Sunday, February 10, 2008
Place: Knoxville, TN
To date, I’ve only been outright fired from one job and that was at the Selecto Meats meat processing company in Knoxville, Tennessee. I found out about Selecto from my roommate, Ted, after he got a job in their hot dog room. I applied, was hired, and was assigned smoked hams.
The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job was the crying. Trucks loaded with cows and pigs were parked in the courtyard. The animals’ moos and oinks were filled with fear. Somebody commented that they were crying because they could smell burning hair. Selecto Meats was proud that they didn’t waste a single part of the animal, but since there was no use for hair, it was burned off. The courtyard cows and pigs knew they were next. At first, I was creeped out, but I got so used to the sound that when I arrived in the morning, I would shout “See you later for lunch” to the unfortunate livestock.
Selecto Meats’ main building was a long red brick rectangle with the cows and pigs from the farm going in one end and the trucks carrying the packaged meat to the grocery stores out the other. Inside, the temperature was always 45 degrees to keep the meat from spoiling. Workers wore hair nets, aprons, long coats, gloves, and thigh high black rubber boots. The air had that stale stink you get from old freezers that are never defrosted.
I worked in the smoked hams room with a dozen fellow workers. We lined up along a conveyor belt that snaked through the room. As smoked hams rolled through the room, we did our assigned tasks, standing, for two hours at a time, followed by a fifteen minute bathroom break. My job was to yank off a mesh girdle that had somehow had made its way onto the plump hams.
The only time that I saw Ted was during lunch break. He was having a great time in the hot dog room. Everybody there was, like Ted and me, in their early twenties. Ted led me to believe that the hot dog room was a non-stop party. I ate my lunch with Ted and his hot dog room buddies. I didn’t have any smoked hams room friends.
I noticed that four men ate by themselves at a table in the middle of the lunchroom. There was plenty of room at the table for more people, but nobody ever joined them. I asked around and found out that nobody socialized with the four men because they worked in the “kill room”.
This is how the inner workings of the kill room were explained to me. The cows and pigs were herded off the trucks into a wooden chute that became more and more narrow, forcing the animals into single file. At the end of the chute was the kill room. A kill room man would poke the animal in the head with an electric cattle prod. The stunned animal would fall to the floor. A kill room man would then slip a metal noose around one of its legs. The animal would be hoisted up and while it was dangling in the air, a kill room man would slice it open from neck to groin. The animal bled to death as its blood drained through a hole in the floor.
During lunch, the four kill room men sat in stony silence. They never smiled. The bottoms of their coats and their black rubber boots were covered with brown stains.
One day a supervisor came by looking for a warm body to fill in a temporary vacancy in another department. He asked my boss, who in turn, pointed right at me. The supervisor took me to the bacon room. For the rest of the day, I pulled hunks of cooked pig meat off metal hooks and laid them on a conveyor belt. From there, the slabs were sliced into thin strips. Portions of the strips were put in plastic pouches, then shrink-wrapped and labeled.
From then on, I would start my day in the smoked hams room, then at some random time during the day the supervisor would show up to take me to another room. I was never taken to the same room twice.
One day I pulled slabs of raw pig meat out of an ice water trough and hung them on metal hooks. The slabs were then taken by conveyor belt into a room to be cured and smoked. The sleeves of my shirt were soaked by the end of the day from the water dripping off the slabs.
On another day, I stood by a scale in a room the size of a concert hall, surrounded by dumpster-size plastic bins. Smoked hams rolled down a metal chute to where I was standing. I weighed the ham and then tossed it like a football into the bin with hams of similar weight. I only missed the bin a few times. I was alone, so I just scooped those hams off the floor and flung them into the appropriate bin.
I can’t explain why, but doing these different jobs began to bother me. Maybe it was the uncertainty. I never knew what kind of labor I was in for when they took me out of the smoked hams room. Usually it was much harder work than yanking mesh girdles off hams. Since I never knew when the supervisor would show up, or if he would show up at all, a sense of dread filled my days.
Meanwhile, the party continued for Ted and his hot dog room buddies. In fact, Ted’s good times extended beyond Selecto Meats. He was having an affair with one of his female co-workers. It was a ballsy thing to do considering he was driving his girlfriend’s car to and from work and his female co-worker was married.
The dread I felt for working at Selecto Meats kept growing as the weeks dragged by. The cold, the stink, and the uncertainty of what my job would be from day to day. Plus, there was never an excuse to not go in to work. I was never sick enough. I knew the job was getting to me when I had a dream in which I was in my bedroom getting ready for work and I heard a loud noise outside. I looked out the window and saw that a hurricane, a tidal wave, and an earthquake were rumbling together towards my house. In my dream, I laughed with joy. Finally, the weather was bad enough that I couldn’t make it to work.
One Friday my supervisor asked all the smoked hams room workers to work a half day on Saturday. We were promised that we’d be out by noon. I got along well with the supervisor and told him I really didn’t want to get stuck at Selecto Meats on a Saturday. He promised me that we would only be there half a day, maybe less, and that he’d give me a ride there and back.
So, I went in on Saturday and sure enough, one hour into the day, a supervisor came by and took me to another room. I was assigned to help this surly guy hoist long sides of beef onto the metal hooks of a conveyor belt. Once we were alone, I asked surly guy how late he was going to be working today. He replied that we were going to be there all day.
During lunch break, I waved goodbye to my smoked hams room co-workers as they drove away. As the supervisor drove away, I realized I didn’t even have a ride home. I had been royally screwed.
I decided to leave anyway. I knew I was expected me to spend the afternoon lugging beef with surly guy, but I just couldn’t do it and I left. I walked the four miles home. Along the way, I berated myself for leaving. I was a spoiled college boy who couldn’t handle a real job in the real world. However, no matter how much I kicked myself, I didn’t turn back.
On Monday, I showed up for work like nothing happened. The supervisor asked me why I left work early on Saturday. I explained that I was told that I would only be working a half day, so I assumed that I could leave after lunch. I pretended that I truly didn’t realize that Selecto Meats expected me to stay any longer. The supervisor looked at me like I was the stupidest man who ever walked the earth, but he didn’t fire me. Later that day, I ran into the surly guy. He couldn’t believe the supervisor didn’t fire me for deserting him. He was very upset. Why was I being treated special? I was equally baffled.
About a week later, Ted decided to call in sick. Since he was my ride to work, I called in sick too. The next day, I was called into the plant manager’s office and he fired me for taking too much time off without a really good excuse. But then, he offered to not fire me, but move me to another department, which he promised, I would never be moved from. I refused his kind offer. I told him that it would be better for everybody if they just fired me.