The sound rushes at you like an oncoming train, but there are no trains here, just printing presses and stackers and cutters and fork lifts that moan and groan and pound, pound, pound. "If you learn one thing here, it's how to read lips," shouts Lloyd James Jr. "You learn to read lips or talk by hand gestures. Or else you're hoarse by the end of the day."
Lloyd James can read lips with the best of them. He is a master of hand gestures. He is also superintendent of General Telephone's St. Petersburg Printing Co., where the noise never stops. Under his supervision, presses roll 24 hours a day, and they spit out telephone books by the millions.
This week, 406,000 phone books, printed at the GTE plant, will be passed out in St. Petersburg. The St. Pete book will be followed by the distribution of directories for Clearwater (331,000 copies), Hudson (51,000), New Port Richey (77,000) and Tarpon Springs (56,000).
Tampa will get 661,000 copies, Zephyrhills 36,000 and Plant City 43,000. Bradenton will receive 158,000 phone books and Palmetto another 31,000.
All are printed in St. Petersburg. And all those Suncoast directories added up represent a small part of the St. Petersburg plant's output. The plant prints books for 250 communities throughout the eastern United States. That's 21-million directories a year.
Twenty-one million seems like a lot of books, and it is. If you stacked them, you could sit on a phone book tower about 500 miles high. If you let your fingers do some walking through the pages, you'd walk to doomsday. Twenty-one-million phone books contain about 15-billion pages. The presses have to go day and night to keep up.
"We're very busy around here," says Lloyd James Jr., who has a way of understating things.
"It's organized confusion," says James' boss, plant manager Bill Viles.
"But we get it done," Lloyd James says. "We get it done."
A passion for phone books There is pride in his voice. James, 41, is passionate when it comes to putting out the telephone book. He began working at the plant while attending St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School. He started with a menial, minimum-wage job and worked his way up. Putting out phone books is the only occupation he's known.
It's been a good one for him. It's allowed him to support a wife and six children, including two in college. His dad worked at the phone book printing plant for 20 years before retirement. One of his brothers works for another printing company. A cousin is a press operator for a newspaper. Ink flows through Lloyd James Jr.'s veins.
He eats and sleeps the phone book. When he travels, he says the first thing he does when he arrives at the motel is look at the phone book to compare it to the one his company produces. He has nightmares about things going wrong.
"You can't ever relax," he says. "If you relax, you'd better be afraid, because something is coming that you're not expecting. When everything is going great, you'd better start looking over your shoulder."
Murphy's Law is always at work. Raw copy, coming from another part of the GTE operation, sometimes arrives late and menaces tight schedules. Machines break down. Paper tears. Ink stains. Humans make mistakes.
Meanwhile, people need their phone books. They want to order pizza, for crying out loud. They want to call the new neighbor about those barking dogs, or look up the number of somebody in class and make a movie date. Phone books help keep the world running smoothly.
"Last year, 96.1 percent of our books shipped on time," Lloyd James says. He is one of those people whose brains are filled with numbers. He adds wistfully, "Of course, our objective was 100 percent."
He comes in at 8 in the morning and goes home well after dark. Then he runs three miles in a neighborhood park. Running helps him calm down, he says, and it helps him stay fit. The job requires an athlete's endurance and the ability to work under stress. The size of the place, and the work, is enough to turn human knees to mush.
30,000 rolls of paper
The printing plant at 118 18th St. S fills a city block. Inside, are 185 employees who do everything from sweep floors to run six presses.
The main press is 110 feet long and 25 feet high. GTE had to knock out a wall to fit it into the press room. It's called an 8-unit, four-web Koenig & Bauer Compacta S-60 web-offset press. It's the largest of its kind in the United States and cost $9.3-million. Paper shoots through the press at the rate of 1,900 feet per minute.
The paper, from spruce trees, slips off huge rolls. Each roll weighs about 1,300 pounds. GTE uses 30,000 rolls a year. They arrive from Canada, New York and Texas every few weeks on a train, which drives into the plant for unloading. During the year, 300 box cars are needed to transport the rolls, which are stacked in two warehouses inside the plant. One warehouse holds 6-million pounds of paper, the other 8-million pounds. They're stacked from the floor to where the ceiling starts to go dark, about 50 feet up.
When Lloyd James Jr. came to work here in 1966, he was completely
unimpressed. He just wanted a job and a little spending money. One of his first bosses made life so miserable James was convinced the man had a personal grudge against him. "I wanted to punch him out he was so tough on me," James says. "But I came to understand him."
