It wasn't a good day. It wasn't a bad day. It was just a normal day for him. He got up, stared at the bathroom mirror entirely too long during his morning routine and slowly ate a fast breakfast. No one wanted him. No one needed him. The job he held was going away soon, he was sure. And his skills, such as they were, were no longer in demand with new computers and robots handling work that once was done by specialists. He was tired of fighting for everything, and tired of being useless. Humanity was becoming unnecessary. He could see it every day. More people needing more food, while the top earners hoarded and locked themselves up in gated communities. He was depressed. A working man. But there wasn't any work. What jobs couldn't be done with machines had gone to other countries that didn't have minimum wage laws. People lived in slave labor in those places, and sometimes he found he envied them.
Done with his unhealthy breakfast, he put a dish in the sink to wash later and shrugged on a coat. He walked like a zombie down the apartment steps to the bus stop, trying not to make eye contact with his fellow zombies. The bus was late, as always, but he'd adjusted to it long ago. He reached work a few minutes early, but didn't clock in until exactly the right time. If he clocked in early, he was reprimanded by the stuffy supervisor. So he, and a dozen others, stood silently until the clock turned before snapping their cards into the reader.
On the line he did his work quickly and efficiently. The new robot the boss had installed did it more quickly and more efficiently on the other line. He glared at it, as if his hatred for it could make it break. His fellow workers didn't like it either, but no one talked about it any more... or talked at all, just tried to pull a John Henry, doing the best they could against a tireless machine that churned out parts faster than human hands could manage.
During his break he drank water. After visiting the restroom he was back on the line. He was aware, but not distracted, by his boss walking down the steps with another man. The supervisor joined them, and was dismissed to another area. He watched without watching as they walked along the line, pointing out slow spots and snags, talking loudly above the machinery, but not quite loud enough for him to hear every word. He was angry about the robot, and that made him curious. He drove thoughts out of his mind and concentrated on his job, chiding himself. So he was surprised when a hand fell on his shoulder.
"This is one of my best," his boss was telling the other man. Best? Him? "He's always on time, always polite, gets the work done fast and has been willing to learn new jobs."
"Can you spare him from the line today?" the other man asked.
"Certainly," the boss turned to him. "You follow Dr. Trenter here, please. He's going to have a word with you about a new opportunity."
He was numb and zombie-like, but followed the doctor up into the conference room. His boss was following as well, and once the three of them were in the room, the doctor spoke.
"Mr. Sangin says you can learn fast," the doctor said. "And he also said you teach your fellows pretty well."
He nodded, uncertain if he was allowed to talk.
"Well, the new machinery will do your old jobs faster, but we need people to supply the robots and keep them running," the doctor said. "And the company wants to expand into other areas. So we need to start retraining people to maintain the machines and to work in the other areas."
"You mean, we aren't going to be fired?" he blurted before he could stop himself.
Mr. Sangin smiled bitterly. "I don't fire my workers," he said. "I find new work. Who put that into your head?"
"The robots... they work so much faster," he said, trying not to mention the supervisor everyone hated. "I just thought... I thought we can't compete."
"I want my people to work smarter, not harder," said Sangin. "I want to keep my folks employed. I believe in America, which is why I have never moved my manufacturing to Mexico, despite many offers. These robots are to make your lives better, not replace you."
"I'm sorry," he said. "None of us... we all... the robots... the supervisor..." he lost his sense of what to say next.
"I think, perhaps, I never made myself clear," Sangin said. "I was so busy making sure the robots worked that I forgot to tell my employees not to worry." He turned to the doctor. "I think I have some calming to do. If he's worried, the rest of the employees are probably panicking." Sangin walked out, and the doctor looked after him bemusedly.
"Well. That was interesting," the doctor said. "I know Mr. Sangin isn't always the best communicator, but I expected him to be able to keep his employees from being afraid of being fired. So, let's get back to the first question. Do you want to train to become both a worker and a person who trains others?"
"You bet," he said. "I'll do what it takes."
"Good, when you come in tomorrow, report to me at Sangin's office instead of the floor. I'll start you on the robots immediately."
The meeting over, he headed back to the floor, his mind whirling. All work had stopped. Sangin had called a general meeting in the main delivery bay. He walked over in time to catch the start of the speech. Sangin started by saying he was sorry about the inconvenience the robot installation had caused. There was a slight grumbling undertone. Sangin then said the company would soon be expanding, and the robots were a part of the expansion. He said people would soon be asked to retrain to work on maintaining the robots, while others would be asked to train for new products.
"No one is going to be fired," he said, and had to pause as there was a relieved cheer. "In fact, we'll probably end up hiring a few more folks before this is all done. In the meantime, I think you need to know you've done very well by the company, and because of extraordinary profits, we will be giving everyone a small Christmas bonus."
The workers dispersed back to their stations, relief in their suddenly active voices. People who had been silent for weeks finally chattered in happiness. He was back at his station moments later, working quickly and efficiently, and wondering if it was all a dream.
If it was, he was dreaming the real America.