Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it–it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life.
–Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
The smell hits you first.
Even before you step out of the car, the stench is there. Pigs. Thousands of them. You park the car and head towards the building with the Maple Leaf logo emblazoned on the front. You’ve signed your life away for the next three months and it’s increasingly harder to remember why.
You suit up: One shirt, white. One pair of pants, white. One full body slicker, yellow. One face mask, check. Ear plugs. Double check.
The smell of chemicals wafts up the corridor. Machinery rumbles and groans. You walk down a long corridor towards the “Dirty Kill” side of the plant, as it’s affectionately known. That’s where you work. A freezer door is ajar, so you peek inside. Hundreds of pigs hang from the rafters, gutless, strung up by their jaws.
You pass Krishin’s office. He’s the night sanitation supervisor — the meanest prick in the company. And as luck would have it, he’s your boss. He treats you like shit and it’s unclear why. You’ve run it through your head many times. Maybe it’s because you’re a pampered middle-class white boy who doesn’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, according to a speech he gave you last Monday.
Sweat beads on your forehead. You’ve only been working the night shift for a month, but you know this plant better than you’d like. It fills your nights and haunts your days. In this hard place, time moves with the speed of an injured animal, slowly lurching forward.
You do it for the money. That’s the honest truth. After your freshman year at university you were flat broke. Cash was a key concern in returning to school. The quality summer jobs had already been snatched up. Dad told you Maple Leaf was the best paying outfit in town and you really didn’t have any other options, unless you thought working for minimum wage bagging groceries sounded profitable. It didn’t. And Maple Leaf really didn’t sound so bad in theory. You’d probably end up packaging cuts of meat, like some giant delicatessen. It could be fun.
You hit a switch and the turbines start spinning. It takes them a second, but once they’re going you sure as hell better stand back and watch your step. The fire hose is draped over a railing five feet away, awaiting use.
The Dehairing Machine
You’re not supposed to clean this apparatus while the turbines are spinning. You could potentially trip and get your head slapped off by the rotating rubber paddles. Each one is about the size of a canoe oar. They take forever to clean by hand because the hair becomes tightly woven into each crevice. Krishin has been checking up on you at the end of every shift. You haven’t been getting all your work done on time so, you’ve started spraying down the machine while it’s running. It shaves off a good half hour, plus you don’t have to use the pitchfork as much.
So you turn on the hose and begin the gruelling task you’ve been assigned: to sanitize the dehairing machine. It spits out clumps of hair, fast and furious, in wet, sticky tufts. When the long coils of hair start untangling themselves, it’s like you’re playing a video game: the mission is to pulverise flat, hairy snakes with your water bazooka. A large cluster of hair springs off the turbine, splattering your faceguard. You wipe it away, keeping your hose steady on the massive spinning cylinders. For some reason, “Sweet Home Alabama” is stuck in your head.
On your first day, Mac (a portly country boy with an offbeat sense of humour) was assigned to train you. You remember him eating a sandwich, lazily sauntering as he showed you around.
“It sh’all about spheed and effith-ciencthy”, Mac explained, his mouth full of ham. “This ma-sheen–”, big swallow “–dehairs almost twelve hundred pigs a day. You’ll only have two tools at your disposal for cleaning: a pitchfork and a fire hose. Make sure to shut off the machine when you’re cleaning. God knows the last thing we need is some kid getting killed on the job. Make sure to use your time wisely or the boss’ll ride your ass hard.”
Mac reminds you of a sweaty John Goodman with a moustache. He doesn’t bother wearing a protective jacket or facemask, when both are required. You ask him why.
“I could be covered in hog sauce or chocolate pudding,” he says. “I really don’t give two shits either way.”
This machine you’ve been assigned to clean is almost two stories high. It looms over you, like a slumbering carnivore. It’s a giant mouth and you’re the dental floss, doomed to clean its teeth, night after night.
Mac tells you the dehairing machine is a necessity for any “self-respecting” hog plant. Three large cylinders with rotating rubber paddles remove the hair from a hog’s carcass. As the hogs are stripped bare, a steel auger churns the waste. Shaped like an immense corkscrew with serrated edges, the auger constantly turns, digesting the hair and excreting it through a chute into a sewage pit.
Of the three sections, the first is the tallest. You have to climb three sets of stairs to reach the platform at the top. On either side of the machine there are platforms you have to climb, one for each cylinder in need of sanitation. Once you’re on the platform, you open up the panel that covers the paddles and start scraping out the hair (and whatever else is stuck inside) with a pitchfork.
The Break Room
It’s time for dinner. You don’t wear a watch and, for some reason, there are no clocks anywhere in the plant, expect for one in the mess hall. You’ve started to rely on your body clock to determine what time it is. You’re getting pretty good at it. Your guess is never more than ten minutes off the current time (it’s a skill you’ll retain your entire life).
You step inside a small white room filled with benches and remove your helmet. It almost feels cozy in here, compared to the high ceilings and cold steel found in the rest of the plant. Three or four guys sit in the corner, swapping stories about weekends spent with their “bitches”.
