It was pure poverty that drove me to it. I had no intention of a career in meat cutting. Before, during or after. Definitely not after. Yet I am a doughty soul and hoped to make the best of it. Perhaps I dreamed about collecting stories that I could one day feature in a blog about disgust. I can’t quite recall if that was the case at the time, but what a treasure trove of repulsive experiences it turned out to be.
In this installment I want to realte one of the many quaint bonding experiences shared among the denizens of the cutting room. Sure, you might call it hazing, some may go so far as to bandy about the term ‘abuse.’ But it was all meant as good, clean fun. Well, not fun for the target. And hardly 'good' by any reasonable standard. And 'clean', ha! Okay, it was a series of vicious cruel pranks played with the decomposing carcasses of various animals. And yet, I lived to tell the tale…
At first I thought that I would fly under the radar of the cutters in the meat room. Much of my time was spent alone at night cleaning up after them and the overlap period usually occurred while they were starting to experience delirium tremens and other withdrawal symptoms from having gone a couple hours without the various substances to which they were addicted. This was flawed reasoning on my part. Going a couple hours without a drink does not make a 5 times divorced overweight brain damaged man with a knife any nicer. (I promise not to make generalizations about meat cutters in this missive, I speak only about specific individuals whose wrath I survived.)
By the time I got to work each day, the cutters were bored, almost sober, tired and cranky. What they needed most in life was a nice college boy to practice upon. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a show–off or jerk. I said absolutely nothing about my background, interests or education to anyone. I’d survived volunteer fire departments, roofing crews, day labor jobs and plasma donation centers. I knew how to blend in. Or so I thought.
It was the humor that gave me away. I tended towards a more absurdist view of the comic potential of the meat room. Perhaps it was the recreations of classic greek sculpture I would mold the huge trays of pork sausage into. Or the little can-can lines I would coax the chickens in their case to dance. Or possibly the Franken-Chicken I sewed together out of mixed parts and referred to as ‘my creation.’ Regardless, they sniffed difference and pounced.
It had become clear to me that I had to suck it up and cope unless I wanted a 10" filleting knife stuck in me or an 8 hour shift locked in the cooler. A handful of the bloody melting sawdust created when frozen liver is sawn into slices would be dropped down the back of my shirt as a gentle reminder of the pecking order if I looked too cocky. I tried to fit in. Oh lord I tried.
But the day that the chief cutter (never ever ever call a meat cutter a butcher, just take my word for it,) came to work with his head swollen like a basketball, black and blue and missing three teeth, I couldn’t help myself. The other cutters had all worked out who would actually pull a knife on who, so they knew who could make comments and ask questions. I listened quietly at my chicken packing station while the story emerged of a drunken fight over a man hitting on the cutter's wife at the local honky-tonk. This apparently ended with the chief cutter getting his butt kicked and having his head slammed in a car door 8 times. I didn’t blink or say a word until he growled out in his bloody lisp that it “wouldn’t have made no never-mind to him if it hadn’t been his wife doing the last 4 slams.” I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.
The room went silent. The blood drained from my body like a kosher cow. I won’t look up but I hear the cutter chuckle and say “think that’s funny do ya?” I consider turning and running. But everyone goes back to work and I am lulled into believing that the moment is past and forgotten.
The next day everyone acts as though nothing has happened. Surely I have blown this way out of proportion in my mind. The crew is laughing at each other’s bad jokes worn thin with repetition and I am calmed. The day is nearly over when the chief cutter calls me over to the heat wrapping table. I am cautious, but he seems in a good mood.
“You like science stuff, right?” he asks nicely. I want to please, and respond with a hearty “Yeah.”
“Come check this out, it’s not something you’ll see every day.” I am curious. It is true that my knowledge of anatomy has taken a rather practical turn since I entered the meat room and I am fascinated by such things. I’d already seen a number of interesting things having to do with the inner workings of cows, pigs and chickens so perhaps this was something not to be missed.
As I step over to the table, I notice a 40 lb. hunk from a side of beef laid on the table. “Check this out, betcha never saw a zit this big before.” And truly, the emperor of all pimples, boils and blains is crowning this piece of meat.
Imagine if you will, a pimple. A pimple not unlike the ones you popped as a teenager. That is, if you had pimples 2 INCHES ACROSS! OH MY GOD! It’s a golf ball sized zit, sickly greenish yellow in color and taut with high pressure pus. It stands out from the red of the surrounding meat with a hideous pussy contrast. I am in awe. I can’t tear my eyes away. I am already gagging a bit, but don’t want to disgrace myself. I manage a wimpy little, “Wow.”
“Look closer! Can you see the stuff inside it? Go on, look close, it’s amazing.” The cutter is using whatever voice he uses to lure the women drunk enough to marry him and I am hypnotized. I lean over and look at it up close. Like the bird struck dumb before the snake, I have lost the ability to save myself. “Do you see it? Look real close.” I bend over…
Yes, dear reader, it is at this point that his sure scarred hands fly out like the jaws of a bear trap snapping shut to shove down on either side of this monstrosity. It erupts like a pus filled Mt. St. Helens. There must have been a quart of thick cheesy infection hiding inside that abscess. I am covered.
Eyes, hair, open shirt collar, nose, mouth (yes, it was open in true yokel fashion.) I am frozen in shock. Every muscle in my body seizes in preparation for a truly magnificent retch. But before I can being to vomit, I am grabbed by the back of my pants and shirt and tossed into the meat cooler. I manage to hear “You puke in there and I’ll cut your pinky off, college boy!” I wipe as much of the putrid goo off my face with my bloody meat cutting apron. And shiver. I know perfectly well that if I puke all over the fresh meat, I’ll have to unload the entire cooler and possibly pay for any spoilage. I heave and wretch but hold it in.
2 hours later the night cleaning crew lets me out. “What’s that smell?” they ask. I stagger to the pot sink and hose myself down.
The next day the meat cutting room can’t stop laughing whenever they look at me. I am stunned. But slowly I realize that things are mysteriously a little better. I’m getting more smiles without a feral feel to them. Apparently I have passed some small initiation. I took a little bit of stupid pride from the experience and gave up a little bit of gullibility. Looking back from years later I think, “What Jerks!”