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Darkness on the Edge of Pitman

In 1978, Bruce Springsteen released an album called Darkness on the Edge of Town, which sold over three million copies. Yeah, they were still making albums then.

Now there will be darkness inside one of the busiest buildings the South Jersey community of Pitman has ever seen. Sony Music shut its doors permanently on March 31.

I started with Sony when they were still Columbia Records back in 1977. That Springsteen album was one of the first big sellers, and may have ushered in the peak period for the Pitman plant.

Things were different in 1978. A postage stamp was thirteen cents, a gallon of gas in the US averaged sixty-three cents, and you could get a new home for around $62,500.

These days it seems like gas prices rise sixty-three cents a week, and a lot of my old co-workers at Sony are about to have a lot more trouble affording their homes.

Things slowed down badly for the plant in the mid 2000s. The Sony plant has been hurt by iPods, DVD sales have been off, and they stopped making Blu-ray discs. When the layoffs began, my first word from human resources was that I needed two people in front of me to retire to hold on to a job. And one of them was a look-alike for Elvis Presley.

So all I needed to remain on the payroll was for Elvis to leave the building. At least there was a chance.

When business takes a downturn, a company does whatever is necessary to stay afloat. The first thing we saw was the elimination of our sick days. And it turns out we wouldn’t be seeing our standard cost of living raise next year, because pay hikes would now be based on a series of evaluations.

The next thing that went was the paid lunch break. A free lunch was helpful for those employees working rotating twelve-hour shifts.

It’s natural for older people who have been at a company for a long duration to try to hang on to their position as long as they can. They hope to ride out the economical storm, and hold out hope that things will get better. After putting in so many years at one job, they’ve built up a comfortable weekly wage.

After putting in an extended term, it takes a significant change in lifestyle to adjust to a new company’s lower starting wage. The children of employees with families don’t take kindly to less, not to mention the bill collectors.

But you’re not exactly what a company is looking for when you’re over 40, or even, heaven forbid, 50, when you find yourself re-entering the job market.

Times have changed. Springsteen is over 60 now. Bruce, Billy Joel, and even Barbra Streisand kept us busy for a long time. And whatever you might think of him, Michael Jackson probably paid off a quarter of my mortgage in overtime pay with his albums “Bad” and “Thriller” back in the 1980s.

During peak periods, Sony employees saw their co-workers more than they saw their families.

One of my best friends from the plant has four children, three of which are autistic. Life wasn’t easy for him when he knew where his next paycheck was coming from. And Sony survived the tragic, on-the-job death of mechanic and friend Paul Carr in 2003.

Sony could occasionally resemble a high school when business was slow. Some of the most creative minds I have ever seen were found on the Sony warehouse floor.

One night on the midnight shift, a long departed employee drew the face of another worker on approximately every third sheet of toilet paper in the men’s bathroom.

Don’t ask. We did whatever we could to keep ourselves going on midnights.

And I have to say that I was fortunate enough to meet my best friend at the Pitman plant, when it was still Columbia Records.

I finally accepted a buyout in 2008. When a supervisor reads from a prepared speech while in the process of laying off fourteen employees it doesn’t give credence to an old company policy that employees are their number one asset.

Sony Music lasted longer than it had any right to by constantly re-inventing itself. Records became CDs became DVDs became Playstations.

People are saying the music died in Pitman on March 31, 2011. A lot of songs have been remade and remixed over the 51-year life of the Pitman plant. And brutal economy or not, people can be remade too.

May the Sony employees get the extended play version of their second career sooner rather than later. All they wanted were things that can only be found in what is now the darkness on the edge of town.

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