The dining area is divided into two sections: smoking and non-smoking. Smoking is one excess the peons at Maple Leaf allow themselves, since their nights are otherwise filled with chemicals and hog shit. The smoking room is packed but, since you don’t smoke, you enjoy a quiet dinner alone in the opposite room. You like it better this way. You pull out the food your mother prepared for you: leftover lasagna, tossed salad, some chocolate cake and a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.
You borrowed a copy of Crossfire Trail by Louis L’Amour from the library and you’ve been reading it with dinner. The bi-weekly community newspapers were getting stale. For thirty minutes a day, you’re completely removed from the hog plant in mind and soul, leaving the body behind. You exist in a band of hopeful Northerners, blazing a trail to the Californian plains. The protagonist, Rafe Covington, is a lone rider, protecting Northerners caravanning across the west. He allows himself no excess but deals with the cards life has dealt him. You can relate to that. You pulled a mean hand when you took this job and you draw the same cards each night.
It’s time to return to work. You look at the clock. It’s a quarter to ten. You really should have thought through working a night shift. Many variables should have been taken into consideration before accepting this role: the chemicals, the hours, the people. You’re trying not to feel bitter. Krishan is trying to crack your spirit.
When you first applied for this job, Tyler and Ashley — good friends from high school — did the same. They ended up with jobs on the day shift, packaging meat as it nears the final stages of the processing line. Once they’re done, the little piggy parts are wrapped and shipped to grocery stores across the country so everyone can enjoy.
You can tell Krishan’s been working here for too long because he’s always pissed off. Always. His brow is constantly furrowed and he has a penetrating stare. At almost six foot six, he looks down on you literally and figuratively. His being exists in a constant state of criticism.
You’re pretty sure the only time you’ve seen him smile was a week ago. You were walking towards the bathroom and didn’t notice an oily pig liver on the floor. You slipped, landed on your side and got the wind knocked out of you. You looked around to see if anybody noticed and saw Krishan standing in a doorway, a smug look on his face. Then he turned and walked away. You wished for an earthquake. Clear in your mind, you saw a giant fissure appear in his path. A perverse smile crosses your face as you remember the image well. Krishin tumbles into the gap. The earth swallows him whole.
The Mustard Gas
The amount of deadly chemicals at your disposal is frightening. On your first day of training, you sat in a large classroom with a number of other new recruits. A stubby Asian man with horn-rimmed glasses kindly informed everyone that hydrochloric acid and ammonia were two common chemicals used in the sanitation process of the plant. If these two chemicals were mixed, he warned, you’d create mustard gas and, if exposed, you’d probably die. He said it would be as potent as anything used in World War I.
The Night’s End
You can feel the clock closing in on the eight-hour mark, so your night is almost over. You wrap up the fire hose and tuck it behind a large pillar. You close all the doors and begin to power down the dehairing machine.
Krishan, walking towards your station, greets you with a curt nod and begins a slow inspection around your area. He stops and stoops down near one of the large pillars. He beckons you over. By his expression, you’d think someone just took a shit on the hood of his car.
“Tell me, what is this?” He points to a clump of hair tucked behind the base of a pillar.
“It appears to be a clump of hair,” you reply.
“It does, doesn’t it? And so it appears that you were unable to do your job properly! Why don’t you take some goddamn pride in your work instead of wastin’ my time here!?”
He starts in with the insults. “What kind of a person are you? You white boys, you’re all the same. Worthless!”
Then something peculiar happens. As the spittle flies and his eyes rage, it seems that Krishan is getting smaller. With each heated word, his body withers and shrinks.
He’s barely five foot.
Now he’s three feet high.
His tiny eyes are bulging. He raises his arms up and down, as if trying to emphasize a point. You raise your boot and bring it down hard on the tiny figure beneath you. A squeal erupts from his body, along with a murky red mush. You grind your foot down hard, like you’re putting out a stubborn cigarette butt.
You look up and realize you’re alone. You turn your head and see Krishan walking away, trench coat billowing, clipboard by his side. It seems your whimsical daydream has blocked out the majority of his tirade. Even though you ignore his hurtful words, they still sting. You smile slightly. At least the dehairing machine can’t talk.
Shift over, you head to the locker room, shed your yellow slicker and toss your undershirt into the laundry bin. A dull pain crackles up and down your spine. You roll your shoulders, providing a small comfort. You get dressed. The night is over.
Your white Isuzu truck is waiting for you in the parking lot. The night air is cool but the smell of the factory lingers.
Hot and sticky with sweat, you get home, opening the screen door quietly so as not to wake your parents. The display on the microwave reads two in the morning.
You undress completely and take a shower, attempting to scrub the smell out of your pores. If you stand under the hot stream long enough, perhaps you will wash away the shit you feel inside.
by Cail Judy
Written February 2008
Published in [spaces] Vol. 3 Spring 2009
Photo via Grey Hand Gang