy gifts, that I’d be a better gift-wrapper by the end of the afternoon, and that I’d have more friends. In my fantasy, the mothers were sipping mochas, but I thought maybe those wouldn’t be allowed, what with Amazon’s strict “no stains on the presents” policy.
The fact that of the ten or so unacknowledged and confused looking-individuals milling before the entryway, I recognized none, made my fantasy flicker, as though somewhere in it, a wire had come loose. Like in The Matrix, when there’s a break in the continuum. A bit perplexed by this, I followed the crowd, shuffling past a log book in which I listed the personal electronic devices on my person. No one actually told me to do this, and there wasn’t a title on the book, like “Personal Electronics Device Log,” but flipping back a few pages I saw that that is what I was expected to do with my allotted line. I then passed through a metal detector and stood with the group, whose members were finally communicating with one another, mostly to express how strange an experience it had been so far, even though we hadn’t actually started.
I spent several minutes of watching employees running (literally) past us across the concrete floor of the massive space, whose skylit metal roof was higher than a field goal kick and whose north wall I could not even see, it was so far away, and contemplating the wonders of contemporary engineering like a medieval peasant who lived in an earthen hut probably did upon entering Chartres. Then a woman appeared and ushered those volunteers who had “done this before” out of sight into the indecipherable maze of the machine. After a few more minutes, a tall man arrived, did not introduce himself, mumbled a few indecipherable words, and passed out nondisclosure agreements. I dug for a pen and wondered if I was breaking any rules by leaning my piece of paper on a pallet of hardcover copies of some book I’d never heard of. I read both sides of the agreement and signed it. In doing so, I promised not to blab about any of Amazon’s secret processes. I would not reveal what made the reindeer fly.
The tall man led us–and we walked for well over a minute–through a door and into an office, where we were instructed to leave our personal items (we could keep our cell phones, but were admonished that talking on a cell phone and gift wrapping were not to be done simultaneously). Then we were led–again, for well over a minute–back out into the main space and into a maze of high aisles of segmented, numbered, metal shelves that continued into infinity. Each held items of all description and groups of people moving with carts, moving among clusters of low-tech machinery, tables, ramps, etc.–the main impression I’m left with is of movement, but when I caught a glance of an enormous banner across a wall reading: “No Running Allowed,” I realized that the running was just an impression, too.
Our small, confused group came to a halt across from loading bay #126, where a small, businesslike and perpetually moving person named Dolores introduced herself (actually), and proceeded to briskly and impressively demonstrate The Amazon Way of gift wrapping. There’s a way to wrap a Kindle, a way to wrap a CD, a way to wrap Boxed Items, a way to wrap books, and a way to wrap Large, Unwieldy Gifts. So as not to disclose an nondisclosable details, I will just note here that The Amazon Way involves neither a conference table nor any props of the traditional sort, like snowman-festooned rolls of paper, scissors, and small plastic rolls of Scotch tape.
Dolores, perhaps simply because she had a name and a smile, endeared us to her immediately. I speculate that our reaction was completely engineered by Amazon, their goal being to intimidate us with The Machine so that we would pledge undying loyalty to our immediate superior. Without her, none of us would be able to find a restroom, much less our personal belongings or the way out.
I imagined myself tripping or taking a wrong step and ending up in one of the giant blue bags designated for Large, Unwieldy Gifts, taped into a box and sent to Scottsdale. Perhaps with a card like one I affixed to a beribboned something-or-other, labeled, “Merry Christmas Fartpants and Sophia.”* At the end of the day (but when do the days end, inside Amazon, at this time of year, when employees work eleven-hour shifts around the clock?) some astute security personnel might blearily notice that a volunteer had entered, carrying a personal computer and a cell phone, and never left. They would assume I was still at my wrapping station. By the time the shift, and the next, rolled around, the narrow line containing my name and descriptions of my personal electronic devices would be lost within the book. I would only be discovered, lifeless but not yet bloated, thanks to Amazon’s amazing coordination with United Parcel Service, the next day or the next. Fartpants and Sophia would never be really the same again.
Each volunteer found a station for him or herself, checked for the appropriate tools, and went to work. I was again reminded of The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves’ real body was plugged into a giant power plant. My station was beside two stations shared by pregnant best friends, the only others, I’d learned, who were also wrapping for Mbot’s school. One had a son attending the morning session, which is why I hadn’t recognized her. We three formed the end of the line, literally.
For those of you considering such a diversion yourselves, I can reveal the most important secret without breaching my nondisclosure contract, and it is this: take the station as close to the front of the line as possible, so you can pick and choose what to wrap before undesirable, difficult, time-consuming items get rolled down to you. One woman, obviously a veteran, was up at the front hand-picking the Kindles. The Kindle, and I hope I’m not disclosing any nondisclosable details here, arrives via roller belt at your station accompanied by its own custum wrapping box with a pre-taped ribbon. If you get to exclusively wrap Kindles for five hours, your school will be swimming in quarters.