He came to understand that printing was his boss' life, and every phone book that went out of the plant was part of him. The boss couldn't stomach an employee who lacked the commitment to produce perfect phone books.
"He used to tell me to either get out of the business - or stay with it completely. There couldn't be an in-between. I stayed, and I love the business, and I love that man to this very day. He changed my attitude."
James, who expects the same commitment from his employees now, is what people at the plant call a "lifer." A few other people come close to his 24 years with the company. Joel Van Auken has worked at St. Petersburg Printing for 22 years. Not long ago, he discovered a way to improve the binding process by having a machine read bar codes on the edge of printed pages. Erik Muhlich, a printing engineer, has worked at the plant for 21 years. When the new press arrived two years ago, he figured a way to improve the rollers. The Germans who made the press are using his ideas in their new ones.
"This isn't work for everybody," Lloyd James Jr. says. "You have to have the aptitude for it. But it's satisfying. And there's nothing like seeing a book come out on time."
'I like chaos'
A book the size of the St. Petersburg directory takes about four weeks to print. The raw material for the book - about 1,200 pages of pasted-up copy - comes from the computers of other company offices, where information for the directory is compiled. The raw material arrives in Manila envelopes at the printing plant's production department.
The production department puts it on the schedule, which can be a juggling act, something like keeping airplanes from crashing into each other over the airport. Sometimes, six directories are printed at once. If one book is delayed, the schedule for the five other directories can collapse. Lloyd James Jr.'s job is making sure nothing gets out of synch.
"There's so many obstacles, so much chaos," he says. He pauses and smiles. "I like chaos."
From the production department the raw pages go to a room where they're attached to rectangular frames and prepared for the camera room. A sign on the wall says "DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME." In the camera room, four pages at a time are photographed. The camera, of course, is enormous. It's about 20 by 8 feet. Inside the camera is a roll of film - 200 feet long.
Plates are produced from the developed film. These plates are made of a flexible material and wrapped around the rollers on the press.
Paper is set up. Ink is prepared. The printing company never runs out of ink. Three tanks contain 120,000 pounds of it.
Press operators stand at a long console covered by buttons and flashing lights and digital computer displays. The console looks like something out of Star Wars. Somebody presses a button, and the presses roll, and there's no use in trying to talk because of the noise.
Eighty-five decibels require ear protectors. The room smells of ink, paper and hot machinery.
From time to time, a press operator pulls a page and checks for quality. If print is too light, ink has to be added. Too dark and ink must be removed. The key is making adjustments quickly. Sometimes there are more adjustments than at other times. Lloyd James Jr. remembers a job the plant once did for National Geographic. It was a booklet about caring for babies. A doozy of a job.
"There were a lot of pictures of babies," he says.
National Geographic is famous for its color quality, and the babies had to be perfect. "You had to work hard to get those flesh tones right." The printing plant got them right, but it took three weeks.
At night, Lloyd James dreamed about babies and the different colors they come in.
No rest for the weary
Give him phone books any day. As the phone books thunder on the big press, another press is rolling in an adjacent room. This one is printing the cover, which usually boasts a color photograph. As covers are finished, they're sent automatically on belts to the bindery room.
They arrive about the same time as the phone books that are hot off the other press.
The phone book comes into the bindery room in sections. The bindery machine, which is about 300 feet in circumference, arranges the phone book sections into the proper sequence, so that A's follow B's and so on. As books move along, pages are trimmed. Melted glue flows down a pipe and cements pages and cover together. Another part of the bindery does a final trim to square pages.
Then the books are automatically stacked, covered with plastic, and loaded into trucks. Trucks go to distribution centers, where part-time employees arrive in their cars, station wagons and vans. They deliver the books to you so you can order pizza from the new parlor on the corner.
At that point, Lloyd James Jr. would like to rest, but he doesn't, because he's not the kind of guy to rest, and because there's usually another phone book that needs to be printed. He tries to rest on weekends, when he plays golf, but even on the golf course his thoughts drift to the business of phone books.
"Playing golf is like putting out the phone book," he says.
"Frustrating. When you get frustrated at the plant, you go out on the golf course and try to forget. Then you get frustrated with your game, and that prepares you to go back to work."
When he arrives at the plant on Monday morning, the presses are running and books are waiting.