Day 171: Put a sticker on a piece of fruit.Posted: June 20, 2011
In the spring of 1963, Mr Brian Smith went to work at Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant in Topeka, Kansas.
Mr Smith was a man without a past. That sounds more mysterious than it actually is: he had a past, an ordinary and uneventful one, uneventful enough that it had withered, died, and blown away, leaving nothing behind. He lived alone, he had no friends, he had no family. He was a regular at a local grocery, a local diner, a local bar, but in each of these places he was more a piece of furniture than a person: he spoke as little as possible, was as forgettable as possible, was taken for granted.
Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant — or just Hyam’s, as the locals called it, the full name being too cumbersome for everyday conversation — bought in bulk bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and other such fruits as do not grow in Kansas, repackaged them, and then sold them to grocers across Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. In late 1961, Mr Hyam began negotiating with a chain of grocery stores in Oklahoma, but that deal was still “in progress” when Mr Smith went to work for Mr Hyam.
Mr Smith’s primary responsibility was placing the Hyam’s label on the fruit, after it was uncrated, before it was re-crated. Sometimes Mr Smith had to place the Hyam’s label over some other label: the label of the farm that grew the fruit, or the label of the distributor that sold it to Hyam’s, or sometimes, with fruit imported from South America, a label affixed as the fruit went through customs, coming into the United States.
Mr Smith worked quietly and diligently for Mr Hyam for ten years, clocking in and out at the same time every day, drinking one cup of black coffee on his morning break, eating a sandwich and a pickle for lunch, smoking two Lucky Strike cigarettes on his afternoon break. He did his job well, but not exceptionally: he was, as his supervisors remarked to one another, thoroughly and merely adequate.
In the summer of 1968, when Mr Smith was well assured that his work was not closely monitored — the regularity and adequacy of his labeling having been unvarying for five years — Mr Smith began affixing altered labels to the fruit moving through Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant. The alterations were minor, at first, and accountable for as printing errors: “Toepeka” or “Ham’s” or a PLU with the central numbers transposed. Mr Smith went no further than this for another two years, watchful for any sign that his alterations had been noticed.
They were not.
Mr Smith’s altered labels became progressively transgressive, incorporating profanity, communist slogans, anti-war sentiments — and still, nobody took enough notice to contact the public relations department at Hyam’s.
There is no indication of why Mr Smith embarked on this venture, or whether he took the job at the fruit-packing plant only to put this odd plan into action. The early, misprinted stickers were procured by altering the plant’s standing order with the local printer, Donnelley and Sons. Mr Smith seems to have special-ordered the later stickers from a printer’s shop in Tulsa, under a false name, and paid cash: this is only guesswork, though probably as close to the truth as anyone is likely to come.
In the last weeks of 1972, Mr Smith took his altered labels a step further, a step too far: all the labels featured was a crude drawing of uncircumcised male genitalia, white on red. These, at last, attracted the attention of the management at Hyam’s, and Mr Smith was soon identified as the culprit. He was summarily fired on a Tuesday afternoon, March the sixth, 1973.
He was seen later that evening, driving westward out of town, and never heard from again.