I enjoyed the challenge of a thirty pound a La Crueset dutch oven, but the Lady Gaga coffee table book almost bankrupted Montessori. In a fascinating paradox, while the Kindle is the easiest item to wrap at Amazon, home of the web-order book, an old-fashioned book is the most difficult. As old-fashioned books come in all those inconvenient sizes, they do not arrive on the roller belt accompanied by custom wrapping boxes. And they have all those pokey, pointy corners. Eight of them, to be exact. Each one ready to tear your carefully folded pre-cut sheet of wrapping paper. Again and again.
Tears are not allowed.
“Biege goes with everything.” –Burberry and Dolores (www.dailymail.co.uk)
Neither are more than three pieces of tape per gift. Nor is crinkling. Nor is unevenness or crookedness of paper, ribbon, or card. Nor is the blue ribbon on the green paper. Or the blue paper with the biege ribbon. But when in doubt, use biege. “Biege goes with everything,” says Dolores. She and Burberry know.
As the two pregnant ladies and I toiled, giggling over each other’s wrapping skills and high-fiving our ultimate triumph (if I do say so myself) over each superbly turned-out gift, Dolores appeared among us, one arm raised above her head. In her hand was a gift. One that had been tracked via a nondisclosable computer code to our row. It looked like something Mbot might have wrapped. It’s gold paper was crumpled at one end, tamed by three large pieces of tape.
“The Box of Shame,” I intoned. The pregnant ladies agreed. We watched, without shame, to see who the culprit was. We muttered not quite quietly that it was one of the women handpicking the Kindles. That they needed the Kindles because they had no genuine wrapping skills. Since no one fessed up, Dolores picked someone, at random, although I don’t think completely at random–Dolores was on the ball–and gave a lecture and wrapping demonstration as the rest of us guffawed. We toiled to avoid producing a Box of Shame ourselves.
Twenty minutes later, quality control arrived again, in the form of Dolores holding above her head a small, blue-wrapped box. I squinted to see what was wrong: aha: the tag had been applied sideways. Again, the Montessori mothers denied responsibility with smirks of superiority. Half an hour went by. I wrapped a felt pocketbook-making kit, a history of war, and a block of suet.
Dolores appeared again, now shaking her head and threatening us. In her upheld hand was another gold package; this time, it featured a large tear on its side. Even worse: the tear had been taped–thus indicting the culpable party not only of shoddy wrapping but of trying to hide it. I was by this time beginning to feel sympathy for the poor sucker who was really, really bad at wrapping presents. Give ‘em the Kindles, we agreed. With those genes, their kid would need the $.75 more than mine.
After three full hours of wrapping, and quite a bit of standing around because the gift volume was down that afternoon, I counted thirty tags to add to the Montessori pile. I’d made $22.50.
I was chaperoned to the turnstiles but no Amazonian knew how or where I could retrieve my personal belongings. My chaperone had to be called back to lead me to a small office far away. Then, because no one told me what to do, I bungled the exit procedure. I made every mistake in the book. No one helped. The entry personnel let me try to go through the turnstile instead of the X-ray. They let me almost get through without giving them my bag. And then my cell phone. And then not turning on my cell phone to make sure it wasn’t hot off the shelves. It was an extraordinary example of what happens when a slice of the population comes to take their way of being (The Amazon Way) as The Only Way. It was as though, although they were aware there were volunteers in the building, they could not fathom our not knowing The Amazon Way.
As I drove home on the I-10 just before rush hour, I thought about The Amazon Way. The pregnant ladies had repeatedly expressed their amazement that Amazon was raking in from $3.99 to $5.99 extra for each item we wrapped. I did the math. On the average, this left Amazon not only the $4.24 per gift after Montessori’s take, but also with whatever it was saving by not actually hiring people to gift wrap. ‘Tis the season for giving to Amazon. But Amazon is also giving back to our community. The company doesn’t have to have a program that obviously no one there quite knows how to deal with.
I do applaud Amazon for giving it a go, although it is far from perfect. And maybe my $22.50 will result in an education that cannot fail to catapult Mbot into a chair in Amazon’s boardroom.
Or maybe the money will just buy more paper to make books illustrating the biomes of the wetlands. “There are the plants that reach and reach high and high to the sun,” Mbot had said when he brought home the first book he’d made. “There are plants that stay down under,” he told me when he brought home the second book he’d made. “Wetlands are stinky!” he announced, when he brought home the third book he’d made.
I love them. I will keep them all forever. It’s my way.
What’s your way?
*Sophia was not her real name; I changed it here to protect the wife of Fartpants